Bread Baking “Soft” Skills

I was on an online forum and someone made this post (paraphrased):

Can someone please tell me why I can’t seem to make a decent loaf of bread? It seems I’ve made hundreds of loaves, tried dozens of recipes. I’ve tried wheat gluten, different kinds of flour, kneaded for hours, and resting at different temperatures. I’ve tried less sugar, more salt. But every loaf I make comes out the same: Cakey and totally lacking in flavor. Please help!

Several people answered the person’s plea for help with some very sound advice, albeit technical. I read through all the answers and figured that any specific technical advice I’d add to the thread might be a little redundant. On the other hand, it did occur to me that that person was lacking in what I call the soft skills department.

Soft skills are those skills that everyone assumes one should have, but no one really talks about them. But they are absolutely critical to success – in practically anything. Unfortunately, so much of our society focuses on technical acumen and ability that we end up completely missing or misunderstanding the critical nature of those soft skills.

Every discipline has an accompanying set of soft skills. In my professional life as a software engineer, much emphasis – and quite rightly so – is placed on technical aptitude. In fact, early on in my career, before it became popular to go into software engineering, if you had the skills, you got the job. But as the wold evolved, soft skills such as teamwork, initiative, persistence, and even compassion became important factors in hiring. After all, who wants to work with an asshole? And at my level now, it’s assumed I possess the technical knowledge and recruiters are more interested on how well I can integrate into their team.

Such is the case with baking. Like many, I’ve picked up techniques from blogs, cooking sites, and books. All of them focus on technical stuff. And mind you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But non-technical or “soft” skills are also critical to baking success. So I thought I’d talk about a few of them in this latest post.

Patience

In his book, “Flour Water Salt Yeast,” Ken Forkish has a section that calls time and temperature ingredients. In that section, he shows how those two things can affect how dough behaves. But after doing several bakes, I realized that even more so, patience is even more important.

Dough takes time to develop. Full stop. Let me say that again: Dough takes time to develop. How much time it takes to finish a particular step is dependent on a variety of factors: temperature, hydration, humidity, etc. It could be a short period of time or it could take seemingly forever to develop. But no matter whether it’s short or long, when you’re dealing with anything that takes time, you have to have patience. When instructions tell you to wait until the dough doubles, wait until the dough doubles!!! It may come up in half the time the baker lists, or it may take two or three times as long. But whichever, have the patience to wait it out!

Adaptability and Flexibility

As a corollary to patience, because dough takes time to develop and that time is variable, we have to be able to adapt and be flexible with our process. The same goes for temperature. For instance, as I write this post, I’m in the middle of a big bake for a luncheon tomorrow where I have to provide garlic bread for 100 people, so I’m making Pane di Como Antico to pair with the Italian menu. Normally, the hydration for this bread is 73%. But today, it’s warm in my kitchen, so I lowered the hydration to 71%. Lowering the percentage also allows the gluten to form more easily, so instead of the normal four folds that I do, I only needed to do three sets as the dough strength developed earlier.

Also, because it’s warm, rising times significantly decreased. The basic recipe calls for a final ferment of 1- 1 1/2 hour. But with the ambient temp in my kitchen at 78°F, I’m thinking it’ll take about 45 minutes to do the final proof.

The point to this is that though the original recipe states specific times, you have to remember that those times were based on the author’s kitchen conditions at the time. I need to be flexible and adapt to the conditions in my own kitchen. If I stuck with the original prescription of an hour to an hour-and-a-half, my dough would overproof. Not good.

Also, as being dogmatic can be problematic, tweaking a recipe on the fly in response to something not happening according to some condition the author lists is just as bad. You’ll be forever chasing after one bad situation after another!

Tidiness (read: Having Your S$%t Wired)

Having been a longtime home cook, and having worked in food service in the past, I’ve learned the very important lesson of mise en place, or “everything in its place.” I have a few chef and cook friends and one thing they always talk about is their “meez.” Their most commonly used items and seasonings are right within reach. Chopped veggies and herbs are prepped well before service. And most importantly, they keep their stations clean! And as one chef friend said to me once, “I know a line cook has his or her s%^t wired just by looking at how they’ve arranged their station and how clean they keep it during service.”

As for me, whether I’m cooking or baking, I prep EVERYTHING I need first, and I wash every pot and pan or scale or bowl as soon as I can after I’m done with it. My counter is kept scrupulously clean. And woe the person that comes along and leaves crap on my counter when I’m cooking. They get an earful till it’s cleared.

The point to this is that an uncluttered space means you have an uncluttered mind. It also requires immense focus to maintain the cleanliness of your space that just aids in keeping you on your A-game while baking. For instance, if you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I bake a lot of baguettes. When I do, I have my board and couch conditioned, all my scrapers lined up and all my ingredients weighed out and in containers before I even consider mixing stuff together. When I started being disciplined, the quality of my baguettes went through the roof as did the consistency of them from bake to bake.

Geeking Out

If you want to bake with any proficiency at all, you have to have to do a bit of studying. As they say, knowledge is power, that couldn’t be more true than with artisan bread baking. And there is nothing wrong with that. When I first started baking, my wife would tease me that I study more than bake. She was actually teasing me, and I knew it, but I did respond by saying that just as with the great Nancy Silverton, I was obsessed with dough. I wanted to learn all I could about it.

I woudn’t expect others to be nearly as obsessive about baking and dough as I am, but it’s never a bad thing to gain knowledge. Never.

The Importance of Breathing: In Other Words, Chill Out!

This might not seem like a skill, but it requires a lot of practice to be relaxed and chilled out when baking. When we’re nervous, we tighten up and we constrict our breathing. This slows the oxygen to our brains and we become muddled, which in turn makes us even more frantic. It’s really a vicious cycle that we get ourselves into.

But if we’re breathing and relaxed in our actions, we breeze right through everything. Everything is clear because our brains are getting oxygen. And though I’m speaking within the context of baking, it applies to everything in life.

But as far as baking is concerned, we also have to do – or not do – things that will trigger our nervousness. That whole mise-en-place discussion I had above contributes to our relaxations, whereas the lack of it creates chaos. So breathe. Relax. It’s good for you!

Mindfulness

I’m Catholic and one year at Lent, as opposed to giving something up like candy or booze, I instead decided to be more mindful; that is, be more aware of what I was doing and doing my best to see the interconnectedness of my life and world around me. While I didn’t necessary dive down into the depths of the details, I made sure I was at least always aware of what those details were.

Practicing mindfulness during that time became a habit, and I learned to apply it to my baking. At least to me, being mindful is that extra insurance for a successful bake as mindfulness prevents me from skipping steps or taking shortcuts. It keeps me aware of what’s happening with a dough that I’m working on.

For instance, as I write this section, I have a flatbread dough that’s going through its bulk fermentation. On normal days when it’s 72-75 degrees in my kitchen, that dough takes 2-hours to complete bulk fermentation. But it is a VERY hot day today and it peaked at 102 degrees. I had my are conditioning on, but my kitchen was still a balmy 84 degrees. So I’m being extra-mindful of my dough.

Whew! I kind of wrote a novel this time! But this was as much for myself as for sharing it with others.

Happy Baking!

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