|Meditations on Baking Bread
|Peter Reinhart explores the symbolic connection
between bread and the mystical dimensions of life
Peter Reinhart is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, an acknowledged expert on bread, a
full-time baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., and
author of several books, including Sacramental Magic in a Small Café; Brother
Juniper's Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor; American Pie: My
Search for the Perfect Pizza; and Crust & Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious
Bakers. His latest book, Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads (Ten Speed Press),
won a James Beard Award on June 8, 2008.
I met Reinhart at the Queens University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing
program in Charlotte. I pitched Reinhart the idea of doing an essay for our first
edition. He did not have time because he was finishing his new book at the time, but
he allowed me to publish excerpts from his books and articles. The following are
several passages that I found meaningful. Each excerpt stands as a brief meditation
that moves between the art of bread making and spiritual insight.
— Colin Burch
The bread-making process is a series of growths and humblings. First, the yeast feasts on
starches and sugars in the dough and, as a by-product, burps thousands, perhaps millions, of
carbon dioxide molecules into the dough, blowing it up much as a glass blower forms a
bowl from hot molten silicon. This fermentation gradually changes the flavor of the dough
as well as the chemistry among all the ingredients. A new creature is coming into
With the right mix and enough patience, you can stretch out the process for an even more
interesting character development. One of the keys is having faith in the process. Some
would bake the dough after the first rise because of a fear that it will not rise again. It will.
While the dough rises, life goes on, and other things are rising and falling too. One
interesting fact about slow-rise bread is that the crust will be different depending upon how
many rises you give the dough. We could conclude from this that crust is a definite aspect
of character; we all love bread with lots of character.
Slow rise has taught me and is still teaching me a way to live, a way to be, and a way to see.
It is a window into an understanding of the things that go on around me, a way to make
sense of the seemingly senseless scenarios we are exposed to throughout life. Yes, slow
rise is a metaphor but you might also say that it is a frame of reference, a context in which
things find their proper place. You might also say, as I do, that it is the best way to make
bread, bread with character.
When we punch down bread dough, humbling it as a creation dependent upon the baker’s
beneficence and skill, it springs back, strengthened in flavor and character, building upon
the fermentation already present. Letting some air out of the dough is a necessary passage
if the dough is to become truly great bread.
Acquiring virtue develops in us the resiliency to continually spring back no matter how
many times we are punched down by life’s vicissitudes, developing our own flavor and
character but also, and more importantly, laying the foundation for an empowerment of the
soul. This empowerment is the activation of our interior priesthood, allowing the energies
of God to enter the world through us in infinite, profound, and humble ways.
There can be no growth, no evoking of the fullness of our own (or our bread’s) potential,
without enduring punch downs. They lead to humility. But humility is a powerful creative
force; it is a manifestation of one of the energies of God, and what could be more
empowering than that?
In its simplest form, bread is made of flour, water and salt—in other words, it's like clay.
When we add leavening to it, in the form of yeast, we bring this lump of clay to life – the
word leaven derives from a root word meaning “to vivify, or enliven.” What more perfect
image is there for the Genesis story, except in our bread version we play the role of God,
cultivating this life form that grows, changes before our eyes, and ultimately nourishes us.
It is no coincidence that bread serves as a symbol for life, and for the presence of God in
this world, in every world religion. The most enduring image in the Christian tradition is
that of Christ as the bread of life. The image is celebrated by the partaking of bread as if it
were the actual body of God. Many of us believe that consecrated bread is the actual body
of God – one and the same. When you believe that, bread making takes on a whole new
When I get to the stage of bread production called benching, I often talk about this
principle of patience with my students. Benching, or resting dough, is also about
patiently waiting. It seems as if nothing is happening, the round pieces of raw dough just
sit on the bench, the gluten relaxing. But this step is an important prelude to the next
stage, called shaping. In many bakeries there are large machines, built with hundreds of
soft canvas pockets, that actually pass uniform balls of dough from pocket to pocket for
about fifteen minutes before discharging them to a molding machine, where they are
shaped into loaves. While the primary purpose of this rest period is to allow the gluten
to relax so the dough can be extended into longer shapes, fermentation and flavor
development is occurring as well. There is more going on than meets the eye. It’s kind
of similar to taking a deep breath before shooting a foul shot. It relieves anxiety and, in a
way, allows the ego of the bread, its identity, to relax into the will of the bread maker so
it can be properly shaped into its final form.
It is at the parallel stage of the human journey, in the midst of that deep breath, that we
grapple with the relationship between effort and grace. Having surrendered, so to speak,
to the unfolding of Divine providence, we are also compelled to work harder in our
striving for virtue. Both our inner and outer lives are deepening, the outer adventures
reflecting the fruits of our inner explorations. We are enjoying the relaxation and lifting
of anxiety as we develop patience and other virtues, but this inner work inevitably
creates accountability and corresponding outer work. We may be in retreat from the
world but the world never really goes away – we just learn to manage ourselves better in
it as we grow in our understanding of the synergy between our efforts and grace.
The secondary fermentation stage, also called proofing, comes into play when the
dough, having been shaped into individual loaves, must prove that it still has enough
push in it to grow to the desired size. The yeast continues to feed on the available
sugars, burping up carbon dioxide and secreting ethanol, pushing the dough into shape.
It is at this stage that we find out whether or not the bread dough has, indeed, grown up
and matured. If everything was done properly in the previous stages the dough should
double in size and hold the appropriate shape. If the dough was handled too roughly in
the shaping stage, or if the primary fermentation time was too short or otherwise
inadequate, or if there just isn’t enough leaven in the dough to get the job done, it all
shows up during the proofing stage. On the other hand, if there is too much leaven in
the dough, or the temperature is warmer than usual, the dough might proof too quickly,
mushrooming over the sides of the pan or over-rising and then deflating when
transferred to the oven. It is entirely possible that the dough cannot sustain the rise,
causing the gas to spill out rather than holding up the loaf.
Along these lines, the pastor at my church often concludes the liturgical mass by
reminding his congregation: “Don't spill the grace.” By this he means not to slip
quickly back into worldliness and normal passions, to not deflate. Years ago I began
viewing communion, or the Divine Liturgy of Holy Communion as it is called in
Eastern Orthodoxy, as a therapeutic treatment for the soul, with the challenge being to
carry this therapy into daily living. We may feel the peace that passes all understanding
in the sanctity of a church service, or as a result of a deep meditation, but if we negate
the remedy by engaging in activity or behavior that returns us to our unconnected,
agitated, or anxious state we “spill the grace.”
It is no coincidence that
bread serves as a
symbol for life, and for
the presence of God in
this world, in every
We grapple with the
effort and grace.