While most people are tucked under the covers, listening only to the dream voices of their subconscious, Molly Harrison’s world is filled with the dull roar of ovens and a steady stream of NPR news, punctuated every 40 minutes by a timer. Ding! That 150 pounds of ciabatta dough better be ready for its first rise. Ding! Start the brioche. Ding! Hamburger buns out of the oven. Ding! Feed the starters. Ding! Work on the focaccia. Ding! Shape tomorrow’s sourdough loaves. Ding! Ding! Ding!
The woman behind the breadbaskets at Sweet Basil, Mountain Standard and Zino Ristorante, Harrison is a one-baker show for a good part of the year. She works out of the Zino kitchen, oftentimes getting there just a few hours after the last chef has gone home for the night. Her list is substantial: ciabatta, focaccia, baguettes, brioche, hamburger buns, a rotating specialty roll, plus the sourdoughs — semolina, whole wheat and olive. She also creates a couple of the desserts on the Zino menu.
A Chicago transplant, Harrison worked the line for one of the Windy City’s more inventive and creative chefs, Shawn McClain. But when she and her husband, Fletcher, moved to Vail with their then-one-year-old daughter, Abigail, Harrison made her own move to the bakery side of restaurants. “The working hours of a chef weren’t going to be conducive for our family,” she explains.
Though baking was covered in culinary school, it wasn’t until she decided to become a full-time bread maker that she really dove in and figured out the magical world of healthy yeast, gluten strands and air bubbles. She went back to Chicago for some stages – a long-standing culinary tradition of hands-on learning in working kitchens – and then returned to Vail, where she proceeded to change her sea-level knowledge into high-altitude expertise. Five years later, Harrison leaves a little trail of flour wherever she goes. “I ooze flour, I think it comes out of my cells,” she says, laughing.
Baked goods start to behave differently from their sea-level counterparts at about 3,000 feet; at 8,150, Vail’s altitude requires some recipe adaptations, as well as some serious handholding. “It’s a living thing, and it’s finicky,” Harrison says about her dough. “It’s worth remembering if the kitchen was warm last night, that will change the dough today. You have to treat it like a little kid; some days it’s going to be cranky.” And then, almost under her breath, she adds, “I can only have one child because I have to take care of the bread.”
The lack of pressure at Vail’s altitude is a curveball all local cooks have to contend with, as it makes water boil at a lower temperature. But what that translates to for baked goods, is that there is not as much pressure bearing down on them. It’s like adding an exclamation point to the rising component of a recipe, hence the overflowing cakes that hit the bottom of the oven. Bread doughs, too, rise faster. “You just have to cut back your rising agent,” Harrison says. “Mainly it’s yeast.” It’s not simply that the dough doesn’t need all that yeast, but the flavor of bread becomes more complex if there’s slower gluten formation. Traditionally, that gluten is kick-started with agitation – a mixer with a bread hook, or strong and insistent hands. But Harrison prefers to use a mixer as little as possible, wanting to stretch out the gluten formation with slow rises, which delivers that “nice, loose crumb” associated with artisan bread, as opposed to the tight crumb of store-bought sandwich loaves. And that means the dough needs time.
It also needs salt. “The salt will help retard the rising. I probably add a little bit more salt than I normally would (at sea level).” But it’s not just a chemical reaction; flavors are slightly less pronounced at higher altitude, something worth remembering not only with salt but also with herbs and spices.
Though the lack of pressure gets a lot of press, so to speak, it’s not the only issue. “The hardest thing here is the fluctuation in humidity,” Harrison says. “It’s so dry, and then the spring was so wet. The biggest challenge is the flour: You’ve got the lack of humidity some days, and then the monsoon season comes, and the bread is so different. That’s what I love and hate about it – the challenge of feeling the dough. I can do the exact same things, use the same measurements, and it’s too loose.”
Flour changes over time. As it gets older, it gets drier, so the recipes need more adjustments, such as a bit more mixing, or more liquid. Despite the fact that a standard flour order for Harrison is about one hundred 50-pound bags – read: 5,000 pounds of flour at a time – the hungry diners at the trio of restaurants take care of that in a couple of weeks. Even still, she can see a difference in the flour’s performance from the beginning of the order to the end. And it doesn’t just affect the dough, per se, but how it bakes.
“Steam is one of the most important things in bread production,” Harrison says. “The chewiness of the crust and crumb come from the moisture in the oven.” In the case of baguettes, the dough might be sprayed with water to achieve that super-crisp crust. But for the most part, the moisture content of the oven comes from the loaves themselves. Harrison’s batches of bread need to be pretty full, say 12 or 18 strong. Any less than that, and there’s not as much steam being created, which means the crusts won’t be quite as nice. “There is so much to learn about baking,” she says. “A tweak here or there can change your whole loaf.”
But no matter what the crust ends up looking like, there’s nothing like the smell of baking bread, something that the parade of delivery folks comments on as Harrison works through the morning. She’s become immune to the smell, something that makes her a little sad. “But I still eat it, so that’s OK,” she says.
And so can we.