June 27, 2011


After three previous attempts at baking my own bread, I was beginning to think it was something I’d just never figure out. As recently as two weeks ago I tried again using leftover whey from my mozzarella making in the place of water in my bread formula. The first loaf was OK, but still had a very uneven air bubble distribution, The second loaf, made from dough that had been allowed to sit in the fridge for a few extra days looked promising if a bit flat:

However, when cut open, it was too dense at the bottom:

Just as I was resigning myself to giving up on the whole idea of bread baking, I got an email from Andrew, my exceedingly patient bread consultant, announcing that he would be teaching a class at his home. I offered to trade an immersion circulator for the lessons, and we had a deal. I would be one of five students attending the class.

I arrived at his home on Saturday aftrenoon just as he was taking this beauty out of the oven, a focaccia with mushroom confit, basil, and cheese:

Having established his credentials and upped the intimidation factor with one gesture, he walked us through every aspect of bread baking. He had dough that he prepared earlier that he would use to demonstrate different techniques, but we also had to make our own “straight” dough with flour, water, yeast, and salt.

Mixing together everything but the salt produced this shaggy mess:

This mixture would rest for 20 minutes, allowing the enzymes in the flour and yeast to develop flavor, a step called the autolyse. The salt was added, and the dough rested, covered, until it was time for the fold and stretch step, which would be repeated every thirty minutes for a few hours. The dough isn’t kneaded, but the folding and stretching breaks some of the larger air bubbles and aligns the gluten. Here’s the envelope fold being applied to a larger batch of dough:

Between folds and rises, I learned about every factor that could influence the final outcome. I already knew about hydration levels and baker’s percentages, but calculating the desired dough temperature was new to me. You need to measure the temperature of each dry ingredient, factor in the amount of friction generated by the mixing method, and then add the water at a temperature that will result in dough at 75 to 78 °F, the optimal fermentation temperature. Ignoring that factor had been one of my biggest mistakes.

After a demonstration of the crucial shaping technique – almost impossible to describe, but simple to understand once you’ve seen it – we moved on to scoring the loaves. This is where I discovered mistake number two: I wasn’t scoring the dough deeply enough. Look at the depth of the cuts on these three loaves:


They were baked on a stone on the oven, with a pre-steam before they went in and more steam added after about five minutes. The steam source was boiling water poured over pans of ceramic pellets that had been pre-heated along with the stone.

Andrew was kind enough to give us each a bag of the pellets to take home, but they can be found at any hydroponics supply store.

After about 45 minutes at 450 °F, the loaves were ready:

Although you should always wait a few hours for the bread to cool before cutting it (the carryover heat finishes cooking the center of the loaf), the bread was cut open to show the even texture.

The class was over at this point, and we were all sent home with a bag containing the dough we had been folding and stretching. Once home, it would need a final shaping and proofing, and then it could be baked. I shaped my dough and set it in a floured banneton to rise.

After the proof, I inverted the dough onto a peel and scored it – deeply – before sliding it onto the oven.

Wait, I hadn’t boiled the water to make the steam! The five minutes that elapsed while I steamed the oven were enough to let the dough spread a bit, but I was committed. Into the oven it went, and, after 45 minutes and two more steam additions (gas ovens vent out the water vapor) I pulled out this loaf:

It was already late in the day, so I waited until the next morning to cut it open, which you can see at the top of this post. Good crust, even crumb, reasonably uniform air bubbles – all that was left was to taste it. I called in my bread tasting expert, She Who Must Be Obeyed, who passed judgment: “It’s your best loaf yet.”

So I’m back in the bread-baking business, and will keep practicing until I can routinely turn out uniform loaves. And very soon I’l incorporate the starter I was given to make pain au levain.

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