Fresh-baked bread isn't a new concept to Oklahoma City, but Prairie Thunder Baking Co., 1114 Classen Drive, has set a high standard for quality since the modern bakery with an old soul opened in 2008.
Owner John McBryde, a geologist by trade, has been a passionate home cook since he was a kid, but one afternoon in 2005 he dusted off a recipe to make artisan bread at home. The ensuing result and the relish with which he pursued it scratched at an itch he'd had to parachute from corporate America.
“This wasn't the result of a longtime dream to be a baker,” McBryde said. “I did enjoy cooking and baking, but at the time I'd had some success in oil and gas that afforded me the opportunity to try something different.”
In 2008, McBryde opened the doors to Prairie Thunder with dreams of offering fresh-baked bread and pastry 24 hours a day to a blossoming urban populace.
Then the economy tanked.
The influx of urban dwellers didn't come on schedule, so McBryde had to adjust his model. Today, Prairie Thunder is open six days a week to the public, but the bakery is hardly ever closed, thanks to commercial customers such as Tucker's Onion Burgers, Stella Modern Italian and Coolgreens to name a few.
Prairie Thunder has also developed a nice breakfast and lunch business in its storefront cafe, where you can also pick up a fresh loaf of bread, pastries or a hot cup of coffee.
Prairie Thunder was a foundation block in the resurgence of MidTown, but its mission is only just beginning.
“Development hasn't been as quick as we'd hoped, but it's still happening,” McBryde said.
Whether McBryde's overall vision comes together is up to factors beyond his control, but those he does have a hand in will not fall short due to lack of effort.
McBryde is a guy who has never been afraid of hard work, but says unequivocally that the baking business is the hardest thing he's ever done.
Science vs. art
Conventional wisdom informs us that cooking is art while baking is science. Perhaps that's because cooking a kettle of beans, frying eggs or roasting beef or chicken has more leeway than baking a loaf of sourdough bread.
That sourdough not only needs precise temperature and time to bake properly, but the dough it's made from must first be born properly, matured exactly and handled with care.
If it sounds like making bread is like raising a child, that's because it is. Excellent child-rearing and artisan baking are achieved by covering the details.
Baking has always been more miss than hit for me, so I've been reticent about taking it on. It's always sat in a locked cabinet marked “rainy day” with learning to play guitar and fortifying my basic understanding of Spanish.
But as I continued to stop by Prairie Thunder Baking Company for assorted loaves, including Country White Bread, responsibility forced me to take a peek into the cabinet cloaked in cognitive dissonance.
When I approached McBryde about featuring his artisan bakery and cafe, he encouraged me to start in his kitchen to get an authentic view of the baking world. I accepted immediately.
Prairie Thunder operates almost without cease.
“There are a few hours on Sunday when nobody is in here, but that's it,” McBryde said.
The daily schedule is kept on laminated sheets, which include client names and order numbers.
The scent is strong with what we identify as yeast, but McBryde is quick to point out there is no such thing.
“Yeast doesn't have a scent, but it's a catalyst for the fermentation that creates the aroma.”
Things move at a crisp pace all morning. It is chaos captured and trapped in a burlap sack. Give an inch, and it will spill everywhere, and all the yeast that gave its life to birth these loaves of bread will have died in vain.
McBryde and his crew don't complain, and smiles are reserved for end of the shift. Adele or The Cure are the only voices you hear most mornings. When a well-below average baker from The Oklahoman is there, John has to offer more instruction.
He gives excellent advice on how to handle the dough, he shows and tells how to form a baguette. He explains how to form a peasant purse.
When the flour has settled, all the orders are complete, bread is displayed out front, pastries are in the case and breakfast is being served.
Hands of a baker
McBryde's hands are long and lithe. When he speaks, they cut through the air in figure-eights, swiveling on their wrists like a conductor. He handles dough with aplomb and a subconscious respect for the promise it holds.
But those hands are also responsible for the design and construction of Prairie Thunder's woodsy art deco interior.
“I've always loved working with my hands,” McBryde said.
But these willing hands had to be trained by a master to handle and carry out the rigors of baking. So, he called on one of the world's foremost master bakers, Jeffrey Hamelman of King Arthur Flour.
“Jeffrey is my mentor, and he's responsible for the way we laid out the kitchen.”
The walk-in freezer bears his name because he advised McBryde to place it in the center of the kitchen to save steps in the day.
“I wore a pedometer one day in the early day, and it measured about three miles just walking around in the kitchen.”
“We have an Italian pastry oven, a large deck oven that came from France,” McBryde said. “It took more than 18 months to get the large oven here.”
The oven weighs 18,000 pounds and can heat up to 420 degrees inside.
An installer from Salzburg, Austria, spent three weeks working 12-hour days just to install the bread oven. The oven, with steam tubes and a masonry base, took three weeks to build inside the bakery and another four weeks of daily heating to burn off all the moisture from the bricks and mortar.
The first pastry to enter the oven was a Braum's cinnamon roll. McBryde said by the time the oven was ready for a test, he didn't want to have to stress over the dough.
He's spent pretty much every waking moment since stressing over the dough.
Out front, in the art deco interior McBryde and one of his sons fabricated and mounted, the cafe has about 15 tables where guests can choose from soups, sandwiches and salads for lunch and burritos, croissants and migas for breakfast.
For Halloween, you'll find plenty of seasonal pastry to satisfy ghouls and vampires.
They do vegetarian specials and offer discounts to those in scrubs one day a week.
Loaves of bread will run between $5 and $9, hamburger buns can be purchased but go quickly.
“We can do any of our bread, but we do need some advance notice.”
Keeping alive the methods and quality that artisan baking require make it well worth the extra commitment in time and money.
Prairie Thunder Baking Co. is open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. To make orders, call 602-2922.