I’m at a fancy restaurant with my parents. The bread basket comes out, and one of two things always happens. They will touch the bread and say, “Oh! It’s hot!” and will pass it around with the urgency of a man in a burning house. Or they will complain bitterly about cold bread, saying, “I can’t believe they don’t give you hot bread in a fancy restaurant.” I will say that many people feel that bread is at its best at room temperature. They will say that they can’t believe that this fancy restaurant doesn’t give you hot bread. I will say that in Europe, they rarely ever eat hot bread. They will say this restaurant is fancy, and fancy restaurants should give you hot bread. I will suggest holding a piece of bread over the candle. My mother will say the candle smoke is bad for you. Etc.
I like a dinner roll right out of the oven as much as the next guy, but I prefer crusty, European-style breads at room temperature. I know the party line on this: Made with slow fermentation, those breads have complex, subtle flavors that are overwhelmed by the aromas that come out when the bread is heated. But am I just buying the party line?
The other day, I brought this up in an otherwise casual conversation with my friend Shelby, an even-tempered but deeply profane man and, incidentally, one of the best bakers I’ve ever come across. “I don’t eat hot bread,” he said flatly. “That shit isn’t finished cooking, for one thing.”
One of the problems with bread right out of the oven, he told me, is that the insides aren’t completely set yet; the starches and proteins don’t fully form their structure until cool, so the chew isn’t the same. And the water trapped inside the loaf takes its time working its way out of the bread, so there’s a slow exchange of moisture back and forth through the crust before it stabilizes and reaches its optimum texture.
He was getting serious now. “I have to cut open hot loaves to show my students the crumb, but I smell it, and… I’m revolted. I feel I’ve done the bread a disservice.”
His slow, deliberate tone belied an electric anger, and I started looking around for cars because he was no longer paying attention when he was crossing the street. “When you cut open a loaf of bread before it's finished cooling, you let all the steam out. That steam carries all these flavors that should stay in the bread. Now it will never taste as good as it would have. You let the spirit out of the bread. It's not like the spirit is coming back.” His voice dropped a tone. “You fucked it up…because you had to be a BLEEP BLEEP and eat hot bread.” Then, calmly, he said, “I feel like that’s true.”
It’s hard not to be convinced by someone with conviction like that. Maybe I’ll put him on the phone with my parents the next time we go out.