Two Decades Into the Phenomenon

Twenty years ago this September, Zingerman’s Bakehouse fired up its oven and started baking. Owner Frank Carollo had a crew of eight bakers. At first they had a simple goal: to make better bread for Zingerman’s sandwiches. But how?

In a nutshell, they’d turn back the the clock on bread baking.

Instead of baking with lots of ingredients, they’d use as few as possible. Where most breads these days seem to have dozens of unpronounceable ingredients, most of Zingerman’s breads have four: flour, water, salt, yeast.

They would also take their time. A loaf of Zingerman’s Jewish rye takes five and a half hours to make. Paesano takes fourteen hours. Farm bread takes a whopping eighteen. Meanwhile most commercial bakeries do the job in less than two hours. The quicker rise time saves money, but also cuts into the flavor.

They would bake in a stone hearth oven. Just like baking on a pizza stone makes for better pizza, a stone hearth oven makes for better bread. The masonry floor allows for more even heating, which lets the bread develop a crisper, more flavorful crust. The thing is, stone hearth ovens aren’t the easiest to maintain and they’re not the most versatile. They’re also more expensive.

For the past two decades they’ve done all that and more. And during that time bread has become one of the most popular foods we ship. Mo Frechette, Zingerman’s Mail Order’s founder often says, “I thought I started a mail order company to sell great olive oil to folks in Montana who couldn’t get it. Instead I send bread to Manhattan.”

Running a bakery isn’t like being a rock musician. You can’t just produce one great album and coast on that for the rest of your life. When you bake, every day you start with new flour and new problems. Home bakers know the recipe is just a starting point. From there the problems start. To me, even more impressive than the quality of the Bakehouse’s products is their consistency. You can’t find a bad product amongst the lot, but the real stars–like Paesano, Jewish Rye, and Farm bread – are outstanding, and getting just a tad better, every single day.