Bassinage Is Really the Way to Go

The more I use the bassinage method, the more convinced I am that it’s the way to go with building great dough structure. For those that are unfamiliar with bassinage, it’s a process of adding water to the dough during bulk fermentation – bathing the dough as the word translates from French.

Mind you, what you’re doing is actually holding back a bit of the total water during mixing to promote the formation of gluten. While it requires water to form gluten, it forms more readily in a relatively drier environment. For the loaves above, my final hydration was 75%. But I only hydrated the initial dough to 70%, reserving that small amount of water to be added once I built up the gluten. I added the rest of the water – less than 40g – during my first fold about 10-15 minutes after mixing.

The effect of holding back some of the water was pretty incredible. If you look at the loaves in the picture above, they look like they absolutely exploded. But see how sharply the extreme ends of the loaves rise up and how the loaves haven’t filled the basket to the edges? That is a function of dough strength and the loaves holding their shape after shaping, not rising action.

Before I started using the bassinage technique, my dough would fill the baskets to the edges, then rise above the rim. But by employing the bassinage technique, I was able to build lots of strength in the dough first, then get it to its final hydration. I’ll tell you, that dough was absolutely magnificent to work with!

When I made baguettes this past weekend, I used the Baguette de Tradition method, which is a same-day, 76% hydration dough. I applied the bassinage technique when making this dough, and thank goodness I did! Truth be told, I actually slightly over-proofed the shaped loaves as it was a pretty hot day. But if you look at the picture to right, they puffed up rather nicely in spite of being a little over-proofed. I owe that to the strength I built into the dough before getting to my final hydration. There was enough strength left in it that the loaves maintained their structure.

When I put the loaves in the oven, I was worried they’d come out flat. But when I pulled them out of the oven, I was SO jazzed. They came out nice and puffy!

As I mentioned in a previous article, I actually stumbled upon this technique before I even found out that it’s actually a formal technique and had been using it for months before I heard Jonathan at Proof Bread on YouTube talk about it. For me, it really is the way to go!

Bathing Your Dough – Bassinage

It’s funny how we sometimes stumble upon a technique, not really knowing it was a technique in the first place! One of the things that I started to do a few months ago to fine tune the hydration and temperature of my dough was to hold back a small amount of the total water in my formula (about 50g – 100g, depending on the bread I was making), then add it in during folding. I had no idea that this was technique called bassinage.

When I started doing this, my thinking was that with high-hydration dough, gluten development was challenging when the dough was really wet. So I’d hold back some of the water and let bulk fermentation start with the lower amount of water to promote the formation of gluten as I had read somewhere that a drier environment helps gluten form much more easily.

Now as I write this, I’m laughing because it never even occurred to me to include this in the formulas I share. And I didn’t think anything of it because formulas I’d learn from prominent bakers such as Jeffrey Hamelman never even mention this in their formulas! But it’s an actual technique that the French call eau de bassinage, or bathing water.

I looked up the term in Hamelman’s “Bread” book and as he explains:

It is often difficult to mix wetter doughs to adequate gluten development when using a planetary mixer (such as a Hobart or KitchenAid). One tactic that is effective is the following: When mixing the final dough, hold back a portion of the liquid (hold back more or less liquid depening upon the total hydration of the dough). This technique (called bassinage in French) can also be used with spiral mixers for wet doughs. The gluten will develop more readily in this drier environment. When the dough has attained the degree of strength you seek, turn off the mixer. Make an opening the place where the dough hook enters the both of the dough. Pour the rest of the liqui into this hold, turn the mixer back on, and mix just until the liquid is incorporated. I find this to be an effective technique when I mix at home, not just for notoriously we doughs like ciabatta, but for many other doughs as wel, especially those whose hydration is abouve about 70 percent.

Hamelman does this during mixing, but when I started researching this technique for this article, I found that different people do it at different stages. For instance, one baker I found does it to incorporate the salt and yeast after autolyse. Another does it as I do during the first fold, adding a little water at a time to the bottom of the container and folding the dough over it. No matter what stage bassinage is performed, one thing is common: Gluten formation takes place beforehand.

I have to do a bit more research into this as I’m interested in the food science behind the technique. But from what I’ve been able to gather thus far, as the gluten has already formed, the added water acts as a lube of sorts to help the dough become more extensible as the water molecules penetrate the dough and get in between the gluten strands. Pretty cool.

All that said, I don’t do this will all my bread – not even all the high-hydration bread I make. But if I know I’m coil folding a dough, I usually fold in water during the first folding session, or when I feel that sufficient gluten development has taken place.

The Yin-Yang of Artisan Baking

In ancient Chinese philosophy, the Yin and the Yang denote a duality in life; how seemingly opposite forces can actually be connected and interdependent. In physics, this can be expressed as Newton’s Third Law that states the for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction.

Back when I was in high school physics class, my teacher gave us a word problem describing a boat with a single sail, and at the stern of the boat, sat a wind machine that could generate enough force to fill the sail and move the boat.

Mr. Calvelli, my physics teacher, went on to elaborate on the weight of the boat and the friction of the hull against the water. Then he asked a simple question: How much force must be generated by the wind generator to move the boat?

It was obviously a trick question because of Newton’s Third Law. No matter how hard the wind generator worked, or how efficient the sail was (it was assumed it was 100% efficient), the boat would stay in place because the force of the wind blown forward would be negated by the force that would propel the boat backward.

Sorry, I was reminiscing and took a detour… So what does this have to do with baking bread?

I’m actually going to turn to other anecdotal experience for this. I spent the better part of the first half of my life studying martial arts. I then moved onto – believe it or not – ballet, which I did for about 10 years. In studying both disciplines, there was a yin-yang nature that always fascinated me. On the one hand, I had to be absolutely focused on what I was doing at the time (yin). But on the other, I had to be completely aware of everything outside of me (yang).

When I started getting into making artisan bread, I realized that to master the craft, I had to apply that focus-awareness type of approach to my baking. Take mixing ingredients for example. On the outside, it’s a simple, pedestrian step. But it’s not enough to just go through the motions of getting the ingredients together. You have to be aware of how the mixing will affect the dough further into the process.

For instance, yesterday I mixed ingredients for two different types of bread. The first was a roasted garlic levain bread, the second was a traditional long-fermentation sourdough. I used the exact same flour blend for both bread, and they both had the same hydration at a little over 70%. But I mixed them completely different.

The garlic loaf used both levain and a tiny bit of yeast, so I fully mixed and did initial kneading with my mixer. With the traditional sourdough, which used nothing but natural leaven, I was much more gentle and mixed to a shaggy mass, then did stretch and folds over the course of a few hours. Both mixing actions required absolute focus to get the dough to the right state. But at the same time, I had to be cognizant and aware of what I’d have to do following those actions. So… yin and yang.

Though I used mixing as an example, it applies to every step of the process. Of course, this could be extended to other things out of bread-making, but I’ll stick with bread-making…

I can’t stress the criticality of this yin-yang in bread-making. With respect to focus, it’s not about concentrating on something to the exclusion of everything else – that would defeat awareness of other things. But at the same time, it’s not letting yourself get distracted. On the other side of things, we need to be simultaneously aware of our surroundings and our dough and respond to the infinite variables.

So what’s the point of all this?

Simply that for those of us who’ve immersed ourselves in the craft, it’s not about just crafting a single loaf, but the same kind of loaf consistently. As Bruce Lee put it…

I fear not the man who has practiced ten-thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten-thousand times.

~Bruce Lee

To put a finer point on it, in “Bread,” Jeffery Hamelman wrote:

…if we acquire the skill to make a dozen or a hundred or a a thousand loaves, the next level of proficiency is to be able to make them consistently. And that for both the professional and the home baker, is probably the greatest challenge: to be able, day after day, to adjust to the specific needs of the day’s doughs, to factor in and accomodate the slight changes in ambient temperature and humidity, as well as the degrees of ripeness of the poolish or biga or soudough and the tolerance of the dough during fermentation…

~Jeffery Hamelman

It’s fine to say this, but the backdrop is this idea of the yin-yang of making bread.

Happy baking!

BTW… I’ve been writing this entry while baking and I just pulled the garlic loaves out of the oven! The traditional sourdough loaves have at least another day in my retarder.

I’ll provide a recipe later on, but I adapted it from Jeffery Hamelman’s book, “Bread.” His recipe uses bread flour, but I used a high-extraction/AP flour blend.

Engaging the Five Senses

It was supposed to be a batard… 🙂

I’ve been baking bread for over 40 years, but I haven’t really taken it seriously until this past year. My only goal up to that point was to create something edible. Take, for instance, the loaf pictured above. It was absolutely delicious. But I remembered thinking it didn’t look right. It completely conformed to the shape of my Dutch oven. It was supposed to be a batard! But it exploded in my pot probably due to it being under-fermented.

My wife, ever supportive of my new passion, told me that it didn’t matter as long as the bread tasted good. But I showed her pictures from Ken Forkish’s “Flour Water Salt Yeast” and said that I wanted to make bread that looked like the bread in the pictures and further explaining that as an artist (I’m a part-time professional musician), aesthetics are important to me.

After that conversation, I put my foot down and decided to not only make bread that tasted good, but it had to look good as well.

But since then, I’ve evolved my sense of aesthetics. Now, I feel as if a successful bake is one in which the bread appeals to all five senses.

Sight – I’ve broken down the visual sense into two categories: 1) Similarity to the archetype of the loaf I’m creating and; 2) General visual appeal, or how appetizing the loaf looks. For the first item for example, do the baguettes I made look like what I expect baguettes to look like. The second one is easy. Does it look good?

For example, look at the loaves above. Both are sourdough batards. If I placed the two side-by-side for consumption, I’m willing to bet that the loaf on the left would be cut into first for the simple reason that it just looks better than the loaf on the right that has collapsed (it was over-proofed).

Visual appeal is important to me at this stage in the game. A “hug” should look like a hug. A ciabatta should look like ciabatta and have a beautiful, open crumb.

Touch – What does the loaf feel like? Again, does the loaf feel like it should? For hearth bread, even for large loaves, when I pick one up, I want them to feel lighter than what my eyes tell me. Take the batard on the left above. That loaf weighed over two pounds. It was a big loaf. But when I picked it up, it felt light and airy. The crumb reflected that:

Not only that, the texture of the crumb was spongy and soft – and I was even using a predominance of whole wheat and high-extraction flour!

Aroma – Pretty much any homemade bread smells great coming out of the oven. But I found so much complexity in aroma by using a blend of different flour. To me, there’s nothing like the aroma of whole grains when they’ve been subjected to high temperature.

Taste – Though they’re not listed in any particular order, I purposely didn’t list taste first because it’s kind of a given. And frankly, similarly to wine, taste goes along with aroma. As with aroma, what I strive for with my bread is a complexity in flavors. And since there’s technically on three ingredients in naturally leavened bread, achieving complexity is a system of trade-offs.

For instance, because I use a healthy percentage of whole wheat and high-extraction flour (typically 10% whole wheat, 50% high-extraction) in my flour blend, my loaves generally don’t have a super-open crumb. I also tend to bake my loaves more aggressively to ensure good caramelization of the sugars on the crust (though I do my best not to take things out to black).

A more “aggressive” bake

Sound – This one isn’t as apparent as the others. But when I pick up a loaf and give it a light squeeze, I want to hear the bread sing as the crust gently crackles beneath my fingers. I also listen to my loaves as they cool and expect an occasional crackle as the loaf contracts and the crust cracks. It’s a sign that the crust is crispy, but also has some give in it.

There’s really nothing like that sound!

You Have to Be Adaptable

Last night, I created an overnight levain before going to bed as an experiment. It contained 400 grams of culture, 400 grams of high-extraction bread flour, and 400 grams of water. By morning, it was ready. So… to get the flour to a nice, round kilo, I added 400 grams of AP flour, and 150 grams of water to get the hydration to 75%.

My thought was to make a batch of sourdough baguettes. But this time, I’d try out the process of making baguettes traditional, which involved a loose mix, followed by stretch and folds every 20 minutes for an hour, then bulk fermenting for a couple of hours (though I’d check after an hour).

What I should’ve done was check after 30 minutes because at the 1-hour mark, the dough completely overproofed! It was a sticky mess with absolutely no strength. Pulling on the dough would tear it! And worse yet, it was highly acidic!

BUT!

Rather than chucking the dough, I thought to myself, why not add a bunch of flour and water and use that dough as a pre-ferment? So I took my mixer out, then gradually added flour and water until I got a dough texture that was consistent with an approximately 75% hydration dough.

But my yield completely changed by doing this! Normally, my dough yield is about 1.7 – 1.8 kilo of dough, which allows me to create 6 X 290-295 gram baguettes. Adding flour and water literally doubled my normal yield!

So my next thought was that when bulk fermentation was finished, I’d divide the dough such that I could make 6 X 250 gram baguettes, then divide the rest of the dough into two medium boules or batards.

It was a great idea on paper, but when bulk fermentation was finished (as shown in the picture above), although it looked normal, the dough was SO acidic that it was overly extensible and super-sticky even though I could feel there was plenty of strength in the dough. Shaping that kind of sticky dough into baguettes was completely out of the question.

Furthermore, I knew instinctively that though I could shape the dough into three or four batards or boules, the dough wouldn’t stand up to the sheer size of the loaves and though they’d expand, they’d expand outward instead of up. So in the end, I decided to create 6 small, free-form batards.

My thought was that they’d be big enough to create some decent slices for finger sandwiches or what-not, but small enough that they wouldn’t collapse under their own weight. Thankfully, it was the right decision. The loaves popped up beautifully in the oven!

As you can see in the picture above, I got great oven spring with all of them. And I was actually surprised to see the moderate crumb considering the dough consisted predominantly of high-extraction flour that has lots of bran in it. I owe that to the acidity of the dough which, as I mentioned, adds extensibility.

This whole exercise provided a couple of HUGE lessons for me!

First of all, there’s always a way to salvage an over-proofed dough, and secondly – and most importantly – you have to be adaptable and flexible enough in your thinking to respond to different conditions. If I went ahead and tried to create baguettes, they’d tear in the shaping process, and with baguettes, it’s all about the skin because there’s little internal structure, so you have to rely on shaping.

Granted, this is probably something I wouldn’t have figured out early on in my journey. I would’ve chucked the dough. So this experience presents yet another important lesson: Never stop studying and practicing! I’ve spent so much time studying not only techniques, but the science behind dough fermentation.

Just last night, I read about how acid content affects the dough and makes it more extensible as well as eventually breaking down the gluten structure! Thank freakin’ gawd that I learned that! That information allowed me to respond to the high acid content in my dough! So for those of you who read this who are on their own journey, you can never learn enough.

Finally, I’ve learned to approach bread making much like Bruce Lee approached martial arts in that the technique you use is dictated by the situation. Especially early in my process of learning artisanal bread making, I was fairly canonical in my approach and followed recipes and techniques I’d learn fairly religiously. But I was always wondering why my bread wouldn’t turn out the way I was expecting. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to tweak on the fly and respond to different situations that I started seeing much better results.

So yeah… You have to be adaptable!

I Use a Stand Mixer. So There!

When I’m mixing my ingredients, I use my handy-dandy KitchenAid Artisan mixer. I love that contraption! It has made my life so easy. I’m sorry, but I don’t have any romantic notions about mixing dough by hand. I did it when I first started on this artisan bread obsession, but then when I started baking daily, I abandoned doing that in favor of having a more automated way of bringing my ingredients together.

Like many, I’ve read books and watched videos where the bakers extoll hand-mixing, elevating the process to one of honor. It’s like there’s a certain romanticism attached to the whole artisan bread making process and making bread the old fashioned way where every step is done completely by hand. I bake bread at least six days a week and I’m doing it while I’m working at home. I don’t have time to do everything by hand for goodness’ sake! I’ve got meetings to attend and actual work to do. So the more efficient I can be the better.

But I laugh when professional bakers say to mix by hand because you know they’ve got an 80-quart Hobart (or maybe even a few of them) mixing up their dough! I realize their intent is pure and that they’re trying to reinforce that we learn and know what it’s like to feel the dough develop. But for me, once I learned what to look and feel for, I went straight to the mixer so I could “git ‘er done!”

That said, I think that it’s important to mix by hand when you first start out. That way you know what the dough feels like at every stage of mixing. And to this day, even though I use a mixer, I frequently stop it to feel my dough. I don’t just set it and forget it. I monitor the state of my dough carefully and get it to the point where I can throw it into its fermentation container, or dump it out onto my board to knead. Yes, I hand-knead my lower-hydration dough. I have to because it strains my mixer too much.

But one thing that my mixer does that I can’t do without a lot of effort – and time – is evenly and efficiently distribute the ingredients. Okay, yes, I can achieve that with time. But I have to admit that mixing ingredients is probably my least favorite baking activity. So I’d rather have a machine do it for me, then I’ll take over and do the rest.

I do have to admit that I feel just a little guilty about using a stand mixer at times. But then I remember how much I don’t enjoy mixing by hand, and that guilt disappears – quickly.

Happy Baking!

My Rules for a Successful Bake

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.

One Size Does NOT Fit All

Though all bread is basically made with just four ingredients, what makes them different lies in the ratios of the ingredients and especially the processing techniques. For instance, with boules and batards where the ingredient ratios and fermentation times tend to be exactly the same, just a little thing like shaping completely changes the texture of the bread. Crusts bake completely different.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because early on, I learned that lesson. Reading Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast (FWSY) was a revelation in artisan bread baking, but it also had the effect of metastasizing my thinking that I could use the same principles I learned in the book to every single type of bread that I wanted to bake. That, even though Ken often said that his recipes were general guidelines and that depending on my kitchen and equipment, I’d have to work out what worked best.

I thought I could use the basic Saturday white bread recipe to make baguettes. After all, I thought to myself, it was just dough, and I was just shaping it differently. But to my frustration and consternation, my baguettes kept on coming out too heavy. Yet in my stubbornness, I pulled an Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results…” I finally had to get over the fact that FWSY was not the be-all/end-all to baking artisan bread, and I had to change things up.

I now make baguettes that are airy on the inside and crispy on the outside and if you looked at my process, it’s WAY different than any recipe in FWSY. And mind you, I’m not cutting down anything in the book. But I had to break free and diverge from the book, which is what I believe Ken intended all along.

To be honest, everything changed for me when I decided to make long loaves like baguettes. You can’t make them in a Dutch oven, and I didn’t want to purchase a bunch of special pans to bake the different kinds of breads I had in mind. So when I purchased a baking stone, it was game over as far as FWSY recipes were concerned. I still made my boules according to the recipes in the book for the most part, but for other loaves, I took different routes.

And this is where I realized that one size doesn’t fit all with respect to making bread. Even the slightest tweak can yield significantly different – and admittedly, sometimes unexpected – results. For example, in FWSY, Ken promotes this idea of letting the dough bulk ferment to double or even triple the original size. I never do that because it runs the risk of over-proofing the dough. And since I use a baking stone, I don’t have an enclosed container that will limit the spread of my dough should it be over-proofed.

For me, I want to have plenty of energy left over for intermediate and final proofing. So I cut bulk fermentation short at about 50% rise, so I have plenty of fuel for the final two fermentations after pre-shaping and shaping, respectively. Furthermore, I will err on the side of slightly under-proofing my dough (not too much). My final product may be a little tighter than a fully-open crumb, but I also avoid making flat loaves.

So for those just starting out, I have to say that just don’t take my word for it. You’ll have to learn these lessons by baking over and over. But the important thing is to keep an open mind to different techniques and processes. One size does not fit all!

Gimme Some Skin!

A friend recently asked me what drew me into my bread making obsession. I shared that when I first started, I had no idea I’d totally fixate on this. All I was doing was jumping on the bandwagon and my only goal was to be able to make a decent-tasting loaf of bread. But once I made my first few loaves, inevitably, my sense of aesthetics kicked in and I didn’t want to just create decent-tasting bread, I wanted it to look good as well as taste good.

Then I wanted it to be much more nutritious than other bread. In essence, I went on, what drew me in was the nuance; those little niggling details that all come together to create a beautiful loaf of bread. As I discovered, all those little things affect how the bread turns out. And one of those little things I have found to be absolutely critical is, of all things, pre-shaping.

I have to admit that when I first started out, I kind of took the pre-shaping step for granted. After all, it seems like such a minor step: Shape the dough into a ball, let it rest for 15-20 minutes, then shape. And mind you, I was learning alot of technique from YouTube videos, and none of the chefs I watched ever explained the importance of this step. But I found that the more care I put into pre-shaping, the better my loaves turned out. Let me explain why…

First, pre-shaping establishes the “skin” of the bread; essentially creating the canvas that will be presented to the world. But that skin isn’t just for looks. It plays a vital role in the overall structure of the loaf. Arguably, this is the most important item of pre-shaping’s importance. In pre-shaping, you don’t want to just create a smooth outer skin, it has to be taut, stretching the gluten strands to begin to establish the outer structure of the loaf.

Secondly, pre-shaping begins orienting the gluten strands to make it easier for the ultimate shape. It doesn’t seem that apparent when making boules or batards, but that orientation is really apparent when making baguettes. It gives the dough a little bit of a head start before shaping.

Finally, pre-shaping re-arranges the yeast and other microbes in the dough, so that the little beasties that have exhausted their food supply during bulk fermentation can be moved to a new spot to get new food. This may explain why oftentimes during pre-shaping, you’ll see bubbles spontaneously form. Pre-shaping wakes up the microbes and that’s a great thing. You want them to be active during final proof!

When I first started out and didn’t put any emphasis on establishing the skin, I believe it negatively affected my ultimate shaping in that my loaves would often collapse. But once I started making sure I’d create a nice, smooth, taut skin during pre-shaping, I had fewer and fewer collapses to the point where my loaves – which are generally 75-80% hydration – just don’t collapse unless I over-proof them.

But as I always say, this is just one aspect of the whole process; though on the surface it seems like a minor item, it really isn’t.

Happy Baking!

Open Crumb? Sure… But Not All the Time

Generally, the bread I bake has a fairly open crumb, considering the high-extraction flour I use. With the loaves pictured above, the only pure white flour bread is in the top-left corner. I can get that kind of open crumb every time with any kind of loaf I bake when I use white bread flour. But the other ones? They use my 75-25 combination of high-extraction and white whole wheat flour.

Their crumbs may appear to be pretty open. But if you pick up a slice, there’s a certain heft to it. In fact, your first reaction will be that it’s dense. But when you bite into it, it doesn’t feel dense at all. The reason is that instead a really big holes, what I get with this flour are lots of small gas pockets, which makes the bread a lot more airy than how it might appear. And that’s exactly the end product that I’m after.

I want to strike a balance between open crumb and density to make my bread versatile. A loaf with big, open pockets isn’t really good for making sandwiches. But then a super tight crumb is just too dense and filling. But striking a balance between the two is perfect. I get to make my sandwiches, and my wife and kids love making avocado toast! And the bread is great with pasta and sopping up sauce!

This really isn’t a rant. But there is this preponderance of thought that an open crumb is the ultimate aim of artisan bread. For me, getting an open crumb was certainly a goal when I first started. But now that I’ve gained a lot more experience these past six months, what crumb I get is based on what I want to achieve with the bread.

For my baguettes and boules, I definitely want to get a nice open crumb. But for my batards and hand-shaped long loaves, I want a slightly less-open crumb (not tight, but less than open than a boule or baguette). For my loaf pan breads, I definitely don’t want big bubbles at all, though I do want to make sure the dough is airy.

The reason I’m writing this is because once you get to the point of consistently being able to create bread with an open crumb, you may also start asking yourself what you want to do with the bread; in other words, practicality may make you think about the different loaves that you make and what their ultimate purpose might be.

Mind you, I’m not arguing against an open crumb. But what I am saying is that an open crumb doesn’t necessarily define what makes a good loaf of bread. To me, what does define success is if the loaves I create fulfill the purpose I have in mind for them. And, of course, they have to taste good…