Sunday, September 23, 2012

Lessons in Baking Bread

I've tried for three years (usually in the fall) to bake a great loaf of bread.  This is my third "season" and as time goes by, I've learned lots of valuable lessons from countless mistakes.

First, let me give you the basic recipe that I've been following, as you'll need it to understand something I'll be writing later on:
5 cups of flour
2 Tbs. yeast
2 Tbs. honey
2 Tbs. salt
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 cups of water

The first season, I made a ton of mistakes and had bread pancakes that were as airy as bricks.
  1. I tried baking with instant yeast, which meant the gasses it produced were exhausted by the end of the first rise.  
  2. I'd never heard of a second rise.
  3. I let the bread rise too long.
  4. I was in the habit of letting the bread rise in a spot often too warm, creating a crust so it couldn't rise properly in the oven.
  5. I fell for the "no knead" lines, only later to realize kneading was an essential part of the bread process to help work the gluten strands.
  6. I often added too much flour, making the bread even tougher.
  7. I added in too many extra ingredients (sun dried tomatoes, onions, black olives) well before I'd mastered the art of rising dough.  It only served to weigh my down down.
The second season, I still made a ton of mistakes, and had some rise, but instead of admitting to them, I said I was making "flat breads" for pizza.
  1. I used the yeast that took time to proof, but I still left the dough in spots a little too warm.
  2. I let the first rise go too long, but not as long as I did in my first season.
  3. I didn't knead the bread for 10 minutes as I fell for the line, "Oh, you can knead it for as little as five".  The gluten strands didn't have time to develop like they needed to with a full 10 minute treatment.
  4. I didn't allow the second rise to go long enough, so the breads were still flat, and some had minor rise.
  5. The baking stone in the oven wasn't sufficiently heated up to radiate good heat.  I was heating it up to the bread temperature, when I should've heated the oven to 550 degrees and let the stone properly warm up.
  6. I added in less ingredients, but the weight still weighed down the dough, preventing a good rise.
This is my third season, and I've finally learned from the last two seasons that produced awful results.
My first loaf of the third season with a bit of a dense crumb.
  1. A friend turned me onto an OLD book called "Bread Book: A Baker's Almanac" by Ellen Foscue Johnson, put out by Garden Way Publishing.  The book is probably from the early 1970's, and it uses old fashioned methods.  The first loaf I turned out had risen the best to date and I was encouraged that the old methods were actually pretty dang good.  I also encourage you to investigate Breadtopia and The Fresh Loaf, both great sites with lots of advice.
  2. The first rise was simply tossed in the oven without any heat, avoiding the previous problem of crusting.
  3. I learned that in order to get better flavor and a lighter crumb, you must slow down the first rise time, which can be done by placing your bowl in the fridge as cooler environments slow down the yeast and release of gas.  This allows for better flavor development and a lighter crumb (bigger air pockets which are desirable).
  4. You can also achieve #3 by using a sourdough starter, a bigga, or a poolish.  I used to think they were all one in the same, but they're not.  Sourdough is as what it implies - it imparts a sour tanginess to the bread.  A poolish will create more of a nutty flavor in your dough.  I still need to research what kind of flavoring a bigga creates, but my quick impression is it's strictly used to make panettone bread.  Some sites say you must use the poolish within 6 hours of creating it, but I've read posts where folks have claimed that they've successfully revived jars left in the fridge for a couple of weeks by tossing in a cup of flour and leaving it out on the counter to warm up.  From what I gather, the flour becomes "food" for the yeast, and the yellowish fluid on top is "hooch", and it does contain some portion of alcohol.  I've heard "hooch" in general tastes a little like lemonade, but I think I'll pass on taste testing that!
  5. I knead my bread at least 10 minutes as I've learned my lesson!
  6. Use a digital thermometer to make sure your water is around 100 degrees; if it's too hot, it will kill the yeast, and if it's too cold, the yeast will activate, but it takes a LONG TIME!
  7. Place a pan of hot water on the bottom of your oven, and spray your dough with water to help it continue rising in the oven.  Once the bread forms a crust, it can't rise beyond that point.  
  8. You can achieve a crispy crust by pulling your bread out of the pans and simply placing it on the oven racks or on a baking stone in order to allow the heat to get at it.
  9. The deeper your score the top of the bread, the more room it has to expand.  Aim for around a 1/2" cut for maximum spread and additional rise.
  10. Don't try and use a well sharpened pairing knife to score the top of the bread as it simply doesn't work as the knife sticks to the dough.  Cave in and buy a lame (a tool that looks like a double edge razor blade on a coffee stirrer stick).  A better one can be purchased here.  I still need to determine if it's better to score in before the second rise or afterwards. 
  11. Score your dough before the second rising.  I've been scoring mine afterwards, which was deflating the loaf by as much as 20%.
  12. When you first start assembling the ingredients, let the flour sit in the bowl with water for at least 20 minutes as that helps with the gluten formation.  I start this process first before I take dry yeast and toss it in 100 degree water with honey.
  13.  Altitude and humidity DOES matter!  I'm currently at sea level, so relative humidity is higher.  This means you'll probably have to add more flour to your mix, but don't add it to the mixing bowl!  I make dough in my Kitchen Aid mixer with the dough hook attachment; you want to add just enough flour to make the dough pull away from the sides of the bowl.  When you turn it out onto your board, it's going to be sticky (depending on altitude and humidity).  While you're kneading your bread, this is where you add flour a little bit at a time.  Some recipes have very wet doughs, and you'll be instructed to "fold" the dough with one hand and assist with a bench scraper in the other.  Generally speaking, dough should be soft, give a little in your hands but also show signs of springiness (when you push the dough down, it should fill the spot back up).  It should also look a little dry (maybe that's not the best way to describe it) - almost like a matte paint finish.  
  14. Oiling the bowl you're going to toss it in is critical, and don't skip plastic wrap for the top!  I used to use a towel, and it always stuck to the towel, deflating it when I peeled it off.  The oil helps to prevent the dough from getting crusty, and if it crusts now, it won't rise properly on the second rise.
  15. The more "add-in" ingredients you add to the dough, the harder it will be to rise because of the additional weight, so I add very little.
  16. Don't be in a rush to cut into your fresh bread once it comes out of the oven.  If you do, then you're apt to get a little bit of a doughy consistency from all the trapped moisture.  Bread's at its best after it's rested and cooled down for a few hours.  I know, I have trouble getting past 45 minutes!   :)
Some folks reading this might say, "Well, duuuh!!", but until you've wrestled with countless failures, no amount of reading or youtube videos will help you make a better bread.  This is something that comes with experience and time, and as frustrating as it might seem to get bad result after bad result, don't give up!  It sounds like a cliche' when people write you'll get to "know" the feeling of dough, but it's true.   

The latest loaf of bread, which has more airy pockets and is softer.
This is today's latest batch of bread - a sweet cinnamon, raisin, walnut bread (left), and a savory garlic, cheese, and Italian spices bread (right).  The crumb is getting lighter with each batch, and the taste on this is wonderful, but not yet where I'd call it stellar.  I don't have a lame, so each score I make with a knife deflates the bread instead of helping it.  When I get back to work in a few weeks, that's on my "to buy" list.  I also suspect when you roll dough in this matter, it might not be a good idea at all to score the bread at all; I'll try that next time and post a picture of the results.

The next batch I'll make with the wild yeast, which is basically turning slowly into a sourdough as it sits and ferments to some degree in the fridge.  I haven't tried making a sourdough from commercial grade yeast yet, which is just a matter of making something close to the basic dough recipe at the beginning of the post, but not adding in a full amount of flour, and letting it sit out on the counter for a day or three.  That's on my "to bake" list as well, and 'll post pictures and reviews of those two methods so you can see the results, too.  I had a poolish made, but Fred opened the kitchen window box on a recent cold morning, and what was rising...well, went flat, so I had to toss it (second attempt) and I haven't started over yet. 

Happy Eats!

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