Saturday, December 8, 2012

Simple and Easy - tips for making good bread

I think I can safely say that I make good bread.

I know this because people tell me I make good bread.  Apparently it's a gift, or special power, or I'm amazingly skilled.  I don't agree.  It seems like nothing special to me.

People tell me I make amazing bread, then complain that no matter what they do, they can't seem to bake that perfect loaf.  

Please don't tell them, but I laugh inside, when they describe in great detail all the many things they do to make bread.  I know people who have a collection of over a dozen sourdough starters in their fridge.  People who carefully weigh the flour, measure every ingredient perfectly  use dough conditioners, bread stones, monitor temperature and humidity at every stage... the list goes on.  It really is too much.

I mean it.  All that stuff, really is too much!

By raising the shelf up a notch, you can make a really crispy crust.

I have a very different approach to bread baking.  I think of bread as being a living companion.   I imagine our ancestors were like me, far too busy with other tasks to spend 2 hours fussing over bread.  Sure, bread stones, humidity control, &c. a very good for certain things, but living things don't flourish under strictly controlled conditions.  And bread, whether you like it or not, is a living thing.

One of the reasons why I make sourdough so often, rather than breads from commercial yeasts, is that it takes less time.  Correction, it takes less of my time.  It actually takes way longer than modern methods of baking, but it is so much more forgiving.  If a friend unexpectedly needs my help, I can leave the bread to rise a few extra hours before needing to come back to it.  Whereas a bread made with modern yeast, really only has a 20 hour window of perfection where you absolutely need to take the next step or suffer the consequences.  Of course I don't mind using commercial yeast when it suits my purpose, I just need to be more attentive.

What I'm saying here is that bread is a living thing.  More than that, it's a social creature.  I don't think it likes being cooped up in an oven to rise with nothing but a bowl of water for company.  Have you any idea how boring a bowl of water is?  For me it rises better on the counter, in the middle of the activity.  It loves music, access to fresh air (no drafts), and happy talking.  It hates being alone, angry voices, and the cold shoulder.

So here are some of my thoughts, tips and tricks about how to bake a good loaf of bread.  Most of these are for sourdough but can be applied to other bread methods as well.
  • Stick to one, or at most two, starters.  
    • If you have so many starters that you can't use every single one every 10 day cycle, then the starters are not going to flourish   A starter can be left alone for weeks or months on end, but it gets wan and doesn't give the same flavour or rise to the bread as a starter that is used frequently.  
  • Don't force the bread to your timetable.
    • All breads get moody.  They have days when, no matter how perfect the environment, they just won't rise quickly and other days when they pop up like weeds.  There are a few things that you can do to influence this (warmer environment means faster rise, generally) but on the whole, it's up to the bread to decide how it feels.
    • I've had some sourdough breads be ready to bake in under two hours, and others take 24 hours before they are ready to go in the oven.  
  • A slower rise will impart a stronger flavour to the bread and supposedly makes it easier to digest.
  • Don't bother with the damp towel thing
    • The damp towel is suppose to keep the bread from drying out while it rises.  If the outside dries out, it will limit the amount the bread can rise at that stage.  There are other ways to stop this.
    • Instead, you can coat the inside of the bowl and outside of the bread with olive oil or even melted butter.  Choose an oil with a nice flavour that won't go off when cooked at a high temp. Don't use Canola, Margarine, or nut oil.  If you use sesame oil, mix it with olive oil to keep it from going rancid in the oven.  Cover with a dry towel.
    • Why not the damp towel thing?  Warmth makes the bread rise faster, cold retards the rising. When moisture evaporates, it cools things down around it.  Covering with a damp towel is an old method to keep things cool in warm weather.   
  • Leave your dough out on the counter, don't hide it away in an oven.
    • I feel there are two reasons for this - and this is just my observation.
    • One, bread dough likes you.  You made it what it is, after all.  It wants to be near activity.  So if you can bake or cook some other stuff while your bread is rising, then it just rises better.
    • Two, bread seems to do better where there is fresh airflow (but not in a draft).  Putting plastic wrap on it, or placing it in a little box, seems to make bread rise differently and not have as nice a finished texture.
  • Keep the bread away from the draft.
  • where you put the bread in the oven effects how it cooks
    • so the higher the shelf in the oven, the crispier the upper crust.  Put it too low, the bottom cooks too quickly (which can be of advantage if you are doing medieval feasts and need a traditional plate (dry lower crust)).  
  • PREHEAT your oven.
  • Preheat your oven before putting the bread in
  • Preheat the oven - get the point yet?
  • Score the top of your loaf before baking
  • If you want a crispy almost flaky, crust, leave the bread to cool in the air before bagging it.
  • If you want a slightly softer crust, wrap the bread in a cotton or linen towel when it's fresh out of the oven.
  • NEVER bag your bread while it's still warm.  If it's late at night and you want to go to bed but don't want the bread to dry out completely over night, then wrap it in a cotton or linen towel until it cools.  Then, once it's completely cool, you can put it in plastic, if you have to.
  • Feel free to add the flour to the moisture rather than the other way around.
    • I don't know why, but just about every bread recipe I've ever seen has you measuring out the dry ingredients, then adding water to them.
    • Perhaps people started writing recipes like this because when you are selling bread, it use to be sold by finished weight, so you needed to know how much flour you were using for the loaf.  It's not necessary in home baking.
    • I do things the other way.  I put all the moist ingredients in the bowl, add a bit of flour, add some salt and other dry ingredients, mix really well, then add more flour, a bit at a time, until the consistency is right.  
Talk about loaves and fishes eh?
Almost Pastafarian, but would you believe it was suppose to look like wheat?
FSM has made his will known in my bread.

A few tips and tricks.  Feel free to break any of them when/if the mood strikes you, or not.  Bread has been around long enough that I'm sure it won't mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment