Letting the Dough Speak to You

The very first bread recipe I ever learned was a whole-wheat sourdough recipe made from an offshoot of an original San Francisco sourdough starter that I got from the TA of my freshman Microbiology class in college over 40 years ago. Along with the starter, he included a recipe. And while the recipe had times listed, he stressed to all of us who got the starter that the times he listed were only approximate and he gave us telltales as to when to move on to the next phase. That was the only bread recipe I used for many years and I got pretty good at recognizing and feeling what was happening with the dough.

You see – and I know this sounds a little strange – the dough will speak to you if you’ll only listen. Unfortunately, so many folks, especially newbies to baking bread, follow recipes literally. If a recipe says to fold the dough 6 times over three hours, they’ll do it. If it says bulk fermentation will two hours, they’ll start pre-shaping it at two hours. In either of these cases, under the right circumstances, they’ll produce nice loaves. But then they’ll scratch their heads wondering why their next batches didn’t turn out the same.

As Jonathan of Proof Bread said in one of his videos, “…the dough will let you know what’s going on with it.” And it’s true. The dough will indeed let you know, but in a way, you kind of have to know its language. Luckily, its language is limited to a few words. I’m going to put a humorous spin on it.

“Look, I’m strong enough already…”

Of course, we’re talking about dough strength and gluten development here. When you’re folding your dough, or even using a mixer, your dough will tell you when it has had enough. Even with high-hydration dough, you’ll start feeling a bit of resistance from the dough; where you no longer can stretch it to the extent that you were able to a couple of sessions ago. A good telltale is how long the dough takes to relax and hit the sides of your container. If it’s a fairly slow rate and the mass generally holds its shape – like minutes – chances are it’s strong enough. You’ve built enough strength into the dough so now let bulk fermentation finish.

But what about all those recipes like the Tartine Country Loaf and its various spin-offs that say to fold the dough six times over three hours? Well, just as with rising times, how much or how little you fold your dough to build strength is dependent on a lot of different factors. That said, probably the most important factor is the flour or flour blend you use as water absorption properties vary from flour to flour, which in turn affect both the rate and the quality of gluten formation. For instance, with the flour blends I use, I’ve never done the full six folds when following the Tartine process – even if I take hydration over 80%! My flour forms gluten pretty quickly and my folding builds strength quickly.

As I write this, I’m baking two 1-kilo loaves of 75% Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour / 25% Azure Standard Dark Rye Flour hydrated at about 81%. The bread flour forms up gluten so efficiently that even at this high hydration, I only had to fold the dough twice last night! If I used my normal Azure Standard High Extraction flour, I’d have to fold it at least 4 times as it is not nearly as good at forming gluten due to the bran particulates in the flour even though it has almost 15% protein content. See what I’m getting at?

“Feed me! Feed me!”

Let’s make one thing really clear: Your starter is part of your dough. In fact, it’s the first part of your dough. Lots of books and articles have been written about feeding your sourdough starter, but I thought I’d take a different tack on the subject and demystify it a bit. No, I’m not going to suggest a different feeding method or schedule, but bear in mind that your starter will speak to you as well and if you’re listening, you may very well change your schedule.

One of the things I often hear people talk about is the lack of activity in their starter, and I see many comments similar to this: “I’m not sure what’s happening with my starter. It’s not very active and I’ve been feeding it every 12 hours!”

There are three main factors that affect activity in a starter (not in any particular order): 1) The density of the yeast in the starter matrix, 2) The amount of acidity in your starter, and 3) the ambient temperature. You can directly affect temperature. but you have to do a bit of finagling of the starter to affect items 1) and 2), and that is through feeding.

Generally, what you hear with regards to feeding your starter is you do it to get it active enough to use for baking. But as with dough strength, you can’t be a fundamentalist about the schedule. For instance, many starter instructions say to feed your starter every twelve hours, and people will do it religiously and then wonder why their starter never bubbles up much. The probable cause for this is that the starter’s not ready to be fed and instead of increasing the density of the yeast in the starter, they’re actually decreasing it.

The starter will tell you when it’s ready to be fed. Look for telltales such as doubling in volume (usually the peak), or if there is a noticeable “ring” around the top of the starter where the starter has peaked and then receded. Or if you’re using a fairly liquid starter, look for a proliferation of bubbles on the top surface. This is the starter telling you it’s ready to be fed.

On Discarding…
A question that often gets asked is why we discard half the starter when feeding. Most people answer that we do this because if we kept on adding more and more flour and water, the sheer amount of starter we’d produce would be unmanageable. That is true, but there’s a bit more going on than just that simple explanation. In fact, two very important things are accomplished with feeding: 1) We reduce the acidity in the starter, as acid is a yeast inhibitor, and 2) We reduce competition from other microbes to allow the yeast to flourish.

Yeast exists to eat sugar and multiply. And its ability to do that requires fairly ideal conditions. Its environment can’t be too acidic, which is the other microbes’ way of keeping the yeast from taking over. And it has to have reliable and abundant access to fuel. By discarding, then adding fresh flour and water, we are providing fresh food, but also reducing the acidity in the starter and we’re creating a more favorable environment for the yeast to flourish. When yeast is able to operate optimally, it releases inhibitors of its own, thus becoming the dominant organism in the starter.

We want yeast to be the dominant organism for bulk fermentation. But for final fermentation, we want the other organisms, specifically the lactobacillus bacteria to be dominant. That is why pop our shaped loaves into the fridge to attenuate the yeast activity and allow the bacteria to hold sway. Cool stuff!

Activity 24 hours after activation of the Giza starter from Sourdoughs International.

Yeast: “You’re on MY time…”

I recently ordered a couple of different starters from Sourdoughs International and yesterday (9/17/2022), I finally got the time to activate their Giza starter that was propagated from yeast captured from an ancient bakery unearthed at the foot of the Great Pyramid. This was part of a National Geographic project. Check out the link to find out more about the starter.

Anyway, I activated it yesterday and went to feed it this morning after letting it sit in a warm environment for 24 hours. To my utter amazement, the starter was not just bubbly, but even a bit frothy! That was totally unexpected. Before I activated the starter, I made sure to completely sterilize my container to ensure that the microbes in the starter were the predominant organisms. Well apparently, they’re not only the dominant organisms, they’re incredibly active! Then about an hour after discarding and feeding the starter, I noticed how much it was expanding. At this rate, I think it will peak after just four hours!

The activation instructions mentioned that I shouldn’t expect much activity after 24 hours and the starter shouldn’t be ready for baking for 4 to 5 days. But at this rate, I’ll probably be ready to make some dough tomorrow!

The point of this is that yeast operates on its own schedule. We can read and follow instructions all we want. But if the yeast is ready, it’s ready. On the flip side, some yeast is slower on the uptake and takes longer to get going. For instance, my original starter that I have been nurturing for the last couple of years has always been a little lazy at the start of fermentation. I’ve tried rebuilding it and refreshing it, but it still just operates on its own schedule. It has actually been ideal for long fermentation periods, and as it is pretty sensitive to a cold environment when I retard the final fermentation, there’s lots of flavor development.

With this new Giza starter, I’m going to have to work out a new baking schedule since it is so active. I reached out to Sourdoughs International to inquire about the incredible activity of the culture, and they confirmed that it is very active. This is just SO cool!

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Trust Your Dough: Part III of Working with High-hydration Dough

As I’ve been sharing in the past few posts, I’ve been experimenting with super-high hydration dough to test the limits of my flour blend. It has been a real learning experience. One big thing is that really wet dough doesn’t respond like lower hydration dough. Whereas a lower hydration dough will come together and it’s easy to create a nice gluten network pretty much immediately, it’s not so with dough above the 85% hydration level. In fact, right after mixing, the dough is somewhat of a gloppy mess. It looks like pancake batter and even feels like it.

For instance, the loaf shown in the picture above was about 90% hydration. I was admittedly a little skeptical about the dough when I first mixed it. And after it had fully fermented, I didn’t even know if it would even shape! But I knew that the gluten strands were forming as I folded the dough. I could feel it. And damn if it didn’t spring up in the oven! VERY COOL!

Yesterday, I decided to push it even further and made a 95% dough out of the same flour blend. Because it was so wet, I decided to do the initial mix in my mixer. I’m so glad I did because after I got all the ingredients incorporated, the dough looked even more like pancake batter! Over the course of six folds over a 3-hour period, I definitely could feel the gluten forming as I folded.

But I have to be honest. Even though I could feel the gluten developing, the dough was still like a super-thick batter. When it came time to preshape and shape the dough, it was incredibly difficult to shape, and the resulting loaves were, let’s say, a little on the flat side. I got oven spring alright, but it was way more out than up. So I think exceeded the hydration limit with that particular flour blend.

But in spite of the difficulty in working with such a wet dough, I resisted the urge to tweak, though I could tell I probably wouldn’t get the most ideal results. And even though I’m fairly experienced as a baker, I had to see it through. I won’t lie. There were a couple of times while I was folding – if you could call it that – where I was tempted to add a bit more flour to the mix. But this was an experiment to test the hydration limits of that flour blend, so I let it go.

But despite the relative flatness of the loaves, I wouldn’t call the experiment a total disaster. The loaves rose up, which meant I could expect a reasonably open crumb, which I got. And quite frankly, the taste of the bread was magnificent. I used whole wheat levain this time around and this particular flour was packed with lactobacillus bacteria, giving the bread a gorgeous tang.

That “tang” means acid, and acid breaks down gluten, which may have been a contributor to the lack of gluten strength. So it’s one thing to consider for future bakes. I will either have to add vital wheat gluten to make sure there’s extra protein and perhaps still drop the hydration level just a smidgen.

As I think about this experiment, I look at all the time I’ve spent learning these past couple of years and it makes me smile. For me at least, the beauty of baking isn’t in the end product. The beauty is in the process and understanding all the variables that go into producing a loaf of bread. Though I’ve experienced failures or setbacks, they’ve all served to teach or reveal to me some subtle nuance. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion.

Happy baking!

Baking Is Like Playing Music

I was watching an excellent video on making poolish baguettes by King Arthur Baking Ambassador, Martin Philip. Though I feel I’ve really gotten the hang of baguettes, there’s always something to learn, plus I wanted to get affirmation on the techniques I’ve learned and employed to this point. While not much was new to me, it was great to get some insights into when the dough was ready for final shaping and also learn a new way to shape!

But about three and a half minutes into the video, he said something so compelling that I had to write about it. Basically, he drew an analogy between music and baking. It was one of the aptest insights about bread making I’ve ever heard. Here’s the video (I’ve queued it to where he makes it):

I love the analogy he drew between a recipe and a sheet of music, especially when he said that “a recipe is like musical notation in that it’s notes on the page and the notes on the page will get you close to the song, but they’re not the song. It takes time. It takes practice before you can interpret things before you can become a good musician… or a good baker.”

Dammit! I’m going to be using this for all sorts of lessons, not just baking bread!

I just love the analogy! The recipe’s ingredients are the notes and the directions are the notation of the notes on the page. With a piece of music, you have to learn it and play it several times before it sounds like a song. At first, because you’re unfamiliar with it, you’ll flail and stop and start, or play sections over. But as you get used to the flow of the music, it starts sounding like a song.

Such is the case with a recipe; especially if it’s brand-new. I remember the first time I tried making baguettes. I was proficient with dough development and knew what to look for and I wasn’t at all intimidated by the 75% hydration. And I’ve since learned that dough development is the easy part! But when it came to shaping the dough into loaves – eek!

I had prepared by reading and watching videos about the technique. But having no experience with shaping baguettes, let’s just say it was a helluva lot harder than all the books, articles, and videos may have indicated. Oh, I was able to elongate the loaves all right, but they were a little… misshapen to say the least. It took me about 10 bakes to start getting comfortable with shaping and probably another 40 to 50 bakes and breaking my oven before I gained a level of proficiency and consistency.

And taken holistically, it took me all that time to understand the dough development and processing as well. Though I mentioned above that dough development is the easy part, dough behaves differently in different environmental conditions. For instance, in warmer weather, I tend to stick to the base hydration of 75%. But in colder weather where the dough can be a little stiffer, I’ll add a couple to a few percentage points of water so that the dough feels like I think it should.

Repetition breeds familiarity.

Baking Bread: It’s a Perpetual Balancing Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Love Affair with Kamut Flour

As I’ve shared in the past, I’ve been baking bread for over 40 years, but it wasn’t until the pandemic lockdown that I had the time to devote to developing my artisan bread baking skills. And looking back over the last almost two years, it’s daunting to think that I’ve literally spent hundreds of hours mastering the craft; and I still consider myself a mere fledgling artisan bread baker.

Like many during the lockdown, my initial instruction came from Ken Forkish’ excellent book, Flour Water Salt Yeast. Though not very technical it helped me start getting a feel for the dough development process and for that, I’m ever grateful. I still refer to it for recipes.

On one such occasion recently, I revised the section where Ken wrote about making a dough you can call your own. I wrote about that a few months ago and while I still make lots of bread with my reference flour blend, soon after I wrote that article, I started making more and more use of Kamut flour.

Kamut is actually not a type of flour but a brand. The actual wheat type is known by its common name of Khorasan (Triticum polonicum) and is an ancient grain that can trace its roots to ancient Mesopotamia in an area known as the Golden Crescent. The kernel of this grain is roughly three times the size of most modern wheat varieties. And while it contains gluten, it’s of a type that is much more digestible than other wheat varieties and it is packed with B-vitamins.

Health benefits aside, Kamut has a wonderful flavor when incorporated in a flour blend. The bread that results has a slightly nutty flavor and when risen with a natural leaven presents a lovely fruity aroma. The crumb of bread made with Kamut is soft yet springy with a wonderful chewy texture. And as it is a rather thirsty flour even after a full bake (as shown above), the crumb retains a bit of moisture. Bread that I make using Kamut are among my most favorite.

But the main reason I love making bread with Kamut in the flour blend is that it is super-hard with which to work. The gluten that is formed with Kamut is incredibly delicate. And even though the Kamut flour I use has about 12% protein content, which you’d think could accommodate higher hydration, the delicate nature of Kamut’s gluten can a bit of an inhibitor to taking it above 75% hydration.

In light of that, Chad Robertson says in Tartine No. 3 that he takes his 60% Kamut dough past 90% hydration. But looking that the pictures, I believe he compensates by making smaller loaves though his recipe implies making 1-kilo loaves. Based on experience, medium-format loaves with that kind of hydration using that much Kamut will not have much vertical rise. You’ll get nice holes – which is what Tartine bread is known for – but not much vertical rise. For example, look at the pictures from Tartine No. 3 of the 60% Kamut bread below:

You’ll notice that there’s not much vertical rise in the cross-section. It’s a beautiful crumb that’s consistent with a highly hydrated dough. And though I don’t know how big those loaves are from the picture, I have made this recipe and experimented with 93% hydration for the 1-kilo loaves. Even though I built up lots of dough strength, they still spread out a lot. So I’m thinking that the loaves shown in the picture to the left above are significantly smaller than 1-kilo loaves so they retain some vertical rise.

As for me, I do a 40% Kamut, 30% Bread Flour, and 30% High-extraction Flour. The hydration is 75%. That blend and hydration offers the best balance of flavor and dough strength to give me great oven spring and a reasonably open crumb.

And given that Kamut’s gluten is so delicate, I’ve taken to final proofing at 39-40°F for up to 36 hours to allow plenty of time for the gases to expand in the dough. I’ve also learned to bake very gently during the first 20 minutes with steam at 400°F. Once I remove the steaming container, I up the temp to 425°F and bake for 35 minutes until I get a nice tri-color crust.

I mentioned above that I love working with Kamut because it’s a difficult flour with which to work, but I think another big reason is that it has taken me so long to master this blend and make consistently good loaves with it. And that in itself has been a revelation into the intricacies of bread baking. There are so many variables. And while it’s possible to establish methods that are common to many different kinds of bread, working with Kamut, I’ve had to make slight adjustments to my basic methodologies to accommodate the flour.

But I have to say that mastering this blend has given me an immense amount of satisfaction. And that satisfaction is what keeps me going and keeps me exploring!

Happy Baking!

Here’s a Little Acid Test…

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on various online bread forums and have seen many pictures of bread people bake from around the world. There’s LOTS of talent out there! And today, as I was perusing a forum, I saw a picture that someone took of a half-dozen boules they made today. They were gorgeous!

And they were perfectly round and all the exact same diameter. When I zoomed in on the picture, I noticed that the bottom sides of the loaves were just a tad bit flat, which told me one thing: The loaves expanded outward to the sides of the Dutch oven.

Look, I don’t want to take away from how beautiful the loaves were. But it made me ask the question: What if they didn’t use a Dutch oven? Chances are, those loaves would be a LOT wider in diameter and not nearly as tall.

I don’t use a Dutch oven. I bake all my bread on a baking stone with a pan of water at the bottom of my oven for steam as shown below.

That doesn’t necessarily make my bread better or make me a better baker. But baking on a stone has forced me to constantly think about the strength of my dough and really hone my shaping skills. If I mess up, I get results like this:

That was not amusing. Those loaves were made with 40% Kamut, 30% Organic Whole Wheat, and 30% Bread Flour at 88% hydration. I knew I was in trouble after final proof. Though the loaves were perfectly fermented, there just wasn’t enough dough strength and they collapsed under their own weight. The lack of strength wasn’t due to kneading – or lack thereof – either. I used too much of a fairly acidic starter, and the hydration was simply too high for the flour I used. Both the Kamut and Whole Wheat flour from this supplier just don’t develop enough strength. Combine that with a low pH and well… you see the results.

As for the title of this post, here’s an acid test: For those of you who bake with a Dutch oven, try using a metal pan or a pizza stone to bake your next loaf. Instead of covering your loaf, put a cast-iron skillet on the bottom rack of your oven and put some hot water in it to generate steam. If you’re building up good strength in your dough, your loaf should rise up nicely. But if it spreads out, chances are you’ll need to work on building up your dough strength and shaping.

When I personally moved to a baking stone from a Dutch oven, I made several flat loaves until I learned how to get great gluten development, and learned how to create a taut skin during shaping; that, and studying my flour’s capabilities. In fact, with that brand of flour, I rarely take it above 80% and usually stay around the 78% hydration mark.

And when I saw the flatbread I had created, I have to admit that it was pretty humbling because I thought I was the bee’s knees with my perfectly shaped loaves! 🙂 Little did I know that my skills needed A LOT of development.

If Can Can, If No Can No Can

The title of this is a common Hawaiian pidgin phrase that basically means, if something’s possible, that’s great, if it’s not, then that’s okay too. In plainer terms, it means be flexible. It has been a useful thing to remember especially since I’ve gotten deep into bread-making. And admittedly, it was a hard lesson to learn. I used to totally obsess over the aesthetics of my bread. I wanted each and every loaf to fit an archetype – both inside and out – and I’d stress if it didn’t.

But bread dough is a living thing and it’s affected by all sorts of factors. And given that, working with forces you to be flexible. Look at ambient temperature for instance. When it’s warm – above 72°F – things happen fast. Dough action is significantly slower in cooler temps. But even if you adapt to different factors changing, there’s no guarantee that things will turn out as planned. You can certainly narrow the margin of error, but something will always be a little off.

Granted, as I’ve gained more and more experience, I make fewer mistakes, and quite frankly, the only person who notices an off outcome is usually me. But despite that, I’ve adjusted my thinking and usually just laugh at the little things that might happen.

For instance, with the loaves shown above, I actually tore the skin of the one on the left because I wasn’t paying attention when I preshaped the dough. And though I re-preshaped it after letting it rest a few minutes, I didn’t know how it would turn out in the end. And I was okay with that – If can can, no can no can… In the end it turned out fine. It spread out a little in the oven, but not severely to it was all good. But even if it did really collapse, it wasn’t going to end the world.

Not that I don’t fully let things go… I admit that I did have a concern because I inadvertently allowed bulk fermentation to go WAY longer than I normally do. Whereas I normally bulk ferment to about 25%-30% expansion, I let this dough go to over double because of a meeting. When I was done with the meeting, I saw how far it had gone and immediately went to preshape. I could tell that the dough was close to the edge of full-fermentation, so that tear got me a little worried that my dough wouldn’t have enough fuel for the long, cold final ferment.

When I pulled the loaves out of my fridge the next day, I took a whiff, and whew! They were sour-smelling; not in an off-putting way, but I knew that I had to bake them, lest they fall into a heap in my oven from over-fermenting. And alas, they turned out fine… If can can, if no can no can…

The Focus on Open Crumb IS SO DUMB!

Spend any time on most home-bakers online forums and you’ll be convinced that your bread has to have an open crumb – the more open and lacy the better. When I was really getting into making artisan bread, I strived for that as well, upping my hydration percentages beyond 90% and using high-gluten flour, and learning the dough development techniques to achieve an open crumb.

It was a great experience, but in the end, that’s not what I wanted out of my bread. Aesthetically it looked great and it tasted great on its own. But especially with boules and batards where I’d be cutting slices, the bread was totally impractical! Any spread like mayonnaise and mustard would ooze right through. They were great for dipping in fine olive oil and balsamic, but that’s about it.

With the pictures above, I wanted to show the normal crumb of the boules and batards that I make. Though they employ different kinds of flour, I’ve figured out the hydration and processing that will get me that kind of crumb consistently. You’ll notice that while there are some larger holes, in general, the crumb of each loaf is only moderately open. What’s important to me is making sure the bread is fully fermented and that the yeast action is consistent and even during baking. Ultimately what I’m after is a soft, moist, yet airy crumb that has substance, but isn’t dense.

You’ll see on closer inspection that there are in fact numerous very small holes. I get lots of oven spring, but not due to large holes but by small holes acting together to raise the bread. If I’ve done the right job in making sure my dough is fully fermented, I’m good with that and it’s what I personally prefer. Given that, let me say this: A super-open crumb is not the be-all, end-all to baking bread! It really boils down to a baker’s preference. But this has somehow become a thing in home baking circles.

To be fair, I can understand why there’s so much enthusiasm surrounding an open crumb. It’s just not that easy to achieve when you don’t have the experience. And really, that’s what it takes: experience. In order to achieve that kind of open crumb, there are so many interdependent factors involved; and no, it’s not just upping the hydration as so many people are wont to recommend. And the only way one can fully understand the various interdependencies is through practice and repetition. So when someone finally achieves an open crumb with their bread, it’s understandable that they’d be excited.

And speaking of the recommendation to increase hydration, I have to admit that it’s irritating to me when I read this when someone asks how to get a more open crumb because most of the time that’s all the person answering says. So many people just blurt out, “Just increase your hydration,” as a catch-all, and don’t consider the flour the asker is using. First, your flour has to be able to absorb the extra water, and second, your flour has to have a high enough protein content to maintain the dough structure with higher hydration. Otherwise, you may very well get an open crumb, but your loaf will expand out and not up during baking.

And even with higher protein content, there’s the dough development and handling techniques to achieve that open crumb. Then you also have to consider the size of the loaf. A larger format loaf is going to have a lot of weight that could affect the openness of the crumb significantly. Like I said, there are lots of interdependencies…

Captured from Tartine Bread

Tongue-in-cheek, I kind of blame Chad Robertson for this craze because I’m fairly sure his book, Tartine Bread, had a lot to do with people’s notions of what constitutes an ideal crumb. Look at the picture to the right that I captured from Tartine Bread. That crumb is aesthetically amazing (unless, of course, you have trypophobia). And while it looks delicious – and I’ve had Tartine bread and it tastes amazing – spread some honey on a slice of that. Just make sure you don’t lay the slice directly on your hand without a napkin. And butter? Fuhgeddaboutit!

While that style of crumb isn’t what I’m personally after, it’s what Chad wanted to achieve as a baker and that’s entirely his prerogative. He spent years in search of that and developing the technique to achieve that crumb consistently in all his different kinds of bread – and at high-production levels, no less! So kudos to him!

And kudos to others who want to achieve this. It’s just not for me. Unfortunately, I’ve been on forums where people are downright snooty about other folks’ crumb shots that are like mine. And worse yet, they’ll say things like, “It looks like your dough is underfermented,” or “You need to up the hydration of your dough.” In my case, all my loaves contain a significant portion of whole-grain or high-extraction flour, at least 25% and usually more, and unless I add vital wheat gluten – which I try to avoid – I will not get big holes. The best I can hope for is a crumb similar to the leftmost loaf in the pictures above.

I know I kind of went off here… But don’t feel bad about not getting a super-open crumb. Even if that’s what you’re ultimately after. What you really should be concerned about is ensuring that your dough is fully fermented. Get that down first. Then study your flour to see if it can handle a higher hydration rate. You’ll also then have to ensure that you’re thoroughly developing your dough. Like I said above, there are lots of interdependent factors.

I Found My Oven!

…now I just have to save for it…

I’ve been looking to get a dedicated oven for baking bread for well over a year now. It has been a bit frustrating using my regular ovens in my kitchen because as with most standard ovens, they’re built to vent steam. So no matter how much steam I create, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

You could say, “Why don’t you just use a Dutch oven? That’ll provide plenty of steam.” That is true, but you can’t bake baguettes or ciabatta in a Dutch oven. And no, I don’t want to get long loaf combo pans.

The first oven I looked at was the Rofco B40 oven. Great oven and there are lots of micro-bakeries like mine that use it. My only problem is that it doesn’t have built-in steam. You have to buy a separate steam tray that you place on the stone. That takes away valuable real estate from what is also a relatively small baking surface. Moreover, the B40 is almost $3300! It’s a bit pricey.

Another option I considered was the Nero 400. It has built-in steam and though compact, has a more conventional deck oven profile. But it’s something like $3500.

Enter the Tom Chandley Compacta Pico Plus. This is it for me! It has an 18″ X 30″ stone, built-in steam, runs on standard 220V (my house is wired for 220 already), and not only that, it’s modular, so I can stack them as my demand grows. And get this: The Pico Plus is only $2195 per unit. While it doesn’t give me the whole total capacity of the Rofco B40, the built-in steam allows me to use the whole stone! That’s such a selling point for me!

Not only that, I can bake full-size baguettes, which are 60cm standard. I can already do that in my home oven, but as I mentioned above, most domestic ovens are built to vent steam, and baguettes need LOTS of moisture in the first 10-15 minutes of the bake – probably more so than boules and batards.

A couple of months ago, I was going to pull the trigger on a Rofco B40. I’m so glad that I didn’t.

So I Finally Got “Tartine Bread”

Chad Robertson is legendary and like Nancy Silverton, his bread has achieved cult status. Defying the conventions of traditional French bread, Chad sought to create bread with a lacy, open, tender crumb that has since become a benchmark for home-based artisan bakers the world over.

I’m not necessarily one of those who seeks that kind of crumb. I seek to create a crumb that is more open than closed but not nearly as open and lacy as Chad Robertson’s. That’s a personal choice.

But after having read so many different bread books, it occurred to me that I hadn’t read Tartine Bread and that given the legendary status of his bread, it would probably do me well to read. Mind you, it’s not that I was shunning it. I just hadn’t gotten to it yet.

But that changed when I picked up a copy of Tartine Book N° 3, which focuses on baking with whole grain flour. Reading through his techniques and putting them into practice, I couldn’t believe the wonderful results I got. So after baking his 60% Kamut loaf a few times and getting an open crumb with mostly whole grain flour (I used a combination of Kamut, white whole wheat, and strong bread flour), I knew I had to get the original book to see what his Country Loaf was all about.

So I got it. And I LOVE it! Though it’s rife with recipes, what I really dig about the book is Chad Robertson’s philosophical discussions and his instinctive approach to making bread. When I started making artisanal bread many years ago, I realized that so much of the process was instinctual; I couldn’t just follow a recipe and expect a good result. I learned to identify telltales in look and feel that were indicators of the dough’s progress.

And though Chad speaks a lot about his journey, those tidbits of what to look for – at least to me – are the most valuable information in the book! For instance, in his instructions for making his basic country loaf, he says:

During the first hour of bulk fermentation, the dough will feel dense and heavy. Watch how the surface becomes smooth soon after you turn the dough. By the end of the third hour, the dough will feel aerated and softer. A well-developed dough is more cohesive and releases from the sides of the bowl when you do the turns. The ridges left by the turn will hold their shape for a few minutes.

Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread

Sure, I know this. Most experienced bakers do as well. But the book is peppered with what I call telltales like this, and it’s what I love about it because it’s filled with insight – a baker’s insight. And that’s important to me because so many books tend to take a more academic approach to baking. Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman is a great example of the academic approach. But that said, Bread is basically a textbook and discusses food science and the more technical aspects of baking. It’s my go-to reference.

But Tartine is both a story of how Chad Robertson got started as well as a compendium of insights he has gleaned from years of baking. And that appeals to me as an artisan. I need the technical perspective to get the mechanics down. But I also need the insight to develop my craftsmanship. Tartine has that down in spades!