As Athens slowly wakes up in the morning, Independent Baking Co. in Five Points begins to churn out pastries and bread. Kevin Scollo and his team of bakers and mixers have been at work since 4 a.m., and there will be a line out the door by approximately 8 a.m.
Scollo acquired Independent Baking Co. in February after longtime owner Thom Leonard decided to sell. Scollo has worked with bread for about 10 years now, emphasizing locally-sourced ingredients and transparent baking operations that set Independent apart.
For our new series which spotlights locally produced food, “Athens à la carte,” Scollo spoke to The Red & Black about Independent’s sourcing, preparation and baking process for its variety of breads. What's special about organic wheat? How does one take care of sourdough starter? What makes an iconic, crunchy crust? Read on to find out.
There are four ingredients vital in bread baking: flour, water, yeast and salt.
“There's lots of different specs of the wheat grain that are important for baking bread,” Scollo said.
The type of grain you use is the star in most bread. Scollo starts by mentioning the importance of protein content for well-shaped bread, but quickly moves onto flavor. Independent sources most of its wheat locally from Danielsville or Atlanta. Besides the white bread flour — applied primarily to help the dough develop gluten — every other wheat used in Independent’s bread is stone-milled at the bakery’s own milling facility.
By using a stone mill, Scollo is able to maintain the signature flavors and aromas of the wheat, and those factors translate into the bread. Wheat is like pepper or coffee, Scollo said; once it’s ground, it slowly starts losing all of the characteristics that make it truly special.
The bakery uses variations of flour to achieve different flavors and shapes in its bread. Whole wheat, rye and spelt are the primary types of grain used to make that flour. Rye flour, for example, doesn’t rise as much and creates those signature dark loafs. Spelt is easier to digest. Whole wheat flour is a signature ingredient in the French country and multigrain loafs.
There’s three other vital ingredients: water, sourced from the city and filtered, yeast and salt. The salt comes from Sicily. Either commercial yeast or homemade sourdough starter is used to leaven the bread. Fun fact: The same in-house starter has been used since Independent opened seven years ago.
“So we have a specific formula we use to feed [the yeast] twice a day,” Scollo said. “And honestly, if you don't take care of it, or if you feed it the wrong way, or if your temperatures are off, then it shows.”
It sounds simple enough — those four vital ingredients get mixed together in spiral mixers, kneading the dough. This process builds the network of gluten strands that strengthens the loaf from within. The dough gets put into the fridge to ferment for about two hours, and then it’s taken out to be shaped.
Whether or not batches of dough get a second round of fermentation overnight depends on the end result. French country, levain and multigrain loaves require more resting time for that sour flavor, but milder ciabatta and baguette varieties are baked that same day.
One of the reasons why home cooks may not be able to achieve the signature characteristics of fresh bread is because of the way typical ovens work, Scollo said. It’s a little scientific — professional baking ovens inject steam into the closed area at the beginning of the baking process, encouraging the crust to develop a chewy texture.
“You're just looking for a nice caramelization,” Scollo said. “The Maillard reaction, which is when you sear a steak … that kind of caramelization of protein and whatnot is the same with bread.”
The bread business, at least the way Independent does it, sees smaller profit margins due to using organic ingredients and a lot of manual labor. Plus, it takes a long time. For some loaves it's a two-day process.
“This is slow food,” Scollo said. “But you reap the benefits of that … There has been a lot of backlash about eating bread … As long as you're using these kinds of processes that we're using, which have been used, again, since thousands of years ago, it's very healthy.”
At the end of the day, Scollo likes to bring home some rye. He eats it with eggs, cheese and maybe some smoked fish.
“Everything we're doing at this bakery is personal to us,” Scollo said. “Because we're all working hard to make sure that everything that's presented is delicious, it's a work of who we are.”
Independent Baking Co., located on South Lumpkin Street, is open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. on Sunday. Customers can call (706) 850-3550 to place special orders or to reserve bread and pastries.
In a previous version of this article, the cost of making a loaf of bread at Independent Baking Co. was misrepresented. This error has since been corrected. The Red & Black regrets this error.