Sunday, January 13, 2013

Bread 101

After posting my bazillionth picture of homemade artisan bread on Facebook, a truly life changing bread from the excellent book Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson, I got some requests by friends to share my tips and tricks on making outstanding homemade bread.

I won't profess to be an expert on baking bread.  What I will say is I've done an incredible amount of reading on the subject and made hundreds of loaves, many of which completely and utterly failed, before I arrived at the above result.  What I have learned I have learned partly from experimenting but mostly from excellent resources on the topic.  So I won't discuss here my own tips and tricks but instead will guide you to the best resources and you can take it from there.

The only things I will mention are some very basic rules about making bread at home.  First of all, there is no way to do it quickly AND do it well.  If you want excellent bread, you have to be patient.  You also cannot use a bread machine.  That is trying to add simplicity and convenience to the process, antithetical to the bread making experience.  I would also argue that with the exception of a very few recipes, you cannot use a stand mixer.  For success, you need to use your hands.  It is the only way to gain an appreciation for the state of the dough which, as you'll learn, is key to success.

Which brings me to my next point.  Baking bread from recipes is not like baking muffins or cookies.  For the most part, baking recipes, if followed to the letter, always work out the same between batches and between individuals.  Bread is not the same.  The best bread books will have an ingredient listing like "3 cups flour plus or minus a few tablespoons depending on wetness or firmness of dough".  So you add the basic ratio of ingredients but then have to adjust based on the humidity in your kitchen, absorbency of the brand of flour you use, ambient temperature, etc. all of which impact how firm or wet your dough is.  This is an appreciation you can only gain with practice.  I have had many loaves flop because I did not follow the instructions for obtaining the right properties in the dough and instead followed the prescribed quantities of ingredients exactly without making adjustments.

Finally, there are some tools you MUST have.  One is a baking stone.  You can either buy one from a specialty kitchen store or purchase a piece of unglazed floor tile from a flooring store.  You also need a cast iron pan or other dish that you can put in the oven up to 500F without damaging it.  This is for holding water to create a steam-filled oven when baking freestanding loaves (in contrast to loaf pan loaves).  One friend asked me if a proofing box is a necessity.  It is not.  It is a luxury.  It certainly helps take your bread to the next level and simplifies some aspects of the process.  But for breads using commercial yeast, it is not necessary.  You can get good results turning your oven to 200F for 1 minute, shutting it off, and then proofing inside the oven with the oven light on.  However, if you are attempting to make naturally leavened bread (commonly known as sourdough, although this isn't always true because not all naturally leavened breads have a sour flavor) you NEED a proofer.  Particularly if you are attempting to raise a starter in the winter.  To keep your starter healthy you need consistent control of temperature.  I don't know if it is a coincidence but my attempts at natural leavening never worked until I got a proofing box.

That's it.  The rest of any specialty bread equipment you might come across is not necessary to have.  It's fun, but not necessary.

Now for the best part.  The resources.  Before attempting naturally leavened breads, you need to master commercial yeast breads.  For that purpose, there is no better resource than Peter Reinhart, author of The Bread Baker's Apprentice, an absolutely indispensable tome on the art of bread.  His other books are also great, particularly Crust & Crumb, but they are not necessary.   For the best experience, you should attempt and succeed at breads of differing characteristics.  I would consider the following recipes a must before moving on in your bread baking experience.  Baguettes, bagels, ciabatta, focaccia, a basic French boule, brioche, croissants, whole wheat freestanding loaf, whole wheat and white sandwich loaves.  This variety will give you an appreciation for recipes with varying degrees of hydration and use of enrichments like eggs and large amounts of butter.  You'll also employ different proofing, shaping, and baking techniques.

When you have mastered those recipes and want to move onto wild-yeast bread, ditch Reinhart.  I had an absolutely miserable experience with his wild-yeast techniques and was about to give up on it.  Reading bread forums on the Web confirmed my suspicions.  Reinhart is a master of commercial yeast bread recipes but his sourdough techniques yield mixed results.  An absolutely outstanding resource is Northwest Sourdough's series of e-books.  I started with #1 and went from there.  Every recipe I've tried from her books has been a resounding success, and her method for catching and raising a wild yeast starter is in my opinion perfect.

Once you've mastered that, then you can move onto something truly incredible.  Tartine Bread.  Wow.  This bread is very different from any other you've ever eaten.  The hydration is quite high, so the dough is incredibly difficult to work with.  In fact, up until I actually baked the loaf I was sure it was going to be a complete failure.  But I followed his directions and encouragement to the tee and the result was something I can't really describe.  He attempts to mimic the experience of a commercial steam injection oven by having you bake the loaf inside a Dutch oven.  You invert the lid, put the loaf on there, put it in the oven, and then put the larger part of the pot on top of the lid.  In the first 20 minutes that the loaf is baking, all the steam it lets off is trapped in the small space and contributes not only to a unique caramelization of the crust but to an oven spring I have never seen before.  When I put the loaf in the oven it was about 3 inches thick.  When it finished it was over 6 inches thick.  And that led to the large, irregular holes throughout the loaf that give it its remarkable texture.  But I would not attempt this until you're very comfortable with the sourdough process from the e-books.

There you have it.  This is not bread making for the hurried or the impatient.  You will go insane.  This is for those who want to make bread making a hobby and, in the process, transform their ideas of what bread can be.  I promise you, if you eat a well made loaf of any of these breads, you will NEVER buy bread at the store again.

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