Hawaii is slowly moving out of what I call the Dark Ages of Bread.
Dan Wetter also senses this movement. And he knows bread as an associate professor at Kapiolani Community College’s culinary arts program, where he’s taught pastry and bread making for 16 years.
Wetter says the customer base in the islands is becoming better educated after tasting freshly made artisan breads now available in more local bakeries and at farmers’ markets.
“Average people are starting to say ‘Hey, I want to try this.’ They are starting to ask for different kinds of bread.
“What’s happening with bread here is similar to what is going on in the rest of the country,” says Wetter. “People are more careful about what’s in their food.”
He adds: “Up until the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, bakeries in Hawaii were banging out mostly pans of white bread and soft rolls. The notion then was it was hard to find good bread in Hawaii. But that’s changing.”
Wetter says “It’s exciting because now we are turning back to some of the most ancient ways of making breads, using grains that were ground into flour thousands of years ago, and leavening agents like sour dough employed from the earliest days of baking. Bread making is evolving back to its roots.”
The most recent breakthrough is that it is now possible for the first time in Hawaii to buy freshly locally baked organic bread.
La Tour Bakehouse on Nimitz Highway recently became the first bakery in the state to become certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “USDA Organic.”
La Tour’s organic line is made in a separate section of the huge bakery in the former Weyerhaeuser building. Executive Pastry Chef Rodney Weddle says the company is creating bread with premium organic flour from Central Milling in Logan, Utah, which he says is the mill of choice for high-end bakeries across the U.S.
La Tour has also created an Organic 100% Sprouted Multigrain Bread — the first locally baked, certified organic, sprouted bread, sold commercially in the state.
Sprouted bread is made of grains that have been soaked in water in a highly controlled environment until they begin to grow a green sprout; when the grains sprout, they are mixed together and ground into a meal, which becomes the basis for the bread.
Food scientists say sprouted grain bread is an easier-to-digest, low in glycemic products and offers more nutrients than traditionally refined flours.
Thanh Quoc Lam, the owner of La Tour, says he keeps a loaf of the organic, sprouted bread in his car, which he eats by the slice when he is out on the road and gets hungry. I agree. This particular sprouted bread is so tasty I also eat it out of the bag with nothing on it.
“What’s happening with bread here is similar to what is going on in the rest of the country. People are more careful about what’s in their food.” —Dan Wetter, Kapiolani Community College
Many of you already know Lam as the founder of Hawaii’s Ba-Le sandwich shops.
Whole Foods and Costco will begin selling La Tour’s organic, sprouted bread early next year. La Tour currently sells 100 percent sprouted wheat at many Oahu farmers’ markets. Whole Foods is selling five other items in La Tour’s organic line, including nine-grain bread, organic light rye, whole wheat, organic sourdough and organic rustic baguettes.
The movement in Hawaii toward more locally baked and organic bread plays well into the way food habits are changing across the country.
When I walk through Whole Foods in Kahala, I wonder if the health nut customers know that except for the organic loaves from La Tour all the rest of the sliced organic and gluten-free bread on the shelves is baked on the mainland, where it has been frozen before it’s shipped here. This includes well-known organic brands such as Food for Life’s Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Bread and Dave’s Killer Breads.
Consider the carbon footprint to transport the previously frozen loaves from thousands of miles away.
About half of all the bread sold in Hawaii supermarkets, both organic and non-organic, is mainland-baked and frozen before it is thawed out in warehouses here and put in trucks for delivery to retail stores.
Among the brands of previously frozen breads sold here are Oroweat, Sara Lee, King’s Hawaiian Bread and Milton’s Craft Bakers.
Milton’s Bread on the shelves at Costco has a misleading seal on its label that says “Baked Fresh Locally.”
Love’s Bakery Vice President Byron Chong laughs when he says, “Yes, Milton’s is baked fresh locally if you mean baked fresh locally in California.”
Chad Buck, whose company, Hawaii Foodservice Alliance, distributes many previously frozen breads from mainland and local bakeries in Hawaii, says there is nothing wrong with previously frozen loaves.
“The freezing is simply a way of keeping the bread fresh during distribution,” says Buck.
Love’s and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 245 Love’s employees, have tried twice to get lawmakers to pass a bill to require labeling that says “previously frozen” on all loaves of bread that have been baked and then frozen.
“The freezing is simply a way of keeping the bread fresh during distribution.” — Chad Buck, Hawaii Foodservice Alliance
One bill made it all the way to then-Gov. Linda Lingle’s desk in 2005, but she vetoed it. Another version of the bill failed to get out of conference committee in 2006. Still another bill got stalled in the Legislature in 2011. It would have required signs on store shelves to point out the previously frozen bread.
Mark Tonini, general manager of the Hawaii Foodservice Alliance, said in an email that lawmakers scrapped the bread labeling measures because of a number of concerns, including the possibility the legislation would economically harm small bakeries such as Punaluu Bread on the Big Island, which freezes its bread to make it possible to distribute it more widely.
Many of Hawaii’s smaller bakeries pre-freeze their bread prior to distribution to keep it fresher longer.
Tonini says another concern with the labeling bill was that labeling would give the wrong idea that the frozen bread is of lesser quality, while experts such as state Health Department officials testified that there were no health or quality issues with it.
Chong of Love’s Bakery say even though previously frozen bread might be just as healthy as fresh baked bread, there is no comparison in the taste.
“Fresh is fresh,” says Chong. “If anyone puts frozen bread head to head with our fresh baked bread they would be able to tell the difference. Previously frozen bread is harder to the touch than fresh bread. Fresh bread is softer, better on the palate, not dry, and the crust doesn’t break apart.”
Love’s has been making bread fresh in Hawaii since 1851. Although some of Love’s specialty pastry products are previously frozen, all of its bread loaves are locally baked and never frozen. Even the loaves Love’s sends to the neighbor islands are delivered fresh by air freight while most other local bakeries freeze their baked bread before putting it on container ships for delivery.
But many of Love’s breads — just like baked products from large industrial bakeries on the mainland and some smaller bakeries here — are manufactured with additives, which can include high fructose corn syrup, dough conditioners such as sodium stearoyl lactylate to make it easier and faster for machines to process the bread, mono-and diglycerides to extend shelf life, and mold inhibitors such as calcium propionate.
“In the heat and high humidity here we need to have preservatives to prevent mold,” says Chong,
Chong says the preservatives in Love’s bread have no affect on taste.
No matter how delicious the new locally baked breads are, there will always be a market in Hawaii for the mainland-type Wonder Breads because they are less expensive and they have long shelf life.
But baking professor Wetter thinks the chemicals do have an effect.
Wetter says, “If you eat clean fresh bread, you can taste the difference. If you eat breads with preservatives, you will almost always taste a slight aftertaste.”
And when it comes to taste, previously frozen bread can also have issues such as freezer burn. I once found freezer burn on a loaf of Ezekiel’s organic sprouted bread I refroze to keep fresh. It tasted like cardboard.
Buck, who distributes many previously frozen breads that have been baked in Hawaii or shipped in from the mainland, says that taste preferences seem to be a personal matter:
“As far as taste goes, nothing tastes better to me than baking bread at home. That said, the variety is out there to satisfy a variety of needs including price, convenience, value, acquired tastes have found that all types have loyal followings — whether it be Watanabe bread, Ani’s, Punaluu, Love’s, Oroweat, Dave’s Killer Bread or Ezekiel.”
Some friends I asked about previously frozen bread didn’t seem to care if the bread they are buying might have been baked weeks or even months before they brought it home.
Food writer Martha Cheng says, “The bottom line is taste rather than if the bread is baked locally. Some previously frozen bread may have a better taste than fresh locally baked bread. Ultimately it has to do with taste.”
As I mentioned, if you buy previously frozen bread and then freeze it again, it can taste drier. But that does not bother my husband. He says the drier, stiffer bread makes what he calls “a better holder” for the thick, mayonnaise-filled sandwiches he likes to fry in butter for breakfast.
I think that’s the crux of the issue. My husband is accustomed to eating “store bought” supermarket breads. He views the bread mainly as a “holder” for the ingredients he puts in his sandwiches.
For him, bread is to compliment what’s spread over it, not a food item to be savored by itself.
In comparison, really good fresh bread made slowly and carefully, can be eaten by itself with nothing on it, not even butter.
But cost has to be kept in mind. No matter how delicious the new locally baked breads are, there will always be a market in Hawaii for the mainland-type Wonder Breads because they are less expensive and they have long shelf life.
What many wish for now is a way to make it more convenient to buy locally baked artisan breads.
My friend David DeLuca, the director of publishing at Bess Press, says, “The bread scene here could use a jolt. A lot is happening with high-end bread here, but more of it needs to be made available to the public.”
“The bread scene here could use a jolt. A lot is happening with high-end bread here, but more of it needs to be made available to the public.” — David DeLuca, Bess Press
DeLuca says caterers, hotels and some restaurants are serving the new, interesting breads to select audiences but the new “Old World” breads still can be difficult to find in neighborhood markets.
Distribution of the locally baked organic and artesian breads will soon improve.
Both Love’s and Hawaii Foodservices Alliance are vying for the contract to distribute La Tour’s organic breads to the neighbor islands.
The companies say they can see the wave of the future with customers demanding less processed food, more local and more organic products. Chong says next year Love’s will stop using high fructose corn syrup in all its breads.
Food distributor Buck says says his company is building new distribution facilities on the Big Island and Kauai to support neighbor islanders who want their own bakeries rather than having to rely on having so much bread of their bread shipped in.
“This also decreases the carbon footprint of having to barge or fly the products over to the neighbor islands from Oahu,” says Buck.
It is a new world of commercial baking in Hawaii that is looking to the past for ways to make fresher, healthier and more delicious bread.
“It is a slow educational process, but it is exciting,” says Wetter.