I’ve started baking bread a little more than one year ago, and I’ve got pretty
serious about it, It’s an activity that’s both rewarding and challenging. There’s tons of ‘ancient recipes’ that I’ve received. At the beginning I tried to make sense out of all these traditional recipes and tried them all, achieving very different results. My bread evolved from being a rock to something that now grows around three times it size and has fairly nice flavors, texture and shape.
These are some of the things I’ve learned through a year of hard practice and a lot of reading:
1) Dough is Better when wet and Sticky.
Aiming at what is called 80% hydration, which is basically we call 100% the total weight of the flours used, the water added to the dough should weigh 80% of that. With this we’ll get a bigger loaf as the dough will have more power to retain the air and the crust will be more golden and caramelized. I learned this by trial and error but when I read serious theory about bread I was pleased that I had got that right.
2) Kneading is Not Necessary.
Kneading is indicated as essential in many traditional recipes since this helps develop the gluten that will make the dough able to retain the gasses produced by the yeast. While this is valid, is way easier to just fold the dough a couple of scheduled times during the fermentation process. By folding I mean: Wet your hands, pull part of the dough high so it stretches and fold it over itself, repeat this a 4, 5 or more times until it starts keeping the shape. Repeat the folding process 2 or 3 times every 15 min. Folding in my experience gives way better results than kneading.
3) Autolyse Helps A LOT
This I got from literature but I found it is very helpful and none of the traditional recipes prescribe it. Basically, mix flour and water (no yeast nor salt) and let it rest for 20 minutes, just then add yeast and salt and mix very well. This helps by developing flour’s natural sugars and allowing the yeast that is naturally on the flour to start reproducing, this will in turn be additional food for the yeast to have, also it will help with the initial development of the gluten.
4) Sugar, Milk, Yogurt, and a Lot of Yeast are not Necessary!
At the beginning I was frustrated with the texture of my bread, because my dough retained very little air and I thought I was not adding the right amount of yeast. In that process I learned from traditional recipes that to ‘feed the yeast’ you can add sugar, milk and other stuff like yogurt. All of this impacts directly on the flavor of the bread and in order to get a good texture none of that is necessary, just a little bit of yeast (actually less yeast than the amount of salt) will do!
5) Good Bread should not be Rushed.
When I started making bread I was really not patient and my total process would last like 45min to an hour, this, obviously produced some flavorless bread that had only tiny air-pockets. I was only happy with it because it was comparable to the commercial shit that is sold at the grocery stores in the US, but when my taste buds started telling the difference between that and something really good (not to mention the horrible texture), I realized I needed to take more time. I learned this by accident, when I forgot dough freshly kneaded for a couple of hours and the end result was way better tasting. Now, for decent bread I recommend taking at least 3 hours, awesome tasting bread takes like 12 hours or more.
6) Be Gentle!
We have 2 main processes: fermentation, the time that goes since we mix the dough initially and it grows more than double in size; and proofing that happens after the dough has been divided and shaped, in both of these processes, the dough gets volume and air pockets thanks to the yeast producing gasses, we don’t want to undo what the yeast has done, therefore we need to be very gentle when handling the dough, this does not mean to treat it like we were afraid of it, but being gentle with it so it doesn’t lose a lot of air.
7) Baking Temperature and Steam Affects Your Bread’s Crust
This I learned the hard way, I used to bake the bread in very low temperatures, this produced a very thin and discolored crust. Then I learned that steam helps with this, therefore I started baking with a small container with boiling water (it is important that the water is boiling) to create a steamy environment in my oven. Second improvement was to raise the oven’s temperature but beware! While higher temperatures will produce way better and thicker crusts, it will also make the crust ready before the interior of the loaf has finished cooking! So oven temperature needs to be set at a sweet spot. In my experience around 450°F (232°C).
8) Baking Trays or Dutch Ovens Should be Pre Heated.
Last thing I learned is that a cold dutch oven or baking tray influences negatively the result of the final bread, so go ahead and pre-heat your bakeware to get the best results!!
With this I close mypost and hope that everyone out there who is passionate about baking bread finds this useful!