What Baking “Real Bread” Has Meant to Me

No matter what endeavor I take on in life, there has to be some meaning attached to it. As a career software engineer, I didn’t want to code just for coding’s sake, I wanted to build cool stuff that had affected people in a positive way; either by automating monotonous, manual tasks, or providing impactful information to help impact the world around them.

So when I started seriously considering opening a micro-bakery out of my home, I didn’t want to just make any old bread. And quite honestly, I didn’t want my bread to be about me as a baker; rather, I wanted my bread to be a statement of nutritiousness and, of course, tradition. The rebel in me wanted to break the chains of the conveniences in our society to which we’re all accustomed. My thought was that while I’m all for progress, in some cases, older is better, and with bread, older is also better for you.

So when I started putting my micro-bakery together, I made a conscious effort to seek out communities and organizations of like-minded individuals. I met plenty of enthusiasts such as myself, but it was difficult to find organizations whose ethos and narrative aligned with my own with respect to bread. Then I stumbled upon The Real Bread Campaign.

Established in 2008 in the UK, Real Bread has a very simple ethos:

Real Bread has nothing to hide. It is made with simple, natural ingredients and NO additives. Simple, eh?

from Real Bread – About

Once I read the About page, I knew this was an organization I wanted to support and after a few months of lurking, I finally recently joined as a paying member to literally put my money where my mouth is. And I can also add the Real Bread Loaf Mark to my marketing materials which is totally cool.

The concept of baking “real bread” is easy. No additives. Period. This means no chemical dough conditioners such as ascorbic acid. Ingredients must all be natural. Here’s an excerpt:

What is Real Bread?

Everyone has his or her own idea of what Real Bread is. Here’s the Real Bread Campaign’s basic definition:

Made without the use of so-called processing aids or any other additives*

In fact, we believe this should be a key criterion in the legal definition of bread full stop.

Why should bakers who make bread in a time-honoured, natural way have to qualify it with ‘real’, ‘artisan’, ‘craft’ and the like? We say let’s reclaim the name bread and leave it to the industrial loaf fabricators to come up with a new name for their additive-laden products.

Amongst the additives not used in Real Bread making are: Baking powder and other chemical leavening; ascorbic acid; xanthan gum; added enzymes or any other so-called ‘processing aids’ – that exclusion applies to any addtives in the flour or mix you use.

…and by bread, we mean any additive-free crusty bap, bagel, bialy, injera, wrap, khobez, baguette, chleb, naan, chapatti, roti, stottie cake, lavash, ruisleipä, ciabatta, bara brith, Staffordshire oatcake,  tortilla, paratha, porotta, pitta, pida… the list goes on.

NB All genuine sourdough is Real Bread but not all Real Bread has to be sourdough.

*The only exceptions we make are the four so-called ‘fortificants‘ added to most UK milled flour by law.

The phrase, “All genuine sourdough is Real Bread but not all Real Bread has to be sourdough” is an important one because handmade bread risen with commercial yeast counts, so long as you don’t add stuff to it.

So what has this meant to me?

Though the guidelines are fairly simple and straightforward, this has meant so much to me beyond the guidelines because it helps reaffirm my own particular ethos of creating delicious and nutritious bread that’s simply flour, water, salt, and yeast.

But the whole concept of “real bread” also keeps me mindful of the wholesomeness of the ingredients I use, especially flour. I only use certified organic flour or use flour from producers who responsibly source their grain – read no-GMOs and sustainably farmed wheat. The flour I use is NEVER bleached or bromated. I will even source directly from the mills!

And in going to the source, I do my best to support the small, independent farms and mills. Yes, the flour’s a bit more expensive, but the quality is top-notch and I’m going around all the middlemen and the huge agribusiness conglomerates.

And I know that this may sound a little New Age, airy-fairy, but in baking bread in traditional ways, there’s a certain Zen to it all. Zen isn’t dogmatic nor religious. It’s the direct experience of the natural order of things – at least from a fairly simplistic perspective. “Real Bread” provides a framework for the Zen of breadmaking as we follow the natural order of how dough is risen. Yeah, like I said, it’s a little airy-fairy, but at least for me, it’s a real experience.

I may actually write a piece on the Zen of breadmaking. I’ve been mulling that concept for a few days now… Stay tuned…

Finally, making “real bread” has helped me be patient with the process – any process. Where I used to be very reactive, I’m much more measured and observant first and that allows me to respond to situations in a much more relaxed manner. Since I’ve been baking, my stress level has really dropped!

Whether or not you join the organization, I recommend reading through the website. There’s lots of useful information there to help anyone wishing to bake real bread.

Sometimes Things Just Work Out…

Today was baguette day, and it’s usually my favorite day because I love making baguettes. But it was also a bit of a weird day. I didn’t feel quite on it today, and I was not at all happy with my baguette dough. I felt it was way too wet and the bulk fermentation went way too fast which in turn made me cut my pre-shape and final proofing short – like to 10 minutes each!

Then on top of that, I was really struggling with shaping! The dough being wet, I felt it was fighting me and by the time I finished shaping my second loaf, I said out loud, “Dammit! I can do better than this!” I’m normally really good with shaping, but today, I felt as if I had two clubbed hands!

Then finally, when I transferred the loaves to my loading board, even though they seemed puffed up on the couche, they immediately collapsed on the board! At that point, I just shook my head, scored the loaves, then popped them into the oven, accepting my fate that I’d be baking baguettes that were going to be DOA. But when I went to remove my steam container and parchment paper, they had sprung up in the oven! Talk about an F me moment!

As you can see from the pictures above, the loaves turned out great! They have nice oven spring and a reasonably open crumb. It’s certainly not my best work, but it’s far from being the total fail that I thought it was going to be. ‘Scuse my language, but Fuckin’-A!

So as the title of this article says, things sometimes just work out. I think what saved my loaves was the fact that I cut off the final proofing. I normally do a 15 minute intermediate (after pre-shape) and a 30 minute final proof. But as I mentioned above, I cut them off to about 10 minutes each. I’ve done baguettes enough where I’ve developed a bit of an instinct as to when to move on to the next step based on what I’m seeing and feeling. And this was definitely one of those cases where I followed my instinct and went off script completely.

So yeah, things sometimes do work out, but the lesson for me here is to trust what I’m seeing and feeling and not be overly canonical and parochial about the process. Sometimes, you have no choice but to go completely off script!

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!

Okay… I Admit It. I’m Obsessed.

I took this weekend off from baking because I went on an annual trip to Lake Tahoe to spend a few days with some of my oldest friends from college (yes, I brought up a bunch of bread that got completely gobbled up – it was very pleasing to witness that). Throughout the weekend I was having what amounted to mental withdrawal symptoms because I wasn’t baking.

My best friend who came with me asked me on Saturday what I felt like not baking. I replied, “I have to admit that I don’t quite know what to do with myself. For the past six months, my hands have been covered in either flour or dough, so to have completely flour-free hands the entire day is a little unsettling.”

But now that the weekend is over, I still can’t bake this week at all as my house is being tented for termite fumigation. I have to admit that even though I know that I’ll be just fine, baking bread has been part of my daily life these past six months that I’m feeling a little… weird…

So yeah, I’m a little obsessed.

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…

I Gotta Laugh At Myself!

That loaf above is supposed to be a boule. And to the untrained eye it looks fine and truth be told, it’ll taste great. I’ve really gotten a handle on my sour poolish! But see the white bottom? That’s a telltale that it wasn’t proofed long enough, and the oven spring was uneven through the loaf. Here’s an extreme example of under-proofing that I’ve shared before:

With those loaves above, I was really impatient! Actually, I was over-excited. I got a great rise in my bulk fermentation, and I got a little over-zealous… 🙂

But back to my most recent fail… Rather than get mad about it, I just laughed. In fact, ever since I started making bread, I’ve really had to learn to laugh at myself and my blunders. Despite the fact that I’ve come a long way in a fairly short amount of time, I’m still a novice at this. I’ve certainly gotten to the point where I can consistently make a good loaf of bread. But I also have accepted that I haven’t experienced all the pitfalls and of this craft and there will be times when things don’t go as expected – like this time.

Admittedly, it’s a challenge for me to not freak out. As a Type 4 on the Enneagram scale, I’m highly individualistic, self-motivated, and driven to excellence, which can easily devolve into perfectionism which, in turn, can lead to self-loathing and depression. But enough of the psychoanalysis! Let’s just say that I’m driven to always do a great job, and when I fall short, it’s easy for me to get down on myself.

So to combat this, I remember that making bread is a joyful experience. After all, I’m doing it purely by choice and not for survival. And besides that, there’s always another loaf to bake! So when I screw up a loaf, I laugh at my blunder, take stock of what I could’ve done differently. Then I move on.

And this has been a valuable reminder and lesson for me in my life in general. Especially with all the stuff about image that we’re bombarded with day in and day out, it’s so easy to take ourselves way too seriously. I’ve done that in the past, but that has led to pretty dark places that I never want to visit again. So I remember the joy and I laugh at myself!