King Arthur Flour Baking School
Did you know the scores, or incisions, atop a loaf of homemade bread are more than decorative? During the days of common ovens, bakers customized their scores to distinguish one loaf from another. More practically, the scores release built-up steam while the bread takes shape and bakes. Without these cuts, steam will find the weakest spot and blow out, resulting in a “Frankenloaf,”as Jennifer Rein refers to it. Rein is the coordinator at the King Arthur Flour Baking School, just off Interstate 5 in Burlington. Why and how to properly score bread are just some of the things Rein and her fellow instructors teach.
King Arthur Flour is the oldest flour company in the United States, operating since 1790. Wanting to educate communities, the flour maker opened two baking schools, one at corporate headquarters in Norwich, Vermont, and the other in Burlington.
The school offers dozens of one-day to five-day classes every month, open to the public. Topics include various aspects of making bread, pastry, pizza, and more. For instance, you can take a three-day course on croissants, puff pastry and danish for $375. A half-day “Flatbreads of India” session is $75.
Much credit for the Burlington location is due to its partner and neighbor, the Bread Lab, operated by Washington State University. It conducts research to determine the best grains for specific applications (bread, pizza, fermenting for beer). Researchers also cross-pollinate grain lines by hand and have a room filled with some of the 40,000 varieties of seeds in their care. Rein explained that the head of the Bread Lab, Dr. Steve Jones, realized there was just one problem. “They were scientists, not bakers.” They could talk about the data points of a grain’s elasticity or gluten all day but they didn’t know how to effectively utilize the grains for food preparation. Jones suggested King Arthur look into opening an adjacent baking school. In November 2016 it did, and together the lab and school are revitalizing Skagit County’s grain economy and locals’ understanding of grains. The joint location has been beneficial, according to Jones. “Having the baking school within our building adds so much to what we do and what we are able to do.”
The school holds classes almost daily, keeping Rein busy. On the day we met, a walk-in oven kept the otherwise quiet classroom humming. It was Rein’s prep day: she prepped the formulas (what bakers call recipes) and made the fillings for an upcoming Indian flatbread class. Energetic and enthusiastic about anything to do with baking and grains, it’s hard to imagine Rein wasn’t always a baker. She started out working for Nike doing computer design. After a stint volunteering at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site where she dressed in full 1840s gear and cooked food over a fire, she left her job and moved to the East Coast to work in wood-fire bakeries. Harsh, cold winters brought Rein back to Washington bakeries, and a happenstance job posting led to her current sentiment, “I can’t believe I get to do this every day. It’s my dream job.”
Rein’s duties include choosing a class schedule, which pretty much boils down to anything with flour or grain: Middle Eastern flatbreads, danishes, pies, pizza, gnocchi and fresh pasta, and series classes on sourdough bread. The informative online calendar lists all the scheduled classes, price, how many spots remain, and participant level like home bakers, kids, or professionals (those who know baker’s math). Each class is about three to four hours long. Three- to five-day series classes are held during the week where “you can really drill down into the subject matter,” like conquering sourdough bread.
During a typical class, students don aprons and settle in at individual stations. The instructor begins class by going through a formula from start to finish, explaining things like what each ingredient does and how to apply specific techniques. Then the students go back to their stations to replicate the procedures while the instructor and an assistant walk around to, as Rein puts it, “dispel pie anxiety and yeast phobia.” Confidence grows steadily as the students make three to four baked goods per class and take home all their creations.
But there’s more to the baking school than classes—the school gives back tremendously. Last year the school held a Bake for Good Thanksgiving event where they donated 80 pies and 800 rolls to a local food bank. Beginning in September, on the last Friday of each month, they will host a Bake for Good Drop-in Pizza class. Participates drop in, learn how to stretch pizza dough, and bake off their creations in the school’s screaming hot oven. The school will provide everything for a plain cheese pizza, but you can bring additional toppings. Cost is a $10 donation to a hunger-related charity.
Under the same roof in Skagit Valley there is a baking school building up confidence in home bakers and a team of researchers innovating the grain landscape locally, nationally, and internationally. You’re missing out if you don’t stop to see it for yourself.
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