Spend any time on most home-bakers online forums and you’ll be convinced that your bread has to have an open crumb – the more open and lacy the better. When I was really getting into making artisan bread, I strived for that as well, upping my hydration percentages beyond 90% and using high-gluten flour, and learning the dough development techniques to achieve an open crumb.
It was a great experience, but in the end, that’s not what I wanted out of my bread. Aesthetically it looked great and it tasted great on its own. But especially with boules and batards where I’d be cutting slices, the bread was totally impractical! Any spread like mayonnaise and mustard would ooze right through. They were great for dipping in fine olive oil and balsamic, but that’s about it.
With the pictures above, I wanted to show the normal crumb of the boules and batards that I make. Though they employ different kinds of flour, I’ve figured out the hydration and processing that will get me that kind of crumb consistently. You’ll notice that while there are some larger holes, in general, the crumb of each loaf is only moderately open. What’s important to me is making sure the bread is fully fermented and that the yeast action is consistent and even during baking. Ultimately what I’m after is a soft, moist, yet airy crumb that has substance, but isn’t dense.
You’ll see on closer inspection that there are in fact numerous very small holes. I get lots of oven spring, but not due to large holes but by small holes acting together to raise the bread. If I’ve done the right job in making sure my dough is fully fermented, I’m good with that and it’s what I personally prefer. Given that, let me say this: A super-open crumb is not the be-all, end-all to baking bread! It really boils down to a baker’s preference. But this has somehow become a thing in home baking circles.
To be fair, I can understand why there’s so much enthusiasm surrounding an open crumb. It’s just not that easy to achieve when you don’t have the experience. And really, that’s what it takes: experience. In order to achieve that kind of open crumb, there are so many interdependent factors involved; and no, it’s not just upping the hydration as so many people are wont to recommend. And the only way one can fully understand the various interdependencies is through practice and repetition. So when someone finally achieves an open crumb with their bread, it’s understandable that they’d be excited.
And speaking of the recommendation to increase hydration, I have to admit that it’s irritating to me when I read this when someone asks how to get a more open crumb because most of the time that’s all the person answering says. So many people just blurt out, “Just increase your hydration,” as a catch-all, and don’t consider the flour the asker is using. First, your flour has to be able to absorb the extra water, and second, your flour has to have a high enough protein content to maintain the dough structure with higher hydration. Otherwise, you may very well get an open crumb, but your loaf will expand out and not up during baking.
And even with higher protein content, there’s the dough development and handling techniques to achieve that open crumb. Then you also have to consider the size of the loaf. A larger format loaf is going to have a lot of weight that could affect the openness of the crumb significantly. Like I said, there are lots of interdependencies…
Tongue-in-cheek, I kind of blame Chad Robertson for this craze because I’m fairly sure his book, Tartine Bread, had a lot to do with people’s notions of what constitutes an ideal crumb. Look at the picture to the right that I captured from Tartine Bread. That crumb is aesthetically amazing (unless, of course, you have trypophobia). And while it looks delicious – and I’ve had Tartine bread and it tastes amazing – spread some honey on a slice of that. Just make sure you don’t lay the slice directly on your hand without a napkin. And butter? Fuhgeddaboutit!
While that style of crumb isn’t what I’m personally after, it’s what Chad wanted to achieve as a baker and that’s entirely his prerogative. He spent years in search of that and developing the technique to achieve that crumb consistently in all his different kinds of bread – and at high-production levels, no less! So kudos to him!
And kudos to others who want to achieve this. It’s just not for me. Unfortunately, I’ve been on forums where people are downright snooty about other folks’ crumb shots that are like mine. And worse yet, they’ll say things like, “It looks like your dough is underfermented,” or “You need to up the hydration of your dough.” In my case, all my loaves contain a significant portion of whole-grain or high-extraction flour, at least 25% and usually more, and unless I add vital wheat gluten – which I try to avoid – I will not get big holes. The best I can hope for is a crumb similar to the leftmost loaf in the pictures above.
I know I kind of went off here… But don’t feel bad about not getting a super-open crumb. Even if that’s what you’re ultimately after. What you really should be concerned about is ensuring that your dough is fully fermented. Get that down first. Then study your flour to see if it can handle a higher hydration rate. You’ll also then have to ensure that you’re thoroughly developing your dough. Like I said above, there are lots of interdependent factors.