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!

I Like Big Bakes…

I’ll let you complete it.. 🙂

Yesterday I baked 8 dozen butter buns for another luncheon today at the Opportunity Center in Palo Alto, CA. I normally provide them with a few Poillane-style miches, but my wife, who now runs the outreach program for our church, came up with a new luncheon menu: BURGERS!

I didn’t consider that a bad thing at all, but it did mean scaling the recipe up to a size that I previously hadn’t baked. We’re talking over 21 pounds of dough! The most I had baked for the Center was just over half that amount, as I’d make four 3 1/2 pound miches. I’d easily be able to cut those up into 100-120 slices.

But this bake? This was different. Not only did I have to stage the actual baking, I had to stage the entire production as my mixer could only handle the dough for 24 buns. So I had to do a bit of planning.

The way I figured it, since I could bake on baking sheets, I could bake 48 buns at a time using convection to ensure an even distribution of heat. That wouldn’t be a problem. The challenge was going to be making the dough batches. With the amount of yeast the recipe calls for, as soon as I transferred a batch to one of my bulking containers (I used two, big 8-liter rectangular bulking tubs), the batch would start rising quickly, so time was of the essence.

The idea was to do two separate big batches with each bulking container holding the dough for 48 buns apiece. To deal with having to make two batches in a row, I kept the temperature of the water of the first batch below 70ºF. Working the dough in my mixer would raise the temp a couple of degrees so the dough would start at about 72ºF. Then with the second batch, I’d make the water temp around 86-89ºF. Then when I combined the two batches, the final temp would come out near 80ºF, which is the optimal temperature for this dough. OMG! It worked!

This was a very active dough, so I didn’t immediately start making the second big batch until the first batch of 48 buns was in the oven. I probably should’ve waited a little longer as the buns weren’t cooled down long enough for me to clear the counters. So I had to pop that batch into my retarder fridge. That slowed things down a tad, but that dough still rose a ton and was pushing the lid off the container by the time I was ready to shape. The next time I bake this amount I’ll take that into account. But I think what I’ll do instead is simply do the bulk fermentatino of the second batch at a lower temperature.

Details, details. But I love it! With baking, there’s so much that I have to consider all the time; not just in the present, but also the corrections I have to make for future bakes.

Know Your Flour!!! Dammit!

I made the loaf above a few days ago. It tastes great. It has a great texture. It is flat! Flat! FLAT!!! F$%k!!! The worst of it is that I knew it would turn out like this because it was WAY too hydrated for the protein content of the flour I used. Well… serves me right for following a recipe without compensating for the ingredients I had on hand.

That loaf is Chad Robertson’s 60% Kamut loaf from his Tartine No. 3 book, which focuses entirely on baking bread with whole grain flour. In his recipe he mentioned, “Due to the high protein in Kaumut flour, this dough can take a lot of water.” Stupid me, I took that at face value and made the bread straight from the recipe before checking on the actual protein content of the Kamut flour I have.

My Kamut flour is only 11.7% protein, the same protein content as AP flour. And I upped my hydration to 92% based on his notes in the book that say he usually takes the hydration up past 90%.

STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!

I’m actually laughing as I write this because it’s SUCH a rookie move. And I admit that I probably let my excitement over Chad Robertson doing a recipe with one of my favorite flours get the better of me. And in my zeal, I pushed through the process and didn’t spend enough time studying. Oh well, lesson learned.

This time around, there are a few things I’m going to do to make this a successful bake:

  • I will use vital wheat gluten to up the protein content of my flour to provide more mechanical strength. I did some research and I saw Kamut flour ranging in protein content from 15% to 17%.
  • One thing I missed in Chad Robertson’s instructions was that he does a fermented autolyse in that he performs his autolyse with the starter incorporated into the flour and water. I will do that this time around. That will really get the yeast in my starter going!
  • I will also stick with his basic 85% hydration to start out with. If the dough is still a little stiff at this level, I will do a bassinage in one of my folding sessions to give time for protein to build up first.

As much as it is frustrating, I love the learning process. I may swear a lot in the process, but damn! A good finished product trumps any failures!

Happy Baking!

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!