Alison Pray judges her own breads using Michael Kalanty’s bread chart.
I wanted to take sensory scientist Michael Kalanty’s bread chart for a road test. Who better to be in the driver’s seat than Alison Pray, co-owner of Standard Baking Co. and one of Portland’s best-known bakers?
Pray said she thinks it’s a great idea for people to become more interested in and educated about bread, just as they are about wine and coffee. A system like Kalanty’s would make it possible “for people to have that more elevated sense of what they’re eating and why,” Pray said. “I’d always hoped for something like this in the bread world.”
Pray has tinkered with bread tastings before, both as a judge at bread competitions and as a test baker for University of Maine grain scientists who evaluate a variety of grains and ancient wheats. In baking competitions, judges evaluate for taste, aroma, crumb and “suppleness” – a term that means moistness to professional bakers. For the research tests, she evaluates the strength of the dough in the bowl, its mixing and shaping characteristics and ultimately its baking properties, such as color, texture and volume.
But that’s all for the benefit of professional bakers, not casual eaters.
I thought it would be interesting for Pray to evaluate her own breads, so I brought three Standard Baking loaves with me: A demi-baguette; a loaf of Maine 5-Grain made with rye, spelt, millet, oats and flax; and a dense rye loaf known as Vollkornbrot.
Before we started sniffing and tasting, Pray wanted to go over the chart in detail, looking at the vocabulary Kalanty uses to describe flavor and grain character.
Reading over the descriptors for a complex grain character, she said: “Green olive? That’s an interesting flavor note that I hadn’t though of. Flint? I’m not sure what that is, but I think of, like, smoky.”
Pray, like Kalanty, says the fermentation process brings out the flavor of the grain. While adding ingredients such as sugar, nuts or olives to bread can add a lot of flavor, she said, “the plainer, simpler breads – just flour, water, yeast and salt – that’s how you can judge their skill as a baker because it’s all about their ability to understand and control fermentation.”
First up: the classic Standard Baking baguette. Pray held a large slice up to her nose and squeezed, letting the aroma shoot into her nostrils – the same technique she uses when judging a baking competition. I followed suit.
“It smells buttery to me,” I said.
“I love that term because it comes from the sweetness of the grain and the fermentation,” Pray said. “Those are the dairy notes. But I also find it sweet rather than sour.”
Then we tasted the crumb, chewing with our mouths open, as Kalanty instructs. To Pray, the grain character came off like cooked oatmeal and yeasty Champagne, two of the descriptors under Moderate Grain Character on Kalanty’s chart. Oatmeal always tastes sweet to her, she said, and Champagne is usually a bit sweeter than other wines.
“There’s a bit of acidity to this, but I don’t find it an overwhelming acidity,” Pray said.
Next came the crust. I tasted “popped grains” and “nutty,” and Pray noted that at the bakery, they always describe the crust as nutty. That would put the crust in the “Toasty” category on Kalanty’s chart.
“It’s much less sweet than the crumb,” I observed, “so I think we could say the crumb is Sweet/Dairy and the crust is Toasty?”
“I love that!” Pray said, giving me a high five. “That’s how we’re going to describe the baguette from now on: Sweet dairy flavors in the crumb and toasty, nutty characteristics in the crust. This is fun.”
On to the Maine 5-Grain, which is a naturally leavened sourdough.
I took a bite of the crumb and immediately tasted vinegar and a bit of lemon, which put it into the Sour/Fruity category. Pray picked up cooked whole grains, cooked dried beans and green olive, which put it in the Complex category for grain character.
The crust, we agreed, lies somewhere between “Roasted” and “Toasty.” It’s definitely malty, and tastes something like a dark beer. Pray compared it to baked pasta with crusty cheese bits on top.
Finally, the rye loaf. It’s thick and chewy. Perfect for an English ploughman’s lunch or with smoked fish and horseradish cream, like a Danish smorrebrod.
“It’s not your typical profile of bread,” Pray said, “but in so many cultures this is their bread.”
We started with the crumb, as usual, and got a clear green apple flavor, especially in the long finish, or aftertaste, that comes with this bread. The grain character is Complex, with finishing notes of flint. Pray detected some fruitiness and a little bit of dairy. She noted that the bread undergoes a long fermentation, but it’s done in stages. When the baker can control the acidity like that, it brings out more of the dairy flavor.
“I feel like I’m eating cheese with it already,” I said.
Finally, we tried the crust, and Pray paused for a moment, looking away from Kalanty’s chart because she didn’t want to be influenced by it. She said it tasted like dark, bitter chocolate, and once she said it I immediately agreed. The crust falls mostly in the Resinous category, but there’s a little bit of Sweet, too.
“I would add woody to that, and I guess that’s where the aged basalmic comes in,” Pray said, referring to the aged balsamic vinegar in the Resinous category of the chart.
Another important point of agreement: Upon tasting the bread, we both immediately craved a bottle of Allagash Black.