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Mike's (more or less) Weekly Baking Tips Logo2018-05-01 - Making a recipe your own -

So you want to have a home bakery, Part 1

It seems in every class someone thinks that our recipes, or formulas, were carved into stone tablets on Mt. Sinai and that they MUST NOT be changed in any way. I go to the other extreme – they aren’t your recipes until you change them! There are lots of reasons to change recipes. Here are some -

The recipe doesn’t work! - it’s easy to blame the recipe author and say that they must not know what the heck they are talking about when a recipe doesn’t work. More years ago than I care to admit I was visiting my then girlfriend (and now wife) in Galveston. At the time I was living in a coop in Austin where my job was to fix dinner on Sunday evenings. So, after looking at different recipes I selected "Fish en Crote" (red fish in Brioche) recipe. We went to a fish monger and got a nice red fish and put it on ice. We went to the local grocery and got some flour, butter, eggs, yeast and containers to raise the dough.

The recipe assured me that the dough would take 4 hours to rise, and checking Google Maps shows it should be a 3 ½ to 4 hour drive. It sounds like it should work for me, and that the dough would be risen about the time I got to Austin. Emboldened, I mixed the dough, put in the rising bowl on the floorboard of the front passenger’s seat, loaded the car and headed out.

An hour later, I looked at the bowl and realized I had a crisis on my hands. The dough had risen SO much it was about to overflow and hit the floorboards! I pulled off, kneaded the dough, and hit the road again.

This happened three more times before I made it to Austin.

What terminal incompetent had written that fatally flawed recipe? Julia Child. It’s in her “Julia Child and Company” cookbook. Hmmm.. maybe it wasn’t REALLY her fault? Maybe her Massachusetts kitchen is cooler than my car with no air conditioning in a Texas summer?

As an after note, the dinner turned out very nicely. It’s a great recipe, despite my issues more than 40 years ago.

At this point, I no longer expect a bread recipe will work the first time out. My sourdough starter isn’t the same as the author’s. I may be using different flour. My kitchen isn’t the same as the author’s. And my water is definitely different. How many other things that we just take for granted are different? When I read the instructions and see that the author has a long, finicky, precise and involved way to prepare dough do I follow their directions or go off with what has always worked for me?

And when the recipe doesn’t work, what do I do? Curse the author? Admit defeat and Google for a better recipe? Or look at the results and try to make the bread better? I hope you’ll take that last option, it is the way you’ll learn the most!

The recipe worked well enough, but it’s not what I really wanted! You wanted rolls with a crisp crust and the crust is soft. You wanted a green olive bread but the recipe called for black olives. You want to use spelt and the recipe calls for wheat. The recipe calls for overnight fermentation at 48F and your refrigerator is at 34F.

OH! What Ever Shall I Do? Cope. Experiment. Try to change things to make the bread one you want.

As long as you are married to the recipe, you are married to its results. You can bake at a higher temperature to get a crispy crust, or add some steam to the oven, or reduce the oils in the recipe.

So many changes are trivial. Feel the dough as you make the bread. Pay attention to what it is telling you. Adjust as needed.

Take notes so you can repeat your successes, and fine tune the process. Many of our breads took a long time to nail down. Some we’re still refining. Live in the process and trust yourself. As Brother Dominick used to say, “It’s only dough, it will forgive you!”

The recipe was great, but I want to kick it up another notch! One of my favorite upgrades is to replace cinnamon with cardamom. Cardamom is a lovely, and underused, spice. Two of our favorite breads are attempts at kicking it up another notch. We took a nice white bread and added about a head of peeled and roasted garlic and a bit more sharp cheddar cheese, kneaded it in, baked it and called it “Garlic Head Bread”. Then we roasted a similar amount of jalapeño peppers and again added more sharp cheddar. This one is called “Pepper Belly Bread”. Why did we roast the garlic and peppers? Several reasons. They taste better after roasting. And if you don’t roast them they impair the dough’s rise. You learn by doing and playing.

When we were making croissants, our pastry chef decided to use roasted Hatch Green Chilies in the croissants. Then she added ham to some, and cheese to others. All were very successful. What is successful? There are two parts, the first is do we like it, the second is do customers like it enough to buy it and ask us to make more.

So, you want a home bakery, part 1
And that brings us to the first chapter of the “So, you want a home bakery?” saga. Many people want to sell in farmers markets. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, and we can help you over some of the hurdles. The first place to start is with -

State Laws - In a college philosphy class we read a Russian short story about a man who was set upon by ruffians and chained. He could barely move any of his limbs. But he taught himself to walk, and even became a popular acrobat - still in his chains. The moral of the story is that we are all free, within the limitations that bind us. It isn't clear why someone didn't remove the chains from him. Then again, it's been 45+ years since I read the story and someone may well have freed him - but since it was a Russian story, the outcome of that act of kindness couldn't have been good.

The reason for mentioning this is that there are many restrictions placed on those who would provide food services. And they vary from state to state and city to city. And they are apt to change with every meeting of your state legislature. The rules covering home production of food are generally called "cottage food laws."

Cottage food laws govern what you may prepare for sale, which varies from state to state. And the laws can be quite specific. In Texas, you may prepare pickled cucumbers, but no other pickled food (the lack of pickled okra and pickled eggs is a grievous lack for many a good ol’ boy!) Still, that may change the next time the legislature meets.

Cottage food laws may restrict what equipment you may use. In some states you may only use equipment that was sold for home use. However, in some of those states, the health department is specifically barred from inspecting your home so no one will ever know about the 50 quart mixer or the huge commercial oven in your garage. In some states you may not use any area of your house but the same kitchen in which you prepare food for your family, so you can't turn your garage into a commercial kitchen.

In some states there are limits as to how much you can sell in a year. In some states there is a gross sales limit, such as $50,000 in gross sales. In some other states, there is a limit of how much of any one product you may sell in a year, such as $15,000 per product or $15k of pepper belly bread, $15k of garlic head bread, $15k of cinnamon rolls and so on. The laws don’t HAVE to make sense.

In some states, there are limits on where you may sell. Some require you sell in your home only. Others bar that and require you to sell at a farmers market. Some allow you to sell through resellers (such as grocery stores and health food stores) and other prohibit it.

Confused yet? Me too! You don’t want to be on the wrong side of the law as in many states your kitchen gear can be confiscated. Needless to say, this email can't advise you about the laws in all 50 states. So, your first step is to find out what the laws are in your area. There are a number of good web sites with summaries. If you are in doubt, ask your county extension agent for guidance. has a good page on how to find your county agricultural extension agent.

If the links below don’t work, Google “state cottage food laws”. Here are a few links - PickYourOwn is a site geared more towards gardeners, but they have a good summary of state laws. also has a good summary of state laws - just click on your state in their map

If you are in Texas, Kelley Masters' web site, Texas Cottage Food Law, is a treasure trove of information. Ms. Masters was one of the people who really got the cottage food laws passed in Texas, and we all owe her a big vote of thanks! You might buy her cookbook to thank her.

Some questions you'll need to answer for your state:

  • Do you need a license
  • Do you need special training
  • Do you need a sales tax permit (this question will arise again...)
  • What equipment may you use
  • May you use a commercial kitchen as well as your own
  • Must you use a commercial kitchen
  • What foods may you sell
  • What foods may you not sell
  • Are there limits on how much money you can make, and how are the limits measured
  • Can you advertise, can you advertise on line
  • Can you take orders on line
  • Can you accept payment on line
  • Where can you sell your goods
  • Can you deliver your goods
  • Can you have employees help make the food
  • Can you have employees help sell the food
  • Can you have employees help deliver the food
  • What are the labeling requirements for your products
  • Do you need insurance (maybe not, but you should probably get some anyway)
  • Are there city or county restrictions as well as state ones (in some states the laws bar local entities from getting in the cottage food producer's business)

Each of these questions has implications. For example, in some states you may only sell from your home. What's the implication? Let's pull some number out of the air and say you want a gross income of $15,000 a year and that you sell your bread for $5.00 a loaf. That means you'll need to sell 3,000 loaves of bread in the year. And that means about 58 sales per week, and that means that somewhere between 29 and 58 people you may not really know will be coming to your house. Are you comfortable with that? You could make sure you have a receiving room for customers so they don't get into the rest of your house. While strangers in the house is a major issue for some people, others aren't put off by this influx of strangers. Again, check your local laws and think about the implications for you and your comfort level.

Some selling options - state laws govern what you may do, so some of the options listed below might not be applicable where you are.

A bread of the week club How it works - the idea is like a book of the month club. Every week the subscribers get a loaf of bread. They can sign up for more loaves depending on how much bread they want. You can, like the book of the month club, have a standard loaf each week. This week rye, next week cinnamon raisin and so on. You can provide an alternate bread offering. If you're a tech whiz and this is legal where you are, you can have people select their breads on line. Or you can include a sheet describing the next week's breads in each order so they can email, call or fax you. We had a bread club during the farmers market off season (more about farmers markets below) and it worked well for us. We also found very few people selected the alternate bread.

You may deliver the breads or have people pick them up. We found delivery took less time because we sat around all day waiting for people to show up and pick up their bread and some people just forgot. Delivery was over in two hours. You may want to restrict your delivery area - it's not worth driving 30 miles to deliver a loaf of bread. One bread club we saw specialized in high rise apartment buildings - with one stop he could deliver dozens of loaves of bread!

Look for tie-in products - If you can sell your own preserves, you can offer them. If you can’t make your own preserves, or can't sell them in your state, you could resell someone else’s.

We made a fair sum of money selling Rada brand knives. The knives have a lifetime warranty, are sharpened by a knife smith, and while not pretty they are very sharp. They also give you about a 100% markup. In the early 2000’s, we bought their bread knives for about $5.50 and sold them for $11.00. How good are they? A customer bought one of their tomato knives one week and wanted 10 more the next week to give to friends. A friend’s bagel shop in Chicago uses their bagel knives and they have outlasted many very expensive knives. The real message here isn’t “sell Rada knives” though that IS a good idea, the real message is look for tie ins that can increase your sales. And this will be a recurring message. What else can you do to make money?

Marketing the bread of the week club - if your neighborhood has a Facebook user group, you might mention on that page that you're offering bread. Depending on local laws, you can put door hangers advertising your business. One friend put flyers on all the doors in a high rise apartment complex and got LOTS of business. People want well made artisanal bread. Use customer referrals - we offered a free week's bread to people who got their friends to sign up and stay with us for a few months. Some companies, like cable companies, limit how many freebies a customer can get. Our view was, "we don't care if you never have to pay for our bread again - we want more business!"

Selling out of your home – this is fairly obvious. However, you may want to set up your home with an entryway that will keep people from marching into your home depending on your level of insecurity. From where I sit, I’d do this only if there was no other choice as it ties up too much time.

Having stores sell your product – this could be tricky as many stores would be reluctant to sell a home made product even if it is legal. We sold through several health food stores in Colorado, but we were registered as a wholesale bakery. One took the bread we couldn’t sell at the farmers market and sold it. This was great for us as it reduced the dangers of over production. We’ll stress this again later, but if you sell out of bread before the end of the market, you lost sales. If you have bread left over, you lost money. However, leftovers are usually the less expensive, but more visible, error.

Selling at farmers market – I'm sorry we teased you with this topic, but it can be quite complicated and this mailing is already a bit too long. We’ll get further into farmers markets next week.

Until next time, may your dough always rise, no matter whose recipe you used – or what you did to it! -Mike

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