Bakers Journal

Back 2 school

September 17, 2009
By Brian Hartz

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m no foodie. I am a
professional journalist who likes to eat and just happens to work in
the food industry.

Bakers Journal editor Brian Hartz shows off some doughnuts he and his All About Baking classmates made and decorated.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m no foodie. I am a professional journalist who likes to eat and just happens to work in the food industry.

But since starting this job last year, I knew I was lacking basic knowledge about the baking profession. So I began searching for a class or series of workshops that would give me some exposure to the ingredients, equipment and techniques bakers use as they ply their trade.


The American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan., kindly offered to enroll me free of charge in its weeklong All About Baking course. In early February I packed my bags for the U.S. heartland and those famous amber waves of grain.

 AIB pilot plant manager Jeff Zeak unloads a dough onto a work station while All About Baking students Corinne Otte, left, of General Mills, and Ean-chee Ng, of HEB Grocery Co. in San Antonio, Texas, look on.  
 Joe Isenhart, a sales manager with Johnson Bros. Bakery Supply in San Antonio, Texas.  
 All About Baking student Keith Meehan, of Puratos Corp. in Cherry Hill, N.J., checks a dough for proper gluten development.


What I learned can’t be summed up in a single magazine article, but I’ll do my best to give you an overview of what the course provides in case you have someone like me in your organization who needs a crash course in all things baking.

Our days were divided more or less equally between classroom and lab sessions. We were taught by a top-notch team of professionals who have chosen to pass on their skills and knowledge as instructors at AIB’s School of Baking: Dr. Debi Rogers, AIB director of cereal chemistry; Aaron Clanton, baking instructor; Kirk O’Donnell, AIB vice-president of education; Tim Sieloff, sweet/laminated dough instructor; Steve Sollner, cake instructor; and Jeff Zeak, doughnut instructor, who also manages AIB’s pilot plant, where our lab sessions took place.

AIB is adjacent to Kansas State University, which is home to one of the country’s finest grain science and industry departments; the two institutions are closely linked, with KSU offering 14 hours of college credit to students who complete AIB’s 16-week Baking Science and Technology program. But despite all it has going for it, O’Donnell humbly downplays AIB’s essentialness.

“Look, anybody can open a bakery – there are no barriers to entry,” he says.

“You can go get financing, rent some space in a building, buy some equipment and voila, you’re a baker. But the median income in this country is around $300,000, which seems like a lot of money, but how much salary are you going to take out of that? The list of business costs goes on and on.

“Basically, if you’re going to own an average retail bakery, you’re not going to get rich. So no, you don’t have to come to AIB, although it might help.”

On day one of the course we were plunged into the world of flour and how it relates to baked products. Joining me were 15 other non-bakers with job titles such as sanitation supervisor, food labelling technician, sales account manager and quality scientist. Companies represented included Puratos, General Mills, Flowers Baking Co. of New Orleans, Pinnacle Foods Group, Burford Corp. and a Canadian firm, Horizon Milling of Etobicoke, Ont., which sent grain merchant Andrew Wilder.

So, with Canada represented, we got down to business, learning all about bread formulas and ingredients, and bread dough systems. Instructors Rogers and Clanton did a great job of engaging us in the material and conducting activities that allowed us to get to know the people we’d be working with the rest of the week. Then it was on to the afternoon’s lab session – flour tortillas.

This was my favourite of the four lab sessions, mainly because flour tortillas are tough to screw up. After measuring, mixing and dividing the dough, we used a hot press to bake tray after tray of tortillas, then compared them to equivalent store-bought products. They measured up pretty well, in my opinion. I even brought back a bag for a colleague, and he’s still standing.

On day two, Clanton covered bread processing, from mixing to packaging, and Sieloff introduced us to sweet dough formulas and ingredients. The afternoon lab produced French baguettes as well as white and whole-wheat pan bread. Again, our instructors’ expertise and teaching ability shined through, as the results were comparable to what you might find in a supermarket.

Day three dawned with Sieloff leading a discussion about laminated dough, such as croissants, Danishes and puff pastries, before turning the podium over to Sollner for the section on batter cakes. In lab, we were divided into groups and given a particular formula of cake to create: white layer cake, pound cake, yellow high ratio layer cake, or devil’s food cake. My partner, Keith Meehan of Puratos Corp., and I drew the latter. The outcome was satisfactory in taste, if not appearance, due to my wildly erratic pouring of the cake batter into the pans.

In part two of the lab we made sweet dough products, such as coffee cakes and string rolls. We’d mixed and fermented the sweet dough the day before, and now it was time to have some fun shaping, filling and glazing them.

Unfortunately, I fell behind the rest of the class because of a time-consuming cleanup of devil’s food cake batter, and having never been the most creative person when it comes to food, I pretty much threw handfuls of everything into my sweet dough products as I rushed to get them into the oven. This produced a crop of massively overstuffed, calorie-laden monstrosities that drew a chorus of chuckles from my classmates.

Yes, they laughed. But no one complained about the taste the next morning, when the sweet dough products were laid out in class for evaluation – and consumption. Then Zeak took us through the material covering the production of cake and yeast-raised doughnuts.

Did I say earlier that the tortilla lab was my favourite? Well, I lied. The doughnut lab won, hands down. It was Homer Simpson’s dream come true as rack after rack filled up with plump, delicious doughnuts straight from the fryer. Then came the really fun part – glazing them, topping them with icing and gobs of sprinkles and nuts, and filling them with cream.

Toward the end of the day, O’Donnell sauntered into lab, purportedly to check up on us. We’d found his weakness.

“Oh, that’s the closest thing to heaven,” he said. “For me, there are only a couple of other things that rank as highly as doughnuts, and I won’t go into what those are. But I don’t like to feel guilty, so I exercise. And when I come home and have that doughnut, I’m just in heaven.”

The next morning, as he was wrapping up the course with a presentation on trends in the baking industry, O’Donnell took a strong stance against those who would cast blame on the food industry for their health woes before taking a look in the mirror.
“Some people say doughnuts are bad, cakes are bad – avoid them. They’re right. But what would life be like without doughnuts?” he said.

“People like to blame the food manufacturers because they’re overweight.

They’re going to sue because they can’t fit into their pants anymore. Are they successful? Some have been. Nobody put a gun to their head and forced them to super-size it; nobody forced them to eat that triple Whopper. But the frightening thing is that the general public still blames us.

“We need to take pride in our products. Yes, a cake doughnut is 25 per cent fat – don’t eat a dozen of them. Eat one. You can’t sit around on your rear end all day and eat and not expect to gain weight. It doesn’t matter what you eat.”
O’Donnell held forth on a variety of other topics affecting the industry, including the economic downturn.

“Am I glad I’m in the baking industry as opposed to the automobile industry right now? Sure. You bet,” he said. “But also what we’ve found is that the companies supplying grocery stores are doing better than the companies supplying restaurants. Everybody’s taking a beating unless you’ve got your money hidden under a mattress somewhere. No matter your income, people are a little bit nervous. They’re going to spend money in more economical ways and that means buying food at the grocery store and cooking at home.”

After O’Donnell finished speaking, we received our certificates and went our separate ways. About a month later, I followed up with Wilder, of Horizon Milling, to see what he had taken away from the course.

“The part I found interesting, from my perspective of procuring wheat, is there are a whole host of other ingredients or processes that can affect flour quality or bread quality,” he said. “You always used to think that the first people to blame are the wheat guys but there are a whole lot of other factors to be considered. By the same token, you can adapt your processes to deal with different qualities of wheat, so if you change things up a bit you can still end up with a very good finished product.”

That’s advanced calculus compared to what I will most remember from the course, concepts that seem almost embarrassingly basic in hindsight. But to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, going into this course I was aware of my many “known unknowns.” AIB was a great help to me for filling in the gaps in my knowledge of the baking industry, and I would recommend the All About Baking course to anyone in a similar situation. Thank you, AIB.

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