There are many food items I can create convincingly, but so far bread has been a major thorn in my side. My bread rises the way it should, but it doesn’t seem to get the chewy texture or decent sized holes that comes from proper artisanal bread making.
The closest I’ve been so far is with this incredible recipe from Bon Appetit. It’s complete genius, uses the smallest amount of yeast, and produces an incredible loaf. But it take three days of hard work. That’s right. Three days! Given that I have other things to do with my time, three days of straight dedication to a single loaf is not going to fly.
The above loaf is made with a poolish (like a sourdough starter from Eastern Europe, that’s the first 14 hours of bread production…). I figured that maybe I should proceed to making my own sourdough starter. How hard could it be? So, so, so hard. The first starter looked good, the recipe I had said it would be good to go in 5 days, but the bread resulting from it was more like a pancake with a charmingly concrete consistency.
So I went on a book hunt. The lovely people at Cook The Books in Ponsonby sold me two tomes – The Bread & Butter Project, from the Bourke St Bakery people in Sydney, and How to Make Bread by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou. The Bourke St Bakery people offered a promising 21 day sourdough starter, which died at about day 14. I did all the right things, recorded water temperatures, measured flour and water quantities, etc, but nothing could save my wild yeast baby.
At this point I went back to basics, using dried commercial yeast and a basic bread recipe from both of the above books. I had some success, but still couldn’t get the texture I was after. I tried different flours, water temperatures, but things just weren’t coming together.
I finally caved. It was clear that there were some knowledge gaps that books just weren’t going to fill. I signed myself up for two classes in bread baking at the NZ School of Food and Wine. The first covered 5 different loaves – basic bread, plaited white bread (challah), sourdough (YAY!!), ciabatta and farmer’s bread. I came home with 5 loaves of bread, with varying degrees of success, and newfound knowledge that I could put into action.
These are the main things I learned. The recipes are nothing unusual, and in the interests of protecting NZSOF&W’s intellectual property, I’m electing to not publish these. You can find many bread recipes either in books (see above) or online, and the tips I’ve shared below will hopefully guide you through the quagmire that is bread baking.
Some stuff about yeast
- If you’re short on time, you can get bread to prove faster by adding extra yeast
- To activate yeast, water for the dough needs to be warm (about 40°C, but 20-40°C is good). Too hot (60°C+) will kill your yeast and make your bread flat.
- If a recipe lists fresh yeast and you only have dried, use half the quantity prescribed
- Fresh yeast is not available to buy in retail outlets in NZ, due to it’s short shelf life (about 2 weeks). Your local baker should be happy to give you a bit if you ask nicely 🙂
Some stuff about flour
- Always use high grade flour, which has about 13% gluten
- Gluten can also be described as Protein on the label
- High grade flour can also be labelled as high protein, strong flour or high gluten. It’s all the same thing
- If you need to boost the gluten/protein percentage in your flour (eg. you only have standard flour) just add 2% gluten. You can buy gluten from Ceres.
- Using a percentage of rye flour makes for a denser bread. It has less protein than high grade white flour, so the gluten does not develop as much. However, rye adds a great nutty flavour and lovely dark colour.
Some stuff about bread dough
- The rough recipe for bread is 1 part flour to 0.6 parts water. Or 100% flour, 60% water
- The volume of water in millilitres is the same as the weight of water in grams (eg. 100ml water = 100g). Same with milk.
- Always add salt and oil after you’ve mixed together the yeast, flour and water (and any other ingredients). Salt will kill yeast if applied too early in the process, and oil will coat the yeast granules and prevent them from activating.
- Salt is added to bread to restrict yeast’s activity and to stop bread from over-proving (ie. rising way too much)
- Don’t make your mix too dry. The starches need to absorb the moisture, which they can’t do if the bread dough is too hard. A softer dough will prove faster. Resist the urge to add more flour than the recipe says.
- It will take about 20 minutes for the moisture to be absorbed into the flour and for gluten to start to develop. Hence the first rise in every bread recipe.
- During the second rise (in a tin or on an oven tray), spray the surface with water to stop it from drying out and cracking. This will also enable the loaf to rise more effectively.
- If you want a softer loaf, change out the water for milk (use the same quantity, to be clear).
- If you want to add dried fruit or whole grains to your bread, soak them in an equal quantity of boiling water first. Otherwise they will leech the moisture from your bread and it will dry out and not rise as well as you would like (this was my issue. Now I know).
- The ideal internal temperature for dough to rise is 27-32°C. You can use a thermometer to measure this if you like.
Some stuff about kneading
I’ve separated this out because it’s probably the most important thing I learned. You don’t need to knead. Gluten strands will develop over time, as the moisture is absorbed into the flour. Kneading speeds this process up, but it’s not especially energy efficient. By mixing your dough and letting it rest, you’ll get the same result. Time over muscle.
Restating the point above, your dough will feel sticky at first, but resist the urge to add more flour and knead it into submission. A small sprinkling of flour and a good dose of time will give you the smooth, soft dough you’re after. You’ll know it’s ready when you’re able to pull a “gluten window” – that is, when you can stretch the dough without it tearing and see light through it. If it still tears, leave it a bit longer, it’ll come right.
Some stuff about baking your bread
- Oven temperatures vary, which is INCREDIBLY annoying. This would explain many of my past baking fails. Here’s a rough guide to relative oven temperatures:The recipe says 200°C
Domestic oven 200°C
Fan forced oven 190°C
Very modern oven 180°C
- If your oven temperature seems to be higher than the recipe says, reduce the temperature, but leave the bread in for the time allocated.
- Due to their higher sugar content, sweet breads are baked at a lower temperature than savoury bread (200°C versus 220-240°C respectively). The lower temperature prevents the sugar from burning.
- If you’re baking a large loaf use a falling temperature to prevent the loaf from burning. Start at 220°C and reduce over the cook time to 180°C
- A 600g loaf will take about 30 minutes to cook, a 1kg loaf will take about 50 minutes
- Always pre-heat the oven before baking. The yeast gives a final burst of activity as it hits the oven, called “oven spring”. This won’t happen if the oven is still cold.
Some stuff about Sourdough
- Rather than growing a starter from scratch, get one from someone else. That way there’s a far greater chance of it surviving. The one we used was 10 years old! Ask your friendly neighbourhood artisan baker if he can spare some (you don’t need much)
- When building your starter, attract wild yeast spores by giving them food (ie. flour) and water
- Leave your starter outside to give it the best chance of attracting yeasts
- It’ll take about 5 days for your starter to be useful for bread baking
- Sourdough starter can be frozen and resurrected. It will be sluggish and slow to respond at first (as would you after cryogenics), but with feeding it will come back.
One final really important point
Recently I watched a fantastic documentary on Netflix, featuring Michael Pollan, who’s a food hero of mine. The documentary series is called Cooked. In one episode, they talked about sourdough bread baking, the importance of fermentation, and the rise in gluten intolerance levels.
The thinking goes like this (and was reinforced by my tutor at NZSOF&W): commercial bread making is too fast. Traditional bread making encourages gluten bands to form using time. A side effect of this time is that fermentation occurs. Fermentation changes the structure of the gluten cells, which in turn makes it easier for us to digest.
The requirement for bulk commercial bread making operations to churn out the maximum number of loaves in the minimum time frame is that the fermentation phase of the process is left out. No fermentation means no change in gluten cell structure means less digestible bread means gluten intolerance.