Peter Reinhart has authored eight cookbooks, including the The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread, winner of two national awards. That cookbook alone has sold more than 100,000 copies.
You’d think he’d have an ego, but during our interview Reinhart came across humbly, talking about the value of working with a team and not burning bridges.
I caught up with him as he taught baking classes in California to promote his latest book, The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking, co-authored with Denene Wallace. It’s his first book on low-carb breads, pastries, cookies, and cake for those sensitive to gluten, diabetics, or those who need to reduce carbs to prevent weight gain. The focus is on baking with nut and seed flours and non-sugar sweeteners.
In this interview, he talks about the value of sticking with the same publisher, learning a new subject, and why you need a thick skin to grow as a writer:
Q. Why did you decide to write a gluten-free, sugar-free baking book? You are a bread and pizza guy.
A. Ten Speed asked if I wanted to do a gluten-free book, and I said only if we cover new territory. They told me gluten-free and allergen-free was the hottest new category. It was nice to be asked. I felt like I had arrived.
Q. You’ve been with Ten Speed for a long time.
A. It’s common to jump around to publishing houses, but it feels traditional to be with a publishing house where you feel like they’re part of your family. There’s a comfort level there and a trust level there. I’ve been with them for 12 years.
I got lucky when Random House bought Ten Speed because they got bigger distribution but they kept the same team. My former editor, Aaron (Wehner, publisher), is a great idea man. He stays engaged and I have access to him. This is our third book together.
In the old days you read about Judith Jones and Julia Child, where people were together for years. I feel like I’m in the stable with thoroughbreds. And if I want to do a non-food book I can stay within the Random House family and go with an imprint.
Q. What makes an award-winning cookbook?
A. Writing a book is not a solo effort. Sometimes the magic is just there with the editor, the publisher, the design, the photography — it’s like putting a movie together. Everybody contributed something. Having great recipe testers has been invaluable too.
From the writer’s standpoint, it’s important to appreciate that process. I know a few writers who have fought the process, to their detriment. I find it helpful not to create an adversarial environment. Everybody has the same goal of a successful book.
Q. This is new for you, to write a book on low-carb baking that uses no grains and no sugar. How did you approach this subject where you are not the expert?
A. I’m kind of running out of things to say about wheat breads, and I’ve pushed the boundaries of traditional breads, so it was nice to have this challenge.
Having a co-author took a lot of pressure off me. I didn’t have to create the recipes from scratch. Denene has a foot in both of the gluten-free and diabetic worlds and had done so much work, so we got a head start. Her recipes were created out of her own personal need. The methodology was very different but it was necessary to the process.
There’s also the chemistry between the two people. We appreciated what each person brought. We spent a lot of time beforehand talking about it, and trying to project ahead and minimize the possibility of friction.
Q. What did you argue about the most?
A. We didn’t argue, but we struggled over the sugar replacers. I really didn’t want to use Splenda. I’m not convinced about the long-term benefits.
On the other hand, you need something to perform like sugar. Fortunately, Stevia In the Raw got the green light from the FDA. We spent a long time trying to create our own sugar replacers with buffering agents but it would have been too prohibitive for our readers. So that became a new option for us.
Another issue was that Denene’s husband was lactose-intolerant, so her milk of choice was soymilk and her butter was Smart Balance. I was learning from her about how milk and butter spike the blood sugar. We assumed that many readers might be using Smart Balance, which is already salted, so we said to use salted butter, which is unusual in a baking book. You don’t want to repeat that on every single recipe, so we made a universal statement at the front.
Q. How do you incent readers to try strange new ingredients they might have to mail order?
A. That’s where going out and doing a teaching tour helps, because there’s no substitute for reaching readers live.
We also set up a website where there’s an opportunity to do a Q&A to answer concerns. There’s a resource section not only about how to order the ingredients and but how to save money. You can buy nuts and pumpkin seeds and grind them yourself. Ninja blenders will grind twice as much nuts and seeds in half the time.
Still, it’s still going to be expensive to make these things because nut and seed flours are more expensive. But fortunately the gluten-free community is proactive and hungry for new products. Diabetics are in more denial about changing their lifestyles.
Part of the challenge is to be a resource. Denene is a much better witness than I am. Me, I’d rather head off any diabetes but I’m not nearly as disciplined, because I have a foot in the pizza and bread world. I took off 14 pounds but I didn’t get to my goal of 25. But for Denene, it’s a life and death decision every day.
Q. I’m interested in how you made readers comfortable in working with these new flours. At the front of your book, you told them to look for detailed instructions in the method on how the dough should look and act, and how to adjust. In what other ways do you help readers get the best results?
A. That textural cue — that’s where our editor made a contribution. She also suggested we say how to make the flour for nuts and seeds, and give resources where they can save almost 50 percent. Everybody loves a bargain.
Denene tracked down the best deals and the best products, like ChocoPerfection Bars.
People love to have options. It reduces anxety when people know there’s a fallback plan. That’s something I’ve always tried to anticipate in my books.
Q. You have said that you teach cooking students that flavor is the most important thing. Have you revised that philosophy with this book? Is health just as important as flavor?
A. Flavor rules — that’s what I always say. Denene and I talked about this a lot. We didn’t want to sacrifice flavor as long as we stay true to the principles. Ironically, all the recipes will work with sugar if somebody is interested in the gluten-free side.
Q. Your book has a focus on weight loss. But the cover shows a carrot cake made with almond flour, with a cream cheese and butter icing. How do you explain this dichotomy?
A. Denene says it’s not the calories she gets from fat or protein, but the calories coming from simple carbohydrates, because they trigger the insulin response. She said she ate the whole carrot cake over one week and I lost 4 pounds. These things are so high high in fiber and richness that you end up not eating so much.
Q. I noticed calorie counts are missing, which I find odd since one of the focuses is on weight loss.
A. We didn’t want the focus as a diet book, because we’re not prescribing a weight loss program. Without being doctors and nutritionists, we didn’t want to make claims.
Besides, it’s complicated. When Denene uses milk instead of soy, it’s whole milk. You’d think that was counterintuitive, but it makes sense, because with skim milk, the sugars are not buffered with buttermilk. You spread that insulin spike out over a longer period. That’s something I never even thought of. If you keep your carb count low, even though these foods are nutrient dense, your body’s going to process them differently.
Q. With recipe testing, someone set up a dedicated web page and “response mechanism” to merge all the feedback you received from recipe testers. How did that work?
A. He volunteered. He did this on my last book too. He set up a website, so that rather than people writing directly to me, he consolidated comments and responses where we started to see patterns in a chart or graph.
Before, with Artisan Bread, 500 people got involved in recipe testing, and every night I was deluged with email questions, staying up until 4 a.m.
We started with 200 people who said they wanted to be testers, and then the serious people whittled themselves down to 30 or 40. A lot of people assumed it was going to be bread! So we lost a few along the way.
Those people were really passionate about whether it works, what the flaws are, and whether the instructions are clear. No one person can catch everything but by having a lot of testers we were able to fine-tune the instructions and make them clearer.
Back when we started doing cookbooks in the 1990s, recipe testing was all by mail, with 9 or 10 people. For Whole Grain, I probably had 125 testers and I thought that was a lot. Building a community of people who have a vested interest in the book is great because they’re helping to spread the word.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. Right now the hot thing for me is sprouted wheat, so there’s always something new to write about there.
Q. What is your advice for people who want to write cookbooks?
A. I mentor a lot of students at Johnson & Wales. Some of them really want to be writers. The first advice I give them is, “Are they doing a blog?” What better way for getting practice, getting the word out, getting feedback? And if you’re really a writer, you’ve got an opportunity to get practice so you can develop your own voice.
Food blogging is a tremendous resource for the next generation of writers. Not everybody’s looking at is a career. Sometimes they want to share their ideas and thoughts and talk about their family. Sometimes you hit that magic button that people respond to. Don’t write the blog because you think you’re going to be the next Julia Child or Pioneer Woman. You just do it. And if you’ve got the talent, people will see that.
Write as much as possible. Don’t get discouraged, be flexible and don’t burn bridges. You never know when you’re going to need to rekindle a relationship with people. You have to have thick skin in order to grow.