An Interview with Rose Levy Beranbaum

To follow a recipe, which is an unpopular trait in food circles, where improvisation and instinct-based food creation rule the behavior scheme, is not to enslave yourself to a mindless and prescribed set of actions, but rather a chance to bake, by hand, a biscuit first baked by, say, a genius, and then feed that biscuit to the people in your home. There is every reason to believe that the biscuit you bake will approximate the biscuit baked by the genius. And while lab tests might reveal slight differences, most home eaters lack the palate to discriminate at such a fine level. It might follow that a detailed, research-heavy recipe, written by a scientist of food whose sense of pleasure is only outmatched by her drive for precision, would be the most intense way to bake. People who have baked from the Bibles of Rose Levy Beranbaum know that, while they are baking, they are at least partially great bakers, channeling a fanatical desire for perfection. The Cake Bible, The Pie and Pastry Bible, and now The Bread Bible are among the most detailed, researched, tested, and gratifying guides to baking that have ever been published.

Beranbaum is notorious for the extra steps in her recipes. Ingredients like flour are often being bagged and frozen before the butter, frozen too, is cut in. And while formerly fanatical publications like Cook’s Illustrated—once avatars of perfection—have now buckled under to lowbrow and time-saving sensibilities, Beranbaum is only increasing her attention to detail, under the belief that if people at home must do their own baking, they should have the opportunity to produce world-class items that might emotionally demolish their family members and produce large-scale paroxysms of pleasure.

Why, exactly, must we save five or ten minutes while baking? What is this for, this saved time? Would we try to save time when we write something that we mean for others to enjoy? I don’t think so.

In this email exchange, Rose Levy Beranbaum discusses her six-thousand-word treatise on sugar, describes her fantasy oven, and reveals an innovation with yeast that might change bread baking forever.

—Ben Marcus

THE BELIEVER: The National Bread Summit convened last year in Providence, Rhode Island, and among their troubles were the flight from carbohydrates and the anti-bread rhetoric in dietary circles. Does this concern you as a baker? Will baking evolve to match the anxiety of eaters?

ROSE LEVY BERANBAUM: The American obsession with obesity has led to the vilification of many an innocent ingredient and the creation of many a fad diet. The publication of The Cake Bible in 1988 coincided with the advent of the war on sugar. The Pie and Pastry Bible in 1998 coincided with fat as the new enemy. And now, with The Bread Bible in 2003, carbohydrates have become the new forbidden fruit of this century. I am not worried, because I suspect that this extreme focus on carbohydrates will serve to improve their quality in the same way that this scrutiny did for cakes and pastry. People will want to ensure that when they choose to indulge it will be worth it, so the result will be better bread. Proof is that the sale of artisan bread is on the increase.

BLVR: In The Bread Bible, you thank a man for his oven technical support. Why are ovens so crucial to bread baking, as opposed to other kinds of cooking, and what, precisely, does an oven-tech-support man do?

RLB: The words baking and oven are practically synonymous, as one arose from the other, i.e., one bakes in an oven. The oven-tech-support person walked me through re-igniting my pilot light and troubleshooting what caused it to go out (it was steam, a desirable element in bread baking, which is fine except my oven due to a prior repair was missing a cap, which caused rusting). He did this patiently over the telephone, which seemed akin to someone on the ground helping a person who didn’t know how to fly land a plane! In roasting, if the thermostat is a little off it will mostly just affect the time it takes to roast, but in baking it will affect the texture of the finished cake, bread, or pastry.

BLVR: If you had unlimited resources and could design a dream oven, what would it be like?

RLB: In industry, I’ve worked with an oven designed for testing, which had a mechanism that controlled the temperature to such a fine point you could bake with the door open and the temperature would not vary. It also had a turntable. This is the only way in which perfectly even baking can take place. It had a very low ceiling, which is also conducive to even baking. Of course a fantasy oven would also have steam injection and venting to remove the steam for bread baking, and an oven stone, preferably with its own heating unit. The oven would of course be self-cleaning and have a window, if not an open door! The oven would be positioned at the ideal level for stress-free placement of things to be baked. An electronic push-button would bring the shelves quickly and smoothly in and out and raise and lower the shelves without having to remove them.

BLVR: Your recipes are highly cerebral, filled with scientific information about how food reacts and what the overall chemical composition is of a loaf of bread, or a cake, or a pie. Clearly a home cook could make your recipes with less information. What led you to this degree of thoroughness, and what are the challenges of including this information in a cookbook?

RLB: When I started to cook and bake I was very frustrated by unexplained instructions and dictates. When I chose to ignore some I discovered why I shouldn’t have; with others, I saw that there was no reason to have followed them. I wanted to empower the reader to make his or her own choices if they so desired. This can be done effectively only when one understands the reasoning behind the technique. Of course the recipe will work just fine as it is but some people like to make variations and when it comes to baking, you really need to know what you’re doing when you make changes.

BLVR: What led you to write so definitive a treatise on a single ingredient: sugar?

RLB: Sugar defines the entire category called dessert, i.e., it is not dessert without sugar (either residual or added). The ingredient therefore deserves this attention. Although all sugar is sweet, the flavor profile of different sugars is like the rainbow. It is an intriguing subject.

BLVR: What’s the most difficult bread there is to make?

RLB: Bread is actually not difficult. It is easier than cakes, pies, or pastry. It has been perceived as difficult because success is dependent on the yeast. In the past it was necessary to “proof” yeast in warm water and if the water was too hot the yeast would die and the resulting bread would be the proverbial doorstop. The new “instant yeast” will stay fresh in the freezer for as long as two years and can be added right to the flour, ensuring that it will stay alive and active. The most demanding bread is the baguette, particularly because it takes practice to get the shaping right.

BLVR: How did the innovation of instant yeast come about? We’re not talking about Rapid Rise yeast here, are we?

RLB: Instant yeast is also known as Rapid Rise, Bread Machine, SAF, QuickRise, Instant Active Dry, and Gourmet Perfect Rise. The yeast particles are smaller than those of active dry, so the yeast can be added directly to the flour. The process by which the instant yeast is dried and put into dormancy results in more live yeast cells when the yeast is activated, which means that you use only 3/4 the volume of active dry yeast. The goal here is reliability and ease, not speed. The yeast came about with the advent of bread machines, as proofing yeast in warm water would have been an extra step, and with a bread machine most people want to put everything in it at once and walk away, or even leave it overnight to wake up to freshly baked bread the next morning.

BLVR: Do you see a conflict between nutrition and pleasure? Are they necessarily at odds?

RLB: I firmly believe in balance and moderation in all things, including moderation! Eliminating categories of things to eat sets up cravings and ultimately results in overindulgence, either through compensation or binging on the forbidden item.

BLVR: This is a group question from some home bakers I know, who frequently gather to puzzle about and argue over the more central mysteries of bread baking. How come sourdough bread—that is, bread made without commercial yeast—at least when we make it, seems to taste so much better than the instant yeast bread? Or is there something wrong with our taste buds?

RLB: The flavor imparted by the yeast and bacterial action of a sourdough starter is more than just sour; it is also complex. Most people find it much more compelling than bread made with commercial yeast. Some people think they don’t like sourdough bread because it is so sour, but it doesn’t have to be. Commercial bakers tend to speed up their sourdough by using a higher quantity of it in proportion to the rest of the flour and water in the bread. This results in more sourness in the bread.

BLVR: Why is supermarket bread so unlike the good bread of bakeries or the bread that we might make at home?

RLB: The goals of industry: economy, speed, and shelf life, are in direct opposition to the goals of artisan and home bakers: flavor, texture, and freshness. The best bread requires long slow fermentation, and does not have taste-altering additives that keep it fresh for several days.

BLVR: Could you reproduce Wonder Bread at home? What would it take?

RLB: I have! It was one of my major goals for this book—to produce a soft white bread with the texture of Wonder Bread but the flavor of home-baked. It is the soft white sandwich loaf. The addition of powdered milk and butter, a moist sticky dough, and a long slow fermentation are the secrets to the wonderful soft flavor and texture.

BLVR: Is originality possible or desirable as a baker? Are you concerned with being original?

RLB: Originality for the sake of being original results in absurd creations. It is far better to produce a well-baked classic recipe. My originality stems from my investigation of ingredients, which leads me to try different combinations and techniques to achieve more flavor or better texture. An example of this is the Heart of Wheat Bread, which uses fresh wheat germ. It is hard to be original without understanding the ingredients—what they contain and how they behave. At best, one might fall upon something wonderful purely by accident but may never be able to reproduce it; at worst, the recipe may be a total failure.

BLVR: Among the people I know, there are those who are obsessed with food, both cooking and eating. And then there are those people who don’t seem to notice food or really enjoy it beyond the necessary fuel it offers. Unfortunately, some of these latter people happen to be “friends.” Do you have people like that in your life, and if so, how do you deal with them?

RLB: Only one: my husband of almost twenty-nine years! It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy eating; in fact, he has a rare sense of taste and smell, but he doesn’t cook, or talk about food the way the rest of the people I know do. He loves to eat but it is not by any stretch of the imagination his main interest, as it is mine.

BLVR: If you’ve spent the day cooking or baking for friends, are you bothered if no one comments during dinner?

RLB: Initially it bothered me that my husband never commented on the food, but eventually I didn’t require comment. He told me that professionally people were paying for my taste buds, not his! I have, however, over the years, adapted some things to what I know to be his taste, but my greatest pleasure in cooking is making something I love to eat. There is one exception: when I can introduce the pleasure of food to a child—that is the ultimate. Of course it is an added pleasure when people comment, but I no longer expect or require it. Recently, after all these years, he told me my food is perfect—a word I have never heard him use before. It meant a great deal because it was not out of politeness but rather unasked for and therefore totally from the heart. Writing recipes is something else. My greatest joy there is connecting with other people and teaching them how they can bake to suit their own tastes.

BLVR: Could you discuss how you perfect a recipe? Whose taste do you trust above all else, and why?

RLB: A few recipes work perfectly on the first test, but some require as many as forty! It’s usually the texture that is the challenge. I try to change just one ingredient at a time to see what effect it will have, but sometimes get carried away and change more. I try to keep going until I get it right while the results are fresh in my mind. I’d love to have a laboratory so I could have several variations all tested at the same time and evaluate them side by side. I rely mostly on my own taste, but also value the opinion of my husband, though his taste is often very different from mine, and my protégé David Shamah whose taste is very similar but whose ideas often go beyond my own. I also get valuable feedback from my editor, Maria Guarnaschelli, and her husband, John.

BLVR: Do you use your own books when you bake, or are you beyond recipes?

RLB: I love baking from my books. I’m always amazed how easy it is, when creating the recipe in the first place is so laborious. But that is the goal—to have a wonderful recipe that is written so clearly and simply it becomeseasy. Since baking is pretty exacting, and I am not an assembly-line baker doing the same thing all day, I don’t rely on my memory. But since my recipes are all on my computer, I prefer printing out a page to using the book itself. When it comes to cooking, however, I enjoy the freedom of cooking without a recipe.

BLVR: You have seemingly mastered baking. Have you considered doing a cookbook that deals with dinners?

RLB: I got my BS and MA in food and then went on to specialize in baking. I love to cook and in fact have written two “food” cookbooks, which are no longer in print. Julia Child once told me that it is next to impossible to cross the divide into savory food when people have you pigeonholed as a baker. I suspect that most bakers are good cooks, but it doesn’t usually work the other way around! My next book will be a return to The Cake Bible—it’s over fifteen years old, and now in its thirty-first printing! Ingredients and technology have changed and I’ve discovered new and exciting recipes, so it’s time to return to my first love.


Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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