Bread and I have always had a tenuous relationship. I had dreams of crusty artisan loaves and soft, pillowy rolls, but at a certain point, every attempt produced leaden bricks. It wasn’t until late one night, when I couldn’t sleep and I decided to watch old Baking with Julia Episodes on PBS that I seemed to discover the keys to producing satisfying yeasted goods. While sharing her kitchen with bakers such as Marion Cunningham, Gale Gand, Nancy Silverton and Joe Ortiz, Julia Child helped to demystify the secrets behind a wide range of great baked goods. (Full episodes of baking with Julia are available to watch at http://www.pbs.org/food/julia-child/julia-child-video-collection.)
Baking with yeasted products is different than baking cookies and cakes. Precision is still important, and care should be taken when measuring, but at a certain point you just have to let the dough talk to you. Watching those master bakers manipulate perfectly elastic rounds of dough out of flour and liquid, I was able to see the distinctions in various stages of readiness in the dough as it came together. It became clear that I had been making a few key mistakes when baking bread, and since then I am able to reliably produce deliciously soft, whole-grain rolls and sandwich breads.
I haven’t spent much time playing around with baking crusty, free form artisan breads, mostly because Springfield has such a wonderful local bakery where I can purchase them. Patrick Groth has been delighting central Illinois with European-style breads since 1995 at his bakery, Incredibly Delicious. The breads and croissants he and his bakers produce are truly some of the best I’ve ever had, rivaling much of what I’ve tasted in Europe.
I stopped by Incredibly Delicious to speak with Nathan Powers, one of the artisan bakers who helps to produces those perfectly crusty loaves. “Many people don’t realize that it’s not actually that difficult to make these types of artisan breads. A lot goes into the preparation, making sure you have every single thing you need, and that you’ve read the recipe through to the end two or even three times. What I love about baking here is that we use a hearth-type oven that has a stone bottom. This allows you to control the heat from both the top and the bottom, so I would definitely recommend using a pizza stone when baking artisan breads at home.”
Another tip that Powers shared is to place a water bath on the bottom rack of the oven underneath the bread as it bakes, to get a little bit of steam going. “The steam helps to create a nice solid crust on the bread, the kind that crackles when you break it open.”
No matter what type of bread you’re interested in baking, there are some universal tricks that can help us all to become better bakers. King Arthur Flour has excellent resources on their website, and if you read through to the comments with each recipe, King Arthur bakers often reply to the comments with helpful tips and ideas. I’ve outlined some concepts to keep in mind should you get the urge to roll up your sleeves and try your hand at home bread-baking.
• Weigh your ingredients. Professional bakers and many home bakers rely on a kitchen scale to measure ingredients, rather than measuring by volume with a cup measure. Depending on how you scoop flour out of the bin, the weight of a cup of flour can vary greatly. It also speeds up the process, as you don’t have to pull every measuring cup out of the drawer just to produce a batch of rolls. Set your mixing bowl on a scale, then zero out the scale. Add the required weight of an ingredient, then zero the scale again, then measure in your next ingredient, zero the scale and so on. Liquids can be measured by weight also. This is a much more accurate way to measure, and conveniently, all the recipes available on www.kingarthurflour.com can be viewed in volume, ounces or grams. Kitchen scales are widely available for about $15-$20.
• Temperature is a critical factor. Yeast is a living thing, and drastic fluctuations in temperature can inhibit or even kill yeast, preventing your bread from developing flavor and rising. An inexpensive kitchen thermometer is useful for checking the temperature of liquids. Most bread yeast thrives at around 110 degrees, which should feel barely warm to the touch. Ambient air temperature plays a critical role in the rising time of breads. The warmer the air temperature, the faster the bread will rise. Last week when the temperatures were in the ’90’s, the bread dough I had made was ready to punch down in just 45 minutes, about half its normal rising time. A slower rise at a cooler temperature always results in a more flavorful loaf, and many breads will benefit from rising slowly overnight in the fridge, allowing you to prep them ahead (which is very helpful when preparing an elaborate meal like Thanksgiving dinner).
• I often add about 3 tablespoons of Vital Wheat Gluten with Vitamin C (available from Hodgson Mill) in with my flour. Gluten is the protein that gives breads their structure and helps to add loft to the loaves. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) acts as a natural preservative and will help keep the finished loaf fresher, longer.
• When making a batch of bread dough, especially whole wheat breads, I like to mix the ingredients together initially with a sturdy wooden spoon until they just come together. I then let the shaggy dough rest for 5 minutes before kneading it for 5-7 minutes with a dough hook in my stand mixer. That five-minute resting period allows the flour to fully absorb the liquid before the kneading process begins. Whole wheat flour takes longer to absorb liquid than white flour, and dough that may have looked as though it needed additional flour simply needed extra time to absorb.
• I like to let my dough rise in a large glass measuring bowl so that I can track its progress and accurately see when it has doubled. When your dough has completed its first rise (usually about 2 hours at 70 degrees for basic bread recipes), it should have doubled in bulk. Punch it down with your fist in one sure movement to deflate the gas bubbles that have formed in the dough. At this point it is important to treat the dough with respect, so as to not destroy the beautiful network of gluten.
• I always use a kitchen thermometer to check loaves for done-ness, looking for a temperature around 195-200 degrees. There’s nothing worse that ruining a perfectly good loaf of bread by pulling it out of the oven too soon.
Bread baking is an immensely satisfying endeavor, and a wonderful activity to make with children. Home-baked bread not only has wonderful flavor and aroma, but it’s also free of noxious preservatives, dough conditioners and stabilizers. At a cost of about $1 per loaf, making your own bread is economical as well.
Contact Ashley Meyer at Ashley@realcuisine.net.