First learn the basics—good mixing techniques, proper fermantations, and skillful baking. How do you learn these? By repetition and attentiveness. Make sure patience is part of your ingredient list.
I could probably pull out hundreds of these gems from Hamelman’s masterpiece Bread, and each time I go back to reference something my eye catches one that strikes a chord. Attentiveness, now that is a really important thing with baking. You don’t realize just how important it is to step back for a second and observe what you, and the dough, is doing from time to time. Does it look alive and puffy? Does it look like it has enough strength? Are you mixing to sufficient development and to enough rise during bulk?
Baking can be a haphazard endeavor: you can simply measure out the ingredients, throw them into a bowl, get your hands dirty and watch as the magic happens later in the oven. You’ll get good bread, better than what you’d get in most grocery stores in those plastic bags for sure. But when does good bread become great bread? I believe it comes with a little time, some practice, gathered experience, attentiveness, and if you are lucky, hands-on instruction. If you’re like me and have never had formal baking training, most of these things have to come from within, from your own practice & process.
When it comes down to it, baking is a personal thing. I’ve read many places and listened to many talks where bakers can be quoted saying something of the sort: “no two bakers bake alike.” Reading books on baking and flipping through many pictures of those open crumb loaves with nice dark glistening crusts, you start to tell yourself “hey I can do the same thing right from home.” Well maybe you can, maybe you can’t, but the important thing is to find your process and your method, and make bread how you like it. That’s great bread.
There are so many variables to baking it’s impossible to lay down a set of rules that, when followed, will result in the exact same loaf each time. It just won’t happen. The best we can do is increase the consistency of creating great bread. Every loaf won’t be the same, every crust won’t shine the same way, and every crumb structure won’t line up the same way, but we do our best to stay consistent and make the greatest bread we can. And in the very end of things, bread is bread, it’s a staple of food that’s been around for almost as long as we have. It’s meant to provide sustenance and nourishment, not sit on the wall like art.
With all that said, I still search… I still work at my process and my technique. I still read and research. That’s part of the fun for me as a home baker, it’s a science experiment that never ends and one that makes me and others around me happy to eat the results.
In this entry I baked upwards of 8 loaves over the past few weeks with the following process in search of that great bread. Testing, reading, experimenting and talking bread with some of you out there (hat tip to the ever helpful Margie). All this research and experimentation has produced some of the best loaves I’ve churned out yet. The following entry catalogs my findings with increased autolyse times, decreased pre-fermented flour, and building more strength at the front of the process instead of later during bulk fermentation.
”An excessive use of yeast will always be to the detriment of the finished product. Rather than giving your breads a lot of yeast and a little bit of time, reverse that and give them a little yeast and a lot of time. The results will be worth the change made.” -Hamelman
Thoughts on increasing autolyse
As mentioned in my whole wheat post increasing your autolyse time can significantly increase extensibility in your dough. It will change the way your dough feels when you start to mix as you’ll notice you can pull and stretch it without as much resistance. This is a good thing: during your bake your dough will be able to stretch out farther, and rise higher, before meeting resistance. However, I’ve noticed this can cause issues if you don’t build up enough strength in the dough during mix or bulk. A balance is needed. So I decided to try and build up more strength during the mix stage and let the dough rest as much as possible during bulk fermentation. My rationale here was that if I increase extensibility but also strengthen up the dough enough at start, enough to hold all the wonderful gasses produced during fermentation, I could let the dough hang onto all of this through bulk, shaping, proof and eventually to my bake.
When I started out baking, and you can see this in many of my beginning Tartine posts, I would typically increase the levain percentage sometimes all the way up to 25%. This was partly to compensate for my starter not having enough strength, but also because I had this idea in my head that more levain means a more open crumb. That’s not exactly true, as it turns out. I’ve found that with only 15% levain (that’s 150g) I get just as much rise and fermentation activity with the possibility of having a more open crumb. It may mean you have to let fermentation go just a bit longer, but it will be worth it to take your time and let your baking assistant (read: starter) leaven that dough and build up some exceptional taste.
Prepare the young levain – 6:30am
Prepare the following right after you get up in the morning:
||Giusto’s whole wheat flour
||Giusto’s Artisan Bread Flour
||H2O @ 85ºF
Keep it in a warm area in your kitchen for about 6 hours if your kitchen is around 76-77ºF, if it’s a bit cooler where you are you might need to go a little longer. Watch your levain and read the signs: smell, bubbles on top, volume.
Autolyse & Mix – 9:30am
We’re going for a 3 hour autolyse for this bake. You might want to experiment with autolyse times to suit your flour and preference, but I have started to prefer the extensibility provided by this. Take notice how different the flour feels when you autolyse for an extended period like 3 hours versus a short 40 or even 60 minute duration. It’s quite astonishing.
Note that this autolyse is without any levain (or salt) added to it as your levain isn’t even ready yet—it is simply flour and water. We start the autolyse 3 hours before we anticipate our levain to be ready. You should be good to go doing this at 9:30am and if your levain isn’t ready at 12:30pm or so no worries, just keep the autolyse going until it is ready.
By the way, I just recently picked up a Thermapen after many days contemplating the purchase. Wow. I can’t believe I’ve been baking this long without this thing, it’s a real piece of equipment. No longer do I have to wait for the cheaper thermometer to settle down and finally arrive on a temp, this thing is instant!
Gather the following:
||Giusto’s whole wheat flour
||Giusto’s Artisan Bread Flour
||H2O @ 84ºF
||Fine sea salt
Perform the following for the autolyse:
- In a thick bowl add your 900g white bread flour and 100g whole wheat flour
- Add 700g of your 84ºF water (the rest, 100g, is reserved until later when we add in the levain & salt after the autolyse)
- Mix these ingredients by hand until incorporated. Remember at this stage we are not looking for any gluten development really, just make sure all the dry bits of flour are hydrated
- Cover with wrap and keep near your levain for 3 hours or so
Mix after your 3 hour autolyse – 12:30pm
First, a little info on my new mixing experiment I alluded to earlier…