I’m Sorry But…

The following is meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. Every now and then my “outside voice” surfaces and I need to vent. 🙂

…I will not mix dough with my bare hands if I can avoid it, but if you want to do it, go right ahead! That doesn’t mean I use a mixer every single time. I don’t. But I do use a Danish dough whisk for mixing up batches of dough, both large and small when I’m mixing by hand. It’s incredibly efficient and it keeps things – as in my hands – neat and clean! Plus, it’s just so much faster at getting ingredients incorporated with each other. No scraping dough off my hands, or rubbing them with flour to remove the dough. No brushing my fingernails to get all the dough out from under them.

Now I realize that there seems to be this romance about mixing the dough with your hands. Ken Forkish talked about getting close to the dough and feeling how it transforms, same thing with Chef Markus Farbinger in his video series. The way they present compels you to always mix by hand. And that said, I’m a big advocate of that when you first start out. It’s important to feel that transformation. But from lots of experience now, I can look at a dough mass and pretty much know how it will feel. So mixing by hand? Hell no! I’d rather be clean.

Stretch that dough!

…If the instructions say to stretch and fold your dough, STRETCH YOUR DOUGH! The whole point of doing the stretch and folds – and especially the stretching – is to align the gluten molecules to help build strength and structure in the dough. If all you’re doing is folding over the dough mass and not stretching the dough, you will not develop sufficient structure. So stretch your dough as far as it will go without tearing it. (BTW… I love the extensibility of my baguette dough to the left, and no, not because it looks phallic)

Close your fingers!

And for goodness’ sake, use closed fingers when tugging on your dough! (see picture to the right). I’ve spoken with so many people that say they keep tearing their dough when they stretch it. When I point out that they should be using closed fingers, it’s usually the culprit.

…Yes, I use a stand mixer. So sue me! This is REALLY tongue-in-cheek but I recently spoke with someone who kind of scoffed at the idea of me using a stand mixer to mix my ingredients. But once I explained that I was mixing a few 3-kilo batches, they changed their tune quickly. Look, I’m not against hand-mixing but when I’m on a schedule doing a big bake, I have to be as efficient as possible. If I can cut down some time by employing some automation, as long as it doesn’t impact the quality of my product, I’m going to use it! And make no bones about it: I chuckle when I see these chefs talk about mixing by hand and I see a 40-liter mixer in the background.

…There’s more to bread than frickin’ sourdough!. And yes, it really is okay to use commercial yeast. Okay… I admit that this is really my outside voice coming out, but I have to say that this is a subject that gets me mildly annoyed. The positive thing about the shutdown was that it got lots of people into making bread – especially sourdough. But it also created what I call sourdough zealots who think that EVERY bread has to rise with a sourdough starter otherwise it’s not real bread. Which is bullshit, of course. Baguettes and ciabattas typically use commercial yeast as leavening agents as do many many other types of beloved bread.

Also, you have to understand that while you can indeed replace commercial yeast with sourdough starter, you have to change a few things. First of all, if you’re going after a specific yield, both your flour and water amounts change. Furthermore, rise times will change with sourdough, generally getting longer. The recipes and formulas were developed with the stated ingredients. My advice is to master the process with the commercial yeast first, then make the tweaks to the formula. It’s not as cut and dry as it seems.

…You need to make your bread look good too… I know that the most important thing in making bread is that it tastes good. But the implication of the word artisan means that there is a certain visual aesthetic to the bread. For example, I can’t stand looking at misshapen baguettes. It’s like fingernails scratching a blackboard to me. And mind you, this is just me, but I want my bread to both taste and look good. It’s not about achieving a “professional” look per se. It’s about reflecting and demonstrating the craft behind the bread. For me, it just has to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. After all, we bakers spend hours creating our bread. How it looks should reflect the work we put into it.

…You dough doesn’t have a disease that requires inoculation… I’ve quipped on this in the past so I won’t rant on it too much. But coming from a microbiology background, the term inoculation has a specific meaning and that is to introduce a pathogen (or antigen) into a living organism to trigger its immune response to create antibodies. Unfortunately, lots of people have bandied about this term in the sourdough world so much, seemingly in an effort to use big words, that it’s now common. When you mix sourdough starter into a dough, what you’re doing is feeding the starter not trying to trigger an immune response!

Testing the Waters

This past weekend, my wife and I camped with other couples and families on the Northern California coast at MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg to celebrate the 4th of July. What a great place! Just a few hundred yards from the ocean, it was calming to hear the constant pounding of the surf, and the copious fog – at least for me – gave a sense of coziness rather than casting a pall over our festivities.

Food was as plentiful as it was delicious and, of course, I brought some bread.

Unbeknownst to anyone but me, this was going to be a major test for me as a baker. It would be the first time I gave bread to total strangers as I only knew a couple of people there and those that I did know I hadn’t seen for at least ten years! Most of the bread I’ve given away has been to friends and family and while I’ve gotten some great feedback, well, they’re friends and family. They’re always supportive.

And yes, for those that are in the know, I do give bread to shelters, but I never get any feedback as I drop it off and go home. But this time, people that I didn’t know at all would eat my bread and I could see their expressions. Needless to say, there was a little part of me that was nervous.

Why all the fuss? Simply because I needed to get affirmation that people I didn’t know at all enjoyed my bread. It’s one thing when friends and family rave about it. It’s an entirely different matter when there’s no personal attachment to it. And getting that kind of feedback was important to me because I’m going down a path with my baking that’s going to involve some serious financial investment. So I needed to see reactions to make sure that it wasn’t my own hubris that was driving me down this path.

On purpose, I brought loaves that were slightly flawed. Normally, the ear on my loaves is much more pronounced, and the crust quite a bit more crunchy, with a moderately open crumb. The ears didn’t form as well because the crusts set too quickly. I think after hundreds of bakes, the seal on my oven is giving up and I’m literally losing steam. That also affected the crumb. It was still airy with a nice chew, but because the crust set, the crumb didn’t have a chance to open up more so I ended up with lots of smaller holes.

Bringing bread that I knew was not to the aesthetic quality of my ideal was akin to something I learned from my late father when he took photography classes. Instead of bringing his best shots to class for critique, he’d bring, in his words, just okay shots so he’d receive feedback on what was wrong in the shots, and more importantly, get the affirmation that what he felt was wrong with the shots were the correct observations.

So I did a similar thing with my bread this weekend. I figured that if people responded positively to bread that did not completely live up to my standards I would know that even on an off day, my bread would still be good.

Admittedly, that’s playing with fire because it would be easy to let the positive reaction get to my head and just keep on putting out just okay product. But I’m not about “just okay.” To me, there’s always room for improvement. That’s not to say that I’m a perfectionist. I do my best to not be one. But knowing that I can always improve drives me to always get better. And with those loaves (they’re pictured above), I can do better.

So what was the reaction? Generally positive and what I was hoping to get. I wasn’t expecting anyone to rave about it. My expectations were much more humble. And though folks gave great verbal reviews, I was looking at their facial expressions and those little micro-expressions that speak WAY more than words ever could. And thankfully, I didn’t see any crinkled noses. 🙂 Finally, I left the bread out on my cutting board as much as I could. If people just left it alone, then that would be plenty of feedback. But luckily they didn’t. Whew!

For me, this weekend was very impactful. I feel confident now that I can move forward with my plans!

You Know You’re Obsessed…

When your friends start giving you gifts that reflect your obsession. In this case, it’s bread. The figurine to the left was given to me by one of my oldest friends this past weekend in commemoration of the recent passing of my father. Thoughtful as ever, she thought that this would provide me comfort in my time of emotional vulnerability. It’s quite a special piece. It’s a Lladro entitled, “Our Daily Bread.” I love it!

I’ve placed it on the bar in my kitchen that overlooks my work area. It really does provide me comfort, and it’s an affirmation for me as an artisan bread baker, however fledgling I may be.

Yet, I do have to laugh a bit because as my friend shared with me, “I had a hard time choosing what to give you because I know of your three passions: Music, Whiskey, and Baking. But I figured this would have a bigger impact.” She couldn’t have been more correct.

Look, I love playing music. I still play professionally part-time and being a musician is an integral part of my identity. Heaven knows I love a good bourbon or rye, and I have lots of gift bottles to show for it. I enjoy consuming whiskey or whisky. But bread… well… that’s a different animal altogether, and I still haven’t figured out what that is. I do know that I’m obsessed with it.

Maybe baking bread appeals to that nurturing part of me. I like to feed people. I do most of the cooking in my house. Bread is almost an extension of that. But then, upon closer inspection, my bread baking even goes beyond that. It’s also an incredibly creative process. And that appeals to the artist in me. But there’s also a very scientific side to it. And that appeals to the engineer in me. I guess I should just be satisfied that it checks so many boxes for me. It has the same appeal to me as playing guitar. But with bread, I can eat the fruits of my labor.

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!

You Gotta Love Happy Accidents

Shown above are the remnants of my latest bake. I made three batches of dough yesterday for baguettes, 3 rustic sourdough loaves and two Poillane-style “hugs,” which are the two loaves in front. They’re about a foot in diameter!

The first two dough batches went without incident, but when it came to the hugs, while the dough was mixing, I noticed that it wasn’t coming off the sides. Then I realized that I used the wrong calculation for water! I used way too much for that formulation and the dough – if you could call it that – was like a thick pancake batter.

Now I could’ve added flour to thicken the dough to the right consistency. But to tell the truth, that has never worked out very well for me. So I decided to go with it and challenge myself to work with a super-high hydration dough. By my calculation, the hydration only got bumped up to 80%. But because the flour blend I used was 60% AP flour, it felt more like the consistency of an 85%+ hydration dough. So given that, I knew that developing the gluten was going to make or break that bake.

Initially, I resolved to employ a 6-fold folding schedule over three hours ala Tartine. But after the first fold, which was more like running my hands through batter, I realized that I’d probably have to do more folding sessions. In the end, I only had to fold the dough 8 times over the course of three hours, doing the last four folds in 20-minute intervals for the back half of the three hours. I then let the dough rest for another hour to let the starter yeasts do their thing, then I popped my container into the fridge for an overnight rest.

What was truly amazing was witnessing first-hand the dough transform from a batter to a well-formed, well-structured dough! As I performed my folding sessions, I could feel how the gluten was developing. At this hydration, it was never going to be stiff, but I could tell that it was strong by the time I finished the last fold. I was able to stretch the dough with the window-pane test with nary a tear!

Twelve hours later, I removed the dough from my retarder fridge and saw that it had more than doubled, with nice, large pockets of fermentation. Preshaping was a bit of a challenge because the yeast was pretty active as you can see in the photo below.

But what was truly incredible was how the dough balls maintained their structure while they rested. Yes, they spread out a bit, which was to be expected, but they didn’t become pancakes. Mind you, with the dough being predominantly AP flour, had I not spent that time developing the gluten, they would’ve collapsed easily.

I could tell that I was getting close to full fermentation, so I did a cold final fermentation for another 4 hours. I’m glad I did this because had I let the final fermentation go at room temperature, I would definitely over-ferment the loaves. In the end, the loaves were very close to full fermentation, but despite that, I still got pretty good oven spring.

The thing that concerned me the most was with the size of the loaves – which I knew would bake out to about a foot in diameter – was that at that hydration, they’d collapse under their own weight. And within the first few minutes of baking, I was horrified to see how they had pancaked out on my stone. But I trusted the steam to do its work and the yeasts to play out – besides, at that point, what the hell could I do?

But the loaves sprung up nicely despite my initial concerns and while I wasn’t expecting a super-open crumb with huge holes, the crumb opened up nicely; looking very much like a Poillane-style loaf inside.

As far as taste is concerned, these loaves are nicely sour, though not overpoweringly so, despite the starter being about 35% of the final dough flour. The crust is thin and crispy and the crumb is light, chewy and moist. With 40% of the flour being a mix of white whole wheat and high-extraction flour, you can taste the nuttiness of the grain as well. Overall, this is a flavor profile that I really enjoy.

So… all in all,

Here’s the original formula, in case you’re curious:

Baker’s %Example (g)
Flour100%1153
Water76%828*
Salt1.8%24
Starter35%407
Total2412
*The “mistake” I made was that I used 928g of water that pushed hydration over 80%. Damn! I wasn’t even drunk! 🙂 Even for experienced bakers, that hydration level with AP flour is a real challenge!

I know… 2412 seems like a weird number, but I always add a process loss fudge factor of 1% to my calculations because I know that I’ll lose dough in the process. My idea was to be able to scale out 1200g portions. With this particular bake, I only lost 4 grams, so the portions were 1204g apiece.

For folding, as I mentioned above, I did 8 folds in a 3-hour period. Because the dough was so delicate, I did nothing but coil folds. But as opposed to folding one side, turning 90-degrees, then doing the other side and letting it rest after that, I’d coil fold at least 3 times, carefully stretching the dough. After the final folding session, the dough held up quite nicely. I knew it was going to spread out eventually, but it more or less held its shape for several minutes. It was a real feel thing.

Luckily for me, the loaves turned out great. It truly was a happy accident!

Coil Fold vs. Stretch & Fold: Which One to Use?

Before I start the discussion, let me say this: This isn’t a discussion meant to argue that one is better than the other, nor will I suggest you use one folding technique exclusively. But what I will say that at least in my experience, the folding technique you use depends on the bread you’re making, and it will affect the type of container you use for fermentation, though I realize many bakers prefer to do their folding on their bench.

So I have a rule-of-thumb with respect to the type of folding I do: If I’m using whole grain flour at or above 20%, or if my dough contains inclusions such as cheese or nuts or dried fruit, I will invariably use coil folds. The reason for this is that it is much gentler on the dough and the particles of inclusion material or bran have less of a chance of tearing the dough. Otherwise, I’ll just do regular stretch and folds.

Now that’s the kind of general rule-of-thumb I use. But the reality is that as of late, once my dough becomes pretty gassy, I tend to do coil folds for my final sets, irrespective of inclusions or whole grain. I do my best to retain the gases as much as possible especially with naturally leavened bread. I don’t want to ruin all the work the wild yeast has done.

The exception to this is when I do yeasted breads, such as baguettes. I will always do stretch and folds with a dough that uses commercial yeast. The reason for this is that it’s fast-acting and once activated very active, so I’m less concerned about degassing the dough and can be a little more assertive with it. Those little buggers will just pick up and fill the dough wtih CO2.

I realize that this is nothing groundbreaking, especially for experienced bakers. And this entry, as most of my non-recipe entries – is more of a reminder for me to practice what I just preached.

Happy Baking!

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!

The Law of Necessity

If you’re like me, you spend a bit of time going through recipes and lurking or participating in online forums. You will often see pictures or read about different kinds of equipment people will use to bake their bread. In turn, you will be compelled to get that gear.

Don’t. At least not immediately.

As with written recipes where the timings are highly dependent on the kitchen environment, in many cases, the equipment people use is congruent with their other gear or their own personal processes.

For instance, I recently read about someone who invested in a KitchenAid 8-quart commercial mixer. They were complaining that their hook wasn’t working very well on the little 500-grams of flour recipe that they were using. When queried about their baking volume, they admitted that they only baked one loaf at a time every week or so. I’m not sure about anyone else who read that post, but it got a bit of chuckle from me. Talk about overkill!

But it’s not an isolated incident. I’ve read or heard about similar accounts of people getting all sorts of items that they report they never use or are too much for their needs. People spending thousands on stuff! It’s crazy!

In the guitar world, this seemingly nonsensical (and expensive) urge to get gear is called Gear Acquisition Syndrome or GAS. It’s a compulsive response to seeing and hearing gear. It’s not just a one-time thing. I suffered from GAS for years, accumulating tens of thousands of dollars worth of guitars and amps and accessories. And the worst thing about it is that most of it just collected dust until I sold most of my gear off. But as a working, active musician, I kept a lot stuff.

When I really started getting into baking, I saw how I could fall into the same trap with baking accessories. So based on my previous experience with guitar gear, I made a conscious decision to only get stuff that I absolutely needed to get the job done.

I’ve read or heard about similar accounts of people getting all sorts of items that they report they never use or are too much for their needs. People spending thousands on stuff!

It’s not that I’ve completely foregone getting baking accessories. But I do a lot more evaluation on what an accessory will get me before I make a decision. And I really ask myself if I absolutely need it.

For instance, though my volume in baking has definitely picked up, and though I really could use a higher-capacity mixer, I’m holding off for now. One of the reasons for this is because I’m limited by my oven capacity. I can only bake two boules or batards at a time, and only 6 baguettes. Technically, I could get another baking stone and double my capacity, but that wouldn’t be fair to the other members of the family who might need an oven.

And speaking of a baking stone, right before I bought mine, I was baking entirely in a Dutch oven. But I wanted to make long loaves. And my family kept on asking me if I could make baguettes and ciabattas and French bread. So it was easy to justify getting the stone.

This all boils down to what I call the Law of Necessity which basically states: If I don’t NEED it, I don’t want it.

The qualifier of course is – at least for now…

It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature…

Back in the ’70s, there were a series of commercials for Chiffon margarine that featured “Mother Nature” and how she could be fooled by the margarine being butter. Her tagline was, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Here’s one of the commercials:

Well, you might be able to fool Mother Nature with margarine, but you can’t fool Mother Nature with bread making. She’ll make you pay. Badly.

Last night, I was excited to start a levain for some high-hydration whole grain loaves I wanted to bake today. I made an overnight levain and as of 7 AM this morning, everything was great. I mixed the final dough, placed it in my trusty Cambro container, then went through four stretch and folds the first two hours, before I’d do the final bulk fermentation of an hour-and-a-half. At which time I thought it would be a good idea to go to Home Depot.

I returned home just before my timer went off, checked on my dough and saw that it had doubled in my container. Nothing seemed abnormal. So I set up my shaping board and got my bench scraper ready and went to get my dough…

Which I then literally poured out as a liquid mess onto my board. F^&k!

To be honest, I actually laughed when I saw it come out. I knew there was no way to salvage the dough. It stuck to everything. And frankly, I didn’t feel like making pancakes out of it, so I just tossed it out. Oh well.

So what’s the lesson with Mother Nature? It’s simply that there’s no escaping her laws, especially the law of doubling. The job of the microbes is not to feed but to reproduce. They feed on the sugars in the flour, then split. That’s their nature.

Our job is to catch them before they consume all the fuel. But here’s the kicker: Right before they completely consume all the flour, they’ve only consumed half. That’s Mother Nature in action and you see it in the world.

Eutrofied pond

For instance, there’s a process called eutrofication that occurs in ponds and lakes where algae completely infests the body of water. Each day, the algae doubles, and the day before the body of water is completely eutrofied, it’s only at 50%!

The point is that with yeast and bacteria it’s the same principle. The point of no return comes fast. Very fast. Which is why you can’t rely on time because the yeast and microbes double at their own rate, so you have to physically check dough progress.

Had I not gone to Home Depot, I would’ve caught that the dough was rising really fast and shaped the loaves far earlier and all would be well. But I relied on experience that dictated that I had time. After all, I’ve made these rustic loaves dozens of times.

But looking back, I was using a different starter than what I’ve used in the past. This particular wild yeast has been super-active. But the thing is, I actually used less starter for my levain because I knew just how fast-acting this wild yeast is. Looks like I’m going to have to either use less to stick to my regular schedule, or adjust my process altogether and do things in shorter intervals.

We live and learn. Happy Baking!