The Science of the Art of Bread Baking
It’s not about eating bread. It’s not even about eating better bread. It’s about learning. It’s about keeping the brain active. Such activity does not require mastering quantum physics or a foreign language. Mastering apparently simple tasks such as bread making will do. Partially because the rewards are real but also because there is nothing simple about baking good bread.
Bread is actually a complex system that needs to be understood to be mastered. The earliest breads were flatbreads made from ground grains, mostly wheat (einkorn, spelt, and similar ancient grains in the area from Egypt to Mesopotamia and other grains elsewhere) and water. If you were rich you can add some salt. Normally this was mixed quickly and formed and cooked quickly. Just like it is still done. Probably one day a batch was mixed but forgotten for several days. Since food was expensive and not to be wasted, the flatbreads were formed and cooked. The resulting bread was found to have risen and it was light and fluffy. So the age of leavened bread started. What occurred to the bread was that microorganisms in the air, the water and the flour flourished in the sugar-rich flour/water mix and were able to multiply. They ate the sugars (starch) and expelled CO2 and alcohol. When baked the CO2 created bubbles that raised the bread. The alcohol evaporated. On a side note, I’m sure somebody noted the existence of the alcohol and figured out how to ferment beer.
From that time in the neolithic era to today, many cultures have perfected their particular styles of bread-making resulting in the many styles of bread found all over the world. Some good and some bad. Difficulty obtaining good bread is not really the issue. Especially living in a metropolitan area, good bread is available if you search for it. But during the early days of the Pandemic in the New York area, going out to buy bread also raised your risk of contagion. So I, and apparently everyone else, started baking bread. So much so that bread flour and yeast disappeared from the shelves. So now in order to not expose myself to the Reaper I started baking bread but to do so I had to travel all over the area to find flour and yeast, thus exposing myself anyway. I found some flour but could not find yeast. Therefore, sourdough. I knew lots about sourdough but all of it was wrong. And as one does with Ikea furniture, I dove in blind without investigating what I should do.
My first attempt produced a disgusting liquid that I just dumped down the toilet. Then I bought some dry sourdough starter. I followed the directions on the package, mixing the powder with water and placing it in a jar. I had to stir the mix everyday and every few days I had to remove half the mix and replace it with flour and water and stir again. Eventually, after 10 days, I had a sourdough starter that I could use to bake bread. But it was not sour. It worked but it tasted like yeast bread. So what was going on? Incidentally the value of buying a sourdough starter package is that it comes with instructions that you will read. The stuff in the bag is nothing more than flour and yeast.
I figured to get sour I needed some lactic acid in the mix. So instead of water I started using goat’s milk. That helped. After a few “feedings” the mix started producing a bit of sourness in the resulting bread. This started the golden age of my personal sourdough. The “mother”, what they call it in Europe, provided consistent excellent results. I was doing a lot of baking. Eventually my baking rate dropped down to occasionally. I would bake a loaf of bread and slice it. Then I would freeze the sliced bread and use it as I needed it, It would last typically a week and then it was time to bake another loaf. I have my Ecco (Alexa) programmed to tell me to feed the monster every Friday morning.
Then came the time that I forgot to feed the monster. It went for two weeks without being fed. When I finally got to it I found that a layer of ugly liquid had formed on the top and it had a distinctly sour smell. I fed it and used some of it to make some bread. The way I use sourdough is to make what is called a “sponge”, a loose mix of flour, starter and water. Like a thick batter. I cover the bowl with a cloth and leave it overnight to ferment. That process turns the fresh flour into part of the sourdough starter. During the “golden era” mentioned above, the sponge would double in size overnight when it was ready for additional flour and water and salt to make the actual bread dough. However, after I missed the feeding, the sponge did not double in size. It rose but just a little. So I doubled the time for the sponge and it rose some more. When I finally made the bread the resulting loaf had risen but it produced a very sour bread, similar to the San Francisco type sourdough bread. It was quite good but what was going on?
So I did some research and found out that the sourdough starter is a mix of yeast and bacteria. The yeast provides most of the rise while the bacteria adds the citric and lactic acid that give the sour taste to the bread. When I neglected to feed the monster what happened was that the yeast, which feeds on sugar, starved to death. The bacteria, which feeds on the dead yeast, then took over and the mix became mostly bacteria. Which isn’t totally bad but some yeast is needed to expedite the process. It normally takes two days to make the bread, three days is starting to get a bit long. So I added a bit of yeast to the monster to try to reestablish some equilibrium. It would be better to start a new batch from scratch but that takes too long.
The other variable in the process is the quality of the flour. What do you know about flour? I thought I knew quite a bit but found that I really did not. What I did know was that flour was ground in different ways for different reasons. Italian 00 flour, for making pizza, is very fine while stone ground flour tends to be a bit coarser and less uniform. Then I knew that there is white flour which is just the inner portion of the wheat kernel and whole wheat flour which includes some of the germ of the wheat. I also knew that the protein content determines the type of baking to be done with the flour. Low protein flour is for delicate baking like pastries while high protein flour is for bread baking. And then there is the concept of gluten.
Gluten, the hipster boogieman, is one of the proteins contained in wheat that when it is hydrated develops a structure. Adding water to flour develops the gluten which acts like connective tissue in the dough. Kneading the dough further develops the gluten which makes the dough more elastic. When the dough is baked the gluten holds the air bubbles allowing the bread to expand and rise. But more importantly the gluten gives the resulting loaf the texture of good bread. The bread has a “chew” and elasticity the gluten free bread versions cannot duplicate. But how much gluten?
Most flours are categorized by type. Cake flour, all purpose or bread flour. The cake flour has the lowest percentage of gluten while the bread flour has the largest percentage. But how much? Until I bought King Arthurs Organic Bread flour that has the protein content listed on the package, I didn’t know. Cake is a low gluten product while a French baguette is a high gluten product. So when I baked bread with say “00” flour, the bread would come out closer to the cake than the baguette. Which is ok if that’s the kind of bread you are looking for. “White” bread for example. White bread uses medium protein flour and also uses dairy in the dough. The dairy, milk, inhibits the gluten formation. As do eggs.
Understanding that gluten is like connective tissue, anything that will disrupt the formation of that tissue will produce a less glutenous bread. This is also true for high protein whole grain flours. The germ and husks of the seed, if they are included in the flour, act as little razors that cut the gluten strands preventing full formation. Whole wheat bread also tends to taste drier than non-whole wheat bread. This is because the germ tends adsorb less water and is less soluble than the other parts of grain.
In Sicily the preferred flour is rimacinata, which means re-milled. This refers to semolina flour that has been milled twice to produce a finer flour. I bought imported rimacinata and made a loaf that came out pretty good. I also tried using standard semolina flour to make a loaf the following week and it was equally as good. The difference, I believe, is that Sicilian bread tends to be a yeast risen bread which is made relatively quickly so the flour does not have as much time to hydrate so a finer flour is needed while when using sourdough the added time required hydrates the coarser flour.
The semolina flour produces a less glutinous bread than standard bread flour, but not unpleasantly so. The crumb is soft and it has a sweeter (not sweet like dessert) taste. Making it with a sourdough adds that little bit of sour twang that the Sicilian bread does not have. The home made semolina bread is also denser (more substantial) than the commercial Sicilian breads which tend to be on the insubstantial side.
Kneading (the labor)
Why knead when you can make no-knead bread? Gluten is the reason. That gluten is there whether you knead or not but unless you knead it it will not develop a web-like structure that holds the air and allows the rise. That structure also provides the elasticity that you get from a good artisanal bread. Think of the baguette you get from a good French Boulangerie as compared with that loaf of insubstantial “French or Italian bread” that comes in a bag at the supermarket. The “chew” of the bread should be more meat-like than cake-like. Yea, of course all of this depends on your taste. If you like TipTop bread, then you should have stopped reading this long ago.
I make my bread completely by hand. That is because I believe in traditional methods since I don’t own a dough mixer which I would love to have but can’t because of my current living situation. To remind you we are temporarily located in Jersey City and we will be moving in April. Unfortunately at this time we don’t know what that destination will be so we must remain lite. So if you have a good Kitchen Aid or Hobart or similar, feel free to use it and know that I resent you. If you don’t have one of those, it is a therapeutic activity to knead dough. (keep saying that to yourself)
As I mentioned above, I start the process by making a sponge. The reason for this is that I keep my sourdough starter in the fridge where it is essentially dormant. To wake it up I put it in a bowl and feed it some flour and water. The mix should have the consistency of a thick batter. To make a Boule or a few baguettes I use about four ounces of the cold starter (typically about half of what is in the jar) and I add two cups of high protein flour and enough water to form the batter (understand that I do all this by eye). I use a Danish whisk to mix this glop. Once mixed I cover the bowl with a dish towel and let rest overnight on the counter. I don’t use warm water and I let the sponge ferment at room temperature. This is because the slower fermenting produces a better flavor.
The next day the sponge should be airy and at least doubled indicating that the fermentation was successful. At this point I add a few more cups of flour and water (I use filtered tap water so that the chlorine is removed). I also add salt, for the amounts above I use about 1/2 to 3/4 tablespoon of sea salt. I mix with the Danish whisk adjusting (adding flour or water) so that a soft dough forms. It should be still sticky and hard to handle. Cover again and let stand for an hour or two. This process hydrates the flour which means it allows the gluten to form and it also allows for further fermenting. We are talking about a live material here that is full of beneficial bacteria and yeasts, a probiotic.
The sponge can be used to make quick breads like the panini shown below or even English Muffins.
After the initial rise turn the dough out on a heavily floured work surface (stone is best but wood is ok). Before starting take a small pinch of the dough and taste it for salt. If it needs more, flatten the dough and sprinkle some additional salt. Then fold the dough and start the kneading process. You could look on You Tube for different ways to knead. The idea is to stretch the gluten to form threads and sheets. So the kneading process is to flatten and stretch the dough and then to fold back together. Repeat for about 15 minutes or until the dough gets too stiff to work. During the kneading process you are adding flour to the dough to come to the ideal consistency. That is the dough should be as soft and wet as possible but not too soft and wet to work. If you add too much flour the resulting bread will be hard and dry. You can switch from using flour to prevent sticking to olive oil. Using too much flour can make the bread dry. If the dough is too wet the bread will spread out in the oven and will form what is known as a ciabatta style loaf. Ciabatta means slipper (as in bedroom shoes).
After at least three kneading workouts, the loaf should be formed for proofing. Again look on YouTube on how to form the type of loaf you want. I prefer boules, elongated loaves, because I can slice them into usable, relatively uniform slices. Round loaves are fine but it is difficult to slice them into uniform slices. Baguettes are baguettes. For the boule I use a wicker basket for the proofing process. This gives the soft dough some support while proofing so it does not become a ciabatta. There are also baskets for the other forms but the problem is that they are mostly made in china and require months to order. I ordered some from wish.com in May and they arrived in early September. In the meantime I ordered one from a pizza supplier which I got within a week. (I noticed that Amazon has baskets in stock now)
The bread should proof at room temperature for an hour to a few hours or overnight in the fridge. Do not overproof the bread. The bread should rise about 50% before baking. Anymore will cause the bread to lose structure and become too difficult to work with. Use plenty of flour or cornmeal or semolina to prevent sticking. What I do to turn out the loaf to prepare for baking is to cover it with a sheet of parchment paper and a flexible cutting board and inverse. When the basket is lifted off, the top surface is the finished surface of the bread. The part that needs to be scored. The oven should already be at 450f degrees before starting this step. When the loaf is on the parchment, cut slices into the top to allow for expansion. You can be decorative at this step. Again You Tube will show you how to use a lame for baking. Don’t be afraid to cut deep. Get the bread in the oven as quickly as possible.It is very important that you do not deflate the loaf during this process so be careful and gentle. You can form the loaves in the evening and allow them to proof overnight in the refrigerator.
Slide the loaf, with the parchment, onto the hot pizza stone or heavy duty roasting pan. There should be a pan of water on the bottom of the oven to provide some steam for baking.
Bake the bread to 180 to 200F internal temp. Use a probe instant read thermometer. If the crust is not dark enough you can go a little longer but don’t exceed 210F. Let cool on a wire rack for an hour or until you can’t wait any longer.
If you want to use a Dutch oven, follow the same procedure as above except cut the parchment to the size of the bottom of the dutch oven except leave two ears on the parchment that you can use as handles to lower the loaf into the hot dutch oven. The Dutch oven should be pre-heated before adding the bread. Cover the bread for 15 minutes and then uncover to finish baking. For baguettes you need a baguette baking pan.
Now get some good butter or olive oil.