This is Part 3 of our special report on the rise of artisan bread and the bakeries that manufacture it.
Larder Baking Co. is a relative newcomer, having opened its 10,000-square-foot Los Angeles production facility in 2013. The company is already baking up to 30,000 pieces — anything from three-pound loaves of bread to half-ounce slider buns — per day, but that growth has not come at the expense of taste.
“Keeping that great, artisanal product while scaling up, that’s been the big learning curve for us,” says Jennifer Macy, Larder’s general manager. “I think where we are so committed is that we will not sacrifice quality for growth. It’s really part of our mission and everyone who works here agrees. We really do think the old-fashioned way here and it’s really important to the product that we’re producing.”
On the pastry side of the business, that means cracking eggs, using fresh strawberries for scones and a commitment to not use anything out of a box or bag.
When it comes to bread, it all starts with ‘The Mother,” the starter culture created in 1992 by Nathan Dakdouk, now Larder’s master baker.
|Nathan Dakdouk, Larder's master baker|
Dakdouk, a native of Venezuela who has been baking since the age of 12, created the Lactobacillus by juicing grapes in cheesecloth and adding flour and water twice a day until a yeast was created. The mother is still fed daily. “This is the essence of the bread,” Macy says. “It’s what gives it the flavor.”
Larder uses mechanical mixers and sometimes utilizes dividers and portioners, but all of its bread products are hand-shaped and hand-cut. “We think it’s important to maintain the ingredient quality and keep our integrity by making sure everything is hand-finished,” Macy says. “That’s where we’re at and it’s working.”
Larder gets a majority of its flour from King Arthur in Norwich, Vermont. After deciding to drop its organic certification at the end of 2014, Macy says Larder looked for a supplier that would deliver the high-quality flour the company was used to and could do so with weekly truckloads. King Arthur fit the bill and continues as a partner today.
The company also recently started working with Community Grains in the San Francisco Bay area. Community Grains grows, mills and distributes from Northern California its heirloom varietal identity-preserved wheat. “This flour works very different than regular flour,” Macy says. “The coarseness of it is different. The doughs are very, very wet so you have to have somebody very skilled who knows how to do it.”
The high hydration levels of artisan bread mean not just any water will do for Larder. In fact, when Dakdouk came on board — he joined chef and restaurateur Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne — one of his non-negotiables was the installation of a high-end, state-of-the-art water filtration system.
“It’s a huge importance. Most breads are, as an industry standard, somewhere around 40 percent hydration,” Macy says. “Our breads are 70 to 100 percent hydration. So, at times, if we have 100 pounds of flour, we need 100 pounds of water.”
“If you’re making bread with a yeast like that — with a living yeast versus a commercial yeast — it is a very hard product to make,” Macy says. “You can’t just walk in the door and make a loaf. There is technique, you have to know when the dough is ready, it depends on the weather outside, the humidity, what else is happening in the bakery. There are so many elements to it that it really comes down to experience. We’re sort of forced into maintaining quality that way. We have to know how to work with it that way.”
Larder Baking Company got its start in restaurants, namely those of Goin and Styne. After Dakdouk began baking bread for their shops, word got out. Soon, other chefs wanted the bread and there was enough demand to start selling wholesale.
It wasn’t easy at first. “When we first came to market, the artisan bread boom hadn’t quite started yet and I think we had some adversity when we went around to do tastings because our bread had flavor,” Macy says. “People were so used to having bread that just tasted like air and water.”
Fortunately — for consumers and artisan bakers — that’s in the past.
“It has been exciting to see how the industry has grown as a whole,” Macy says. “It’s developed so much that it’s now become more of a standard. People are smelling the bread when they open it and before they taste it. They’re appreciating the flavor. That’s cool to see."