The dirty VC - a baker's war story

tony dench from .dench bakers. in melbourne's picture
tony dench from...

 John et al,

   I'm gutted, I feel like I've been kicked in the teeth and I hurt. I'm really very offended and  have spent many hours awake when I should be sleeping, thinking about this.

    I started at Natural Tucker at 17 in '93 (not the heyday but not as it is now, sort of in the middle when they still used the wood-fired oven instead of now when they have put the electric one in front of it) working one night a week. I didn't know it then but it was to become my career and whether I like it or not now it is what I'm passionate about. Baking bread. We'll leave off the 'good' for now.

    I'm one of "those" bakers in Melbourne that uses vitamin C or ascorbic acid, whichever you prefer. It's taken me a couple of days to be anywhere near calm enough to write this and not to have it yanked for offensive reasons, so I'll try and not make it a diatribe against everything that's gone before on the vc subject. Please stick to the end, I have been thinking a lot.

    We, 'Dench bakers', have been around for just on 3 years. I along with my two other partners and countless staff (much golden, plenty of chaff) have built a bread/cafe business that has just hit the three tonne of flour/week mark, that's over 6 tonnes of dough a week. All hand moulded, the bulk of it baked in a stone floored electric oven (the other's a MIWE gas roll-in. bam pow shock horror). We, I, have had the temerity to call myself an "artisan" baking "sourdough" bread, even though I add vc, and I believed in that enough to have it as a by-line on our packaging. "Dench bakers. Artisan Sourdoughs". How wrong I was.

    I worked at Natural Tucker full-time after dropping out of uni, jumped at the offer after spending three years dawdling. Babka, il Fornaio (Melbourne, Aust.), Daniel Chirico's Baker, Laurent, 2 days in a baker's delight, even Natural Tucker in Sydney (no jokes, although it was a joke, we'd make Genuwine (sic) sourdough loaves and then yeasted hot-dog rolls for sandwiches in petrol stations later in the shift. HA!). I've seen many different styles of bread, machines, mixers, bakers in 11 years and now have my own bakery after busting a nut working 14, 18, even the full 24 hours for other people and myself to make what I saw as my best shot at bread. All of it was good; good experience: learning how not to do things, how to rescue a bad situation, handling other work colleagues, running a bakery and how to make great bread.

    Or not. The time I put ice in the leaven! The bakery I was in got so hot it was sweltering during the day while the levain sat around. I thought it was a good idea. Perhaps 3 bags was a little too much! Woh, I never saw bread that slow or flat, but the leaven came back after a little rest and much hand wringing and castigating, but the days' bread was harrowingly embarrassing.

    Returning. We make a gamut of varieties at Dench, a modern day Snazzy Hot Bread Kitchen. There's mostly bread made with a stiff wheat culture that I grew myself with the aid of an organic apple 3.5 years ago and a rye based wet culture from an organic potato. We bake white (unbleached); light rye with orange zest; a coarser plain loaf with wheat bran, rye and unbleached wheat;a grain bread with organic sesame and organic linseed and sunflower (ubiquitous in Melbourne, not necessarily with the organic seed elsewhere, but it's a winner, our biggest seller); yeasted ciabatta; spelt with a rye culture; walnut and apricot; on the weekends we do potato bread - chunky with four sorts of coarse ground pepper; beer bread with Cooper's stout, barley mash leftover from the local brewery (Mountain Goat not Carlton United) and home brew concentrate for hop flavour; brioche using organic flour, Girgar butter and free-range (hmm more nomenclature) eggs; lots of Viennoisserie - this is my one concession for flour I use a conventional flour and yes, gluten as well as vc; however I offer  some  pastry  made with ORGANIC: flour , butter and milk powder, (tried organic raw sugar to disastrous results) and the other usual conventional ingredients that are unable to be sourced readily. And many other bread shapes and flavours. All of these, excepting the pastry, brioche and ciabatta are made solely with a culture that is recognised as a sourdough levain elsewhere.
Christ, even the flour we dust the benches, boards, dough with is a special  blend (of mine ) after  Dan Lepard's comment that white flour is so boring for this. It's 1/3 wheat flour, rye flour and wheat bran and a couple of big scoops of rye bran if you can get it.

    ALL of these breads have vitamin c/ascorbic acid added.  I list it. If any customer were to ask I would tell them openly and honestly, I make no secrets about it. I have made bread without vc unintentionally, by the time you cut it out and rest it on a board and come back to it, it's a single sloppy dripping mass again and it's so obvious that it had been left out. When it goes into the oven, as it had to, it collapsed with a scratch on the surface and looked and tasted horrible. Yes, it does change the taste, but my experience is not as yours.
    A teaspoon to every 15kg of flour or thereabouts.  This tightens the dough, lets you add more water than you would normally, not so we can cheat the unsuspecting customer but so we can make a dough that will spring in the oven. Veritably burst in the oven, with the help of steam. A full loaf, the ripped parts colouring wonderfully. The cut edges black and the rest a lovely dark, almost burnt tinge. This is how I bake my bread, always. Well coloured, dark. It's not the same as a wood-fired but much healthier for the bakers who have to use it and breath in the wood smoke. (Cue John) Let alone the council, that's a page to themselves.

    I'm not going to leave out the additive, it's 0.03 of a gram per loaf, maybe. Does that make what we do wrong? Do we Cheat? Do we deceive the customer and try and get them "hooked"? We make the best damn bread we can every day; every day of the year, (they especially appreciate the xmas day bread and pastry, not to mention the caffeine fix when there is no other). The small amount of vc means we are not "Artisans" and our bread, well, to quote a phrase "was that supposed to be a sourdough?" is perhaps not sourdough; if by adding 0.03 of a gram per loaf to organic flour, water, levain and salt renders it not, then so be it.

    We service the hospitality industry, some very good cafes, outstanding restaurants, Organic retailers and many satisfied, if duped, punters. Our quality and consistency is something I take a very personal interest in and if it's not good enough it's either not sent out or remade. No compromise. We wouldn't survive a week of rough bread with most of our wholesale customers while we work out that the flour has changed and things need to be adjusted this way and that. I have two bakers with many years experience, the other 5 are keen novices but very good bakers with maybe a year perhaps two behind them. Will they cover my bank loan when the bread looks shaky and the customers dwindle? Will they make the adjustment in time? Should I be there guiding them every day? I am forced to run a business and then a bakery, in that order, and be a baker third; that's what I have time for. Ascorbic acid is a small compromise for me. Yeah, it's in improver, it's an additive, it's vitamin c.

    I don't know if I could make bread without it, most likely. But to  remove it  from my production would be  concerning.  We don't make Perfection sourdough (ed's note: Graham, can we add this to the list?) but we do make one style of sourdough that is pretty common and a little recognition of the  hard work that goes on by the many bakers  who make  an effort to make good bread, would go a long way.

"These fashionable dudes have everybody hoodwinked,and i just think that if they cant make sourdough bread without ascorbic acid,well get a job!"

    As a parting glance (I could not help it, I'm so angry and upset all at the same time); I did employed a baker not long ago who had bought some old dough troughs. Quite big they were, big enough to lie in. He was going to make ULTRA sourdough (Graham) the ARTISAN way, not with this E-lec-trizity stuff that seems to be the new fad. Does that mean we all need to conform now? He opened WILD FLOUR, another Melbourne bakery using a culture to construct bread units, but he didn't last. Decided on a Tuesday that he was bored and needed ideas and left for Germany that Thursday night. We got quite a few of his confused customers. I don't think he pursued the troughs though, didn't have the back/spine for it. He was a little ego-maniac and utterly impossible to leave among the pigeons, a very passionate, capable baker, but no artisan. He loved his yeast bread too much.

    Ouch! That was as tame as I could do, I have more to say but this is a discussion page not a rhetoric-page, I'm boring/insulting you.

    John, you are more than my peer, you are a mentor, to many of us. Go easy with your scorn of the ignorant please, we are but fragile sponges (the fluffy, floury sort) and have few additives to hold us together. Your comments are taken to heart all to easily.

sincerely although a little tongue in cheeky

Tony Dench.


Graham's picture
Graham 2008 March 8

Hi Tony.

Thanks for your ballsy chat about why you choose to add vitamin C. If VC helps you to make a more consistent bread, then it is a valid part of your bread making process. The fact that you include VC on you packaging...and are talking about it publicly...means that customers are informed about your process.

Many bakers will of course disagree with your process. The main points will be:

Is it an essential artisan skill to make good bread using just flour, salt and water? Should artisan bakers need to depend on industrial chemists to help make their bread? How aware are bakers of what VC is actually doing to their dough/bread? (Is the use of VC an 'art' or a 'mask'?) What variables...traditionally controlled through artisan skill...are being controlled by VC instead? What about tradition and historical perspectives of bread making?

On the last point, 'tradition', I suggest that this has limited value in the argument because bread making is an evolving art and as bakers we do not have a mandate to say 'it stops here, with us!'. On the other hand, it is perfectly valid for traditional bakers to shout from the roof tops that they make traditional bread...using traditional process.

Tony, your process is not traditional...I do not think you are claiming that it is. Is it 'artisan'? Well I think it depends on how you feel as a bread artist at the point when you add VC to your dough, as well as how you interpret the needs of your customers.

On a related note; The current ABA standards identifies vitamin C as an additive used in 'Commercial Artisan' bread making, rather than Holistic or Traditional Artisan.

(re-edited 10.16 AEST 08032008)

tony dench from .dench bakers. in melbourne's picture
tony dench from... 2008 March 8
    Well, I have seen many traditions in the bread making industry and this particular method was shown to me. I will continue the tradition in my sourdough creation, however different it may seem. Perhaps this is traditional also in that it is something that has been handed down to me from other older bakers. Are not white block loaves something of a tradition, in some parts of the country, and meat pies? Traditional processes "of olde", of late, of when?

    I consider myself an artisan, "a  member of the urban working classes, a craftsperson" using the best ingredients I can to make the best bread I can be it cultured, yeasted or otherwise and not limiting myself to one hardline set of strictures. I love sourdough bread, but I also like an alternative, carefully made. Too much of one thing becomes boring, like my nitpicking.

    How can you appropriate Traditional Artisan and make it your classification when what I do is traditional. It's readily acknowledged that there is a tradition, especially here in Melbourne and who knows elsewhere, of using these techniques in the production of bread.

    Sorry Graham, I'm trying to be included in the discussion but I'm taking it to heart way too much.

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2008 March 8

Hey Tony, chill out bro! seperate the personal from the general...your a cool guy,nobodys on at you,but you must admit that theres a problem if as you say,you cant make sourdough bread without adding Ascorbic acid?

As for my "tone"(good pun?), what do expect from me? You gotta understand that you cant make an omlette without breaking eggs.Im a hard liner,but one has to call it as one sees it. I could write mamby pamby food journalese about all this but whats the point? Im simply about improving food culture in OZ, and its got a long way to go....until food benefits people, as it should, instead of making them sick,as it now does.

 To me,putting additives in sourdough bread,is a retrograde step. I wish you had been at Natural Tucker when i was there...i bet you wouldnt be using the big C now!

But thanks for your blog,as lively debate and controversy results in an improved outcome for all, and this is the frontline even if we dont see that..... because genuine sourdough is actually one of the (if not the) last lines in the battle against the corporates who would have us eating  their chemical concoctions,making squillions on our misfortune. The corporates would just love to see us adding bakers yeast (their product) and their other additives to our genuine sourdoughs....breaking all that is authentic down into a homogenised mush,that they control...with their additives, and the planet wrecking agenda they have set.

The Integral view of what we do is vital...bread is deeply connected to our psyches/the environment/culture/history/health/politics/nature/science.      

Hold the line,i say.

Graham's picture
Graham 2008 March 8
[quote=tony dench from .dench bakers. in melbourne]   

    How can you appropriate Traditional Artisan and make it your classification when what I do is traditional. It's readily acknowledged that there is a tradition, especially here in Melbourne and who knows elsewhere, of using these techniques in the production of bread.

    Sorry Graham, I'm trying to be included in the discussion but I'm taking it to heart way too much.


No Tony, that is fine. No need to apologise. Your perspective is as valid as anyone else's. My own experiences have shaped my being told by industrial bakers that I was not a 'real baker' because I did not attend industrial baking school and bake using industrial methods. That experience has encouraged me to ask what it means to be a baker from a personal and community perspective.

The 'traditional' bakers you refer to have an industrial influence and make bread with industry methods that reduce the need to practice artisan methods. A comfortable way out for everyone in this debate would be to identify exactly what VC is achieving in doughs, and find an artisan (rather than industrial) method of achieving the same outcome.

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2008 March 8

Its easy to get mega C into a dough in a completely natural way. And this is actual vitamin C,not the analog form,which is what all manufactured C is. The naturally occuring form of vit C (and there are a few),is more potent.

Its done in India, simply very finely grate, or liquidise chinese lobak,Japanese daikon....big white radish,widely available. Its got alot more C than oranges, and also digestive enzymes. I havent got the figures to hand,but will find them,but a cup of liquidised daikon should do it for  25kg flour.

This is my theory,i havent done it,but its seems reasonable, and ive seen it done in India with maki ki roti, a bread made from cornmeal.I simply dont have the time ATM and it would be an interesting exercise for us all if somebody tried it in a trial with   regular vitC and a control.

Apart from that, Australian kakadu plum has the worlds highest concentration of vit C in a fruit. Or you could use acerola cherry powder.


 These high C fruit additions  also are in keeping with the fundamental issue of" inherently natural" which is the essence of genuine sourdough. And its not just blah blah, these natural forms of the vitamin are structurally and scientifically identifiable as analogs...they are replicas,but they arent the real thing.

 Did everyone who is interested in this read Danubians succinct account of what Vit C does to a dough?

Graham's picture
Graham 2008 March 8

Did everyone who is interested in this read Danubians succinct account of what Vit C does to a dough?


John, I am not certain which Danubian post you are referring to. Do you have a link?
Jeremy's picture
Jeremy 2008 March 8
Me thinks it was in the high jacked link, mould?

still awake, just took out my bags. Ugly but light and crisp, goood for morning!

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2008 March 8

Its in my blog "Requiem....",  comment from Danubian "Ascorbic acid" Feb25  9:33 suprised you guys didnt read it,only because it was so incisive informative and topical, but also had the intelligent disclaimer in his previous blog comment when he discovered vit C was an issue.

 I thought the groundwork for artisan principles were being laid out in this discussion, and many others on the site.............................and for those of you who think this is in any way dictatorial,lets hear from you, but dont expect cutsie cutsie boys club chit chat,theres that too, but all ideas are welcome and also subject to This is after all a forum.....and we all get a chance to hold the conch and say it as we see it........ding!

I must say also, Tony doesnt have to apologise to anyone! hes a respected artisan and makes some of the best bread in melbourne. If  he wants to fkn put vitC in his bread he can. But dont expect firebrands like myself not to bark!

Theres no such thing as a free lunch!

Danubian's picture
Danubian 2008 March 8
in the 50's to the 80's, you'd have been brought up in the "tradition" of using 'bromate' to achieve results similar to ascorbic acid! Potassium bromate was eventually removed from bread by the baking industry (apprently it was a unanimous decision by the membership) just prior to new labeling laws that mandated listing ingredients on bread wrapping. Perhaps the embarrassment as well as the new found knowledge that bromate was cumulative in humans was the motivation for unanimous removal. It was ascorbic acid that replaced bromate gluten conditioning power, no doubt it was also easier to sell. Bromate was used at 30ppm, only 30% of ascorbic usage rate. My point? The idea of "tradition" can be applied to many things and situations, some we gladly associate with, others we would never dare admit, so we exclude them, annointing only those things we deem to have integrity with the sacred word tradition .

No doubt you've read my opinions on adding ascorbic acid to sourdough bread; they are neither arbitrary or based on romanticised views of sourdough. I'm sure John and I disagree plenty, but in this regard we are united. A natural line of distinction belongs precisely here; a loaf of bread is made, with or without (adulterants) processing additives that are not endemic to grain and its natural biological flora (sourdough fermentation), period. To add enhancers from an artificial or outside source to achieve bread boldness, increased volume, that touch of apperance perfection, or a more managable production process, has crossed that natural line of distinction. To be sure, lets suppose we were to test the validity of our positioning of this line by asking if bromate is acceptable for the same reasons listed above which is claimed legitimate for ascorbic acid, would we still insist the line is positioned correctly? Or do we counter claim that ascorbic is 'natural' vitamin C, but potassium bromate is synthetic to the process and its ingredients? The truth is they are both synthetic to the process and ingredients of bread.

As far as I'm concerned a very beautiful sourdough bread can be made without ascorbic acid. Yes, it has a slightly different appearance and character to one with ascorbic added, but integeral to its beauty (ascorbic free bread) lies in its ability to stand as 'unadulterated'. I'm not proposing my humble creations are anywhere near examples of perfection (in truth I make them as my own to eat, rather than for display) but if you dare, take a look at my gallery, those products are all ascorbic free excepting the crocodiles. If they seem unacceptable in appearance or poor examples of sourdough then I have failed in my endeavour to make as good a bread for eating as I am able.

Finally, Tony, my opinions expressed here and in other threads are what I hold to be reasonable, but are not ad hominem attempts on you or others who use ascorbic acid in sourdough bread. I'll leave you and others to take your own position on these issues, but if you believe my reasoning is flawed post your objections so we are able to learn together.

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