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Learning to Bake Crusty, Crunchy Bread, California Style

Bread from Los Angeles Bread Bakers. Credit: Susan Lutz

Bread from Los Angeles Bread Bakers. Credit: Susan Lutz

I love chomping into a chunk of crusty, crunchy bread. There is nothing like a freshly baked loaf that is soft and springy in the middle with a crust so hard it cracks when you bite into it. I often think of this kind of bread as San Francisco-style bread because that’s where I first ate it, although it can be found across the globe. I even bought a Le Creuset cast-iron pot expressly for the purpose of making it at home.

As much as I love eating this kind of bread, I’d always found an excuse to avoid baking it myself. About the time I decided that this beautiful little pot would never, ever see a loaf of bread baking inside it, I discovered the Los Angeles Bread Bakers and attended a workshop that has radically changed my attitude toward bread baking.

The Los Angeles Bread Bakers is the kind of organization I admire because it is full of community spirit and knowledgeable members, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The hosts of the workshop were Erik Knutzen and his wife Kelly Coyne. Together they run and have written a number of great how-to books including “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.” So I figured why not dedicate an afternoon to hanging out with Knutzen and Coyne and making some bread.

I already knew how to make bread, just not this particular kind of bread. I grew up in the South where bread is wonderful, but something entirely different. Where I come from, bread is soft throughout, slightly sweet, and topped with melted butter. It may be brown or white, but it never has the crunchy, crackly crust that I admired.


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Southern-style rolls topped with melted butter. Credit: Susan Lutz

Many of the workshop participants were also experienced bakers who shared my motivation for attending the workshop. We all wanted to learn how to bake this crusty bread, but perhaps even more important we wanted to hang out with other people who really like to make bread and really like to talk about it.

As it turns out, this is pretty much how The Los Angeles Bread Bakers got started. Knutzen, Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz founded the group in 2011. I knew of  Stambler because of his tireless campaign to persuade state lawmakers to pass the new California Homemade Food Act. Often known as the Cottage Food Law, it will open up a new world for home bakers looking to get into the food business.

When I asked Knutzen about the origins of LABB, he laughed and said, “I knew Teresa because she stalked me. Teresa and I were stalking Mark because we wanted to meet him and see his bread-making operation.”

The idea for LABB was born at Mark’s kitchen table. Its mission is to bring bread culture to Los Angeles and to introduce Angelenos to the many forms bread can take. To that end, the group has been host to workshops on a wide variety of topics including beginning bread baking, sourdough breads, soba noodles, pie crust and pizza making. They’ve even had a workshop on how to build your own adobe oven.

Membership in LABB also has privileges beyond learning great bread-making techniques. LABB’s almost 600 members are able to participate in bulk orders from high-end mills that grind flours using heritage wheat and other hard-to-find, but amazingly delicious grains.

Getting down to business in class

Our class began with an introduction to this type of bread, which is based on Jim Lahey’s now-famous recipe for “No-Knead Bread.” I always thought that bread was made or destroyed in the kneading process, but as we started to measure ingredients, Erik told us, “You have one chance to get it right — when you mix the dough.”

Knutzen showed us how to mix the proper proportion of flour to water, known as the hydration ratio. Just at the point when I started to worry (once again) that I’m not meticulous enough to be a great baker, Coyne chimed in and told us a hilarious story about doing everything wrong and still coming out with a good (or at least perfectly edible) loaf of bread.

Once mixed, the dough is left to rise for 18 hours, which is much longer than a traditional bread recipe. We all left the workshop with a bowl full of dough ready to rise in our own homes. The next day my family and I enjoyed a loaf of fresh-baked bread. It was not particularly gorgeous, but as crunchy and crackly as any I’d ever tasted in San Francisco.

The LABB is exactly what I’m looking for in a group because it encourages experimentation and breeds enthusiasm. Now LABB is taking its project to the next level. They’re growing their own wheat on a few acres in Agoura Hills, Calif. If all goes well, the wheat will be ready in early summer and milled into flour for the use and enjoyment of LABB members. As a new member, I can’t wait for the harvest.

Top photo: Boule made with all-purpose flour from Los Angeles Bread Bakers. Credit: Susan Lutz

Zester Daily contributor Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer. A native of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, she lives near Washington, D.C., where she is writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner. She also blogs about the subject at Eat Sunday Dinner.

  • Kary Phillips 2·16·13

    Looks delicious! I love that oven!

  • sally 2·19·13

    one chance to get it right….wish I had been there to see the magic and listen to the comments.
    Possible, exact measure of flour and water varies with conditions of the day. so there is another factor to consider.

  • sally 2·19·13

    This is a wonderful bread for “beginners” who have an interest in “making something.”
    Flour,water,yeast,salt=Bread….still amazing.

  • Susan Lutz 2·19·13

    @Sally- you’re right, of course. Temperature and humidity are always factors to consider. Even when I attempt to measure accurately, I always end up making small changes along the way. Recently, I was dive-bombed by a three year old standing on a chair at the exact moment I was adding water to the mix. I just had to take a guess at how much water had been splashed on the floor and try to add a reasonable amount back into the dough by feel. Luckily, bread is full of life and has a way of working things out in spite of my attentions. As you say… still amazing.

  • Brad 2·19·13

    I’ve made about 350 no-knead loaves now using my own hybrid recipe (which takes proportions from the Hertzberg method but uses the Lahey method for cooking), and I find it’s much more forgiving than other types of bread I’ve made over the years. A little more flour, a little less water, a little more or less yeast or salt…it doesn’t make a huge difference. I’ve only had one failure, which was when I tried using kamut flour; it doesn’t have enough gluten and the end result was a sandy loaf that crumbled when I tried to cut it.

    The Hertzberg proportions make enough for two loaves; I divide the dough in half and store half in the fridge for baking later in the week. It rises much faster than the Lahey bread, which is more practical for my schedule and results in only a small sacrifice in flavor and texture….the longer rise of the Lahey method makes a difference in that regard, but it’s not a huge difference and only noticeable if you taste two loaves side-by-side.



  • Susan Lutz 2·19·13

    @Brad- Your recipe sounds great. And I love the idea of saving half the dough in the fridge for later use. Hearing about your recipe makes me want to do some more experimenting of my own. Thanks for writing!

  • Susan Lutz 2·19·13

    @Angelo- Luckily for Erik and Kelly, we don’t have a lot of rain in Southern California. I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing an adobe oven in action once, but it was very impressive.

  • Brad 2·20·13

    @Susan: The proportions I use are 6.5 cups of flour (I usually use 4-5 cups of red-wheat bread flour and the rest is whole wheat bread flour), 1.5 tablespoons yeast, 1 tablespoon salt, and 3 cups water. Because there’s so much more yeast, it can be ready in 2-3 hours. I divide the dough in half and put half in the fridge in a covered plastic container. The dough I use today goes out on a floured board, covered with a cloth, to rise while I heat the cast-iron pot in the oven. It cooks exactly like the Lahey bread: 30 minutes in a covered pot at 450 degrees, then another 20 minutes or so with the lid off. The dough is a bit stiffer than the Lahey recipe and doesn’t flatten out quite as much. Give it a try!

  • Susan Lutz 2·20·13

    @Brad- Thanks so much for sending the recipe. I look forward to trying it!

  • Danielle 3·30·13

    Beautiful photos! My mouth is watering looking at that boule.