New Jersey Food Journal

Friday, March 14, 2014

Garwood Chef Breaks Bread Down to Science

John Ropelski demonstrates bread baking to a Rutgers food journalism class on February 12, 2014.
Craig Donofrio | Grapevine Studios

By Alexa Wybraniec

A gluten-free diet may be necessary for some and a trendy option for others. But to remove gluten from artisanal bread is corrupt. Ask for a gluten-free pain de mie at &Grain, John Ropelski’s bakery in Garwood, and you’ll earn nothing but a few sideways glances.

Careful not to offend anyone’s personal dietary choices, he resolutely makes his mission clear.

“I don’t do gluten-free,” Ropelski said. “I do bread.”

His baguettes and boules speak for him, but he broke out his culinary prowess for Teresa Politano’s food journalism class last Wednesday. Ropelski illustrated gluten’s important role for breadmakers in an impromptu demonstration.

It seemed as though he could make bread with his eyes closed. Ropelski dug his hands into two separate plastic white bins of flour and, with a flourish, threw together two small mounds. He worked on top of a massive wooden table, which takes up half of the kitchen.

After pouring just enough water over one mound of flour, he began the long process of hand-kneading it into dough. Normally, he uses a high-speed mixer for this step. According to Ropelski, the addition of water creates a chemical reaction; water causes hydration of the gliadin and glutenin proteins, which results in gluten.

“Yeast is a living thing. When you add it, you become a slave to the dough.”
“Gluten is a protein-binding grain,” he explained, working the mix. “It’s the essence of bread.”

Though bread flour comprises only 10 percent protein, gluten swells to form a steady fibrous network. Without it, the bread falls apart. Stretching the dough, Ropelski showed that there are ideally no holes.

“The elasticity of bread depends on gluten,” he said. By kneading the dough, he broke bonds between protein chains and allowed them to realign. This relaxes the dough.

After kneading comes proofing, also known as rising. Here, starch breaks down and fermentation occurs.

“Yeast is a living thing,” Ropelski said. “When you add it, you become a slave to the dough.”

Yeast produces carbon dioxide, causing the gluten network to expand. Here is where gluten comes in to play: If the gluten is too weak, it can’t stretch around the air bubbles that fermentation produces. The gaseous bubbles essentially blow up, and the resulting bread lacks volume. Gluten that is too strong causes the opposite; a loaf that is too dense.

As bread bakes, the gluten protein coagulates. The oven is one place where the bread’s size and shape is determined. It’s also a chef’s best friend.

“Ultimately, it’s the oven,” Ropelski said. It’s pertinent to “learn” the machine. That is, the baker must be familiar with the hot spots, heat retention and steam distribution of their particular oven.

Once cooled, the bread should be firm with an open and light texture.

“Good bread,” he mused. “The crumb should have uniformly spaced, large holes. It should be dark, with a little bit of burning. And the ear is a relief cut into the dough so it is evenly made.”

To make an ear, he slashes the dough with a sharp knife. Scoring bread allows him to control the direction that the bread will expand in its final burst of rising in the oven, known as the “oven spring”. The resulting crusty flap on the finished product resembles an ear.

People don’t understand what goes into his bread, Ropelski said. He views his work as an art form.

He is unapologetically uninterested in making gluten-free bread, which is a painstaking process that substitutes a mixture of flours for gluten. From the beginning, Ropelski has been intent on staying true to his original vision for the restaurant.

“I see people come back, sometimes two or three times in a day," he said. "So without actually telling me I’m doing a good job, you know, they are.”

Authenticity and artisanship have been at the forefront of &Grain -- literally. Ropelski built the bakery so that the kitchen was at the storefront, facing the street. He also doesn’t advertise, equating Groupon coupons with selling out.

“Maybe it’s idealistic, maybe not even realistic,” he said about his business theory. “But that’s what I’m going to try.”

Ropelski is more interested in staying true to his original vision for the restaurant. He tries to incorporate local foods, change the menu with the seasons and give back to the community. Keeping up with dietary fads is not part of his plan.

“I consider it organic, in the sense that it’s always changing.”

Alexa Wybraniec is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in journalism and media studies, and minoring in French. She is a foodie – and runner – in training.