Breadmaker is no loafer

September 23, 2006   6:58 pm

CARRBORO -- You might not have heard of Carrboro's newest rising star, but you almost certainly would recognize her handiwork if you tasted it.

For the last five years, Emily Buehler has been kneading, shaping and baking the locally famous bread found at Weaver Street Market and cafés and shops in Orange and Chatham counties.

Since her best work is usually done before dawn, Buehler doesn't often get to mingle with the customers who enjoy her crusty creations.

But during the few interactions she's had with bread lovers during classes she has helped teach through the market, she realized one thing.

People don't just enjoy eating bread. They are fascinated by it.

So the 32-year-old baker wrote a book: "Bread Science: The Chemistry and Craft of Making Bread." In it she details not only the how of handmade breadcraft, but also the why.

"I want people to know, yes, you can bake bread," Buehler explained recently. "The people who came up with bread were normal people."

Check any bookstore and you'll see shelves lined with recipe books. Buehler said she wanted to take a different approach. What she came up with is a comprehensive, how-to manual that encompasses everything from proofing yeast to shaping baguettes to the socio-political implications of baking your own loaves.

Buehler possesses the unique skills needed to craft this kind of book.

She has a doctorate from UNC in chemistry. In the five years she studied in Chapel Hill she used scanning tunneling microscopes to study the effects of hydrogen on silicates.

Don't worry, she said, you don't need to know what that means to understand her book.

After graduation, Buehler took a little time off and decided to work in the Weaver Street bakery. She reasoned her mind needed a rest and she thought she would enjoy the hands-on work.

Having never baked even a single loaf before she set foot in the industrial kitchen in 2001, Buehler was forced to work her way up from the bottom. Starting at 4 a.m. five days a week she would run the mixers, hoisting heavy sacks of flour and monitoring the dough for consistency and texture.

"I don't think anyone thought I would last," Buehler said, blushing a little. "They see Ph.D. and think you are going to be bored."

But what Buehler found was a challenge that matched any she found in the laboratories of UNC. Bread baking is an inexact craft, and dough can be fickle -- susceptible to the whims of nature and baker alike.

"It's hard on your brain. You have to be constantly thinking and you become physically exhausted," Buehler said.

But five years later, Buehler is such a natural in the kitchen you'd think she was born pushing loaves in and out of the monster ovens.

On a recent morning, Buehler and her cohorts were hard at work in the Weaver Street bakery. Although it was chilly and dark outside, beyond the purple metal door it was a tepid fiesta.

Latin music blared from the studio as Buehler placed loaves of sourdough onto a giant metal device called a loader. The 12-bay oven was cranked to 438 degrees and was bellowing steam with a noise that sounded like wind blowing through the eaves of an old house.

Working alone, Buehler loaded batches of 20-60 loaves into each bay. Mentally she kept track of how long each had been in. "You can't really rely on the timer," she explained before rearranging the loaves for even browning with a long wooden paddle.

Cranking the loader to a height above her head and thrusting it into the steaming oven, Buehler seemed comfortable and at peace.

Which is how she wants her readers to feel. After five years and tens of thousands of loaves, Buehler has experienced nearly every permutation of the bread process.

Her book contains hand-drawn illustrations and photographs of every step of baking. Although there is a heavy science chapter, she explains in the introduction she expects the work to be used as a reference; anyone intimidated by the molecular structure of gluten is free to flip to the section on scoring a batard.

But, she encourages everyone to give the science a shot. "People know gluten comes from flour and water, but what really is gluten?" she asked. "I wanted the truth. I didn't just want what everyone was saying."

To get that truth she spent nearly two years researching the science of bread in the libraries at N.C. State. She combed over wheat science journals and other industry tomes to find the answers she desired.

She now has what she believes to be a one-of-a-kind reference book for anyone who has ever wondered "why does bread rise?"

(Buehler would have you know the answer to that is both respiration and fermentation.)

"Bread Science" is available at Weaver Street Market, Regulator Book Store, Quail Ridge Books and online at

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