by Sally H. N. Wright (originally published on April 17, 2001 in The Herald Journal, Utah)
You’ve heard of the horse whisperer. Now meet the bread whisperer.
Betsy Oppenneer can transform rather ordinary-looking lumps of dough into masterpieces of bread baking with a wave of her magic hands, and has appeared on countless cooking shows. Writing cookbooks and making videos have been her latest projects, but she often travels to teach classes, and was in Logan in March.
The crowd of people at Logan’s Kitchen Kneads attests to her popularity among ambitious bakers, and everyone is riveted on Oppeneer, waiting to see what her next magic trick will be.
“You have to listen to your bread,” she tells her audience, making breadmaking even more mystical. “If you’re mixing and you hear a sound like ” (Oppenneer makes an angry, hissing sound) “give it a rest because you’ve mixed it too much and it’s going to get up into your machine and wreck it.”
Oppeneer has made enough bread in her lifetime to know what it should sound like. Working as an apprentice at a small bakery from the time she was 12 gave Oppenneer an auspicious beginning to a bread baking career, and she went on to train at several cooking schools. She is an active member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and has earned the title of certified culinary professional. Always exuberant and enthusiastic about bread, even after a long flight from her home in New Hampshire, Oppeneer’s baking tips reveal her vast experience.
“You don’t want to use a terrycloth towel to cover the bread while it’s rising,” she said. “You’re trying to make a little incubator, so you want to keep air out. Use a bowl that’s a little bit taller than it is wide, with less space around the edges, and use a tightly-woven towel to cover it.”
Oppenneer offers other suggestions for would-be bakers, pointing out that unsalted butter is fresher than salted, and won’t destroy growing yeast. She talks about different gadgets and mixers, saying some work better if users ignore manufacturers’ directions.
“I don’t know why they tell you to start with the dough hook,” she says, shaking her head as she watches her mixer combine ingredients for herb bread.
“It really works better if you start with the paddle, I promise.”
Kneading should be slower and easier than most bakers make it, she said. “If you keep smashing it, it will get sticky and you’ll have to keep adding flour,” she says as she comically demonstrates the wrong way to knead bread dough. Too many bakers knead by smashing and smearing the dough across the counter, Oppenneer says, and it’s just not necessary. In her able hands, the smeared dough becomes a perfectly smooth ball. All the dough scraps from the countertop are scraped off and added back into the dough ball.
“You can’t leave these little pieces,” she says. Oppenneer holds up a tiny piece of dough, one most bakers would undoubtedly throw away without a second thought.
“This is almost a whole bite of bread!” she exclaims. “Never throw away little pieces.”