Rarely will someone wake up one morning and know exactly how to bake bread, make pastries, or turn sugar, eggs, and cream into tasty deserts. Maybe someone, at some time, like an Einstein of baking, taught themselves all there is to know about the art of running a bakery, but everyone else just had to start at the beginning.

But, where to start?

It all depends on where you live in the world, and sometimes, just what kind of baker you want to be.

 

Location, location, location

Every culture treats baking a little (or a lot) different. Some areas of the world have long standing traditions and divisions of labor with baking and bakeries, like Germany and France. Others, like the United States, are more fluid, with baking often viewed as a thing you do rather than a thing you are.

Let’s talk about Germany for a moment. Sarah, born in Germany, and Errol, who spent many years in the country, had a very different experience with the culture of baking there than one might here in the States.

In Germany, baking is a living, a life choice even. Much like the guild systems of old, there is a large and complex support system designed to teach you what you need to know, get you trained by a master of the craft, and a education in a school designed to familiarize you with the science of baking, complete with tests.

Germany has two kinds of “bakers,” what we here in the States lump under one title.

The baker makes breads, rolls, Danish, and the like. All things involving bread yeast, and is consumed fresh daily in a normal German diet.

The pastry chef is different, focusing on the sweet side of things (not that the baker doesn’t sweeten the deal once in a while as well)—cakes, chocolates, truffles, and the insanely interesting “sugar arts” where melted sugar is formed into complex shapes like flames or crests.

Each of these is a wholly different, life-long path involving similar steps:

  • Wake up one day and decide, “Baking sounds cool. Let’s do this.”
  • After high school (in Germany, there is ten years of standard schooling) you apply to be an apprentice with a master baker/pastry chef. This is like any other application process, and you better put on your game face.
  • If accepted—something that gets harder as time goes on and the old ways of baking get supplanted by the modern worlds supermarket culture—you’re in like Flynn (Errol and Sarah Flynn, even?) and are not only accepted into the bakery as an apprentice, but automatically accepted into the physical school designed to teach the theory of baking.
  • For the next three years, you work at the bakery under the tutelage of the master baker for four to five days a week, and one or two days you travel to the school to do the book-learning portion of the craft, which includes theory and basic business management.
  • At the end of that three year period, you are tested in many ways. You think your finals were stressful? Try baking a number of complex goods in front of your betters, who judge your skill, and all this under a strict time limit.
  • If you pass these tests, you are now a true German baker, ready to make your way into the important German bakery culture.
  • The icing on the cake is all this is free, and better yet, you get paid. Not much, but as you are producing goods for the master baker as they teach you the ropes, you are paid for your time there—at least enough to keep you in bread and beer. And the schooling part is free as well, designed to train you and get you into the workforce rather than take money from you.

A table, displaying all the items Sarah made in her 8 hour final in Germany

This can be trace back to the days of yore, when medieval guilds ruled the arts and crafts of society, and well trained, professional bakers kept a city fed and healthy. But it isn’t easy, far from it in fact. You are competing with many others for dwindling spots with the masters of baking, and when you are finished, now have to work towards creating a successful bakery yourself.

 

America Needs Bakers Too

The system here in the States is very different, though the end results can be the same.

Like most other crafts, baking and the culinary arts are taught in colleges all around the country. While not free, these classes tend to require far fewer years than becoming a lawyer or even an accountant. If you jump in feet first, you can find yourself running a bakery in just a few years.

But, like anything else, it’s hugely beneficial to take some time “apprenticing” under talented bakers and getting the worldly knowledge classes can’t offer.

Brandenburg Bakery has always been happy to have local, driven, and talented interns work with us as they get their education in culinary schools. One, who has spent a few summers with us, is Beccah.

Beccah’s family has been in the area for a long time. She’d realized she loved baking when she was young, baking with her father—cookies and other goodies all made from scratch. A warm bonding experience, no doubt, but also the perfect way to get into real baking, and something we talked about here.

She didn’t find anything that really excited her throughout her school career, until she heard about the extra classes offered for the culinary arts. She jumped at this, and never looked back. While much of the class focused on other culinary items besides baking, it was the baking that excited her most, and she applied herself to what would be her calling.

After high school, she applied and was accepted to Alfred State in New York, a school with a renowned culinary program. The items made in the culinary classes are actually consumed by the other students in the college, so you make a lot, bake a lot, and actually feed others while you learn the ropes. Part of the schooling involved interning at a restaurant or bakery for credit and experience—an idea we find in cultures and countries around the world—and so Beccah hit the beat looking for a place to call home for a summer.

While she had talked with a few bakeries in the area, she found the warmest welcome (her own words!) at Brandenburg Bakery—then in Jeffersonville, NY—hitting it off right away with Sarah and Errol. She started just a few weeks after.

Since that time she has been an important part of the bakery, acting as Assistant Pastry Chef—a paid position, as Errol and Sarah believe work, even interning, deserves pay, much as it is done in Germany. The bakery has a lot to thank Beccah for, as the extra hands in the process has really helped during the last few years as Brandenburg Bakery picked up a lot of fans and customers.

Ultimately, Beccah wants to open her own bakery, but says this is a ways off. The hands-on experience, both with the baking as well as the business side of things, has been invaluable, and in her words, she “loves it.”

Beccah, Assistant Pastry Chef at Brandenburg Bakery

When asked about what she feels is most important to her when making the myriad goods in the bakery, she replied, “Using local ingredients, and making everything from scratch.” Quality in, quality out.

 

Getting Schooled

Alfred State, like many colleges around the country, offer courses designed to not only teach you the craft of baking and culinary arts, but also how to run a successful business.

As Beccah told me, she is taking two years for baking, and two more years for tech management and business skills. What is important here is the first two years are added to the second two years, giving her not two associates degrees, but an associates in baking and a bachelors in business—an excellent education indeed.

No matter where you go to get an education, or if you just dive in and take a shot at it yourself, it’s important to understand the science behind it all.

Yeast does what it does, sugar helps or hinders the process, heat needs to be applied in the right way, all based off of very understandable rules. This is what the hands-on approach—interning or apprenticing—gives someone, an opportunity to see it all happen and let it all sink in, so you can make adjustments or new recipes on the fly.

It’s also a good idea to get used to the repetition of baking and preparing large amounts of the same thing again and again—something very important for any real bakery. When you make sixty cupcakes, you have to decorate sixty cupcakes, or you’re only half done! Getting so good at each step that you could do it in your sleep is half the battle, and you want to be ready to step up to all aspects of baking, including the more repetitious parts.

 

If You’re a Baker at Heart

It’s never too early, or too late, to try your hand at baking. Maybe you’re young, looking for that thing that excites you, like Beccah was when she first discovered the joys of baking. Or maybe it’s time for a change of pace in your adult life. If you love it, you can do it. Look into the education offered by local SUNY (or similar) colleges (places like Johnson & Wales University), look into taking some time to intern with bakeries in the area.

Those with the baking bug can make it happen, and hey, America is rediscovering the joys of real, natural baked goods!