This originally appeared at the end of my afternoon batard recipe, but after reading through it again, I decided that it deserved its own entry.
Conventional wisdom states that bread made with a pre-ferment like a poolish, biga, or levain is much more complex in flavor. It is. I’ve made bread with all the pre-ferments and I can attest to that. But complexity doesn’t necessarily mean bread made from pre-ferments is better, which tends to be the equivocation of complexity. I’ve tasted and made plenty of loaves with “complex” flavors that simply weren’t all that good in terms of texture or appearance. They may have tasted fine, but they were only okay when taken as a whole.
In my bread making journey, I’ve learned that making great bread is less a function of the leavening agent, and almost entirely a function of technique and understanding the ingredients with which I’m working and just as important, how the ingredients respond to my kitchen environment at the time I’m making bread.
For instance, because I like a slower to moderate fermentation rate, I adjust the amount of yeast depending on the temperature of my kitchen. In summer months, I tend to use a slightly smaller amount of yeast and cooler water. In colder months, I use a little more yeast and warmer water (by the way, it’s still a small amount and varies by a gram or so).
And to be clear, I almost always use roughly half the yeast than a recipe normally calls for (unless they suggest already using a small amount – like 2-3 grams) because I want the yeast to be helper, rather than relying on it entirely for fermentation. In my recipe, as opposed to a 1 or 2 hour rise, I promote 3 to 4 hours – or even an overnight rise in the fridge.
This allows the natural airborne bacteria to also come into play. It may be a relatively short time compared to doing a days-long fermentation, but even taking just this shorter amount of time has a huge effect on flavor development.
And then there’s the type of flour I use. Not all brands and types of flour are the same. Protein content differs, which affects the gluten network. Fineness differs which has an effect on texture. Absorption differs which will affect with the hydration ratio.
For instance, my flour of choice is King Arthur Special Patent flour. Though they say it’s best use for buns and enriched bread (brioche, etc.), I love it for making loaves. But it has a lower water absorption rate than the standard KA bread flour. So I usually take the hydration ratio down one or two percent from recipes that I see. If a recipe calls for 78% hydration, I’ll use a 75% or 76% ratio.
Furthermore, with the flour I use, I found that I have to work it a bit more to achieve the proper structure where it won’t collapse during proofing. And speaking of working the dough, that’s another technique that is absolutely critical to success. And the thing about working the dough is that while the mechanics can easily be taught, it really requires feeling the dough. So even though I do the initial mix in my stand mixer, I knead and/or fold my dough entirely by hand.
I guess the point is this: I always question whatever is the convention. It’s not to be purposefully contrary. It’s just that I want to push beyond the limits of the convention if it’s possible. I may discover that the convention is the way to go in my discovery process, but at least I’ll have discovered for myself what the limits are.
This is probably why I’ve resisted regularly using a levain. Everyone’s doing it, especially in this lockdown. They love their sourdough bread. I like sourdough, but I don’t want it to be the only kind of bread that I make. I’m looking for a complexity of flavors in my bread and perfecting my technique. That may very well lead to me using a levain, but I’m making great bread right now without it.
As I shared with my cousin today when she asked me if I was making sourdough, “Not really, though I’m using poolish and biga pre-ferments and doing extended bulk fermentation. But not sourdough. Everyone is doing sourdough these days. And you know me, if everyone’s doing something, I’m gonna do something else.”
That something else has led me down a rabbit hole of different techniques that I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered if I just made one kind of bread and stuck to a single recipe. It has made research different factors that affect the process like water temperature and fermentation rates; when and when not to autolyse. It pushed me to learn how to shape different kinds of loaves and how to create tension on the surface of my bread.
Had I just stuck with the recipes and techniques – however incredibly valuable they are – from Ken Forkish’s insanely great book, “Flour Water Salt Yeast,” I’d still be baking my bread in a Dutch oven! I still use a Dutch oven from time to time, especially for baking high-hydration doughs that benefit from a confined space. But I wanted to make batards and baguettes and full loaves and sandwich breads. It meant breaking with the convention.