Our Baking Process
We use the age-old method of long fermentation for our breads and laminated pastries. This means that after the dough is mixed, it’s given a pre-determined time at a controlled temperature to develop flavor and strength. Fermentation coaxes flavor from the wheat. This process can take hours or even days.
All of our breads are made with four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast or sourdough starter. To those ingredients we add nuts, raisins, cheese, olives—but never preservatives. The fermentation, and the unusually high hydration of our doughs, helps to act as a preservative to extend the shelf life.
The production method itself is more a process than a recipe. Our “recipes” or formulas change with time, raw ingredients and to a certain extent the seasons. Our bakery is temperature controlled from the time dough is mixed until it goes into the oven, but seasonal variations such as humidity and what actually happens in the fields with a grain of wheat can throw it all off. This is the true skill of the baker: taking these seasonal changes, and manipulating the raw ingredients to produce the same bread or croissant day after day. We really only have control over two variables in our process: time and temperature. We keep close control over these variables and use them to our advantage. Warmer dough will ferment faster, for example, so by knowing this we can further manipulate the fermentation on the dough. Often times, we may slow the final proof on our breads to stage the oven if we get backed up in our production. We can also warm the proofing dough up to push it along if needed. The ultimate goal is to create a consistent loaf of bread each day, indistinguishable from the one we made all the days before.
All Purpose Flour
We use low protein, unbleached, conventional all purpose flour for most of our breads. We never use “high gluten” or “bread” flour preferring softer all purpose flours. Long fermentation itself creates a tremendous amount of strength in a bread dough. If we were to use a high gluten flour, that strength over time would create dough with the consistency of a rubber band. By the time the dough got to the shaping table, it would be so difficult to work with, we’d end up tearing it, and the final loaf would never have the open hole structure we strive for. Strong flours are best reserved for bagels, or short fermented doughs that rely on other ingredients, natural or artificial, for flavor. We strive for fermentation flavor in all of our breads and laminated pastries, and believe that is what sets us apart. Any of our breads with “stuff” in them such as olives, cheddar cheese or nuts could stand on their own as a good tasting bread.
We have worked hard over the last 5 years to successfully source all of our whole grains and flours from the Northeast. This has been an undertaking that has taken years, but we’re finally there and so proud to support these smaller farms and mills! Not only do we know where our flour and grain is coming from, but we can stand in their field or mill in a days drive—something we never could have imagined even several years ago. We believe our bread has improved greatly with these local grains. As a result, we are now using more and more “bolted” flour. When grain is stone milled, the entire grain passes over the stone creating whole grain flour ie: Whole Wheat or Whole Rye. When the whole grain flour then passes through a commercial bolter or sifter, the miller can decide how much of the bran and germ to remove leaving the baker with flour that lies somewhere between whole grain flour and white flour, but retaining the health benefits of the all important oils from the bran and germ. Whole grain flour is 100% extraction, or 100% of the grain is retained in the flour. The two bolted flours we are currently using have either a 75% or 86% extraction. We have been able to replace some of the white AP flour in our breads with this flour, giving more flavor and keeping qualities all the while retaining the important oil from the grain that is removed in conventional white flour production.
In 2015, we will be taking our locally sourced whole grains to another level by milling in house just before mixing. We’ll be purchasing these local grains in whole grain form, rather than flour, and gently milling just hours before mixing to preserve the fresh oils in the grain as much as possible. This fresh milled whole grain flour will also be available to our customers for sale in our retail stores. Milling our own grain will give us the opportunity to start playing with all kinds of unique grains, creating different breads from grain that has proven to be too difficult to source as flour. Most of this grain is grown organically, but not certified organic.
A pre-ferment can be a sourdough starter or a yeasted starter. It’s a dough that can be stiff, liquid or anywhere in between. We use 4 different types of pre-ferments: a stiff sourdough made with the 75% extraction sifted flour, a whole rye sourdough, a liquid Poolish and a stiff, yeasted Italian style starter called a Biga. All of our breads contain at least one, if not two preferments. The main job of a pre-ferment is to jump start the long fermentation process. It gives a tremendous amount of flavor, texture, strength, shelf life and character to our breads. They behave similarly in all breads, except that the sourdough brings additional acidity to the final loaf because the starter is perpetuated over time.
Our sourdough starters began life on the front shelf of our old Llopis brick oven at our Hope Street store several months before opening the bakery in 2002! Keeping a sourdough starter young and healthy, through a series of “builds” or “refreshments,” creates complexity and strength without an overbearing tang in the finished loaf. We work hard to create sourdough bread that is complex in flavor, with a mild tang, but not too much. There’s nothing magical about sourdough. If it is kept young and healthy it will produce great tasting bread with mild acidity and give good volume in a finished loaf of bread. This creates a balanced level of bacteria for flavor and natural yeast for fermentation. In contrast, if kept old and not maintained well, it produces very acidic bread, with poor volume. Most very sour bread actually has quite a bit of yeast in it, since the sourdough itself is too over-fermented and unhealthy to raise the final dough. In this case, the balance has gone straight to bacteria, with no leavening power left. We’re going for the exact opposite.
In contrast to the sourdough, which has been kept healthy and active for years, a yeasted preferment is created daily by mixing a very small amount of yeast into water and flour. Our Biga and Poolish are allowed to ferment for up to 20 hours before being used in our yeasted breads and laminated pastry. By using a yeasted pre-ferment, we are able to cut back the total amount of yeast dramatically, creating a more natural, long fermentation, while creating none of the acidity found in sourdough bread.
Many customers have commented over the years that our bread is not very sour, but has a tremendous amount of flavor. They are always surprised that sourdough bread is not necessarily sour. This is a quality we strive for by keeping our sourdough starters young and healthy. They are always ready to raise the bread and contribute flavor and texture. In fact, many French bakers consider excessively sour bread a defect. We prefer to pull as much flavor out of the wheat, while giving a slight tang that compliments the bread and the other food at the table, rather than overwhelm the palate with sharp sourness.
In many ways, our Viennoiserie is treated the same as our breads. Our croissants, danish, stollen, raisin bread and panettone all have lengthy fermentation schedules that are comparable to a loaf of bread.
Croissants and Danish are made by a process called lamination. Butter is literally folded into a piece of fermented dough. We start by mixing and fermenting slightly sweet, rich dough. We then begin the process of “folding” butter in. The chilled butter is encased in the dough and repetitively rolled out and folded onto itself until there are many distinct layers of butter and dough. In between folds, the dough is given a chance to rest. When the dough is finally shaped, proofed and put in the oven, steam is created from the many layers of butter trapped in the dough which creates the layers of light flaky pastry that we love. If the pastry is not flaking all over your lap, we either did something wrong, or it’s a humid day! Unlike a lot of croissants or danish on the market, we are not looking to create a sweet, decadent morning pastry. On the contrary, like our breads, we want some fermentation character in the dough. This actually allows us to cut the normal amount of butter back in our croissants from what may be found in others available. This is not to say that a Seven Stars Bakery croissant is healthy. It still contains 1/3 of its volume in butter! After all, that is what a croissant is all about—the butter! While we are using a high quality expensive butter, many bakeries will use “danish roll in fat.” Really. It’s best you don’t ask what that is….
Cookies, Scones, Muffins…
We use whole fresh brown eggs from a small farm in Rhode Island, high butterfat butter and all natural ingredients in all of our pastries. We never use mixes or pre-made anything.
We make everything from scratch, that’s what sets us apart. Well, that and the butter! We invest a lot of extra money in only using high fat butter. It costs so much more, but the results speak for themselves. We make things the way they used to be made. Our recipes have a long ingredient list of things you would know. Words like flour, eggs, butter, pure vanilla, nuts (always toasted to bring out all the flavor), chocolate, salt, brown sugar…. We don’t use any ingredients with scientific sounding names that you’ve never heard before. Yes, it’s true, it may not be “healthy,” we will never create a “low fat” line, and we will probably never jump on any of the diet fads. That’s just not what we do. However, everything we offer is real, and in moderation can be considered acceptable in a well rounded diet. Every well rounded diet needs the occasional decadent Sticky Bun!