Orwashers Brings Back the Neighborhood Bakery

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Keith Cohen took over Orwashers in 2007 with the aim of reinvigorating artisan bread for today's customers.
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Vilma, who has been with the bakery 18 years, shows off a freshly baked loaf of Sourdough Bread.
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Each day, Orwashers bakes, on average, 4,000 loaves of bread.
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“Orwashers Artisan Bread” by Keith Cohen is the perfect baking companion for food enthusiasts looking to recapture the art of handmade breads.

Baking is a combination of art and science. Master baker and owner, Keith Cohen shares his expertise in Orwashers Artisan Bread (Race Point Publishing, 2014). Full of step-by-step instruction and detailed behind-the-scenes looks at how artisan bakers work, Cohen provides recipes to hone your own baking skills to craft the perfect loaf time after time. In the following excerpt from chapter 1, Cohen introduces the neighborhood bakery, and how he uses old-world techniques to serve modern consumers.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Orwashers Artisan Bread.

When I first walked into Orwashers in 2007, I was transported back to my grandfather’s butcher shop in Kew Gardens, Queens. The clientele he would have served in his neighborhood kosher butcher shop was very much the same as those who originally sought fresh-baked bread at Orwashers. Like a lingering scent, the shop seemed to exude a friendliness and intimacy that comes with the one-on-one interaction of a long line of bakers and shoppers. It felt familiar. It felt like home.

When I took over ownership of the bakery from the Orwasher family, much had changed in the world and neighborhood around the bakery. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the invention of commercial-style loaves and the bread slicer would dilute and alter the process, taste, and experience of eating the breads to which this earlier generation of immigrants was accustomed. Today customers are more familiar with individual loaves. Homes are all equipped with electricity and refrigerators to keep bread cold or even frozen for days. Society’s drive to produce everything faster, cheaper, and at a higher volume has caused a shift away from quality; producers have abandoned locally made and natural products and ingredients for less expensive, less pure equivalents such as chemically enhanced, bleached, and bromated flours. Equating the types of foods that have lined the shelves at grocery stores and overtaken the average person’s diet in the last seventy years to those of the past is like comparing a hot dog to a filet mignon. In a span of one hundred years, society’s view of bread and what it stands for has changed significantly. What was once thought of as a wholesome staple became known as something that packed on calories—and inches—and offered no nutrients or substance, thanks to its new method of mass production. Traditionally baked artisanal breads are given the time and care they need to ferment and bake to perfection. However, in an effort to give them a longer shelf-life, most mass-produced breads aren’t baked for long enough. Therefore, the question facing me as artisanal baker when I purchased Orwashers old-fashioned, European-style bakery soon became: How can I bring back the bread of yesterday while serving the new customer of today, and hopefully tomorrow? The answer? I brought back the old methods of bread baking and preparation while keeping in mind my target consumer. What better place to merge the best of the past with the best of the present than at Orwashers.

In order to create this new method, I became inspired by the past. I pictured myself as a baker in France two hundred years ago, prior to refrigeration, prior to electricity, prior to modern amenities, and asked the most basic question: How did they make this great product? Today we have mechanical mixers, but back then, bakers had to manually knead the bread. There’s only so much dough a person can knead by hand without cramping and tiring, leaving the dough still in need of some development. So, what did bakers do hundreds of years ago to add this development to their dough? In lieu of mechanical mixing, they left the dough out to ferment longer. Another crucial difference is that before the mid-nineteenth century, there was no commercial yeast. Bakers had to use old-world dough levains, bigas, and starters. But instead of just returning to these old-world techniques and ingredients exactly as they were hundreds of years ago, I realized that I needed to change things up ever so slightly in order to be successful in this new-age economy. The levains, bigas, and starters are living organisms that need to be fed and nurtured. Just like the old-world measurements in the original Orwashers recipes that cited a pinch of this and a dash of that, old-world treatment of the starters also wasn’t sufficient for ensuring their preservation or consistency. Even the old starters needed a little refreshing. Over time, things get adulterated—people forget to feed the starters on time, or they don’t add the right amount of flour or water—we’re only human, after all. With this in mind, I decided to refresh and rebuild the starters every year so they would remain extremely robust and incredibly authentic. This also allows the starters to be rid of any potential commercial yeast in the air that may have seeped into them.

I have also expanded the menu significantly to include new, wine- and beer-infused breads and the first 100 percent locally grown ultimate whole-wheat bread, to name just a few. In conjunction with these new modern and worldly breads, I placed a renewed emphasis on sourcing locally whenever possible and always opting for sustainable, natural, and organic ingredients. I strongly believe in the local movement, and feel it is incredibly helpful for local economies. In the last few years, there has been a huge shift back toward local flour farming and milling, which in the past had been pushed farther west by the Erie Canal and developments in technology and transportation. This resurgence of local flour farms and mills not only boosts my local state’s economy, but it enhances artisanal baking tremendously. Flour can be a very temperamental ingredient, and is constantly being affected and changed by the soil, climate, and farmer’s treatment. While larger mills can compensate for these irregularities in the flour, local mills do not, and opt to leave the grain virtually untouched and unrefined. This is where artisanal baking benefits from local ingredients: our handcrafted breads actually thrive on these variables in local flour. After all, the point of proper artisanal bread is to bring out the fullest, most flavorful taste in the grain. Local ingredients help us do this.

Nearly one hundred years after Orwashers first opened its doors, the bakery is still serving its neighbors. The freshly baked breads can be found on dinner tables, in restaurants, and at farmers’ markets all across New York City. One of my focuses is to collaborate with like-minded artisans who share the same values, such as the Channing Daughters Vineyard on Long Island and Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, to craft creative new-world breads with old-world taste. I am also continually looking for new bread experiences to carry Orwashers forward into a future that I am certain will include clients who want new, quality, artisan bread choices.

Bread is perhaps the most universal food that exists. It supersedes prejudices; it appeals to almost every palate; it symbolizes peace, comfort, and tradition. A properly baked loaf of artisanal bread should boast the perfect crackle in its crust and soft crumb that almost disintegrates in your mouth. Something so powerful needs to be nurtured, perfected, loved—and of course, eaten!

At Orwashers, we aren’t just bread bakers. We’re bread architects.

Recipes from Orwashers Artisan Bread:

Holiday Challah Bread Recipe
Chocolate Bread Recipe
Potato Burger Buns Recipe

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Orwashers Artisan Bread: 100 Years of Techniques and Recipes by Keith Cohen and published by Race Point Publishing, 2014. Purchase this book from our store: Orwashers Artisan Bread.