More than one thousand restaurants, caterers, specialty stores, and hotels rely on the forty thousand pounds of bread that Eli Zabar's bakery makes daily. His is an artisinal bakery, a hands-on concern that uses age-old techniques and natural processes to create sourdough-based breads, rolls, bagels, and crisps all day, every day, and every night. Eli, whose family's grocery store is a New York City institution, began baking in 1985, after he failed to find breads that he deemed suitable to use in his restaurant E.A.T. For guidance, he had a recipe clipped from a newspaper, an antique book on breadmaking techniques, and a firm idea of how bread should look, smell, and taste.
Each loaf turned out by his staff of fifty has a long lineage dating to the first batch of dough Eli mixed in the basement beneath E.A.T. The second batch used a piece from the first batch, the third from the second, and so on, in an uninterrupted chain spanning almost two decades. Incorporating yesterday's dough imparts flavor and helps catalyze the rising process.
Once the current batch is mixed, it rises until it doubles in size, which takes an hour or two, or longer for whole wheat or enriched breads. The dough is gently shaped by hand and sent to a proofing room for a second rise. The carefully controlled humidity inside the room prevents the dough from developing a stiff, tacky, air-dried crust. Then, before it's baked, the bread is scored. Scoring adds to the bread's appearance and creates vents for the steam generated while cooking, which would otherwise build with enough pressure to split the bread apart at the sides.
When he first started baking, Eli cooked the bread at a very high temperature, which he says coaxes out the flavor that mass-produced flour can keep concealed. He stands by the same principle today and has reengineered his new, sixty-foot oven to bake at higher temperatures. The bread rolls through the oven at a crawl, moisturized with steam for a glazed, crisp crust and golden color.
Eli supplies his clients and E.A.T. with the finished product, and he also sells it at the Vinegar Factory, the food market, housewares emporium, and restaurant he opened in 1993. And there is no waste; any bread left over is put to use somehow, whether it's foccacia turned into Parmesan toast, or other breads made into crackers or pastry topping.