Richard Miscovich works with essential, elemental forces to produce nourishment — with water, air, fire, and grains from the earth, he makes the kind of bread that tells us a lot about what it means to be human. Baking, in the style Miscovich teaches at Sterling — involves harnessing primal forces, respecting their inherent variability, and responding with a grounding in science but from a place of intuition. Making bread is so tangible, so substantial — and yet the metaphorical power of making bread this way must also be respected. Listen to School of the New American Farmstead instructor Richard Miscovich share insights from several decades of foodcraft and then sign up to study with him in our upcoming Artisan Breadmaking & Heritage grains short course.
[04:01]-Journey to authoring the book “The Wood-Fired Oven”, began baking at home in the early 90’s, learned from many and at his time with the San Francisco Baking Institute and oven builder Alan Scott
[06:51]-defining a wood fired oven, thermal mass, high and low temp usage, discussing communal ovens and community
[12:16]-Heritage Grains, influenced by Stephen Jones from the WA State Bread Lab, growing food appropriate to the bio-region
[15:58]-new generation of young bread makers and a new perspective on the traditional rules and how they can be reshaped, Essential questions like is Baking an Art, Science or Craft
[19:16]-Many concerns like GMO’s and corporate food culture yet optimistic, examples like Elmore Mountain Bread, American New Stone Mills with grains grown in Vermont and food equity focused programs like “The Approachable Loaf”
[22:42]-relationship to culture and place, breads and grains originating from all over the world
Richard Miscovich Transcript[:
Welcome to Emergency to Emergence. A podcast produced by Sterling College. I'm Nakasi Fortune and I'm Dakota La Croix. This podcast intends to engage in spirited, heart-centered dialog about intersecting, eco-social emergencies, featuring the voices and perspectives of people purposefully engaging in ecological thinking and action, while fostering, active, community engaged responses that offer hope.[:
Today, we're joined by the one and only Richard Miscovich renowned author, associate professor in bread expert. As an author, Richard Penn from the wood-fired oven. He's an associate professor and department chair for the college of food, innovation and technology at Johnson and Wales University. He also teaches courses at King Arthur flour and Sterling colleges, School of the new American Farmstead. Richard so kind of you to join us today to talk about bread, baking and just life in general.[:
Yeah. Thank you so much for being with us here today Richard.[:
Well, thank you. Nakasi and Dakota and my extended, Sterling family as always, my interactions with Sterling people are great. And, I just want to say for the people who are listening, that I'm in, uh, just south of Providence, Rhode Island on the west side of Narragansett Bay named after, the Narragansett people who lived here before we did.[:
How did you get involved in bread and baking Richard?[:
I have an early memory of, I grew up in Michigan in the seventies and, an eighties. And, uh, I was lucky enough to have Polish, aunts and uncles who lived in Hamtramck, which is a Polish enclave in Detroit. When they would come to visit us, they would bring. Uh, Polish baked goods like rye bread.
And, to me, for someone living in mid-Michigan in the seventies, it was like seeing food from a different era. Well, it was food from a different era, something about seeing that food really, it seemed like it was something from a museum. It was, it was different than things that my folks bought. And my folks were interested in food because my father was in the air force. Served in Vietnam had a real predilection for being an adventurous eater.[:
Richard, could you tell us more about the adventures that your family took you on with food and where it's leading you in your adventures currently?[:
I, I think the service, you know, my father being in, in the air force and, being stationed in England and traveling to Europe, this was before I was born, but my older sisters were, one of my sisters was born in England.
My father traveled to north Africa a lot during that time. And then, his time in Vietnam was very, you know, uh, transforming and, and he went to Thailand and kind of brought that back. So it, it, it seems kind of pedestrian now, but growing up in mid-Michigan in the seventies, my, my father was a big feda cheese and Kalamata olives fan and kimchi.r talked about kimchi when in:[:
Richard you authored the book from the wood-fired oven. Can you tell us what sparked this journey of bringing these elements and traditional practices together?[:
I feel like I'm very lucky in the, you know, that I happened to be born in the part of the world that at the time of the world, when I was in that at the food culture in the United States was changing.when:
And, um, it was harder to learn crafts. Like we, we can think about, um, now bread baking online. So I got thoroughly enthused and, um, excited about this. And found out that there were some bread baking classes in San Francisco at the San Francisco bread baking Institute. And simultaneously I found out about an oven builder, Alan Scott who's passed away now who lived in Petaluma.
So again, you know, through the luck of the draw, uh, I learned to bake bread and I encountered this oven-baking oven-building. Uh, icon at the same time. And those two things just fell together. They just dovetailed.[:
So Richard, it's not enough to be working with one living element. You had to work with two, fire and bread as an entity, or tell us more about that. Like that. It seems like there's so much going on there.[:
It's a really good observation, Dakota and it's true. I mean, I did learn to bake bread. Pretty much in a wood-fired oven and they both have their own characteristics and variables maybe, you know, then and characteristics, I think each wood-fired oven has its own personality and each batch of bread can have its own personality as well.
So meshing those and kind of controlling those variables and being observant and knowing what variables you can control and how to control variables that have gotten out of hand is a very rewarding way to make food, you know, and you're right. It's fire is very primal and bread is, you know, very, um, fundamental.
And when you bring those together, it's, it's very gratifying. It's, it's simple and complex at the same time.[:
Richard I have a, I have a pretty simple question, but if you will, can you describe what a wood fired oven is?[:
A wood-fired oven is some sort of enclosure that's made of thermal mass. So it could be clay or it could be brick, or it could be, you know, refractory, concrete.
We're talking about wood-fired oven specifically. And so whatever that the thermal mass is what encloses the fire and what absorbs and retains heat outside of that. There is, uh, an efficient insulation system that will keep that heat sequestered. So you have a say a brick box. This insulated, you build a fire inside the brick box.
You can cook with fire. Like many of us now are lucky enough to be around. Wood-fired. Um, pizzerias and restaurants, or may have one in your own backyard. You build a fire within that brick box. You can cook with the heat of the fire, but at the same time, the thermal mass is absorbing heat and the installation is, you know, uh, wanting to keep the heat in that thermal mass.
So when that fire is eventually. Uh, just burns out or is removed. You have a stored thermal energy, very much like a battery and, and you can continue to use that heat, in a descending heat cycle so that you might have, bread baking temperatures. You might have a live fire cooking, um, cook food and make pizzas and then you eventually take that fire out and you have retained heat at high temperatures, approximately 500 degrees Fahrenheit. You bake hearth, breads that temperature continues to drop. You can make larger breads or breads that may have some sweeteners in them. And then you get into 350 degree temperatures that can make all kinds of baked goods, casseroles, and it continues to drop down.
And we. You know, strive to harvest all of the heat that we've sequestered within that thermal mass, um as people used to do in communal ovens or in backyard ovens, knowing that they have a firing cycle. And that from that. Energy that has been released through fire and, you know, basically stored in the thermal mass.
We want to harvest it and turn it into food that we can, that we can eat, or, or from anything from high temperature things down to this casserole down to braising, down to infusions, down to drying herbs and mushrooms, and being able to extend seasons by preserving food. So it's pretty remarkable.[:
Yeah, I'm fascinated by the process.[:
Is the folklore true Richard? Or could you tell me more about that? Of what I understand of the scoring of the bread, that marking of the bread that these communal ovens back in the day, people used to mark them to know which bread was theirs as a community or a neighborhood?[:
So communal ovens are, you know, are a past entity and, and becoming prevalent again of communities because, uh, How wood fire oven has personality.
People are drawn to it. They want to see it. They want to see the fire. They know from it. Life comes from that. And, and if, uh, a village has, uh, an oven and everyone knows what day it's going to be fired, why not go and, you know, share that heat. It's a massive amount of heat. That extends for a long time.[:
So everyone can cook in that, in that heat. And so, because everyone is going to be using it, you may want your bread back that you yourself made, you know, which is, which is typical. And, also maybe your neighbors, not such a great baker saying, or they're, or they're a better baker and you want to try to get their bread.
So it is ah, you know, a way for people to identify their bread. The score mark also serves a utilitarian purpose in bread baking and allowing the bread to rise a little bit more. It's not solely, uh, you know, being in possession of it. There's a, there's a fundamental reason for scoring for scoring bread.
But the the communal oven thing is interesting. And I, I do think it's when we, as we talked a little bit about old history and that's something that is coming back in this culture, and we're quite fortunate to have that even up in the neck of the woods in Sterling and Johnson, there's a community oven that was built and it's right in the, in the city green and, uh, people go there. I think every Monday night for pizza bakes. And it does bring communities together. Right?[:
You use heritage grains a lot in your, in your baking. Can you say what exactly they are and you know, what are some of the benefits of using them?[:
And we, we all agree that we rejoice in heritage grains and we rejoice heritage tomatoes and all of those foods that have lasted through generations or millennia on some quality or another. One thing that Dr. Jones said, and this was quite a long time ago. He's like, what we need to do is make sure that the food that we are growing is properly suited for the bio-region.
You know? So the sake of growing some heritage grains in some parts of the world, it's romantic, but it might not be the best for yield. It might not be. For that bioregion, it might not be best for flavor. And so what we need to remember is that although heritage and land race, and all of that is good.
We want to preserve that seed stock. We also want to make sure that we're growing something that will do the best for us. And so we have a lot of those heritage grains that are around and a lot of people have you know, revive them. And it's amazing how many are in the marketplace. So there's that, and there's also in regard to, you know, baking methodology.
Is this the best grain for this product? It's easy to think about apples. I think it's easy for people to think about that. Like they're baking apples or apples or eating out of hand they're apples that good for cider. What grain, you know, what do you intend to do with that grain? Is that leavened product? Is it fermented? Is it something that you need a strong gluten matrix? I think those are the kind of the broader questions rather than the category of grain, but, how we intend to use it and where we intend it.[:
What is getting the next generation of Bread-maker's excited? What's animating everybody and what animates you?[:
I’m, I'm a super fortunate person because I work in a University that one of the colleges is a culinary school, college of food, innovation, and technology. And we attract really great young people, you know, who are interested in food. And food systems and, um, in a lot of different ways.
And I just, you know, always want to take the time to say that the young people that I work with are, are, you know, amazing. They're inquisitive. They're interesting. They're interested. I feel that young and in the same way, I'm fortunate. Like I've given seminars as Sterling and I'm like these people are super cool.
And the young people that I work with are super cool and just, I think we always need to remind older generations that this generation has a lot going on and some of their weaknesses are the weaknesses that we've handed them. So, when I look around and see, you know, what's the interests. It's really interesting in the context of the artisan bread industry, because I'm 53 and you know, the people who came into the artisan bread world with me, uh, we learned a lot of new information from our, a lot of our friends from, from Europe primarily.
And we learned a certain way of doing it. And then we really are into another generation. Uh, bread bakers and they look at it differently. Like every generation does. And they're like, well, why do you do it that way? And I was like, cause I learned how to do it that way. And they're like, okay, well I'm going to do it this way.[:
And you're like, eh, it's going to be a disaster. And it works out fine. And it's, and it's great because we need another perspective to look at traditional rules and see how much we can bend them.[:
I know that the baking is a science, but I also wanted to know within bread baking if it's also an art?[:
It is, and it's also kind of intuition and it's, it's, it's a, uh, it's.
Uh, struggle always between, and this is, I don't think we'll ever be answered, you know, is it a craft or an art? We actually have one a week. We call them essential questions in our curriculum at Johnson Wales. And that's one of the questions. Is baking, uh, uh, an art, a craft, or a science. And these essential questions are designed to not have an answer.
Right? It's all of those, it's all of those. And it's true. We like, we definitely have a scientific approach. There's a breakdown of complex carbohydrates by alpha amylase into simple sugars, which is metabolized by yeast. And it creates energy, carbon dioxide, alcohol, and organic acids. We want them, we want everyone to know that, you know and It's an art because we can make these beautiful things out of, out of, uh, simple ingredients.
And, it's a craft because you need to have someone be able to bring those things together. The intuition part is also important as far as like transcending both of those. Right. And we need to also. You know, use our powers of observation and brings that into it. And, and so then it becomes more crafty.
So it's a blend is a blending of all of those. And, and I think the best bread-bakers have a science foundation, they have hand skills or, you know, what we kind of think of as an artist. And then they have this craft sense of, you know, this is how I manipulate my variables. This is how I use my paint or my clay or my wood or my flour to create something, you know, based on the characteristics of that ingredient.
And then you throw in, you know, fermentation in there. It's a living thing. So it's not static.[:
Well, you speak of all of these different inputs. Richard, tell me, or tell us if you would, in our listeners, some of the concerns you have?[:
There are the typical and overarching concerns that we all have about global climate change and monoculture and taking a, uh, you know, corporate takeover of our food systems.
I'm thinking about like from a corporate level, right? From like, from like genetic modification. It's very easy. Uh, though, to, to be optimistic and hopeful about the, where we've come in the past 25 years. And if we think for those people who are listening, who weren't around 24, 25 years ago, you know, to have this type of food culture that we have now is a momentous step forward.And those:
And that unfortunately is not the truth for a lot of people in this country, uh, in this world. So when I, although I, I worry and I reflect on the way that kind of global climate and environment and food system. Is drifting. I'm an optimist at heart. And I know that there are all these things that have happened in the past, even five to 10 years, where we have local grain growing and, and, and we have, um, uh, places like Elmore, mountain bread, and American New Stone Mills, which is just south of Sterling College.
Where they're baking a huge amount of bed with grain that's grown in Vermont and it's milled on their own mill. That's manufactured in Vermont. And that that food system has become more closed and, um, they're buying local grain and milling it there and, and feeding people. And it's happened all over. The world and a greater consciousness.
And I guess it's, you know, also because we can start feeding a new generation under a new food system, so that children who are eight and 10 or younger, it doesn't matter the age get used to and expect. High-quality food, you know, really good pizza crusts, really good pizza. We will never be able to take that away.
You know, the consciousness of people is, uh, partly I think, due to looking at a twisted food system and thinking this is not right.[:
You know, like what else, what else is out there? And then the next step is for the people who are privileged to participate in that marketplace and whether that's supply side or consumer side, figure out how we, make this more equitable.
Right.? And there's a really good example of this` system. This bread called the approachable. Which people are trying to get out to other communities that may not be able to afford a $12 loaf of bread, you know, but still want to benefit from a whole grain bread product. So I'm hopeful that those optimistic things in those like outbursts of energy in the food, in the food system and people who have a dedication to providing really high-quality food to their local communities, overcomes, you know, other, more disturbing trends.[:
What do you say is the relationship between people place and, and bread or baking?[:
It's very strong. I feel really lucky. Currency monetizes it, obviously this fundamental food that is global and transcends so many communities and cultures. Right? So we have this staff of life and we have bred this in south America and north America and Europe and we think of things like baguettes, but we also have to remember, there are things like Ethiopian Injera and North European rye breads.[:
And even as globalization has happened, R as in baking world has come together, we see, you know, traditionally rice based and buckwheat based, uh, cultures in Asia also embrace, uh, more Western styles of bread and put their own twist on it.
And really it, you know, if you go a little deeper than bread, it's, it's a grain based, it's grain-based cultures. And, and whether it's rye of Northern and Eastern Europe or buckwheat and rice of Asia or the great wheat fields of you know, north America. That is a common thread that really unites people.
has, have you ever met anyone who, who said, oh, I don't like bread. Like people don't, people might not want to eat bread for whatever dietary reason. But no one has ever walked into a, you know, a room or a bakery with freshly baking bread. And you could even include pancakes with that and biscuits and say, oh man, that smells terrible.
No, no, nobody, nobody.[:
Richard you just painted a whole picture of my head that, like I just saw myself walking into a bakery with fresh, oh smells and with some butter, it's just, you got me very emotional right there.[:
You just brought us a cinematic audio.[:
But just learning about, you know, the connections that are made because of bread. And the stories that can be told about bread and around bread. So thank you again for, for joining us today.[:
Yes. And again, thank you so much, Richard, for your time and, knowledge and it's been fun.[:
Yeah. No, thank you so much. It's always. Um a pleasure to speak to my friends at Sterling. And, there's still lots of good work to do.[:
If you enjoyed this conversation, do come back for the commendation. We'll spend a few more minutes with our most recent guests, identifying the specific works that inspire them. So you can root further, draw new sources of nourishment and connect to the emergence of vital possibilities.
And before we come to a close Sterling, acknowledges that the Land on which we gather. Places now known as Vermont and Kentucky, are the traditional and unceded territories of several indigenous peoples. The Abenaki in the North. The Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Osage people to the South. We also learn in, and from a range of landscapes that belong to other indigenous peoples and more than human kin.
As we seek deeper reciprocal relationships with nature, we respect and honor the place-based and cultural wisdom of indigenous ancestors and contemporaries. Words of acknowledgement and intention are just a first step. We must match them with acts of respect and repair.
Thanks so much for listening, you can subscribe to Emergency to Emergence wherever you listen to podcasts. And a very special thanks to Sterling alum, Fern Maddie for her musical creations. For more information and how Sterling is advancing ecological thinking and action. Visit www.sterlingcollege.edu. If listening is prompted something new to emerge in you, we invite you to share your thoughts as a written message or voice recording, which you can send to [email protected]
Until next time, this is an Emergency to Emergence.