If you love food and want to work with your hands, there is a wealth of career paths you can explore. If you also enjoy waking up before dawn and basking in the glow of a wood-fired oven, you might be well-suited for a career as a baker. Since long before the word “gluten” existed, bakers have been kneading bread dough, letting it rise, and sliding it into the oven where the magic happens.
Bakers use a wide variety of baking styles, ingredients, and equipment. On top of that, a baker could select from many business models to sell their wares, from working at a traditional bakery, to starting up a smaller operation. To hear about what it’s like to bake artisan loaves on a small scale, we talked with Arturo Alonzo Enciso, whose wood-fired micro-bakery Emmylou Cob operates out of Long Beach, CA.
Why did you decide to become a baker?
I was lucky enough to move to a home that has an outdoor wood-fired oven a few years ago. At the same time, I came across a book by Richard Miscovich that explained how to use this amazing earthen oven, and I was particularly inspired by his explanation and recipes of bread. His writing captivated me so much that I started firing the oven at least once a week. That's when I discovered my passion and appreciation for bread and the entire process of making it.
What is your approach to baking? Do you have a personal baking philosophy, your own style, or special ingredients and equipment you tend to use?
I believe in naturally leavened breads. In other words, wild yeast (aka sourdough) not yeast packets. When the wheat flour interacts with wild yeast it produces a more flavorful and interesting dough compared to those made with commercial yeast.
How does someone become a baker?
My advice to becoming a baker is to first see if you truly marvel at the complexities of good bread and enjoy the process of making it (which has its challenges and rewards). It's unlikely you can get hired at a bakery without experience handling dough so get some sort of training. Many colleges have good beginner baking programs, and you can often find workshops or baker groups in your area (MeetUp). I definitely recommend getting your hands on and reading ALL of the bread books you can handle!
What kind of person would make a good baker?
Obviously, being into food is a major component. It's important that you enjoy cooking and trying new techniques. Also, baking requires a lot of dedication and a desire to continually learn. Oh, and early birds make good bakers! Most bakers have late-night or early-morning shifts.
What are some ways to make a sustainable living from baking?
Working for a bakery is the easiest and most sustainable way to make a living from baking. It's nice to have the opportunity to bake from home and sell goods with the cottage food laws but it's just that much more work for you to start your venture.
What is the pay like?
With my baking background I am not familiar with the standard baking pay rates. With my micro-bakery I earn about $15 an hour.
What are the best parts of being a baker?
For me it's watching the dough transform: observing the fermentation—from inert dough and water to a soft and supple mound—and then to finally bake it and see how the heat arrests the air bubbles in the crumb and caramelizes the crust. Plus, there's nothing like the heavenly wheat aromas that steam out of the oven.
What are the biggest challenges in being a baker?
Fermentation! Knowing when your dough is perfectly ready to become bread. It's far too common for people to under-proof and over-proof their dough. This is what bakers work so hard for is the whole process of baking it at the right moment.
What advice would you give an aspiring baker?
Always keep an open mind and try other breads; don't become obsessive over your particular style of bread or process. Stay curious.
How does baking shape your outlook on life?
Baking serves me as a moment to really slow down. I am at ease when I bake because it shows me how to live with purpose; the transformation of flour, water and salt into bread is purposeful.
Any other helpful resources or links on this topic?These have been very helpful to me in a variety of ways:
Los Angeles Bread Bakers MeetUp. Very resourceful place to meet other bakers from all walks of life in the LA area.
Grist & Toll has a great blog (and they are a local mill! using mostly local wheat).
Smoke Signals is an awesome wood-fired bakery in North Carolina.