Nancy Silverton's Breads From the La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton
Review score: **** out of *****

I did not start using Nancy Silverton's book until I had been baking awhile using recipes from Baking with Julia. Almost all of the recipes in this particular book are two day bread recipes. The recipes just looked too hard in the beginning. Although the recipes in this book are more demanding, if you love bread, this is the book for you.

Nancy Silverton is a professional chef and baker. She started as dessert chef at Spago. She and her husband later opened the Campanile resturant in Los Angeles. Subsequently she opened the La Brea Bakery, from which this book takes its title. The book dedication reads, in part:

To Steve Sullivan, of Acme Bread Company, whose wonderful bread proved to me once long ago that even though we might not have the right water, the right flour or the years of tradition in the United States, it's still possible to turn out a superior product. His bread continues to be a benchmark of excellence at La Brea Bakery.

The breads that Nancy Silverton wants to bake are the kind of breads that were baked in Europe by bakers who had spent years baking and had learned their craft from someone who had spent their life baking. These are breads that have great flavor, wonderful texture, and are beautiful to look at. Ms. Silverton loves bread and her enthusiasm for the art of bread baking comes through in her book.

Baker's yeast is cultured to be vigorous so that the volume of bread dough will double in a couple of hours or less. But this is a disadvantage for breads with long rise times. When used for long rise recipes baker's yeast will start to consume too much of the starch and sugar in the flour. The bread dough will also become over "proofed" (rise too much) and flabby.

Almost all the breads in Nancy Silverton's Breads From the La Brea Bakery are made from sourdough starter, which is a culture of wild yeast. Sourdough starter is not as vigorous as baker's yeast. The long rise times that are used with sourdough result in breads that are chewier and have more flavor.

When using this cookbook the first thing you have to do is get a sourdough culture. You can either get a culture from a friend, buy it from a baking supply like King Arthur Flour (1-800-827-6836) or culture it yourself. I followed Nancy Silverton's directions and grew my own culture. This takes about two weeks.

Working with sourdough is definitely more demanding and the results can depend much more on factors like air temperature. Baking with starter also takes more planning. If I am planning on baking during the weekend, I take the starter out of the refrigerator and feed it Friday night. Then I feed it again Saturday morning and make the break dough Saturday evening. I bake the bread Sunday afternoon. By feeding the starter for twenty-four hours you get a more vigorous culture and a better bread rise.

I've made a number of recipes from Nancy Silverton's cookbook. The recipes are well tested and work well in a home kitchen. I have gotten good results with an electric oven and a baking stone. Some of the bread I've made has been very good. But there have also been some memorable failures. One time I aged the bread too long and it was overly sour. Before my sourdough culture matured and I learned to feed it well in advance of use, I had loaves that did not rise properly and were too dense. As I bake more with this cookbook my results have been more reliably good. I'm not sure how much of this is due to the experience I have gained or to the maturity of my sourdough culture. Although at times this cookbook has been frustrating to use, it has given me the results I was looking for when I started baking.

A Review of Four Bread Cookbooks

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