I Made Beautiful Bahn Mi Buns! But Now I’m Conflicted About Them

Though I love the bread I make on its own merits, I’ve always had an ulterior motive with it: The bread I make has to make a good sandwich. To me, there’s nothing more sublime than shoving meat and cheese and veggies and condiments between a couple of slices of bread or in a sandwich bun. So whether it’s a boule or batard or a baguette or ciabatta, I want to be able to use it for a sandwich.

One of my favorite sandwiches is a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich; but moreover, I love Bahn Mi bread. I’ve tried to make it in the past, but failed horribly. The bread was good, but the crumb was much more baguette-like in texture, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what made the crumb that soft and luxurious.

But I did some research and read LOTS of different recipes and they all include a key ingredient: Dough Improver. This can come in the form of either a dough improver such as the King Arthur Dough Improver or a combination of vital wheat gluten and an organic acid such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) or acetic acid (vinegar). KA dough improver is actually that combination of vital wheat gluten and acetic acid.

I followed another recipe that prescribed using vital wheat gluten and 500 mg of ascorbic acid. I crushed up a Vitamin C tablet and was off to the races. The results in the picture speak for themselves. They literally came out exactly as I had intended!

But here’s where I’m getting conflicted…

Though I’m not a member, I’ve made a conscious decision to follow the principles of the Real Bread Campaign and make bread that has no artificial additives. The ascorbic acid I added to my dough is exactly that. I know it sounds kind of janky, but I kind of felt like I crossed over the dark side.

But according to a well-known American chef, Andy Ricker (who specializes in Southeast Asian cuisine) a dough improver is a vital ingredient in making Banh Mi. He should know. He has spent years studying all aspects of Southeast Asian cuisine. Though he’s best know for his Thai food, he possesses a great breadth of knowledge and experience that goes beyond just Thai food. So when he said that a dough improver’s “stabilizers and chemicals are what help give the baguettes their characteristic texture” I almost shit pants!

But I charged forward anyway and I love what I created. They taste great and they’re light and airy. When I made a sandwich with that bread, there were crumbs all over the place. That’s the sign of a great Banh Mi bun! BUT it goes against my ethos of not using artificial ingredients in my bread.

Luckily, that forced me to research alternatives and I found that some people have been using apple cider vinegar for their acid. I think I’m going to have to try that in place of the Vitamin C. Yes, I could go out and buy KA Dough Improver. But that’s just vital wheat gluten and acetic acid. I have plenty of vital wheat gluten and not only that, I have a bottle of Bragg ACV, which is the best commercial ACV out there in my opinion.

So all is not lost. But it still felt a little wrong to me. By the way, I baked my Bahn Mi based on this recipe. Though I made a couple of tweaks and converted everything to grams. Here’s my formula in the table below:

IngredientOuncesGramsBakers’s %My Amounts
AP Flour (11.75 protein)16453.6100.00%482
Water10283.562.50%301
Salt0.25.671.25%6
Yeast0.25.671.25%6
Vital Wheat Gluten0.617.013.75%18
Sugar0.25.671.25%6
Butter0.617.013.75%18
Vitamin C500 mg500 mg500 mg
With my recipe, I used AP flour. Almost all recipes called for bread flour. However, the amount of vital wheat gluten I used brings the total protein content to 14% which I found to be optimum for making great Banh Mi buns.
Notice that my flour and vital wheat gluten combined are 500 grams. I typically include VWG as part of my total flour. This is important because you technically only want to use 0.5% ascorbic acid to total flour.

Other than my personal tweaks, I used Andrea Nguyen’s fermentation process; however, for shaping, I used a technique that Andy Ricker shared in a YouTube video:

Handling an shaping of a Bahn Mi dough is so counterintuitive. With most breads, I’ve learned to be gentle with the dough. But with Bahn Mi dough, it’s handled rather aggressively!

Creating a “Mother” Dough

I’m soon going to be doing a big bake. It’s for a fundraiser that I’m putting on where for each loaf of bread I sell, I donate a loaf to a local shelter. With that in mind, I’ve been trying out ways to be as efficient as possible. One of those ways was to see if I could make different kinds of loaves from the same batch of dough. Hence, a “mother” dough.

So two nights ago, I started a 1:5:5 levain (1 part 100% hydration starter to 5 parts flour/water each). I let that ferment overnight, then mixed a final dough which was 3 parts flour to 1 part levain, then added water to bring the hydration to 71%. My thought was to create a dough that I could use for boules and batards and baguettes.

I was a little iffy about the baguettes because I normally make them at 75+% hydration. But my starter has been particularly active as of late, so I thought the yeast could more than compensate for the slightly lower hydration, and I would proof them a little longer than normal to create just a touch lower pH in my dough to help with its extensibility.

As you can see from the pictures above, it worked! I was able to use one dough to create baguettes and batards, and by extension, boules. The crumb is not perfect for either loaf. Though I got big holes with the baguettes, they’re not as numerous as in my regular baguettes. With the batards, which are huge, the crumb isn’t really open with big holes, but the interesting thing is that I got HUGE oven spring out of these loaves – lots of little holes working together to make the loaves expand! And the texture is exactly how I like it.

So while the loaves aren’t absolutely perfect, they’re pretty good in their own right, so I will most likely proceed with this dough. Here’s the formula/process:

The Night Before…

Before constructing the dough, I had to make my levain. For this, I didn’t want my levain to be particularly sour, so I used a 1:5:5 ratio: 100 grams mature starter, 500 grams water, 250 grams high-extraction flour, 250 grams AP flour. I made this at about 9pm the previous night. Since it was like a feeding it would take about 9-12 hours to fully develop in my < 70° kitchen. Long story short, it took 12 hours before it got really bubbly and active.

NOTE: You don’t have to use an active starter for this. I used a completely spent starter that was ready for feeding. The microbes are still alive, so I’m just feeding them when I make the levain. Then I feed the remaining culture in my jar and put it away. I’m not of the school of using my starter directly. I prefer to use a “mother” that I then create child batches of levain to give me more options.

Day 1 – Dough Build

The basic, overall formula that I used is this:

1/3 High-extraction flour*
2/3 AP Flour
3:1 ratio to total flour used in levain
Water71% – factoring in the water in the levain
Salt2%
Instant Yeast**0.02%
LevainAll of it
* That 1/3-2/3 blend of high-extraction to AP flour gives me a protein content of 12.7%, that of regular bread flour.
** This is a minuscule amount just to give the starter a little boost, just in case it was too spent.

With the exception of the instant yeast, you may probably notice that this is a riff on the basic 1-2-3 sourdough recipe, though technically, the hydration is a little lower. Remember, I was trying to achieve a happy medium that could be used for different kinds of loaves.

  1. Autolyse – Combine the flour and water (reserve a little to help break up the levain later), and let soak for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Mix – Break up the levain with the reserved water, then add it to the autolysed dough along with the instant yeast. Mix a little, then sprinkle salt evenly over the mass, then continue mixing until all ingredients are incorporated and there are no dry ingredients and no large lumps. Mix until you create a well-incorporated shaggy mass.
  3. Stretch & Fold – Do two sets of stretch & folds every half-hour in the first hour after mixing. This is to build strength and make sure all the ingredients are well-distributed, so make sure you stretch and fold to the point where the dough doesn’t want to be stretched any longer. Since it was a bit cool that day, I did three sets just to make sure that everything was well-combined because I saw little activity in the dough.
  4. Coil Fold – After the S&Fs, I wanted to be much more gentle with the dough so it wouldn’t degas significantly so I switched to coil folds for the next hour and a half. By the time I finished the third set, it was clear that I was getting enzymatic activity in my dough, so I let it rest for 30 minutes, then popped it into my retarder fridge.
  5. Retard – Retard the dough for at least 24 hours, or until the dough has expanded 50-75%.

Day 2 – Making the Loaves

I couldn’t do all my loaves at once because 1) The timing would get screwed up; 2) Different loaves require different bulk fermentation times. But that’s an advantage! With baguettes, you want to start pre-shaping at about 50% expansion. Because you need a nice, long runway for intermediate and final fermentation. So with that in mind, early on Day 2, I scaled out what I’d need to make three 400-gram baguettes, so 1.2 kilos, then returned the rest of the dough to my retarder because I wanted to do a longer bulk for my batards.

I went through my regular baguette process, then once I finished baking my baguettes, I set my oven back to the proper temp, then removed the rest of the dough to create my batards. For those, I pre-shaped into tight balls, then bench rested for 30 minutes. I then shaped the loaves and put them in their proofing baskets and they proofed at room temperature for 2 hours (the dough was pretty cold so that probably accounted for the long, slow proof – which is NOT a bad thing).

Final Thoughts

All in all, I’m quite happy with the results. However, I am going to up the hydration to 73% or maybe up to 75% the next time I do this. Even with just 1/3 high-extraction flour in the final dough, the water absorption of that flour is high because of all the bran that at 71%, it felt like working with a 67-68% dough: pliable but a little stiff.

The Yin-Yang of Artisan Baking

In ancient Chinese philosophy, the Yin and the Yang denote a duality in life; how seemingly opposite forces can actually be connected and interdependent. In physics, this can be expressed as Newton’s Third Law that states the for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction.

Back when I was in high school physics class, my teacher gave us a word problem describing a boat with a single sail, and at the stern of the boat, sat a wind machine that could generate enough force to fill the sail and move the boat.

Mr. Calvelli, my physics teacher, went on to elaborate on the weight of the boat and the friction of the hull against the water. Then he asked a simple question: How much force must be generated by the wind generator to move the boat?

It was obviously a trick question because of Newton’s Third Law. No matter how hard the wind generator worked, or how efficient the sail was (it was assumed it was 100% efficient), the boat would stay in place because the force of the wind blown forward would be negated by the force that would propel the boat backward.

Sorry, I was reminiscing and took a detour… So what does this have to do with baking bread?

I’m actually going to turn to other anecdotal experience for this. I spent the better part of the first half of my life studying martial arts. I then moved onto – believe it or not – ballet, which I did for about 10 years. In studying both disciplines, there was a yin-yang nature that always fascinated me. On the one hand, I had to be absolutely focused on what I was doing at the time (yin). But on the other, I had to be completely aware of everything outside of me (yang).

When I started getting into making artisan bread, I realized that to master the craft, I had to apply that focus-awareness type of approach to my baking. Take mixing ingredients for example. On the outside, it’s a simple, pedestrian step. But it’s not enough to just go through the motions of getting the ingredients together. You have to be aware of how the mixing will affect the dough further into the process.

For instance, yesterday I mixed ingredients for two different types of bread. The first was a roasted garlic levain bread, the second was a traditional long-fermentation sourdough. I used the exact same flour blend for both bread, and they both had the same hydration at a little over 70%. But I mixed them completely different.

The garlic loaf used both levain and a tiny bit of yeast, so I fully mixed and did initial kneading with my mixer. With the traditional sourdough, which used nothing but natural leaven, I was much more gentle and mixed to a shaggy mass, then did stretch and folds over the course of a few hours. Both mixing actions required absolute focus to get the dough to the right state. But at the same time, I had to be cognizant and aware of what I’d have to do following those actions. So… yin and yang.

Though I used mixing as an example, it applies to every step of the process. Of course, this could be extended to other things out of bread-making, but I’ll stick with bread-making…

I can’t stress the criticality of this yin-yang in bread-making. With respect to focus, it’s not about concentrating on something to the exclusion of everything else – that would defeat awareness of other things. But at the same time, it’s not letting yourself get distracted. On the other side of things, we need to be simultaneously aware of our surroundings and our dough and respond to the infinite variables.

So what’s the point of all this?

Simply that for those of us who’ve immersed ourselves in the craft, it’s not about just crafting a single loaf, but the same kind of loaf consistently. As Bruce Lee put it…

I fear not the man who has practiced ten-thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten-thousand times.

~Bruce Lee

To put a finer point on it, in “Bread,” Jeffery Hamelman wrote:

…if we acquire the skill to make a dozen or a hundred or a a thousand loaves, the next level of proficiency is to be able to make them consistently. And that for both the professional and the home baker, is probably the greatest challenge: to be able, day after day, to adjust to the specific needs of the day’s doughs, to factor in and accomodate the slight changes in ambient temperature and humidity, as well as the degrees of ripeness of the poolish or biga or soudough and the tolerance of the dough during fermentation…

~Jeffery Hamelman

It’s fine to say this, but the backdrop is this idea of the yin-yang of making bread.

Happy baking!

BTW… I’ve been writing this entry while baking and I just pulled the garlic loaves out of the oven! The traditional sourdough loaves have at least another day in my retarder.

I’ll provide a recipe later on, but I adapted it from Jeffery Hamelman’s book, “Bread.” His recipe uses bread flour, but I used a high-extraction/AP flour blend.

Engaging the Five Senses

It was supposed to be a batard… 🙂

I’ve been baking bread for over 40 years, but I haven’t really taken it seriously until this past year. My only goal up to that point was to create something edible. Take, for instance, the loaf pictured above. It was absolutely delicious. But I remembered thinking it didn’t look right. It completely conformed to the shape of my Dutch oven. It was supposed to be a batard! But it exploded in my pot probably due to it being under-fermented.

My wife, ever supportive of my new passion, told me that it didn’t matter as long as the bread tasted good. But I showed her pictures from Ken Forkish’s “Flour Water Salt Yeast” and said that I wanted to make bread that looked like the bread in the pictures and further explaining that as an artist (I’m a part-time professional musician), aesthetics are important to me.

After that conversation, I put my foot down and decided to not only make bread that tasted good, but it had to look good as well.

But since then, I’ve evolved my sense of aesthetics. Now, I feel as if a successful bake is one in which the bread appeals to all five senses.

Sight – I’ve broken down the visual sense into two categories: 1) Similarity to the archetype of the loaf I’m creating and; 2) General visual appeal, or how appetizing the loaf looks. For the first item for example, do the baguettes I made look like what I expect baguettes to look like. The second one is easy. Does it look good?

For example, look at the loaves above. Both are sourdough batards. If I placed the two side-by-side for consumption, I’m willing to bet that the loaf on the left would be cut into first for the simple reason that it just looks better than the loaf on the right that has collapsed (it was over-proofed).

Visual appeal is important to me at this stage in the game. A “hug” should look like a hug. A ciabatta should look like ciabatta and have a beautiful, open crumb.

Touch – What does the loaf feel like? Again, does the loaf feel like it should? For hearth bread, even for large loaves, when I pick one up, I want them to feel lighter than what my eyes tell me. Take the batard on the left above. That loaf weighed over two pounds. It was a big loaf. But when I picked it up, it felt light and airy. The crumb reflected that:

Not only that, the texture of the crumb was spongy and soft – and I was even using a predominance of whole wheat and high-extraction flour!

Aroma – Pretty much any homemade bread smells great coming out of the oven. But I found so much complexity in aroma by using a blend of different flour. To me, there’s nothing like the aroma of whole grains when they’ve been subjected to high temperature.

Taste – Though they’re not listed in any particular order, I purposely didn’t list taste first because it’s kind of a given. And frankly, similarly to wine, taste goes along with aroma. As with aroma, what I strive for with my bread is a complexity in flavors. And since there’s technically on three ingredients in naturally leavened bread, achieving complexity is a system of trade-offs.

For instance, because I use a healthy percentage of whole wheat and high-extraction flour (typically 10% whole wheat, 50% high-extraction) in my flour blend, my loaves generally don’t have a super-open crumb. I also tend to bake my loaves more aggressively to ensure good caramelization of the sugars on the crust (though I do my best not to take things out to black).

A more “aggressive” bake

Sound – This one isn’t as apparent as the others. But when I pick up a loaf and give it a light squeeze, I want to hear the bread sing as the crust gently crackles beneath my fingers. I also listen to my loaves as they cool and expect an occasional crackle as the loaf contracts and the crust cracks. It’s a sign that the crust is crispy, but also has some give in it.

There’s really nothing like that sound!

Want Great Oven Spring? Don’t Proof Your Dough All the Way!

When I first started getting into artisan bread baking, like many, I sought out lots of help online in forums and from various blog posts. I’m so thankful for all the information that’s readily available, but I found that especially with final proofing (aka final fermentation), there’s a lot of misunderstanding or lack of clarity as to when your loaves are ready to bake.

Before I go on, obviously there are several factors that contribute to great oven spring including kneading or folding, shaping, and hydration. But I feel one area that’s oven overlooked is final proofing. If you get this wrong, the other factors won’t matter.

Admittedly, there’s a bit of instinct that you have to develop over time with knowing the right time to bake. And there are useful tests you can do like the finger dent test. But I thought I’d offer up a bit of a cerebral, perhaps intellectual discussion to provide a background.

Let me just start out by saying that you never want to fully proof your dough when you’re doing your final proof; that is, you never want to take your dough to the point at which the yeast has nothing to feed. The reason for this is that once you pop your loaf into the oven, there’s a huge increase in yeast and enzyme activity up to about 140° F. During this period of accelerated activity, the starches swell and gas production from that fermentation is super-accelerated, contributing to oven spring.

Now of course, hydration plays a huge role in this as well as a highly hydrated dough allows for better extensibility. But it’s that initial kick of the yeast and bacteria at the outset of baking that gets you your spring.

But that’s assuming there’s food for the yeast and bacteria…

If you take your dough out to 100% fermentation, there’s no more food left on which the microbes can feed. This is why over-proofed loaves barely spring up at all because it’s only the steam that’s working to extend the dough – not to mention that the gluten also breaks down and you lose all dough strength.

As Master Baker Jeffery Hamelman put its it in his wonderful book, “Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes,” ϯ

As a rule, bread should not be 100 percent risen at the time of the bake. Just as we will fall onto our noses if we lean over 100 percent, so too will the loaves tend to collapse if they receive a full 100 percent proofing before the bake. It is difficult to quantify with unvarying certainty the perfect degree of rise, since there are so many variables involved; however, 85 to 90 percent rising is a fair approximation to begin with. With careful and consistent observation of each bread, the baker’s eyes and hands will soon learn the parameters that work best.

So now that we have a background on why we shouldn’t go to full fermentation, let’s put this within the context of the finger dent test. With the finger dent test, the conventional wisdom is that it is one of the most effective way of determining how ready – or not – your dough is to bake. I use it all the time. Essentially the way it works is this: You push the tip of your finger about a centimeter into the dough. If the dent pops back immediately and essentially goes away, your dough isn’t ready. If it springs back partially and the dent slowly goes away but not entirely, then it’s likely ready. If the dent stays put, you’ve over-fermented your dough.

Do you sense the “but” in this?

This is a great test and I use it for practically every loaf of bread I make. But because it’s inexact, it takes practice to get right, and is also highly dependent on the flour you use. Different flour and flour blends make the springiness factor a challenge. A strong flour will almost invariably be more bouncy than a weaker flour – at almost all stages of fermentation. A weaker flour, like AP will have a lot of give naturally and may fool you into thinking your proofing is done.

Unfortunately, the only way I know – and according to a few professional bakers I’ve both read about and spoken with – of determining a dough’s doneness is learning through trial and error. As Chef Markus Farbinger puts it, it takes time and practice to develop an instinct about your dough.

Essentially, there’s just no empirical way to teach this. Eventually, you’ll come to know the ultimate endpoint of the dough you make. But frankly, that’s half the fun! And who doesn’t need an excuse to bake?

Another thing to consider is that different loaves respond differently to the amount of proofing. Even though Chef Hamelman recommends 85 to 90 percent as a guide, that’s really only a rough approximation. With baguettes, I’ve learned to only take them to the lower end of that range, perhaps even short of 85%. There have been too many times I’ve ended up with flat baguettes because I’ve taken them too far in proofing. And it’s easy to do because baguettes don’t have that much internal structure built into their dough.

On the other hand, with boules and batards, I tend to take them a bit further. I’m personally not after numerous huge holes, but an even distribution of moderately-sized holes, so I’ll tend to take them to about 90% proofing. I realize that I’m playing with fire because that requires some careful monitoring before it’s too late. But because I use fairly high-protein flour I can afford to do this because their structures are strong.

As I mentioned above, this is one contributing factor to great oven spring. But because it is the last step before a loaf gets put in the oven, it is critical to get this right.


ϯ Hamelman, Jeffrey, Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes (2nd Edition), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013.

You Have to Be Adaptable

Last night, I created an overnight levain before going to bed as an experiment. It contained 400 grams of culture, 400 grams of high-extraction bread flour, and 400 grams of water. By morning, it was ready. So… to get the flour to a nice, round kilo, I added 400 grams of AP flour, and 150 grams of water to get the hydration to 75%.

My thought was to make a batch of sourdough baguettes. But this time, I’d try out the process of making baguettes traditional, which involved a loose mix, followed by stretch and folds every 20 minutes for an hour, then bulk fermenting for a couple of hours (though I’d check after an hour).

What I should’ve done was check after 30 minutes because at the 1-hour mark, the dough completely overproofed! It was a sticky mess with absolutely no strength. Pulling on the dough would tear it! And worse yet, it was highly acidic!

BUT!

Rather than chucking the dough, I thought to myself, why not add a bunch of flour and water and use that dough as a pre-ferment? So I took my mixer out, then gradually added flour and water until I got a dough texture that was consistent with an approximately 75% hydration dough.

But my yield completely changed by doing this! Normally, my dough yield is about 1.7 – 1.8 kilo of dough, which allows me to create 6 X 290-295 gram baguettes. Adding flour and water literally doubled my normal yield!

So my next thought was that when bulk fermentation was finished, I’d divide the dough such that I could make 6 X 250 gram baguettes, then divide the rest of the dough into two medium boules or batards.

It was a great idea on paper, but when bulk fermentation was finished (as shown in the picture above), although it looked normal, the dough was SO acidic that it was overly extensible and super-sticky even though I could feel there was plenty of strength in the dough. Shaping that kind of sticky dough into baguettes was completely out of the question.

Furthermore, I knew instinctively that though I could shape the dough into three or four batards or boules, the dough wouldn’t stand up to the sheer size of the loaves and though they’d expand, they’d expand outward instead of up. So in the end, I decided to create 6 small, free-form batards.

My thought was that they’d be big enough to create some decent slices for finger sandwiches or what-not, but small enough that they wouldn’t collapse under their own weight. Thankfully, it was the right decision. The loaves popped up beautifully in the oven!

As you can see in the picture above, I got great oven spring with all of them. And I was actually surprised to see the moderate crumb considering the dough consisted predominantly of high-extraction flour that has lots of bran in it. I owe that to the acidity of the dough which, as I mentioned, adds extensibility.

This whole exercise provided a couple of HUGE lessons for me!

First of all, there’s always a way to salvage an over-proofed dough, and secondly – and most importantly – you have to be adaptable and flexible enough in your thinking to respond to different conditions. If I went ahead and tried to create baguettes, they’d tear in the shaping process, and with baguettes, it’s all about the skin because there’s little internal structure, so you have to rely on shaping.

Granted, this is probably something I wouldn’t have figured out early on in my journey. I would’ve chucked the dough. So this experience presents yet another important lesson: Never stop studying and practicing! I’ve spent so much time studying not only techniques, but the science behind dough fermentation.

Just last night, I read about how acid content affects the dough and makes it more extensible as well as eventually breaking down the gluten structure! Thank freakin’ gawd that I learned that! That information allowed me to respond to the high acid content in my dough! So for those of you who read this who are on their own journey, you can never learn enough.

Finally, I’ve learned to approach bread making much like Bruce Lee approached martial arts in that the technique you use is dictated by the situation. Especially early in my process of learning artisanal bread making, I was fairly canonical in my approach and followed recipes and techniques I’d learn fairly religiously. But I was always wondering why my bread wouldn’t turn out the way I was expecting. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to tweak on the fly and respond to different situations that I started seeing much better results.

So yeah… You have to be adaptable!

The Law of Necessity

If you’re like me, you spend a bit of time going through recipes and lurking or participating in online forums. You will often see pictures or read about different kinds of equipment people will use to bake their bread. In turn, you will be compelled to get that gear.

Don’t. At least not immediately.

As with written recipes where the timings are highly dependent on the kitchen environment, in many cases, the equipment people use is congruent with their other gear or their own personal processes.

For instance, I recently read about someone who invested in a KitchenAid 8-quart commercial mixer. They were complaining that their hook wasn’t working very well on the little 500-grams of flour recipe that they were using. When queried about their baking volume, they admitted that they only baked one loaf at a time every week or so. I’m not sure about anyone else who read that post, but it got a bit of chuckle from me. Talk about overkill!

But it’s not an isolated incident. I’ve read or heard about similar accounts of people getting all sorts of items that they report they never use or are too much for their needs. People spending thousands on stuff! It’s crazy!

In the guitar world, this seemingly nonsensical (and expensive) urge to get gear is called Gear Acquisition Syndrome or GAS. It’s a compulsive response to seeing and hearing gear. It’s not just a one-time thing. I suffered from GAS for years, accumulating tens of thousands of dollars worth of guitars and amps and accessories. And the worst thing about it is that most of it just collected dust until I sold most of my gear off. But as a working, active musician, I kept a lot stuff.

When I really started getting into baking, I saw how I could fall into the same trap with baking accessories. So based on my previous experience with guitar gear, I made a conscious decision to only get stuff that I absolutely needed to get the job done.

I’ve read or heard about similar accounts of people getting all sorts of items that they report they never use or are too much for their needs. People spending thousands on stuff!

It’s not that I’ve completely foregone getting baking accessories. But I do a lot more evaluation on what an accessory will get me before I make a decision. And I really ask myself if I absolutely need it.

For instance, though my volume in baking has definitely picked up, and though I really could use a higher-capacity mixer, I’m holding off for now. One of the reasons for this is because I’m limited by my oven capacity. I can only bake two boules or batards at a time, and only 6 baguettes. Technically, I could get another baking stone and double my capacity, but that wouldn’t be fair to the other members of the family who might need an oven.

And speaking of a baking stone, right before I bought mine, I was baking entirely in a Dutch oven. But I wanted to make long loaves. And my family kept on asking me if I could make baguettes and ciabattas and French bread. So it was easy to justify getting the stone.

This all boils down to what I call the Law of Necessity which basically states: If I don’t NEED it, I don’t want it.

The qualifier of course is – at least for now…

Levain, Poolish, Biga, Pâte Fermentée… They’re Just Preferments, Dammit! :)

Whether you use a Levain, a Poolish, a Biga, or even a Pâte Fermentée to rise your dough, let’s be clear about one thing:

They do the same thing and make your dough expand!

That’s their basic function, no more, no less. Now you could argue that they provide certain characteristics such as extensibility and a sour tang. But their most basic characteristic is to make dough rise.

I realize that the whole preferment thing can be intimidating for many people. But using a preferment is literally thousands of years old. But it seems that it wasn’t until this pandemic lockdown that people jumped on the artisan bread making bandwagon by the millions (that includes me, by the way) and this seeming mystique was built around sourdough and preferments. Which is probably one of the reasons I started this blog other than to chronicle my journey.

To me, there is no mystery behind making bread and absolutely no mystery behind preferments. To be clear, a preferment is simply a portion of your dough that has a high density of yeast and flavor-producing bacteria. It helps the larger portion of your dough rise faster.

Technically, you could leave a mixture of flour and water out and eventually the wild yeasts and bacteria will infect the mixture and ferment your dough. But that takes a long time – several days. But with a preferment, or even commercial yeast for that matter, you shortcut the natural fermentation process and effectively speed it up because you’re adding a high concentration of microbes to the dough to give it a head start.

Think of a preferment as simply a concentrate, similar to frozen concentrated orange juice. You add the concentrate to a host of some sort and it changes it. In this case, our yeast and microbe concentrate expands the dough to make it rise, and when heat is applied, produces bread. It’s really that simple. There’s no mystery.

If it’s that simple, then why use a preferment and not just go the easy route with instant or active dry yeast? Simply because a preferment has added functional and nutritional benefits that you don’t get with plain yeast. Functionally, the lower pH (more acidic) of a preferment aids in the extensibility and elasticity of the dough. Nutritionally, using a preferment produces amino acids and other healthful by-products that make the bread more easily digestible and also act as a natural preservative to aid in the bread’s shelf-life.

Is one preferment better than another? This is where it really boils down to personal preference and what you’re after as a baker and somewhat, the type of bread you’re making. But you see, there are no hard and fast rules. There may be conventions – for instance, using a poolish to make baguettes – but lots of folks, including myself, regularly break from convention. Even with brioche which, by convention uses commercial yeast can be made with a sourdough starter.

With bread, you can’t – and shouldn’t – be canonical. And beware of anyone who says such and such bread must be made with a specific type of ingredient and especially those who invalidate another’s choice of rising agent.

It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature…

Back in the ’70s, there were a series of commercials for Chiffon margarine that featured “Mother Nature” and how she could be fooled by the margarine being butter. Her tagline was, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Here’s one of the commercials:

Well, you might be able to fool Mother Nature with margarine, but you can’t fool Mother Nature with bread making. She’ll make you pay. Badly.

Last night, I was excited to start a levain for some high-hydration whole grain loaves I wanted to bake today. I made an overnight levain and as of 7 AM this morning, everything was great. I mixed the final dough, placed it in my trusty Cambro container, then went through four stretch and folds the first two hours, before I’d do the final bulk fermentation of an hour-and-a-half. At which time I thought it would be a good idea to go to Home Depot.

I returned home just before my timer went off, checked on my dough and saw that it had doubled in my container. Nothing seemed abnormal. So I set up my shaping board and got my bench scraper ready and went to get my dough…

Which I then literally poured out as a liquid mess onto my board. F^&k!

To be honest, I actually laughed when I saw it come out. I knew there was no way to salvage the dough. It stuck to everything. And frankly, I didn’t feel like making pancakes out of it, so I just tossed it out. Oh well.

So what’s the lesson with Mother Nature? It’s simply that there’s no escaping her laws, especially the law of doubling. The job of the microbes is not to feed but to reproduce. They feed on the sugars in the flour, then split. That’s their nature.

Our job is to catch them before they consume all the fuel. But here’s the kicker: Right before they completely consume all the flour, they’ve only consumed half. That’s Mother Nature in action and you see it in the world.

Eutrofied pond

For instance, there’s a process called eutrofication that occurs in ponds and lakes where algae completely infests the body of water. Each day, the algae doubles, and the day before the body of water is completely eutrofied, it’s only at 50%!

The point is that with yeast and bacteria it’s the same principle. The point of no return comes fast. Very fast. Which is why you can’t rely on time because the yeast and microbes double at their own rate, so you have to physically check dough progress.

Had I not gone to Home Depot, I would’ve caught that the dough was rising really fast and shaped the loaves far earlier and all would be well. But I relied on experience that dictated that I had time. After all, I’ve made these rustic loaves dozens of times.

But looking back, I was using a different starter than what I’ve used in the past. This particular wild yeast has been super-active. But the thing is, I actually used less starter for my levain because I knew just how fast-acting this wild yeast is. Looks like I’m going to have to either use less to stick to my regular schedule, or adjust my process altogether and do things in shorter intervals.

We live and learn. Happy Baking!

Over-Proofed Dough… Argh!

I can’t seem to get the timing down for cold proofing shaped loaves. I do overnight bulk ferments (or even longer) a lot. But shaped loaves? I’ve only had success with them a few times.

It’s annoying! To say the least…

I baked the loaves above just last night after they spent just a few hours in my fridge. I wasn’t planning to bake them at the time. In fact, I was planning to leave them for 16 hours. I shaped them at 2pm, went to band rehearsal for Mass at 4pm, then when I checked them at 6pm, I saw that they had risen. Significantly.

And fallen.

So I turned on my oven and heated it up for an hour and in that time, the dough went from just beyond ready, to well over-proofed. I knew I was in trouble when I tried to remove the loaves from their bannetons and both stuck a little.

And it’s not that my retarding fridge is too warm. It’s set to 38° F and it works great for long bulk ferments. But for some reason, when I try to do long final fermentations, the yeast kind of goes haywire!

I suppose looking at it from another perspective, it’s a good problem to have. At least I know my starter is super-active. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a pain in the ass when I over-proof my bread.

Oh well… I’m going to keep on trying to find the right time.