By bread alone: Asheville Bread Bakers Festival celebrates the art of dough

SIMPLE THINGS: Local bakers say creating a great loaf of bread involves a careful balance of high-quality ingredients, chemistry, time, temperature and artistry. Pictured are loaves made by Nathan Morrison of Simple Bread. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Renowned chef James Beard opened his 1973 book Beard on Bread by declaring, “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”

Ashevilleans, it seems, would agree. Each year, they gather at the annual Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers Festival, eager to admire and sample these culinary artists’ wares. This year’s festival takes place on Saturday, May 2, at A-B Tech’s Magnolia Building.

Here’s what four of Asheville’s best had to say about the art of baking bread, displaying a passion that rises even higher than their loaves.

 It’s about time

Bill Tellman and his wife, Debbie, co-own Bracken Mountain Bakery in Brevard. They arrived there in the mid-’90s, drawn by the mountains. After working as a chef in California and Charlotte, Tellman wanted a quieter life, so he taught himself to bake. “Now, 20 years of kids have grown up eating peanut butter on sunflower-oat bread,” he notes.

Part of what attracts him is the simplicity of bread — the basic chemistry of yeast, water, salt and flour. “Artisanal bread bakers throughout history have used just those ingredients,” says Tellman, who’s been part of the bread festival for six of its 11 years.

For him, though, the most crucial element is time. If dough has a long, slow rising, more interesting flavors result. And yet overproofing — letting the bread rise too long — is a dough’s enemy, robbing it of elasticity until the dough resembles an athlete gone to flab. “Once you mix a dough, it’s on the loose, and it sets its own time,” he explains. For that reason, he advocates using only a small amount of yeast and refrigerating the dough to slow the rise.

Quality control

Dave Workman, co-owner of Flat Rock Village Bakery, began baking in his 20s “because I liked bread a lot,” he says. Like Tellman, he’s self-taught.

Workman believes that every step in the process is important, though he stresses using quality ingredients such as freshly milled organic flour: “Stone milling eats up the grain less than roller-milled flour, helping to maintain nutrients and flavor,” he explains. Workman uses Carolina Ground flour, stone-milled in Asheville, and filtered water instead of chlorinated city water.

Great ingredients, though, are just the start. “You can have a perfect dough, but put it in the oven too early or late and you get a disappointing result,” notes Workman. Still, a rushed loaf is not a happy one: From start to finish, his take two to three days. “Good bread,” he maintains, “can’t be created overnight.”

Workman has participated in the Asheville bread festival since its inception. This year, he’ll feature his favorite loaf — a whole-wheat sourdough — alongside other loaves and pastries.

The magic touch

Joe Ritota, started working at his father’s New Jersey bakery when he was 10. Today, he co-owns Annie’s Bakery in Asheville with his wife, Annie. “I became a baker by default, with four generations of Italian bakers on my mom’s side, three on my father’s,” he explains.

Ritota agrees that great ingredients and careful timing are essential. He also emphasizes the baker’s subtle relationship with the dough. Quality, he says, depends on a baker’s ability to recognize the right feel and touch.

But temperature is also a deal breaker. “If it’s 90 degrees in the shop, the dough will ferment quicker than you want. So you have to chill it through the temperature of the other ingredients and by reducing mixing time” — because the mixing generates heat.

“Baking is an art, because it is the extension of an individual who puts his love and energy into the product and into the touch and feel. It’s like creating a painting,” says Ritota, who plans to debut a speciality bread at this year’s festival.

Making it sing

Nathan Morrison, who owns Simple Bread, works alone in a 15-by-15-foot space in his home in Woodfin with six electric ovens, selling his breads at local farmers markets. He loves the meditative process of baking and being in his shop. “Bread-making is a very practiced thing and very creative,” he says. “I’m always curious about how each loaf will look.”

Like many bakers, Morrison emphasizes quality ingredients and the importance of weighing them to get the proportions right. But he also stresses shaping, which “increases the surface tension along the top and outside of the dough. When you score [cut the dough before baking], the bread has a place to expand, and it expands more because of the way it’s been shaped.”

“Handling the dough is the trickiest part,” says Morrison, who grew up eating his mom’s homemade loaves. “A bread can be well leavened, but if it’s not shaped-well, it won’t look great.”

It won’t sound great, either. Bread, says Morrison, speaks to us through all five senses: When you take a perfect loaf out of the oven, the crust will crackle.”

And while Morrison says he’s eager to learn from the other bakers at this year’s festival, his goal is to keep making simple bread for folks who care about what goes into their food — a pretty good description of Asheville’s talented bakers and their passionate fans.

The 11th annual Asheville Artisan Bread Bakers’ Festival will be held Saturday, May 2, in the Magnolia Building on the A-B Tech campus, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, call 683-2902 or visit



Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.