The “Secret” Ingredient in Baking Bread

In the home artisan bread baking community, there’s a predominant focus and emphasis put on recipes and processes. That’s natural. After all, you have to know what goes into bread and how to make it to bake it. And there are lots of people – including myself – who are relatively new to making artisan-style bread and recipes are important.

But now that I’ve gotten much more experienced, I’ve come to learn that making artisan bread isn’t just about successfully making a single loaf from time to time. And it’s certainly not just about being able to successfully follow a recipe’s instructions. To me at least, bread really doesn’t become artisan until you can bake the same kinds of bread with consistent results.

The very word artisan implies that craft and skill are involved; moreover, it implies a certain repetition to achieve consistent results from loaf to loaf. And the results, in turn, reflect the achievement of a certain aesthetic. For example, if you think about an artisan batard, the general aesthetic is that it is an oval-shaped loaf that has an ear on top, with a crumb is fairly open.

To achieve that aesthetic, you can’t just simply follow a recipe and expect it to come out the same every time. Granted, you could get lucky. I certainly have gotten lucky myself, especially when I was first starting out baking seriously. I’d see a recipe online or in a book. I’d follow it step-by-step, and it would come out gorgeous (well, at least I thought so).

That success would urge me on and inspire me to bake again. But more often than not, my next bake of the same bread would go seriously awry, and well, not knowing what went wrong or what caused it was as if I was a balloon and someone came up and pricked me with a pin! Talk about being completely deflated!

But I’m not the kind to give up. So I began to educate myself and do a deep-dive into the process of handmade artisan bread. With that, I decided to focus on mastering four types of loaves: Boules, Batards, Baguettes, and Ciabattas. Each would have their own flour formulation so I could affect different flavor profiles in each. And through the regimen I’ve developed this past year, I’ve gained the confidence to know that whatever kind of loaf I choose to bake, it’ll come out the same.

But as I was baking the other day and admiring the gorgeous baguettes that had just come out of the oven, I started thinking about how I was able to make baguettes – or any loaf – the same from bake to bake. Was it my process? Was it my recipe? My shaping technique? It was “yes” to all those questions.

And for that particular batch of baguettes, I actually had a fairly challenging time with the dough. My starter was particularly active that day and things were happening way too fast for my comfort level. And since I only had two opportunities to build dough strength, I didn’t want to have the dough fully proved before I could build some strength into it. So I made sure to do a lot more stretch and folds in each session to ensure that the dough would be strong. I knew that would knock down and degas the dough, but with the yeasts being super-active, I knew I’d get plenty of rise.

Then it dawned on me that what made this particular bake and other bakes successful was something related to my process but not necessarily part of it. It was mindfulness.


mind·ful·ness/ˈmīn(d)f(ə)lnəs

  1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.”their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition”
  2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

The one thing I came to realize is that I have to be constantly aware of what’s going on in my process at all times; in other words, being mindful of the various nuances and gotchas that could occur during a baking process. And as with anything in life, if you’re not aware of what’s going on with what you’re doing and what’s going on around you, it’s going to affect your success, and oftentimes, in negative ways.

Mindfulness allows us to respond – not react – to changing conditions; seemingly being able to anticipate exactly what to do when certain conditions arise. Reaction to an event or circumstance is almost always chaotic because when the event occurs, we have to evaluate what has happened then figure out what to do, and once we finally figure it out, it’s often too late.

Contrast that to responding to a situation where we’ve already considered the various permutations of things that could occur based on our awareness of current conditions. The action we ultimately take seems much more organic. We just make it happen. There is definitely a life lesson in this that goes way beyond baking bread. I could probably write a whole self-help book on the subject. But I’ll just keep it bread.

Mindfulness also ensures we’re precise in what we do. Especially with baking bread, making precise measurements is absolutely critical. When a recipe calls for 2 grams of yeast you need to be precise about those two grams. The reason is that the process’ timings are based on that amount. If you use too much, the process will be much faster as the flour gets metabolized faster; using less, the converse occurs.

Even with shaping, you have to be precise and deliberate. With shaping, you’re not just getting the dough to conform to a particular geometric shape. You’re building the internal gluten network AND developing the outer skin of the loaf. In other words, you can’t just roll up a piece of dough and expect it to magically become a baguette or batard. You have to be mindful of what the shaping technique is trying to accomplish and you follow the technique precisely, otherwise, your loaves will come out looking different.

Those are just two examples of the criticality of being mindful. I could go on forever, but I think I made the point. And to me, mindfulness is really the secret ingredient to baking bread.

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