An artist by nature, I’m not naturally inclined to being disciplined. But I’ve had to be very disciplined to bake the loaves I bake with any semblance of consistency. To that end, I’ve come up with rules that I follow to ensure all my bakes are reasonably successful.
Rule 1: Be Prepared
In a commercial kitchen, this is generally known as mise en place, where everything that I need – from ingredients to implements – is within easy reach and my workspace is cleared and set up for my process. There is nothing worse to me than having to scrounge and scramble for something I need in the middle of the process.
Rule 2: Keep It Clean
“It” means pretty much everything. I’m obsessive about keeping my hands clean, but I also keep my workspace clean. If I flour my bench, as soon as I’m done, I use my scraper to clean up the loose flour and put it back in its container. As soon as I’m done with a mixing bowl, I wash it and put it away. Clutter is the enemy!
Rule 3: No Peeking!
Actually, this is another way of saying, “Be patient.” This especially applies to bulk fermentation. When I first started out, I’d check my dough every 15 minutes to see if something was happening. But with the generally small amount of yeast I normally use, things just don’t happen very fast. Of course, I’ve gotten to the point where I implicitly know how long things will take given different parameters. So when I set the timer for some part of my process, I just let the dough sit. That said, I do usually check about 2/3 of the way through, but it’s a quick inspection just to confirm everything’s okay.
Rule 4: You Do You!
Like many, I learned a lot by watching videos and participating in online forums, and interacting with lots of different bakers. All that activity was critical to my process because it opened my eyes to different shaping and scoring possibilities and even more importantly, showed me the most efficient ways to do things. But once I established a sense of what works for me, I stopped trying to achieve a particular look or follow someone else’s process. Especially with respect to my process, I had to work out what worked for me and my equipment and environment.
Rule 5: Use the Right Tools for YOU
You’ll read or get advice that you should get this or that or whatever. But my advice would be to not have a knee-jerk reaction and get everything you read about or hear about and instead try to use what you have on hand first. For instance, when I first started taking bread-making seriously, like many, I read Ken Forkish’ Flour Water Salt Yeast book. In it, he recommended getting a 12-quart tub. When I read that, I immediately got a quizzical look on my face because that size of tub seemed awfully big for the amounts of dough in the recipes. Lucky for me I already had some food-safe tubs on hand and I used those until I finally got an 8-quart tub (I actually still use them as pre-ferment containers). But I’ve encountered so many people who purchased one of those 12-quart tubs and now no longer use it because it’s TOO DAMN BIG! But that story aside, you probably have a lot of the tools you’ll need already. Yes, they may be old, but that doesn’t make them obsolete.