I’ve been to lots of labs, but until recently I had never seen one that was centered on a full working kitchen. Last month I got my chance when I visited the Bread Lab, located a couple hours north of my hometown Seattle. It brings together local farmers, expert plant breeders, and world-class bakers with the goal of producing wheat for baked goods that are both delicious and good for you.
I could smell the baking bread the minute I walked in the door. Canisters of flour from different types of wheat lined the walls. Bakers were pulling warm rolls out of large commercial ovens. In the corner there was a farinograph, a machine that measures the strength of dough.
It was all very impressive. But deep down, I was a little skeptical: How would the breads actually taste? The Bread Lab emphasizes using whole grains, and not just wheat—lab director Steve Jones loves buckwheat because it’s unusually high in lysine and other nutrients. Although eating whole-grain bread might make me feel virtuous, in my experience it just never seems to taste as good as white bread.
But I got to sample lots of their baked goods, and I’m happy to report that everything I ate was delicious—even the croissants, which are especially hard to get right when you’re using whole grains.
The lab is part of Washington State University, and although most of their work is with rich-world companies including Clif Bar, La Brea Bakery, and Chipotle, they are also applying their expertise to the problem of malnutrition in poorer countries. For example, I met a Pakistani Ph.D. student, Farah Ahmad, who’s looking at ways to make chapatis, cookies, and other foods from her home country using approaches developed by the Bread Lab.
Here’s a video from my visit: