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The Staff of Life - A Primer on Baking Bread

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Rod Franklin View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Rod Franklin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 January 2013 at 17:07
Well, I created a post of about 400 words and when I tried to post it I got an "access denied" message and all my work was gone... My internet connection failed...

To recap:

I weigh, do math and measure temperature when I make bread and ferment things.
Converting percentages to volumes results in odd and unwieldy measures.
I don't do this often enough to get an instinctual feel for it. I could obtain this with constant repetition and reinforcement.
Sure Brook, tell me how to make even slices.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 January 2013 at 15:18
"No-knead" breads hit the modern culinary world a few years ago and became all the rage. But there's nothing new about them. At least as far back as the 18th century some breads were made that way. Sally Lunn and Miss Bowdoin's come immediately to mind.
 
What the modern versions bring to the table is the delayed fermentation; 18-24 hours of rising.
 
Most of the recipes I've seen for modern ones call for mixing, proofing, and baking in a cast-iron kettle.
 
I did get a PM asking if I'd explain some of the terms in your post. So here goes:
 
1. .....74% hydration. Hydration is merely the way moisture content is expressed in a bread formula. In this case it means that the liquid is equal to 78% of the flour, by weight. Heavily hydrated doughs have to be enclosed in a container, because they cannot support themselves.
 
2. ....the crumb...... Personally I'd have thought this one to be self-evident. But maybe not. A finished bread consists of two parts; the outer, harder "skin," which is called the crust, and the soft, inner part, which is the crumb.
 
3. Makes a crusty boule...... Technically you haven't used this term quite correctly. Boule translates as "ball," and refers to a free-standing bread shape in which the dough is shaped into a slightly flattened ball. If you look at the cover of The Bread Baker's Apprentice, the young lady is holding a boule. A rather large one, it's true.
 
Slicing bread evenly is, perhaps, the biggest bug-a-boo home bakers face. For starters, a bread knife really does make a difference. I use  a ten inch model, because, in my experience, the longer the blade (and the wider) the easier it is to control. This is the only serrated knife I own. Trouble with a filet knife is it's width. Thin blades have a tendency to wander, no matter how sharp they are. If nothing else, you might have better luck with your chef's knife.
 
One possible problem using bread knives is that most of them only cut in one direction. Sawing back and forth usually results in a poor slice. They also should cut cleanly with very little downward pressure.
 
I can tell you how to build a jig for cutting equal-sized slices. It only works for sandwich-loaf shaped breads, but you might be able to modify it for other shapes. If you're interested, let me know and I'll post instructions.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Rod Franklin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 January 2013 at 12:21
Well then, let me start.

I don't always make bread, but when I do I make "no knead" bread. Just a lean bread as you described it, at 74% hydration with an 18 hour room temperature rise. Baked at a high oven temp in a preheated, heavy covered vessel for the first part and uncovered to finish. I use a thermometer to tell me when it's done. Makes a crusty boule with a nice yeasty taste. If I get the punch down part right, the crumb is excellent. That doesn't always happen.

Now, if I could just find an economical way to slice a loaf into very even, sandwich thickness slices I would be happy. I'm using a 10", very sharp and thin bladed filet knife and it cuts slices as well I can control it. I haven't been happy with the serrated knives I've used.


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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 January 2013 at 10:14
Thanks, Ron.
 
I intend keeping it going as long as there's interest shown. My gameplan is to post a new installment every day or two.
 
I'm particularly hopeful that other members will, between my posts, add their comments, experiences, and other ways of accomplishing the same task.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 January 2013 at 09:15

Brook,

Thanks for taking the time to put all this down, and for putting out such an easy-reading, informative primer on something that I think everyone should learn how to do, if they don't know already. Even if someone has been baking bread a long time, there is some very good information here, and I especially appreciate the elimination/explanations of the "jargon."
 
Keep up the great work, and thanks again!
 
Ron
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Margi Cintrano Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 January 2013 at 05:00
I have found Bottled Mineral Still Water to work out best. Press & no punch ! Glad u covered topic so thoroughly.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 January 2013 at 04:31

Part 2:

 

I promised, in part one of this primer, to keep technical terms and jargon to a minimum. But there are some terms we have to all understand, if for no other reason than to communicate. In each case, when I use them, I’ll define the term. At least the first time I use it, at any rate.

 

Bread is made, primarily, from four ingredients: Flour, yeast (or other leavening), salt, and water. Other ingredients are sometimes added, either for flavor, or to achieve a desired goal, such as keeping quality, softness, crust formation, etc. We’ll be looking at these ingredients in more depth. But first, some pointers and general discussion.

 

-Bread is divided into three categories, which give you a clue as to its properties:

 

1. Lean bread (also called basic bread, and, sometimes, rustic bread). This refers to breads made only with the four basic ingredients. Upwards of 90% of breads, worldwide, fall into this category, varying only by the quantity and quality of each ingredient, and how it is risen, shaped and baked.

 

2. Enriched breads. These are breads that include other ingredients, such as oils, eggs, dairy, sweeteners, and so on to achieve a desired goal. A sub-category of enriched breads is a group called celebration breads, which are associated with particular holidays or events. They almost always include sweeteners, and often fruits and/or nuts.

 

3. Rich breads. The least common breads, these are made with oils making up 20% or more of the dough. If you’re a beginner you don’t have to worry about them, because they require special handling techniques that you won’t be involved with.

 

-The single best way of improving your bread making skills is to throw your clock away. Good bread takes time. The more time you invest, the better the bread will be. Certainly, if you set your dough in a warm place, and let it rise for an hour (as many recipes direct), you’ll produce a more than adequate loaf. If you set the same dough in a cool place, however, and let it take longer to rise, it will be better. Ultimately, if you use retarded fermentation techniques (which we’ll discuss later on) you’ll produce the best possible bread from that recipe.

 

-The best breads result from the highest quality ingredients. Ultimately, this means choosing the right flour. And that, by and large, means not choosing the big, national brands. Used to be you didn’t have much choice; it was Pillsbury or nothing. But that’s no longer true. Most supermarkets carry brands such as King Arthur, Bob’s Red Mill, Weisenberger Mill, and flours from other small, specialty mills. Or you can order on-line, although the postage can as much as double the cost.

     You often read that stone-ground flour is better. To a certain degree that’s true. But the degradation caused by huge, high-speed roller mills is much less evident in the flours produced by small mills, because they do not heat up as much. The fact is, Weisenberger and King Arthur, among others, now use roller mills.

     If you have access to stone-ground flours, then certainly use them. If not, just opt for a smaller brand and you’ll do just fine.

    Once you’ve found a flour you’re happy with, stick with it. Different brands do have different characteristics, and you won’t get consistent results if you keep changing around.

     When I first got serious about bread making I used King Arthur exclusively. Then I realized that, while my back was turned, they’d gone and put a 150 year old mill almost in my backyard, and switched to Weisenberger. I had to modify practically all my bread recipes due to changing flours.

 

-Bread dough is, first and foremost, a tactile experience. While there are all sorts of methods used to determine if a dough is ready, your fingers are the best tool. That’s why hand kneading is preferred---the dough will tell you, through your hands, when it’s ready. Once you know, through experience, what a good dough feels like, the rest is easy.

     For many of us, full kneading by hand is difficult. There’s nothing wrong with using a stand mixer. But, if possible, hand knead at least the final minute or two, so you develop a feel for what the dough should be like.

     Most of the time (not always), a dough should be slightly tacky, but not sticky. That’s the “smooth, shiny” goal so often found in recipes.

     If you opt for a stand mixer, cut the recommended kneading time in half. That is, if the recipe says to knead for ten minutes, run the mixer for five.

 

-In practical terms, yeast is interchangeable. Technically, there is a difference in fresh, active dry, and instant yeast, having to do with the percentage of live cells found in each. But in practice, one cake of fresh yeast equals one envelope of active dry or instant; equals two teaspoons of bulk. They are not used the same way, however.

     Fresh yeast is hardly used anymore except by commercial bakeries. You won’t find it at the supermarket. It is 300 times less potent than instant yeast, has to be activated (variously called proofing or blooming) in warm water with sugar added, and has virtually no shelf life. Even refrigerated it will only last about two weeks at full strength.

     Active dry yeast, until the advent of bread machines, was the most familiar form. It has to be bloomed, with or without the addition of sugar, and is added as part of the liquid ingredients. Refrigerated or frozen it will last seemingly forever.

     Instant yeast (aka rapid rise, fast rising, bread machine) has 25% more active cells than active dry, and, like active dry, lasts two days longer than forever when refrigerated or frozen. It does not require blooming, and is added as part of the dry ingredients.

     When it comes to yeast, less is more, particular when using advanced techniques like preferments and retarded fermentation.

 

-Water can have a significant effect on how the dough forms, and on final texture and taste of the dough. Generally speaking, tap water is not the best choice, because it can lead to inconsistent results. As with flours, if you opt to use bottled water, use the same brand all the time. But if you choose to use tap water, well, there are no dough police around to tell you not to.

 

-All salt is not the same when compared by weight. Due to its shape (flakes, crystals, cubes), different types of salt have different densities. Table salt, for instance, “weighs more” than kosher salt. Different forms of sea salt have greater or lesser salinity, volume for volume. Here, again, the solution is consistency. Use the same type of salt each time, and your results will be consistent.

     One of the big controversies among bread bakers is when to add the salt. In theory, particularly when using instant, salt can negatively affect yeast activity. But as somebody once said, in theory, theory and reality are the same. In reality, they’re not.

     In my experience, it doesn’t matter whether you add the salt sooner, as part of the dry ingredients, or later, once the dough starts to form. Try it both ways, and see for yourself.

 

-All doughs benefit from a rest period before rising. Whether you knead by hand or by machine, try letting the dough rest, covered, for 15 minutes. Then knead for another minute or two before setting it to rise.

     This assures that all the flour particles are fully hydrated, and, to a certain degree, assures that the yeast is equally mixed through the dough.

     If you want to carry this to the ultimate, French fold the dough before setting it to rise. That’s just a fancy way of explaining a particular configuration. To do it, pat the dough into a square. Fold it in thirds, the way you’d fold a letter. Then fold that rectangle in thirds, the same way.

 

-“Punching down” is an expression, not an actual direction. Once you’ve proofed the dough you do not want to handle it that roughly. Deflate it by pressing down on it, rather than punching, retaining as much of the trapped gasses as possible. Handle it the same way when shaping the loaves.

 

-The wetter the dough, the less likely it is suitable for a free-standing loaf. To understand this, we have to get into some of the technical stuff.

     Although often presented as recipes, dough is actually constructed based on a formula. Flour is always considered 100%, and the other ingredients expressed as a proportion of that. If you look at advanced baking books you’ll notice that the total is, therefore, always considerably more than 100%. Formulae are used so that bakers can easily maintain the proper proportions when multiplying quantities.

     Lean breads typically run 65-70% liquid content. That is, by weight, the water will be 65% of the flour. Such breads can be baked either contained or free standing.

     Doughs like focaccia (with about 85% moisture), because they have much higher liquid percentages, cannot support themselves, even with good gluten development. They always have to be either supported, or used to make flat breads.

 

-If you’re using volume measurements, ignore the above. While it’s true that formulae are necessary for mass baking, the same isn’t true for the home baker. It’s one thing if you’re making 200 loaves at one time, something else again if you’re merely doubling or even trebling a recipe.

     Again, the theory is that the proportions do not stay true when multiplying by volume. But for the few loaves you’re likely to make at any one time, it hardly matters. You’ll be adjusting with flour or water, as the case may be, anyway.

 

-Every bread dough can be  improved by a second rise. While you can skip this step, you’ll find that a second rise does improve the flavor, and sometimes the texture, of the bread. Sure, it takes extra time. But the results are worthwhile.

 

 Now comes more technical talk. You can skip this section if you like. To understand why dough improves with a second rise you have to understand how yeast grows. When first encountering moisture, the yeast wakes up and starts to feed and multiply. Initially it rather quickly consumes the sugars in the flour, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as by-products. The alcohol helps flavor the dough, and the carbon dioxide, trapped between the strands of gluten, causes the dough to rise.

     You can stop there. But if the dough goes through a second rise the action is much slower. The yeast, along with enzymes, converts starches to sugar, and then eats them. This slower process has a distinct effect on the texture and final flavor of the dough. In fact, the slower the rise the better, which is the whole philosophy behind retarded fermentation.

     So, while a single rise can produce a good tasting bread, a double rise produces a great one. All with no other effort on your part except allowing more time.

 

As noted, flour is the most important component of a bread dough. And there’s a lot to be said about it. So we’ll look at flours more closely in the next installment.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Margi Cintrano Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 January 2013 at 02:26
TU Brook for all ur time producing such an informative feature.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Rod Franklin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10 January 2013 at 15:29
Great effort! I look forward to more.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10 January 2013 at 15:00

Part 1:

 

When Ron recently asked me to prepare a bread baking primer for FotW members I had to give it considerable thought. We are a diverse group, with all levels of experience in the kitchen. So the question became, how to arrange such a primer to achieve the greatest good.

 

I finally decided that most members are like me; primarily cooks, rather than bakers. When it comes to bread, they are casual bakers who merely want to serve homemade bread, and, maybe, improve their baking skills somewhat.

 

The whole point of this primer, seems to me, should be to help you make a better loaf of bread. I believe that’s all most of us want.

 

So for this to work, we have to follow the KISS principle---Keep It Simple, Stupid. Basically this means reducing the technical aspects to their minimum.

 

Not necessarily an easy task. The foodie revolution, overall, has been a good thing for the culinary world. Baking is a perfect example. Techniques and methods that, in the past, were strictly the provenance of professionals are now common knowledge. Tips for improving one’s bread baking are readily shared via the internet, books, and magazine articles. And an incredible number of breads, once confined to small regions of the world, are now being baked globally.

 

That’s the good part. The downside is that foodies tend to fall in love with jargon, and the technical aspects of food. To some degree there is a little snobbishness about this. After all, if you use the special language of the trade, that establishes your expertise, whether you actually have any or not.

 

A classic example is the word “autolyse” (which, btw, many of them pronounce incorrectly). Autolyse refers to a resting period given the dough. Technically, it promotes full hydration of the flour, and enhances certain enzyme action that improves the flavor and texture of the finished bread.

 

Older bread recipes merely said something like, “let the dough rest 10-15 minutes…..” To the casual baker, that’s all that’s needed. “Resting the dough” is a lot easier to understand, and certainly more non-intimidating, then something like, “French fold the dough and let it autolyse 15 minutes.”

 

And that, I believe, is the key. Far too much of today’s  bread-baking literature is intimidating and overly complex. It’s as if the authors have set out to confuse and obfuscate what is, at base, a simple process.

 

Gluten development is a good case. Gluten is, basically, the glue that holds bread together. But do you really have to know the chemical reaction that causes two particular proteins to combine and produce a third one? I think not. Your concern is how to control gluten so as to produce the best bread.

 

And, of course, all that technical stuff is available for those who are interested.  Boy oh boy is it available. So, whenever possible, I will simplify things as much as possible.

 

Before going any further, perhaps we should discuss my qualifications---such as they are---for writing this primer.

 

Until about four years ago I was a casual bread maker at best. I’m a cook, after all, not a baker. I didn’t understand the process of making bread, and, therefore, was afraid of it. When I did, on rare occasion, bake a loaf I would follow the recipe slavishly. And I never made anything that wasn’t a same-day, single-rise bread. That is, you mix the ingredients, let the dough rise (which, for the jargon deprived, is called “proofing” in the literature), put it in a pan, give it a second rise, and bake. Indeed, if you suggested, back then, that I would blithely discuss breads that took three days to make, I’d have looked at you like you were crazy.

 

Sometimes, using the same recipe, this produced a superlative loaf. Sometimes a mediocre one. And sometimes one that was barely edible. This made it even more confusing, and I was less likely to bake because of it.

 

Sound familiar?

 

Then, for no special reason I can recall, I was bitten by the bread making bug. I read everything I could find about it---probably 20 or more books---hung out at bread baking web sites, and turned-too becoming a baker. Even considered taking a class with one of the authorities, but it was cost prohibitive.

 

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right? From hardly ever baking bread, I was suddenly baking at least once a week, more usually two or three times. That schedule continues today. I own all sorts of specialty equipment, or multipurpose gear that was acquired specifically to help me become a better bread maker. I even adapt and modify recipes, just as I do with savory dishes.

 

I figure, at the rate I’m going, in another ten or 15 years I can call myself a baker.

 

Essentially, this primer will cover some of the things I’ve learned in the past four years.

 

Proviso: There are many paths leading to the end of a journey. This is, perhaps, more true about bread baking that any other aspect of the culinary crafts. So what we’ll be talking about are the ways that work for me; the methods I’ve found most useful; the information that has proven valuable to me. But I am most certainly not providing them as the only way. Or even suggesting they are the best way. They merely recount, by and large, the path that I’ve followed.

 

Hopefully, other members who have followed other paths will chime in, and together we’ll figure out who shaved the barber.

 

Before actually getting started I want to dispose of the single biggest myth about baking. You hear it time after time. Bread making is more scientific, more precise, than cooking.

 

In a word, nonsense! Bread making merely requires an understanding of how certain ingredients interact with each other. This is the same principle that applies to braising a roast or making a sauce.

 

If there was so little room for movement, if bread making is so precise, then riddle me this: why are there so many recipes for bread? And how are new breads developed?

 

Recently we had a discussion about weight vs volume measuring of flour that may provide insights http://www.foodsoftheworld.activeboards.net/bread-making-volume-vs-weight_topic3047.html. While I personally do weigh ingredients, as we discussed there, a scale is not the necessary item current literature indicates. Given the environmental factors that influence ingredients, weighing is neither more nor less precise than volume measurements.

 

Until the 1990s, all American, and some other, bread recipes were based on volume measurements. Bread making books either used volume, or expressed amounts in volume with weight given in parenthesis. When it came to recipes in magazines and newspapers, I don’t recall ever seeing weights given until about that time.

 

Is it merely coincidence that the dates coincide with the start of the foodie revolution?

 

 Be that as it may, the simple fact is, thousands and thousands of good, serviceable loaves have been baked using volume measurements. If you are not making your own bread because you don’t own a scale, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.

 

As it turns out, volume measurement has not been abandoned, even by very serious bread authorities. Experts such as Dan Leader and Peter Reinhart give their formulae in terms of both volume and weight. Interestingly, they both list volume first, followed by weight. Treuille & Ferrigno (Ultimate Bread) give everything in volume, with nary a scale in sight.

 

Alford & Duguid (Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker’s Atlas) and Greg Patent (A Baker’s Odyssey) share one thing in common: In both cases their recipes were collected, first hand, from around the world. Not from professional bakers, but from home cooks and housewives. In other words, the way real people make their breads. Guess what? Neither book---both of which contain recipes for exceptional breads---mentions weight.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-scales. As mentioned above, I’m one of those who do weigh ingredients. What I’m saying is, don’t let the lack of a scale deter you from baking.  

 

Something else that can be intimidating is the overuse of the word “artisanal.” Sure, I realize it’s the buzz word for many things. But frankly, despite having made hundreds of loaves of bread, rolls, etc., I’m not sure what artisanal really means. It seems to apply to any bread other than the typical soft white bread, baked in a pan, so favored by Americans. All of the other recipes, shapes, and methods that have been used, sometimes for centuries, seems to fall into the artisanal rubric.

 

So do yourself a favor. Forget that word. If you’re going to bake bread your goal should be to make the best loaf that you can. Hell, if all you want is Wonder bread, it’s cheaper, easier, and less expensive to just go out and buy it. If you want bread that’s different from that, then just make it, and don’t worry about whether or not it’s artisanal.

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