Baked to Perfection: Lessons from the experts at AB Mauri

The IKEA set to open this fall in midtown is a big deal: it’s the first in St. Louis and one of only a handful in urban locations within the U.S. The massive store and its towering sign are impossible to miss, overshadowing what sits around the corner: The Cortex Innovation District. There, start-up companies co-mingle with Boeing and Washington University. A visit to the area has one wondering: How can I work there?

A relative newcomer to the district is AB Mauri, a global company whose North American headquarters are in St. Louis. A division of Associated British Foods, AB Mauri manufactures baking ingredients (yeasts, enzymes, baking powders and sodas, dough conditioners, malts, and syrups) for large-scale baking companies and sells yeast to individual consumers under the Fleischmann’s brand.

At the helm of the baking hub is Paul Bright (yes, that’s really his last name), Innovation Manager. I recently had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with Bright (above) and his team, touring the facility and receiving a personalized baking lesson as we made yeast rolls and croissants.

Bright—slim, soft-spoken, and affable—knew from a young age that he wanted to be a food scientist thanks in part to his father, who was an instructor at The American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, KS, with a specialty in cookies and crackers. The younger Bright worked at the institute while attending Kansas State University, where he graduated with a degree in Baking Science. After several years in research and development at different companies, he joined AB Mauri 22 years ago and loves coming to work. About his current focus on baking products, Bright said, “For me, it makes it interesting because I get to work on a lot of different things.”

Scott Wise (yes, that’s really his last name), a fellow baking scientist with a Kansas State degree, works with Bright, creating and testing bread recipes based on the company’s ingredients with one goal in mind: consistency, especially in how the yeast performs. Toward that end, the equipment in the hub includes what you’d expect—giant mixers, scales, proofing cabinets, several different ovens (deck, pizza, steam), donut fryer, tortilla press—and what you might be surprised to see—a full lab filled with microscopes for “yeast innovation-type work” and proprietary equipment, for example, that measures how much gas is given off by the yeast in the baking process.

Wise demonstrated how a slice of bread can be tested under a microscope hooked up to a computer. A compression force is applied to the slice, and a texture analysis appears on the adjacent computer screen measuring how fresh the bread is based on factors like hardness, springiness, resilience, and gumminess. They also test crackers and croutons, among other baked goods, and adjust water and enzyme levels to ensure freshness in the end product.

On the juxtaposition of mixer and microscope and baking with yeast, Bright said, “That’s where art and science come together.” The ineffable art of baking with yeast (something I have limited success with myself) became more concrete as Bright and I worked together on the rolls. According to Bright, the art of baking yeast rolls is in the ear, not the eye or scale. That is, one needs to listen for a slapping sound against the bowl—once the dough pulls away from the sides, gathers on the mixer’s hook, and then slaps back out against the bowl, the dough is ready. Bright listens for the slap both in the hub and when he visits commercial bakeries. He also travels with a thermometer, checking temperatures everywhere.

When asked about the problem of overmixing dough, Bright shared that when using bread flour, “It’s really hard to overmix the dough.” (What dough shouldn’t you overmix? Pie crust. And Bright prefers butter over lard in his pie crusts.) What you’re really looking for in a bread dough is elasticity, according to the scientist, who stretched the yeast roll dough over his knuckle to create a see-through membrane that resisted tearing. He explained that well-developed, elastic dough is like a balloon that traps gasses from yeast, resulting in rising; undermixed dough is like a balloon with a lot of pinholes through which gasses escape, producing flat breads and rolls.

After the dough was ready, Bright showed me how to roll the dough balls, only after each was weighed for consistency. The speed at which he was able to roll out perfect, smooth circles—two handed even—put my lumpen, craggy results to shame, and there was some mocking from the others in the kitchen. Graciously, Bright assured me that the imperfections would disappear in the oven (they did).

While the yeast rolls proofed, Bright scored some artisan baguettes and popped them in the deck oven for a dose of steam. As often as he must use the steam feature, Bright seemed genuinely excited to display the function, explaining that the steam produces the crispy crust that makes a good baguette. When asked why a good baguette is hard to find in St. Louis, Bright said that it’s the flour: the flour in the U.S. is a lot stronger than that in Europe. In the case of baguettes, weaker is better.

Part of Bright’s and Wise’s jobs is to sample bread all day, but you’d never know that from their slim frames. Others in the company benefit from the tests’ leftovers, but that can lead to too much of a good, gluttonous thing. When the group tested a donut recipe, Bright said of his colleagues outside the kitchen: “They love us for a day and then they hate us and say, ‘No more donuts.’” Becca Francis, the Innovation Coordinator who joined the interview to take pictures, noted that she still can’t eat a donut.

After yeast rolls, we turned our attention to croissant dough that had already been sheeted and folded but needed the final pressing before shaping. Like a proud parent, Bright showed off the Rondo Sheeter (above), calling it “well loved” for its ability to roll the dough automatically into the perfect thickness. When asked if he missed working the dough by hand, Bright quickly responded, “No,” sharing that in the past, he developed blisters from working tortilla dough.

In the middle of baking with Bright, while the yeast rolls were rising, I had the opportunity to meet another member of the team: Lia Weber. A recent winner on TLC’s The Next Great Baker with partner Al Watson (right), Weber now works as the brand ambassador at AB Mauri. She “represents their passion about baking” at conferences and trade shows, Weber explained. She also teaches at St. Louis Community College- Forest Park’s Culinary Arts Program and runs her own cake business, Made. by Lia.

At the time of my visit, she was baking almond cakes for an upcoming wedding and made individual mini-muffin-sized cakes for me to sample and take home along with my yeast rolls and croissants (they were amazing). One of the perks of working for AB Mauri is that Weber gets to use their kitchen to make her cakes and other baked goods. As someone who used to bake in a tiny home kitchen, with no counter space and a half fridge, Weber more than appreciates the new digs.

The afternoon spent at AB Mauri revealed a number of lessons:

(1) Bread dough can’t be overworked.

(2) People study bread slices down to the cellular level to ensure that the loaf you buy at the store stays fresher longer with “cleaner” labels and fewer ingredients.

(3) Vinegar in pie crust doesn’t make a difference.

(4) The grass will always be greener when it comes to certain jobs and job titles. Luckily, there’s yeast rolls, croissants, donuts, cake, and all other kinds of baked goods for consolation.