Turning local ingredients into new breads is part of a day’s ‘job’.
Sharmaine Allison thinks she has the best job. Sure, she had to go to college, and her official title is “Senior Product Development Technologist”, at heart she’s a baker working with a team to create new varieties of Plowmans breads.
That involves a lot of taste testing, and as Sharmaine told media personality Hayley Sproull when she visited Ploughmans bakery in Christchurch, “any job where eating is part of the role description is always a hit.”
Many experts will tell you that bread baking is equal parts art and science, and Sharmaine wouldn’t disagree.
“My background is food science, and working with Ploughmans bread, what’s really interesting for me is learning about the ins and outs of bread – how we make the bread, and it’s rewarding to learn all of those things.”
“But it’s also creative. We work with new ingredients. Sometimes Marketing talks to us, or we think of an ingredient that we think will taste great and fit very well in Ploughmans.”
“We look at trends. Often food trends start at the restaurant level and work their way up to the supermarket. Sometimes our suppliers come up with new ideas or ingredients that they want us to try.”
“We work through all of that and refine it to some ideas that we want to test with, and then we just try in our test bakery and see what works, how we need to tweak our recipes to make different flavors work and see what tastes good, what looks good.”
“That’s the fun part: when you’re baking bread, when you’re trying new bread.” Yes, testing it too.
For Sharmaine and the innovation team, the quality and variety of local seeds and grains is important, not only because of the flavors they bring, but also because supporting local growers supports the community.
“It’s nice for people, when they try our breads, to feel like they’re tied to that New Zealand identity through our signature seeds and grains.”
Sharmaine is also concerned about the quality and consistency of each loaf that carries the Plowmans brand.
“I know when people bake bread at home, of course there’s a bit of trial and error involved. But when you’re baking on the scale that we’re at, there are a lot of things we have to think about and get it right: the ingredients right, the right amounts, how we’re mixing them and for how long, and then we go through all the processes to make sure the humidity, the temperature and the baking times are right.”
“We don’t want our bread to dry out, and we make sure it sprouts really well and has a nice golden crust on the outside, fully baked so that when people eat it, it’s nice and soft with a crunch to the edge of it.” .
“It goes even further than that, and this is what folks who bake at home wouldn’t do: our loaves have to go through slicers and be packaged, and then out the door on the way to the grocery store and to the kitchen table.” .”
Making all seven varieties of Plowmans bread isn’t a one-size-fits-all process, either. “We have to make sure everything in the bakery is clean and set up correctly for the individual variety we’re making because they’re all a little different.”
So any advice from the insider for home bakers who might have tried producing their own sourdough during lockdown?
“Window proofing is something you can do at home. When you think you’ve kneaded the bread enough, before you bake it, before you proof it, you take a small ball of dough in your hand and slowly, slowly roll it out until it’s soft. come back pretty thin, sort of like a window, so you should be able to see through it if it’s working right. You know the bread is ready to go to the next stage.”
“If some holes form quite easily, that means you need to work the gluten a bit harder, the dough isn’t strong enough.”
Sounds complicated. It’s best left to Sharmaine and the experts at Ploughmans.
For more information on why local tastes are better, visit www.nzherald.co.nz/ploughmans