The one positive thing that has come from this pandemic lock-down is that a lot of people – myself included – have started making bread. And many like me have learned how to make bread using the traditional methods which involve manually working the dough, either through the entire process, or at least a good portion of it.
I freely admit that I’m in the latter camp. I do all my initial mixing of ingredients in my trusty stand mixer; not because I’m lazy, but because it does a better job of creating a consistent mix. I started out doing all my mixing by hand so I knew what it was like and once I felt what a good mixed dough should feel like, I switched to using my stand mixer. But I did make a promise to myself that I’ve never broken: After doing the initial mix, I would work the dough – either kneading or folding – entirely by hand.
The reason is that there’s really nothing like working a dough and seeing it transform from a shaggy mess into a smooth, pliable ball if I’m kneading it or; if I’m working with a high-hydration dough, feeling the dough transform from a wet, gooey, and sticky blob into a cohesive network of gluten strands that gradually resist my ministrations. Plus, it just FEELS good as the dough becomes smooth and luxurious. And the ONLY way to see and feel the transformation of the dough is by touching it and working with it with your hands.
What I’ve come to realize is that artisan bread is really not about creating beautiful loaves of bread. The loaves are a by-product of the artisanship and craftmanship in the process leading up to actually baking the dough. For instance, look at this antique hutch that’s sitting in my dining room:
That was handmade in the 1930’s and restored by a local artist. The door panels were hand-carved. And even after all these years, according to the artist who restored it, it was crafted so well that even after all these years, it was so structurally sound that all she had to do was clean and refinish it.
The craftsmanship of bread is similar. In order to create a beautiful loaf, you have to build the structure of the dough. Just like you don’t throw random pieces of wood together to create hutch like the one to the left, you don’t just throw ingredients together and expect to create a loaf of bread that’s aesthetically pleasing, both in taste and visually. So in essence, the craft in bread is in manipulating the dough: Working it with your hands, adjusting hydration, the type(s) of flour; even the salt and yeast. We do this to create a structurally-sound base on which our dough will bake.
And the thing about baking bread is that it’s not forgiving. Even if you’re simply following a recipe you find online, to achieve the result that you see in the pictures the author provides, you have no choice but to apply at least some craftsmanship to the process. I think that’s the reason why so many bread recipes you read are incredibly verbose.
The bakers who write them know that there is an inherent and unavoidable craftsmanship in baking bread. They provide the gotchas and pitfalls because they know that there are lots of variables that affect the structure of the dough. And invariably, almost all the recipes involve some sort of manual handling of the dough because the bakers also know that it’s difficult to understand how a dough is being affected unless you physically touch it!
But to me, as I’ve alluded throughout this post, feeling the dough is incredibly sublime and pleasing. As I write this article, I’ve been taking breaks to fold a dough I created this morning. I just popped it into my fridge to bulk ferment for 24 hours. That dough gave me the inspiration to write this article. From the first fold to the final fold, the dough went from a slightly shaggy pile to this gorgeous, velvety-smooth ball that I could stretch and stretch without it tearing. It’s so satisfying! And I wouldn’t have known this if I did use my hands.