Rustica's Steve Horton: Chef Chat, part 2

Timing is essential when baking--and buying--bread. Stop by the bakery too late and the shelves could be bare; too early and your favorite loaf hasn't come out of the oven yet. If you want the broadest and freshest selection, baker-owner Steve Horton shares when to stop by his nationally acclaimed bakery, Rustica, for a baguette fresh out of the oven. For food-driven travelers, Horton reveals the U.S. city best stocked with bakeries, in his opinion; and for try-this-at-home types, Horton recommends a couple cookbooks for home use.

If you start baking in the wee hours of the morning, when should customers stop in to buy the freshest bread? Most of the naturally leavened breads keep for a couple days, so there's no best time.

During the week, most of the products we have are available by 8 a.m. On the weekends it's a little different. We have some specialty breads that might not come out until 10 or 11 a.m. to give the full lineup.

We do baguettes most of the morning. That's generally from about 7 to 11 a.m. during the week. All we're making is baguettes. Customers coming in will get a fresh baguette throughout the morning.

What is your favorite bakery other than your own? Right now I'm a little bit obsessed with Tartine [Bakery in San Francisco]. For Christmas my wife gave me their latest book on breads [Tartine Breads by Chad Robertson]. Most bread books are pretty nuts and bolts, nice pictures, maybe not nice pictures. This is a little different take on it. It's a use of photos to help demonstrate the process, which I really appreciate from a visual point of view. He says in the book, and I agree, that baking is very visual. When you're learning a craft, one of the keys is getting the process visually fixed in your mind. It looks like wonderful bread. I've never had it.

What do you think is the best baking city in America? Gosh, that's tough. From the one's I've been to, I'd probably say Seattle. When I was in Seattle a few years ago, there was just a lot of small bakeries really focusing on the product they were trying to make. It seemed like a certain critical mass. San Francisco is certainly wonderful, and Berkeley. They would be right in there.

Just from a reading standpoint and from tradition, I would say New York City, but I've never been to New York, believe it or not. From what I read and look at and who I talk to, it sounds like New York would be the place. With that many bakeries and that many people...

Who is your favorite celebrity baker? There isn't really anyone I can think of. We're kind of an under-the-radar type of profession, partially because cooking is "more sexy," and bread a lot of time is just seen as an accompaniment, not as a centerpiece.

What separates a home baker from a professional? I would actually say consistency again. Being a home baker is fulfilling because you're baking for yourself or for your family. That's a wonderful thing. At the same time, most people are not concerned about whether the loaf is exactly the same every time. For us, the whimsical component--we do that when we're testing. When we're actually producing it for customers, we take it more seriously in terms of consistency.

The equipment is also much different. It's easier for us to produce not just volume but higher quality. For example, our dough mixers [...] and of course, the ovens and access to ingredients. It's a lot better now than it was 10 years ago. It's still somewhat challenging for a home baker to find what they're looking for without hunting all over the Internet.

What are your favorite cookbooks? Raymond Calvel, he had several baking books. They're much more technical. They're not usually very user friendly. There's one called The Taste of Bread.

There's another by Pierre Hermé, the French pastry chef. If there's a better pastry chef in the world, I don't know where they are. He takes tradition and just builds on it. Everything is beautiful and helpful, with a picture and a sketching of what everything should look like inside and out. Even though what he does doesn't always fit with what we do from a rustic standpoint, still from just an appreciation standpoint--very, very good.

From a home baker's standpoint, the Tartine book that I was talking about is good. Another one is by Jeffrey Hamelman, called Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes. He's at King Arthur Flour. I would say from a home baker standpoint, Hammelman's book is probably going to be the most helpful in terms of process, time, and temperature manipulation.

Our chat with Steve Horton concludes tomorrow.

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