Real Bread Campaign ambassador Wayne Caddy looks at the art of stencilling.
In the second of our series of masterclasses, The School of Artisan Food’s head of baking and chief sourdough slinger gets his sieve out.
Whether it’s about art, individuality, a cause that needs righting, stencilling can be a vital skill. The artisan baker can add unique stencils to their slowly fermented creations to ensure their loaves not only taste amazing but are also real head turners.
I first whetted my appetite for stencilling whilst training and competing in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. Last Sourdough September, I combined the power of stencilling and social media to raise awareness of the importance of the people behind Real Bread, with every post featuring a stencilled loaf and its baker.
Guy Frenkel of Ceor Bread in Los Angeles, USA says: “I use stencils to make the bread prettier, but sometimes the stencils carry a social message or represent a tribute to something or someone I wish to celebrate, like LGBTQ pride or [primatologist and anthropologist] Jane Goodall.” Other bakers who harness this power include Rob Segovia-Welsh of Chicken Bridge Bakery in Pittsboro, USA told me: “Stencilling allows you to convey a specific message through words or symbols, making a simple loaf of bread into a bridge between the maker and the recipient. It transforms the bread into something that feeds the body and soul.”
Rob was an inspiration to my fellow Real Bread Campaign ambassador Phil Clayton of Haxby Bakehouse in Yorkshire. Phil told me that Rob “used stencils to not only make his loaves beautiful but to also carry his political views. In my opinion food has always been and still is political. I think it gives a small independent business like mine a voice.”
In many ways a stencil is a personal extension of the baker and your initial concept should reflect this. Try to keep it simple. Be BOLD.
Larger loaves (over 1kg) make an impact and are easier to design for. It’s important to consider which parts of the dough you want to mask to allow dark and light contrast. Your design needs to leave space for scoring the dough to allow even oven spring and reduce the risk of uncontrolled bursts that will ruin your design. If you’re including words, make sure they’re the right size relative to the size of your loaf. If they are too small the message or design will be lost in the steam.
You can either sketch your design on paper first, or straight onto your stencil material. Make sure your idea will create a solid and robust design which will hold together structurally. Dusting flour will weigh heavy on the stencil and will have to be lifted off the dough which adds pressure on the stencil integrity. It’s also a good idea to build in ‘take-off’ tabs for easy removal.
Most bakers will make stencils from paper or fine card. Rob says: “I like using paper board to map out my stencils, like an old cereal or cracker box. They are easy to cut, last for years and can be bent to match the curve of different loaves.” I have also made stencils for repeated use from thick corrugated card, wood and metal. Use a sharp and sturdy craft knife or scalpel and cut onto a firm base - wood is ideal. Make sure you are clear which bit of the design you are cutting and which bits will remain and have lots of patience and a steady hand.
Laser cutting is another option to consider, especially if you are making bigger batches of bread as you can have multiple stencils produced, which is cost effective. They have very clean lines and detail, structural integrity, won’t take on moisture and should last a lifetime. You can also buy laser-cut stencils, eg from Laser Cutit.
I tend to use wholesome flours for the dough to give a darker crust and a dramatic colour contrast with the lighter stencilling flour. Ensure you have a clear and smooth dough surface to stencil on. Guy recommends that you prove the dough seam-side down for a clean ‘canvas’. I usually use semolina to dust bannetons as it is comes off more easily than flour when the dough is tipped out after proving. Brush off any excess with a pastry brush. Unless the surface of the dough is extremely dry, there is no need to wet it before stencilling to make the flour stick. The steam in the oven will then do the job of fusing the flour to the dough.
Be careful to place you stencil in its desired location and keep as snug to the surface as possible. This will ensure the stencilled loaf is clear and sharp.
Use any fine, white, free-flowing flour and a fine sieve to stencil. Alternatively, you can use cocoa powder or dark malt flour dusted over a backdrop of a white flour loaf. Icing sugar is another option for sweet doughs. Whatever you use can pick up moisture from the atmosphere, which causes it to clump, so don’t dive straight into sieving flour over your stencil - always give the sieve a shake or tap first.
It’s really important to sieve the flour evenly over the stencil. Too much flour will result in smudged lines and lack finesse. Too little and your stencil design won’t shine through and might even get broken up during oven spring. Guy says: “stencil slowly and carefully.” You can test your design and practice your technique by dusting over a baking tray or piece of dark card before moving on to dough. If you’re not happy with your stencilling, then brush the flour away and have another go!
An alternative option when using a laser-cut stencil is to dust the banneton with white flour, then put the stencil into the basket. Next, place the shaped dough – smooth side down / seam side up - carefully on top of the stencil. Allow the dough to prove fully, tip it out onto a dusted peel, remove the stencil, score and bake. This technique works well with small batches and creates excellent detail, but is particularly suited to baking larger batches of bread.
Your scoring should complement the stencil design and must be done after stencilling. If you are making more than one loaf, stencil them all first so you can load them into the oven at once as soon as you finish scoring. You bake a stencilled loaf at the same temperature for the same time as usual. If your oven allows steam, this gives a better chance of an even rise and also helps to bond the flour to the crust.
When taking the baked loaves out of the oven, be careful to keep them upright and spaced apart to avoid smudging issues, then don’t knock them about on the way to wherever you’re displaying them!
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 43, July 2020.