So, you have been feeding your starter, signs of life are visible, it’s rising and falling predictably… time to make some bread.
Let’s look at this process through two different lenses.
Simply: bread is flour, water, and salt. The dough by nature can be quite forgiving. Throw in a little muscle memory and the visual appeal emerges as well. Conversely, bread is complex. From the molecular level to the baker’s hands, many processes are occurring simultaneously, and it’s our job to monitor them. Increase your dough volume and you can have quite a formidable opponent. The beauty of baking is that you can use whichever lens you’d like. From a bird’s eye view or through a microscope, you will get a tasty loaf.
Now, on to the mix. Let’s brainstorm a recipe. We begin with our yield, how big of a loaf do we want? Let’s shoot for a 700 gram total, a well-sized loaf of bread. With a yield in mind, we begin measuring out our ingredients. If you have a scale, follow the measurements in grams. If not, I will try to provide accurate cup conversations.
Measurements in Grams:
Flour- 365 grams
Water- 255 grams
Levain (Starter)- 73 grams
Salt- 7 grams
Measurements in Cups (Approximate):
Flour- 2 and 2/3 Cups
Water- 1 cup and about 1 1/2 tablespoons
Levain (Starter)- Slightly less than 2/3 Cups
Salt- About 1 and 1/2 teaspoons
Before discussing method, let’s break down this recipe a bit. Flour always comprises most of the loaf. I would suggest using bread flour if you can get your hands on it, a generally stronger (higher protein) flour than all purpose. Of course, all purpose will do just fine. I also suggest that 15% of your 365 grams of flour is whole wheat. Whole wheat flour, rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, adds flavor complexity and can aid in fermentation. Once again, no whole wheat? No problem.
Why 265 Grams of water? This brings your loaf to 70% hydration. I wouldn’t call that necessarily high hydration nor low hydration. It kind of skirts the middle line, a great hydration for practice, and should yield a nice open crumb.
73 Grams of starter means that 20% of your bread is composed of Levain. Why such a specific number? Well it’s a fairly high percentage of Levain for a loaf of bread. Yet, this is taking into account that most starters aren’t fed twice daily every day. We could say this is aiding our chances of good fermentation.
As a general rule of thumb, salt comprises 2%-2.5% of the loaf. It serves two essential functions: tightening gluten and helping to curb fermentation.
Now let’s examine the method. Bread making involves the following steps- mixing, autolyse, bulk fermentation, pre-shape and bench rest, final proof and bake. There are so many ways to approach each of these steps. The following information will provide only the basics but from these basics, I hope thoughtful and fun experimentation can take place.
Mixing- With your flour and water scaled, pour water into a mixing bowl and place 73 grams of your starter in the water, proceed to break the Levain apart with your hands. Then, we add flour. When mixing we are not looking to develop gluten, we are simply hydrating the flour. By this, I mean we are mixing until no dry flour remains. Get your hands in that dough! Be patient, at 70% hydration it may seem like the dough won’t come together, don’t add water. Keep mixing and before you know it you’ll have a well incorporated shaggy ball of flour water and Levain. We now autolyse.
Autolyse (Auto-lease)- Perhaps the easiest of the steps. We are simply letting the flour, water, and levain sit for 45 minutes before incorporating salt. Why? Well a few crucial things are happening during this stage. Flour is absorbing the water-becoming a more cohesive mass and enzymes naturally present are starting to break down the flour and free up sugar for the microbes. After about 45 minutes it’s time to add salt to the dough. Place your 7 grams of salt on top of the dough. We add a small, emphasis on small, amount of water at this point to help the salt breakdown. For this recipe let’s say we are adding 14 grams of water to the dough. Proceed to push the salt down into the dough matrix with your hands, don’t be afraid to really explore the dough. Pick it up, put it down, squeeze it, stretch it out on itself. At this point the dough feels completely different, well it feels more like a dough, the salt is doing its job.
Bulk Fermentation- The bulk refers to the hours that follow where we are allowing the dough to prove in its container. During the bulk we fold our bread.. stretching and strengthening the gluten, refining its ability to capture the air produced from your yeast. Strengthening gluten throughout the bulk seems to be a generally better approach than “kneading” or developing all your gluten at the very start. Why? Well by keeping our hands in the dough over a period of time we can constantly monitor and judge its state of fermentation. To say that you will be bulking your dough for X amount of hours is a very generic statement. There are so many factors at play, flour composition, water temperature, dough hydration, room temperature and starter strength to name a few.
Assuming that your starter is not being rigorously maintained, I am going to suggest a longer bulk fermentation, 5 hours. 30 minutes into your bulk and it’s time for the first fold, all folds occur in your container. I think it’s helpful to try and view your dough as a square. We begin by wetting our hands and then pulling the top half up into the air- stretching the dough (try and be weary of tears that appear, this becomes increasingly important as your dough continues to prove). Bring this half back towards you, placing it about halfway through your square. Rotate the dough 180 degrees and repeat, rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat, and lastly rotate the dough 180 degrees for the final stretch. You have at this point brought all four sides of the dough into its center, tightening the gluten and creating tension. The final step here would be to flip the dough, literally flip it, so that the center of tension you have created is now under the dough, allowing it to better retain said tension. This process is referred to as a four-point fold. Let your dough rest for 30 minutes then give it another 4 point fold. Now 1 hour into the bulk we will spread the folds out more. Fold at the 2 hour mark, 3 hour mark, and 4 hour mark. The dough will then relax for 1 hour before we pre-shape and bench rest.
Pre-shape and Bench Rest- We can view this stage as a final preparation for shaping our bread. Release your dough from its bowl (or whatever proofing vessel was used) onto a floured work surface. The idea here is that we are going to create a round shape. Now, gingerly pick your floured dough up and transfer to a non-floured work surface (floured side down!). In order for the dough to come together it needs to stick at least partially to the surface you are working on.. this is how tension is created. It is a difficult motion to describe via text but with both hands on the dough (sort of in a 10-2 driving wheel position) imitate the motion of a clock. Pick a direction, and work your hands in a circular motion. Do not over think this step, if you feel that the dough has been slightly tightened and its in a semi-round shape, cover it with a paper towel and leave it! On your first attempt this motion will feel awkward but with a little practice and repetition tightening dough really becomes second nature.
We have now established what part of the dough will be the inside of your loaf (the side touching your work surface) and what will be the crust (the side exposed to the air). Next, we are going to bench rest the dough. It will remain, with your paper towel, on the work surface for 20-30 minutes. This allows the dough to relax a little before shaping.
Final Shape and Proof- Your first shape will most likely look funny. That is okay, the muscle memory isn’t there yet, keep working at it. A visually unappealing loaf always tastes delicious.
Remove the paper towel, flour the top of your bread (once again this will be the crust) and flour a portion of your work surface. The next step is aided by a bench knife but can be done gently with your hands… flip the dough over into your floured work area. The side of the dough now facing you is the inside of your bread and should not be floured. Like when we were folding, I think its useful to try and view the dough as a 4 sided square. Take the dough’s top half and bring it into the middle. At this point it will look a bit like a V. Take the top right corner of this V and stretch it further to the right. Be conscious of the fact that your dough now has air in it, it will be less willing to stretch out so don’t force it. Take this right Corner and bring it back to the top left corner of your dough. Repeat this same step but with that left corner of your dough. Stretch it out further to the left and bring it over (it will fall on top of) to the right corner. At this point your dough should really look like a rectangle.
The final motion here is rolling the dough, top down, until the side on top meets the bottom side. Where these two sides meet is the seam. This becomes important when transferring your dough to its final resting place.
At this point you should have something resembling a loaf of bread. We now transfer the loaf to our banneton bread baskets, this helps hold all the structure you have created with your dough. If you do not have a banneton it is absolutely okay, I used a big round bowl for a long time. Just note the dough will spread out as it proves. This will create more of a round shape instead of a batard shape. Whatever vessel you use, flour it to prevent sticking. Rice flour works the absolute best for this, at the bakery we use a blend of whole wheat and rice flour.
Now you can either place your loaf seam side down in the basket or seam side up. If you have a razor blade and want to try your hand at scoring, cutting the bread thoughtfully and allowing it to expand, place your dough seam side up. If you do not have a razor blade, and I mean it when I say that there is no substitute when scoring, place your loaf seam side down in the basket. I’ll explain either option a little more when discussing the bake.
You’ve shaped your bread, it’s in its basket or bowl, now it has one more proof before baking, this makes up for the degassing that occurs during shaping. You have two final proofing options, ambient or retarded. Ambient means that the dough is left out at room temperature, about 2 hours into this process it should be ready to bake. Retarded means you have placed your dough in the fridge, it will rest and proof overnight before baking. Note, that if you use the retarded method, you will likely need to let your dough proof in the morning. Most home fridges are too cold to facilitate activity.
What does a proofed dough feel like? Another piece of the process that is very hard to get right. It will take baking under-proofed and over-proofed bread for you to get a sense. I can say that if your bread is under-proofed, it will almost feel like touching a balloon, extremely taught. A proofed loaf offers a very different sensation, it’s soft, you can feel the air that the yeast has worked so hard to create.
The Bake- so there is no substitution for a razor blade, I would say that is equally true for a Dutch Oven, it is an essential tool. Why? Steam is a crucial piece of the bake, it allows your bread to rise without the crust hardening before the bread has reached its full potential. There are a variety of steam tactics you can try in your home oven, but the closed system of the Dutch Oven essentially lets the dough steam itself. It really works wonders.
When you feel that the dough is almost ready to bake, about 30 minutes out, it is time to preheat both your oven and Dutch Oven. Crank it to 500 degrees, the importance of creating and preserving heat cannot be overstated.
Okay, your oven rang out that it’s ready, remove the Dutch Oven. When baking bread, you are essentially flipping the dough out of its basket.
If you have a razor blade- Your loaf was placed into the basket seam side up, thus when you flip it into the Dutch Oven the seam will land on the bottom. The issue here is that the bread has no where to go as it rises. If we didn’t have a razor blade it would tear in some places and generally not reach its full potential. This is why we score, we create and control through scoring a pathway for the bread to rise. Scoring takes a lot of practice. I think the most fundamental thing I have learned is that when taking the razor blade to your loaf, place it at as sharp of an angle as you can, and when cutting the bread, cut as shallow as possible while still opening the bread up. This prevents you from cutting into all of the air and structure that has been built. Once scored, cover the Dutch Oven and put it back into your oven. Set a timer for 20 minutes.
If you do not have a razor blade– Your loaf was placed into the basket seam side down, thus when you flip it into the Dutch Oven the seam will land on the top. In this instance, the seam will act as your score. Without even cutting the dough, your bread will have an avenue to follow while giving its last breath in the oven. Place, covered, back into the oven and set a timer for 20 minutes.
Keep your oven at 500 degrees for the first 10 minutes of the bake. Bring it down to 480 degrees for the next 10 minutes. 20 minutes in and you will now remove the top of your Dutch Oven and gaze upon the fruition of your hard work. The final 15-20 minutes are all about the Maillard reaction, where sugars present in the crust create color. I personally suggest a dark bake to anyone. It is exactly the same as adding char to your steak on the grill. Color, and a nice range of color, creates a lot of flavor.
Something to keep in mind, while the Dutch Oven absolutely solves the problem of steam it does burn the bottom of your bread very quickly. I have recently gotten into the habit of, when baking at home, actually removing my loaf from the Dutch oven for its final 15-20 minutes. Another option is to just bake it lighter, but you will miss out on flavor complexity.
I truly hope that this was helpful. I wanted to provide readers with information that I would have found essential when I was baking at home. I tried to go as deep as possible for this blog post but there are plenty of things I missed out on or would have liked to explain deeper but lacked the words. So to compensate I will suggest my three favorite bread books, books filled to the brim with information regarding this crazy craft. The Sourdough School by Vanessa Kimbell, Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish, and lastly, if the theory piece of this stuff interests you, Open Crumb Mastery by Trevor J. Wilson (e-book).
That’s all for now,