Baking Bread: It’s a Perpetual Balancing Act

Last night, I watched a video of Paul Hollywood touring bakeries in San Francisco on a quest for San Francisco sourdough. He got bread from different bakeries all over the city apparently to see if he could find the epitome of sourdough and once he identified it, he’d go visit that bakery. Of course, it was going to be Tartine. That he saved the Tartine loaf for last in his evaluation was a total giveaway, which made that particular segment seem a little contrived.

The inevitability of Paul going to Tartine aside, one thing caught my eye when Paul showed the entire loaf. I was able to capture a screenshot from the video. Look at how flat that loaf is! Though the crumb is a classic, open Tartine crumb, the vertical rise in the bread is actually minimal. And if you look at the lower end of the loaf in the picture, it’s clear that the dough spread out – a lot – in the oven.

Then looking at a top-down view of the loaf (right), there wasn’t much opening from the scoring mark, which is another indicator that the loaf sprung more outward than up.

The reason for this is likely because Tartine dough is incredibly high-hydration. In some cases, and especially with their whole-grain loaves, the hydration levels exceed 90% (their flatbreads are over 100% hydration). At that level of hydration, no matter how well the gluten structure is developed to trap gas, the water in the dough will not allow the gluten strands to coalesce nearly as much as a lower-hydration dough. So as the dough bakes, it tends to spread out rather than rising up.

Mind you, I don’t consider this to be bad in any way, shape, or form. In fact, based on what I’ve gathered from studying the Tartine method, I’d expect a loaf like this to have little vertical rise and tend to spread out. But it’s a great illustration of the balancing act of baking. In this case, in Tartine’s quest to produce a highly-open crumb, they increase hydration and sacrifice vertical rise. Other bakers may not want this.

For me, I prefer a tighter, softer crumb and more vertical rise similar to the picture below:

It’s by no means a dense structure as evidenced by the sheer number of small holes in the crumb. And I prefer this because this kind of crumb structure will hold spreads like mayonnaise and mustard and have far less leakage when used with a sandwich as compared to a crumb that has lots of big holes. In my case, I sacrificed that open crumb structure that so many people seem to obsess over in favor of vertical rise and the ability of the crumb to hold spreads more effectively.

The point of all this is that I’ve found that it’s necessary to weigh the different factors that go into producing a loaf of bread. If I’m after a particular outcome, I have to constantly balance that with what I might have to sacrifice in another area.

For instance, like many, when I first saw pictures of Tartine bread, I wondered what it would take to produce bread similar to that. And after lots of study and experimentation, I finally got the method down to produce loaves with a super-open crumb such as the ones shown below:

I must have baked at least 50 loaves before I could achieve this consistently. A friend of mine whom I had given a loaf messaged me and remarked how it was like Tartine bread. What a compliment!

But despite my success in achieving that, personally, I didn’t like the bread. It tasted great and the long, final proof really brought out its sour characteristics. But from a practical standpoint, it frustrated me. Though it looked and tasted great, I felt that bread like this wasn’t very versatile. So I had to do quite a bit of rethinking and balance the desire for an open crumb with its practical use. So after weighing all the different factors, I decided to drop the hydration rates of my boules and batards to around 78%-82% depending on the flour blend I use.

I realize that for beginning bakers I’m probably sounding like the teacher in Charlie Brown: “Mwa-ma-wah-wah-mwa…” But if once you start baking with regularity and gaining knowledge and skill, you’ll see what I mean about the balancing act of baking bread.

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