I love bread, and I love figuring out how to do things that I don’t need to do… learning for the sake of nothing more than curiosity & personal gratification. So it’s no surprise that, almost on a whim, I decided to learn how to make bread. Off the bat let’s just get something straight. I have no idea what a global standard for perfection might be. I’m not saying that to contradict what I hope to accomplish but it’s that perfect is subjective in this case. I’m not trying to win a medal for my bread. Perfect for this exercise is meeting an uninformed standard of excellence that lives inside my head.
What is a perfect bread?
Bread is regional. I love a crispy, almost hard on the exterior, random air, and light chew of a French baguette. Or the soft chewy, more evenly aired texture of the Italian Ciabatta. So, even as my own opinion, I have no idea because it all depends…. So let’s forget perfect and focus on what you might like. Finding what you like is actually harder than you might imagine. Most of us use our limited experience with things to make decisions as to ‘favorite’, ‘best’ and of course, ‘worst’. With that, I’ll leave my knowledge of the world’s breads to the experts. I would suggest starting with CNN’s World’s 50 Best Breads and then diving deeper via Google for more info on what you find tasty & inspirational.
Research and learn, find some guidance.
You’re going to want to research recipes and follow along with some videos by a chef or two that aligns with what you are looking for. It’s really a good way to start, there are a few chefs I go to for background on many things I like to cook. This is assuming that like me, you don’t sit around with a pint talking to your buddies about the protein quality of different flours or proper rise times.
I’m not much for extensive research, prefering to fish rather than cut bait as the saying goes. I like to get a basic understanding of direction and then begin my own experimentation. The best learning can come through the experience of mistakes. It’s a more organic meathod, you actually learn more. And most importantly, through successes and failures on your own, you will development more complex flavors that are your own. I’m confident in this method of learning to bake bread.
But I really do advise finding a chef with a background or taste that suits you. It’s not worth following someone that you don’t relate to, just because they may be popular, successful or rich. Billy Parisi has, for many recipes, been a go-to for me and an inspiration. My love of making bread and the foundation of my own technique was built off of his artisanal loaf article and recipe.
Even though I did read about the basics. As can be expected, Initially I didn’t pay enough attention to the ‘why’ in directions. I had the misconception that the harder you knead the dough and the more yeast you used was better. I can often work too hard, when smarter would have been better. When it came to making the bread I was attempting, nothing could have been further from the truth. The actual joy of the doing as opposed to only being concerned with the outcome of results got in the way of my understanding the literal science behind the instructions.
Available ingredients, equipment, time, physical constraints, and more are of course going to play a huge role after you’ve decided a direction for your bread making. From there, for me, a little ignorance created bread that was too dense, too wet, even with bubbles that were small and too consistent. Over cooked bottoms, soft crust. And TOO much handling. I didn’t really understand that the technique of lightly stretching and folding dough was an extremely important part of the randomness of air pockets and the rustic mouthfeel. I thought that was just an easy way out and that the more aggressively I knocked down and kneaded the dough the better! But I’ve learned. Now after integrating the yeast and salt I am very gentle with the dough and handle it as little as possible.
Baking bread, less handling. Really.
After my initial mixing of the flour and water, then adding the salt and yeast. I now will handle the mixture as little as possible. Making bread, I found is more about stretching and folding as opposed to kneading. What I came to understand was that every time I kneaded the dough I was breaking up the air pockets and actually making the dough dense. Stretch, fold, allow the pockets to stay intact. Above all else, be gentle.
The Flour & final details.
I have to say that I agree with Billy Parisi and really appreciate all the benefits of Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour. To get a more chewy body I also now add BRM Vital Wheat. This is a high protein, aka high gluten flour. I’ve experimented enough to call it as critical to my bread as yeast. I can pretend to know the details of why these both matter but in this blog, I assume that you are like me and more interested in advice than details. The bottom line is that it’s the gluten. The wonderful protein makes the bread alive; elastic as a dough; and chewy in your mouth. It really is about eating the gluten. SFGate does a better job explaining the science. So I’ll drop it at that.
I use a dutch oven in a basic kitchen oven. This helps hold the moisture, creating a crsipy crust. It also acts to hold hape and protect the bread from overcooking on the exterior. It’s really important to pre-heat that dutch oven, I do mine for the entiretly of the final bread rise.
As for the yeast, it’s the same we’ve seen our grandmothers use for years and can be found at any supermarket.
I use Morton’s kosher salt. Morton’s for no reason other than that’s what I had already and kosher salt because that seems to be the standard.
And yes, just tap water. When I thought I was having an issue with my yeasts I would try all sorts of store-bought distilled, spring, and so on to no effect that I could see. I do have a water softener, as the water in my town is about 13.5 grains. I installed the water softener in between my experimenting and I do think the drop in water hardness did help, although I have nothing to back that up. It’s a salt based softening system but I find no taste difference.
So that’s kinda it. All I’ve got. You didn’t come here for a history lesson or some high school science on gluten. I hope you’ve found this post at the least a little bit informative and Helpful. Regardless, Enjoy & go bake bread.
- 700 grams BRM Artisan Bread Flour
- 50 grams BRM Vital Wheat
- 5 grams yeast
- 20 grams kosher salt
- 525 grams warm tap water
- Mix the flour and water in a large bowl
First I combine the flour with a whisk. I’ll make a basin in the middle of the flour and slowly pour in the water. Now for nothing more than not gobbing up my hands too much, I’ll fold from the outside in with a spoon. Carrying the flour into the center of the water. Once that is as good as it gets I’ll handwork the dough until mixed through. Side note, I like to use only one hand. It makes it a little easier to keep things clean. And keeping things clean now means less clean up later. But a clean towel over the bowl.
- Rest for 10 minutes
- Mix in the yeast and salt
This is the most aggressive I will be with the dough, working it just enough to assure everything is combined. Shape the dough into a ball. Put the towel back over the bowl.
- Rest for 20 minutes
- Stretch and fold
Sprinkle a small amount of flour on the top of the ball and gently lift it from the bowl. Turn the floured side down and place the dough into the bowl. Lightly flour the top. Stretch and fold the dough back. Left third to the center, right third to the center. Now stretch the other way, folding in thirds as before. Now repeat both steps again. Cup the dough and make it into a ball again. Don’t press on the dough, cup it underneath so that it is gathering and gets a bit smooth on the top and sides. Cover it again.
- Rest for 60 minutes
- Repeat step 5
- Rest for 120 minutes
- Set your dough for it’s final rest & preheat your Dutch oven
Repeat the previous step except only once in each direction and very gently. Take your towel you have been using and line your bowl with it. Lightly sprinkle flour on the towel. Cup the dough, tucking it under all the way around. Fold the towel up and over the dough. In the meantime, fire your oven to 425 degrees. Place your Dutch oven with cover in place onto the cooking rack.
- Rest for 60 minutes
- Place your dough in the Dutch oven
Carefully remove the dutch oven and remove the cover. Fold the towel back on your bowl and tip the bowl into the dutch oven so that the dough flips out. It should land upside down with that nice smooth face on the bottom. Replace the cover and slide the vessel into the oven.
This is a little subjective and something I’m still messing with a bit, to be honest. But I’ll cook the dough for 25 minutes. 15 minutes in I will rotate the dutch oven 180 degrees. At the end of the 25 minutes, I will remove the lid and leave the oven door cracked open a few inches, cooking the bread for another 10 minutes. I’m trying to allow the moisture still inside the bread to withdraw. So that is a total of 35 minutes in the oven for me.
Remove the bread from the oven. Take it out of the dutch oven and place it on a rack with at least an inch of airflow underneath. This will help it continue to lose the moisture that will result in a soft crust.
- Dry out your crust
Your crust will likely soften for a bit while the internal moisture evacuates. It should set back to crispy after 90-120 minutes. If not set your oven to no more than 250 degrees and place the bread directly on the rack. Keep the door open and let it sit for 10-15 minutes. That should help get the crust you’re looking for. I actually like to make my bread so that it comes out of the oven around midnight the day before I’m planning on serving….