Burn Baby Burn: Why One Boise Bakery Burns Its Bread on Purpose 

click to enlarge Zeppole Baking Co. (left) starting selling darker loaves after its owners visited bakeries in New York that sold burnt bread (right).

Charles Alpers

Zeppole Baking Co. (left) starting selling darker loaves after its owners visited bakeries in New York that sold burnt bread (right).

Before stocking his Apple Street cafe with loaves of burnt sourdough, Zeppole Baking Co. Co-owner Charles Alpers posted a heads-up to his customers on Facebook. The gist of the message was simple: Yes, we burned the bread on purpose. 

"When we went to New York in mid-December, we went to a lot of bakeries there because, you know, it's one of the food capitals of the U.S. so we wanted to see the trends and what they were doing there ... And we found that our bread looked every bit as good as everybody else's, which we were really happy about, but it was a lot lighter," Charles said. That confirmed a trend that he and his wife, Alison, had already spotted on research trips to Salt Lake City; Denver; and Portland, Oregon—burnt-edged bread was in, and anemic loaves were out.

Charles and Alison both have a longstanding taste for burnt things. For her, it's cookies, blacked and crisp on the outside but still soft in the middle. For him, it's the batter drips on the bakery's trays of banana bread, which overcook in the oven as the loaves brown. "I take those and I eat them like a cookie ... I went back so many times the other night that the baker said, 'Charles, do you want me to roll the rack into your office?" he recalled.

click to enlarge CHARLES ALPERS
  • Charles Alpers

The Alpers aren't alone in their taste for charcoal. The 2017 New York Times article "Charred, Browned, Blackened: The Dark Lure of Burned Food" explores the emerging trend in depth, guessing that the allure comes from an extended Maillard reaction (the chemical process responsible for the savory, caramelized notes in cooked foods), which deepens flavor in everything from Brussels' sprouts to bread.

"Everyone is so afraid of burning things. But when you're burning, you're creating all of these different compounds that make food more complex in taste, and much more interesting to eat," cookbook author Jennifer McLagan told The Times.

Update: Zeppole's owners said that when it comes to their bread, they prefer the term "baking it darker" rather than "burnt."

For Charles, the appeal of burnt/darkened bread is definitely rooted in the Maillard reaction, although he didn't know the term when he first described it. "[The bread] was like a seared steak, where it's got this wonderful crust on the outside that has additional flavor from being dark," he said.

His Facebook post, which went up Jan. 30, offered the same analogy. Texture, too, was part of the appeal, and he specifically noted the contrast between the breads' crisp outsides and moist interior crumb.

click to enlarge LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson

Charles said that while some customers have been suspicious of the loaves' blackened edges, they've been a real hit with the bakery's European customers, particularly those who hail from Eastern Europe.

"When we grab bread to take home we try to find the absolute darkest loaves we can. And the interesting thing is, most of our European customers when they come in here, they want the darkest loaves," Charles said, later adding, "It reminds them of their home country. There's a family out of Pocatello that actually orders 25 [dark pane rustica loaves] at a time."

For everyone else, Charles turned his Facebook post into a flier that cashiers at both of Zeppole's locations can hand out to customers, explaining the darker loaves. He said that the reception has been positive so far.

French baker Mathieu Choux, who owns Gaston's Bakery in Boise, attributes the trend more to a shift in customer attitudes than bakers' tastes.

"We've always baked our bread as dark as we could, but we see that customers are more and more willing to buy darker-crust bread, a lot more so than before," he said.

click to enlarge CHARLES ALPERS
  • Charles Alpers

In response, Choux has darkened up the breads he sells at Gaston's, bringing them more in line with his personal flavor and texture preferences as he attempts to ride the wave of public opinion. He admitted that he isn't sure what has made customers more open to trying new foods, but theorized that Instagram might have played a role by offering a virtual window into international cuisine.

"More and more people see pictures of how food is made in different places and are more excited to try it," he said, "I'm guessing that could be one of the reasons."

Alison had a similar take, though on a smaller scale.

"When we first bought [Zeppole] from Gary [Ebert] we were told, and we saw ourselves, that people wanted the lighter loaves, that's what they were looking for. So we kind of kept it lighter. But I think people, we've got more diversity in Boise now as well, so people are starting to experiment a little more maybe and enjoy that bread," she said.

Whatever the hook, burnt-edged bread is now an option in Boise, where shoppers can find it at Zeppole sitting alongside lighter loaves. And if you take a bite, beware—you just might get hooked on the char.

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