One Size Does NOT Fit All

Though all bread is basically made with just four ingredients, what makes them different lies in the ratios of the ingredients and especially the processing techniques. For instance, with boules and batards where the ingredient ratios and fermentation times tend to be exactly the same, just a little thing like shaping completely changes the texture of the bread. Crusts bake completely different.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because early on, I learned that lesson. Reading Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast (FWSY) was a revelation in artisan bread baking, but it also had the effect of metastasizing my thinking that I could use the same principles I learned in the book to every single type of bread that I wanted to bake. That, even though Ken often said that his recipes were general guidelines and that depending on my kitchen and equipment, I’d have to work out what worked best.

I thought I could use the basic Saturday white bread recipe to make baguettes. After all, I thought to myself, it was just dough, and I was just shaping it differently. But to my frustration and consternation, my baguettes kept on coming out too heavy. Yet in my stubbornness, I pulled an Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results…” I finally had to get over the fact that FWSY was not the be-all/end-all to baking artisan bread, and I had to change things up.

I now make baguettes that are airy on the inside and crispy on the outside and if you looked at my process, it’s WAY different than any recipe in FWSY. And mind you, I’m not cutting down anything in the book. But I had to break free and diverge from the book, which is what I believe Ken intended all along.

To be honest, everything changed for me when I decided to make long loaves like baguettes. You can’t make them in a Dutch oven, and I didn’t want to purchase a bunch of special pans to bake the different kinds of breads I had in mind. So when I purchased a baking stone, it was game over as far as FWSY recipes were concerned. I still made my boules according to the recipes in the book for the most part, but for other loaves, I took different routes.

And this is where I realized that one size doesn’t fit all with respect to making bread. Even the slightest tweak can yield significantly different – and admittedly, sometimes unexpected – results. For example, in FWSY, Ken promotes this idea of letting the dough bulk ferment to double or even triple the original size. I never do that because it runs the risk of over-proofing the dough. And since I use a baking stone, I don’t have an enclosed container that will limit the spread of my dough should it be over-proofed.

For me, I want to have plenty of energy left over for intermediate and final proofing. So I cut bulk fermentation short at about 50% rise, so I have plenty of fuel for the final two fermentations after pre-shaping and shaping, respectively. Furthermore, I will err on the side of slightly under-proofing my dough (not too much). My final product may be a little tighter than a fully-open crumb, but I also avoid making flat loaves.

So for those just starting out, I have to say that just don’t take my word for it. You’ll have to learn these lessons by baking over and over. But the important thing is to keep an open mind to different techniques and processes. One size does not fit all!

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