While I love baking all sorts of loaves, baguettes are definitely my favorite loaves to make. To me, there’s no more satisfying a feeling than seeing baguettes come out of the oven, all crunchy and steamy, and knowing the technique that goes into making them. Out of all the different loaves I make, baguettes require so much technique to get right.
When I made my first set of baguettes, they looked great, but they were extremely dense – and I was even using 100% white bread flour! I figured at the time that I could use my normal technique of several stretch and folds over a few hours – boy was I wrong!
Then thinking that the denseness was due to hydration, I upped my hydration to 80%. I got a marginally better result, but still, the baguettes were a little dense.
But then after watching several videos and reading a bunch of different recipes, I saw that most people just kneaded the dough once, then did maybe one extra stretch and fold within the first hour. Then they let it sit! I then got a much better crumb, with great oven spring, but the loaves were a bit lopsided.
Then it dawned on me that perhaps the last pieces of the puzzle were pre-shaping and final shaping. As I recently wrote in “Gimme Some Skin” the other day, it’s absolutely critical to form that outer skin of the dough. And especially with baguettes, because I don’t want to create a tight, internal gluten network which will affect the crumb, I have to rely on my shaping for structure. And once I figured that out, I started getting consistent results time after time.
Honestly though, I’m still honing my technique, but I’ve got the all-important fundamentals down to the point where I’m very confident of my ability to create great baguettes consistently. And like Chef Markus Farbinger says, “I still get excited when my baguettes come out of the oven!”
A friend recently asked me what drew me into my bread making obsession. I shared that when I first started, I had no idea I’d totally fixate on this. All I was doing was jumping on the bandwagon and my only goal was to be able to make a decent-tasting loaf of bread. But once I made my first few loaves, inevitably, my sense of aesthetics kicked in and I didn’t want to just create decent-tasting bread, I wanted it to look good as well as taste good.
Then I wanted it to be much more nutritious than other bread. In essence, I went on, what drew me in was the nuance; those little niggling details that all come together to create a beautiful loaf of bread. As I discovered, all those little things affect how the bread turns out. And one of those little things I have found to be absolutely critical is, of all things, pre-shaping.
I have to admit that when I first started out, I kind of took the pre-shaping step for granted. After all, it seems like such a minor step: Shape the dough into a ball, let it rest for 15-20 minutes, then shape. And mind you, I was learning alot of technique from YouTube videos, and none of the chefs I watched ever explained the importance of this step. But I found that the more care I put into pre-shaping, the better my loaves turned out. Let me explain why…
First, pre-shaping establishes the “skin” of the bread; essentially creating the canvas that will be presented to the world. But that skin isn’t just for looks. It plays a vital role in the overall structure of the loaf. Arguably, this is the most important item of pre-shaping’s importance. In pre-shaping, you don’t want to just create a smooth outer skin, it has to be taut, stretching the gluten strands to begin to establish the outer structure of the loaf.
Secondly, pre-shaping begins orienting the gluten strands to make it easier for the ultimate shape. It doesn’t seem that apparent when making boules or batards, but that orientation is really apparent when making baguettes. It gives the dough a little bit of a head start before shaping.
Finally, pre-shaping re-arranges the yeast and other microbes in the dough, so that the little beasties that have exhausted their food supply during bulk fermentation can be moved to a new spot to get new food. This may explain why oftentimes during pre-shaping, you’ll see bubbles spontaneously form. Pre-shaping wakes up the microbes and that’s a great thing. You want them to be active during final proof!
When I first started out and didn’t put any emphasis on establishing the skin, I believe it negatively affected my ultimate shaping in that my loaves would often collapse. But once I started making sure I’d create a nice, smooth, taut skin during pre-shaping, I had fewer and fewer collapses to the point where my loaves – why are generally 75-80% hydration – just don’t collapse unless I over-proof them.
But as I always say, this is just one aspect of the whole process, but though on the surface it seems like a minor item, it really isn’t.
My favorite bread to make is baguettes. I love sandwiches and I especially love to make sandwiches with baguettes. And ever since I started making bread, my goal was to make my own baguettes so I could use them for sandwiches. And of all the different kinds of bread that I make, baguettes are the simplest with respect to the process. But they are also the easiest to completely screw up.
With my earliest attempts, the baguettes had a great shape. They appeared to get great oven spring and from appearance alone, they just looked right. But most of the time, they were pretty dense inside and super-chewy. I’d pick up a loaf and my heart would sink because I could feel the heft. They tasted okay, but damn if I couldn’t make a 6″ sub and not be completely weighed down by the dough.
But now my baguettes are light and airy. They have a great chew, but the dough gives very easily. And with the flour that I use, while the crust is crunchy and crispy, it’s not overly so. This bread is perfect for making sandwiches!
What changed to get me to making much better baguettes? In actuality, not much. I just did less; specifically, I worked the dough far less than I would with a larger loaf like a boule or batard. What I realized is that while forming a good, strong gluten network is important with any bread, with baguettes, there’s an inflection point that defines whether I get a light, airy crumb or I get a dense one. And that point comes a helluva lot sooner than when I’m making larger loaves.
With my larger-format loaves, I’m pretty aggressive with mixing the dough upfront until the dough is completely smooth. Then I do about six stretches and folds over the course of three hours from the initial mix. But with baguettes, I mix to a much courser consistency, rest the dough for a half-hour, then do at most two stretches and folds within the first hour then let it rest from 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
It reminds me of making biscuits. With biscuits you never want to overwork your dough. You mix only until all the ingredients are just incorporated and the butter or shortening is reasonably distributed throughout the dough. Then you roll it out and cut the biscuits. It’s a similar thing with making baguettes. Less is definitely more!
I wish I could explain where that inflection point is, but it’s something I feel. What I can share is that once I finish the second stretch and fold, if I can pull on the dough mass and the whole thing wants to come up, I know I’ve hit that point where the dough’s strong enough. And then I leave it alone!
Leaving the dough alone was a very difficult thing for me to learn. In fact, even with my larger-format loaves, I’ve learned that resting is just as important as manipulating the dough. And it’s been especially tough for a naturally impatient person as myself. As I used to say, “If patience was a virtue, then I’d be a slut.”
…eat grocery store bread any longer, unless there isn’t an alternative. And if there isn’t one, I will be extremely picky of what I buy. Luckily for me though, I bake practically every day, so the likelihood of me having to buy a loaf of bread is pretty low.
I realize that this might seem obvious considering this blog is now almost entirely about my bread-making journey and I think it’s clear that I bake – a lot! But if baking bread was merely an occasional affair, I’d certainly be buying bread from the grocery and wouldn’t feel compelled to write an article like this. But yeah… I’m kind of done with store-bought bread.
What prompted me to write this was last night’s dinner which was graciously prepared by a good friend to help my family out while I recover from surgery. She made an absolutely wonderful vegetable frittata, a fresh green salad, watermelon, and brownies for dessert. And she included a small loaf of heat and serve sourdough. My family really enjoyed the meal. But not one of us could eat the bread beyond a single bite!
I took a bite of it and put my piece down. But I didn’t say anything to the rest of the family because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. But then my wife asked my son, “Do you want my bread? I can’t eat it. I like Dad’s bread more.”
Then she turned to me and asked, “What do you think of it?” I replied, “I can’t eat it.” My wife laughed and said, “We’ve gotten really spoiled with Daddy’s bread.” We all had a bit of a laugh at that remark, but it’s true. To all of us, store-bought bread’s taste and texture simply pale in comparison to what I can produce at home. But that’s not the only thing…
It’s well-known that commercial bread and bread products have additives. But did you ever consider what the nature of these are? Honestly, I was blissfully ignorant of these for years. But once I started successfully making my own bread and doing a lot of research on home versus commercial baking, I was shocked at some of the things I discovered.
Did you know that lots of bread labeled “sourdough” isn’t made from an actual sourdough starter? They inject acetic acid in the dough to give it its sour taste! Furthermore, manufacturers enrich bread with all sorts of chemicals to help the dough be fluffier or give it longer shelf life or give it a better color. And especially in the US, commercial bread makers add chemicals that have been linked to cancer and even banned in other countries. Click the link I provided above. It’s eye-opening.
The FDA argues that the parts-per-million amount of these chemicals is so small as to be negligible. But what does that mean? Is that negligible against an average response? What about those people whose systems will react at just the slightest amount?
That said, I’m not going to eschew commercial bread entirely. If it’s the only thing available, I’ll eat a bit of it, though I will limit my intake going forward. But if I have access to artisan bread, either made by me or someone else, I’ll choose the artisan alternative.
I purposely put quotes around “Sourdough” because even though the bread has a slightly sour taste, it is not made from a levain, but from a pre-ferment; specifically a poolish. What? Sourdough bread from a poolish? Well, give it a bit of time and it’ll turn sour, then when added to the final dough, that will give the microbes plenty more to feed on, and it’ll produce a very pleasing, sour taste throughout the loaf.
One might argue that a bread like this will not be as complex in taste as a traditional sourdough bread. But I disagree. Just as with cooking, complexity can come from several sources. I’ve joined the school of thought that doesn’t depend solely on the microbes to provide the flavor complexity. The combination of the flours I use plays an immense role in influencing the flavor and texture of the bread.
If you read this blog, you know I’ve written another batard with poolish recipe. That one works great, and even though the proportions are exact, the fundamental difference with that recipe and this are the number of stretch and folds that are done with this recipe. The original had just four folds, this has six. The extra two folds make a HUGE difference in the structure of the dough!
Here’s the recipe:
* Whole Wheat Flour (fine or extra-fine ground) ** You can use regular, high-protein bread flour here, but I recommend using a high-extraction flour such as Type 85. *** Add a bit more yeast (up to a gram) if your kitchen is around 70-degrees. The amount listed here is for 75+-degree kitchen, like mine is in the summer.
†You really want to have your dough be in the 75-80 degree range. So take the temperature of your flour with a food-grade thermometer, then use the table in this article to determine what your water temp should be.
In a separate container, make the poolish mixing everything together until smooth. This is wet, and you don’t want any lumps.
Allow the poolish to rest for at least 12 hours, but probably not more than 16 hours. With this long of a resting time, make the poolish at about 8-9 PM at night, and it’ll be ready in the morning.
When you’re ready to make the final dough, transfer the poolish to a large mixing bowl or a stand mixer bowl. Add most the water and whisk until the poolish is dissolved. Then use the rest of the water to rinse out your poolish container so you get everything.
Add the flour to the poolish mixture, and combine until there are no dry spots. It’ll be shaggy. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let it autolyse for 30 – 45 minutes. It’s important not to mix to a smooth state because all we’re trying to do here is help the flour with water absorption and not start to generate gluten.
Once autolyse is complete, sprinkle the salt and yeast evenly over the top of the dough and start mixing until smooth. Admittedly, I do this with a stand mixer because it does it better than I can with my hands. I used to do this step with my hands but using a stand mixer saves me a little time; especially when the bulk fermentation takes over three hours.
One the mixture is smooth, transfer the dough to the container you’ll be using for fermentation. Once transferred, immediately do a stretch and fold of the dough to form it into a ball. Then turn the ball over onto its folds. I use Ken Forkish’s stretch and fold technique and stretch and fold in my fermentation container. There are lots of others but I started out with Ken’s technique and it’s what I’m used to. In any case, once you’ve done the stretch and fold, cover your container and put it a place where you can reasonably maintain the temperature of your dough.
Repeat step 6 every half hour for the next 3 hours. Yup… you read that right. This one takes time, but it is SO worth it! Also, note that you want to treat the dough gently and not degas it. When you stretch and fold in the bulk fermentation stage, you want to be gentle and not tear or press down on the dough.
After the last fold, let the dough rest for 45-60 minutes. You should see nice bubbles in the dough, but it shouldn’t be going crazy. Your dough should be a bit jiggly from the air pockets that have formed.
Now, carefully pour the dough onto an unfloured work area. You don’t want to degas it and ruin all the work the microbes have done. Divide the dough into two reasonably equal portions, then lightly flour the tops of the pieces. These will be the tops of your dough.
Take a portioned piece and flip it over onto the floured side. Try to gently move the dough. If it sticks, just lift it up and sprinkle some flour underneath the sticky area. Pre-shape the piece into a nice, tight ball then flip it over onto the seams. Repeat this with the other piece.
Lightly flour the tops then cover with a floured cloth and let them rest for 15 minutes.
Once the balls have rested, shape them into the type of loaf you want and place them into an appropriate proofing container, seam side up.
Place the containers in separate plastic bags, then put them in a cool, dark place place to proof for up to 2 hours. Check after an hour though and if your dough passes the finger dent test, then it’s ready to bake.
While the dough is proofing, preheat your oven to 475-degrees. If you’re using a Dutch oven, place it in the oven now. I use a baking stone and it needs a minimum of an hour to come to temp. If using a baking stone, also place a metal baking pan (I use a 9″ cake round) on the bottom rack of the oven.
Remove your preheated Dutch oven from your oven, then place a loaf directly into it. Carefully score the top of the bread, cover the pot, then put it back into the oven. Bake covered at 475-degrees for 20 minutes, then uncovered for 10 minutes to harden the crust.
If you only have one Dutch oven, then pop the other container in the fridge while the first loaf is baking. Once it’s done, you can transfer the chilled dough directly to the Dutch oven.
Before you transfer your loaves to your peel, put about a cup of hot water into the metal baking pan to start generating steam. If your oven doesn’t have heating coils at the bottom, you can help with the steam by pouring a little on the bottom of the oven. Immediately close the door, so your loaves will enter a humid environment.
Now, transfer your loaves to your peel, then score the loaves. Now, as quickly – and safely – as you can, place your loaves onto your baking stone and get the door shut as quickly as you can. You can do the water at the bottom of the oven to get the steaming process going again.
Bake at 475-degrees for 35 minutes.
After 20 minutes, remove the water pan from the oven to allow the crust to set and harden for the last 15 minutes.
The cool thing about this is that with the stretch and folds, I recently started doing this because my previous loaves kept on collapsing on my peel. You have to expect a little collapse, but these were laying out too much. It was perplexing because I knew I nailed the proofing times and I’d get a big ear and an open crumb – just not much vertical rise. So I thought I needed to work the dough a bit more to get some more structure.
It turns out that this is exactly what the famous Tartine bakery in San Francisco does! I just read several Tartine recipes by various people (yes, even the famed NY Times recipe) and each had six stretch and folds over the course of three hours! Pretty awesome!
When I first started baking bread, I followed recipes that listed ingredients by volume, and I stuck to them because that’s all I knew. But looking up recipes online and in books, the bakers always provided weights and percentages, stating that it was easier to remember the specific ratios of ingredients and more importantly, be able to scale up or scale down the recipes as needed.
But I resisted because I fashioned myself an expert in the kitchen. Cooking was and has been my lifelong passion and I just knew my way around a kitchen. Bread? Pah! I could do it, no problem! And I did do it! To make my first loaves, I followed the same basic recipe and made my bread in a Dutch oven. But like I said in a previous post, I quickly got bored of making boules.
Then on top of that, for Fathers Day, my son got me Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast and he wrote out all his recipes in grams. And though he provided volume equivalents, rightfully so, he did say they were approximations at best. But in my arrogance, I just followed his volume listings. And after a few loaves of not being able to make bread nearly as pretty as the loaves in the book, nor getting anything consistent from bake to bake, I knew I had to get over my ego and start measuring by weight if I was going to achieve good results.
So I made the switch and got myself a couple of digital scales. I use one for weighing my bulk ingredients and scaling dough portions, and I have a precision scale for measuring anything less than 20 grams. Life got A LOT easier after that! On top of that, all the bakers percentage listings started making sense. Because everything is measured in grams, we work with a standard decimal standard! So scaling a recipe up or down is SO much easier than Imperial volume measurements!
It literally changed my life. I now use spreadsheets to do measurement calculations. In fact, I have three Google Sheets spreadsheets for my different calculations. So convenient.
A Note on Bakers Percentages
If you’re not familiar with bakers percentages, don’t sweat it. It’s not rocket science, though if you’re new to it, it can be a bit intimidating. But it makes putting together recipes very easy. Here’s how it works:
Every ingredient’s percentage in a recipe is always relative to the amount of flour, which is 100%
That’s it. So if you hear someone talking about an 82% hydration dough, no matter what amount of flour is used, you’ll know that the water’s weight is 82% of the flour’s weight. So if the flour’s listed out at 1000 grams for an 82% hydration, you automatically know that there are 820 grams of water in the dough.
What is so powerful about this is that no matter what the amount of flour is used, all you need to do is multiply the flour’s weight by the ingredient ratio and divide by 100 to get the weight of the ingredient. So technically, a recipe can be listed only as percentages!
But given that, this is where having a large scale and a precision scale (or a scale that can do fractional grams) come in handy as some yeast measurements might come in at 0.4 gram. But no matter, scale up or scale down, and as long as you have the percentages, you can easily work out the weights!
These burger buns are light, airy and fluffy, and guess what? They’re nutritious because of the whole wheat or high-extraction flour retaining the wheat’s nutrients! The dough is no-knead, but you’re still going to have to do stretch and folds for the first hour or so to help develop the gluten network and because we’re using flour with more of the bran and germ than regular flour, this dough is wet. Kneading really isn’t an option.
Tip: Though you can do the initial mix completely by hand, I’d recommend using a stand mixer if you have one.
A Note About the Flour You Use
It is critical that you use fine or extra-fine flour if you’re going to use 100% Whole Wheat. Course-ground flour has too many sharp particles in it that will literally cut the gluten strands. Myself, I use high-extraction bread flour that has about 90% of the bran and germ. It works like regular bread flour, but bakes like whole wheat flour which means it needs a really high hydration rate.
Mix the flour, butter, salt, yeast, and diastatic malt powder until fully incorporated.
Measure out the 105º water into a container, then add the honey to it and stir until the honey is completely dissolved.
Slowly add the water/honey mixture to the dry ingredients, then mix until smooth with no lumps (this is why I suggest using a stand mixer as it makes it a lot easier).
Check the dough. It will be too wet, so with your mixer running at Speed 2, add a couple of extra tablespoons of flour until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, but is still pooled at the bottom. You don’t want to make a dense ball with this dough!
Transfer the dough to a large mixing bowl and cover it with a towel to rest for 10 minutes.
Stretch and fold the dough, turn the dough over onto the folds, then let it rest for another 10 minutes.
Repeat the stretch and folds every 10 minutes for the next hour for a total of 6 stretch and folds. By the last stretch and fold, you should see plenty of large bubbles forming.
Cover the bowl again and let the dough rest for an hour or until the ball doubles in size (don’t worry, with this amount of yeast and with the diastatic malt powder, the yeast will go crazy).
Once doubled, gently pour the dough out onto an unfloured bench being careful no to tear the dough and ruin all the hard work the yeast has just done.
Divide the dough into 125-gram pieces. This recipe will make about 14 buns. Only 6 will fit on a standard cookie sheet, so you can do as I did and make a baguette or mini-batard with the excess dough.
Sprinkle flour over the tops of the divided pieces. These will be the tops of your buns.
Now, lightly flour your work area.
Take a piece of dough, flip it over, gently, press it out into a circle, then shape it just like you would shape a boule, pulling an edge and bringing it to the center. If the dough sticks, add a bit of flour underneath the piece. We’re building tension on the top, so this is important!
Now, flip the ball over onto its seams, then round the ball out using a claw-like shape with your hand and rotating.
Once you’ve got a reasonably nice spherical shape, gently flatten the ball until it’s about 3-3 1/2″ in diameter, being careful not to degas it.
Place the shaped disc on a parchment-covered cookie sheet.
Repeat steps 12 – 16. But only re-flour your bench if it needs it.
Once you’ve created your discs, sprinkle flour on the top of them, then cover the cookie sheets (you’ll need 2) with a paper towel and let them proof for an hour.
At this point, pre-heat your oven to 425º. If you have double oven, then heat both so you can bake the sheets at the same tie.
After an hour, the buns will be ready to bake. If you only have a single oven, pop the other sheet into the fridge to retard the proof (don’t worry, you can bake them right out of the fridge).
Bake for 25 minutes. Hint: To help them pop up, I put some hot water (1/2 cup) in a metal pan on the bottom rack of my oven. This develops steam and helps with the oven spring in the first 15 minutes of the bake.
Once finished, immediately transfer for cooling racks! Do not let them cool on the cookie sheet as the bottoms will get all gooey!
I’m going to just be up front: The one thing you have to expect when you introduce 100% whole wheat flour into your dough, or like me, where you use a combination of high-extraction flour and whole wheat is that you will not get a big vertical oven spring; at least compared to a pure white flour loaf. The more bran and germ there are in the flour, the less vertical rise you’ll get and that’s a fact of life and there’s nothing you can do about it.
This is something I’ve had to expect once I made the move to more nutritious flour. Especially when I moved to high-extraction flour in lieu of white bread flour, I noticed a distinct lessening of the vertical rise. The fact that my bread was making nice ears meant that I was getting great oven spring (as evidenced above) and open crumb. It just hasn’t been as vertical and you know what? I’m now okay with that! But admittedly, it has taken several adjustments to achieve the crumb that I achieved with those loaves above.
Before I go on to explain what I did, I just can’t believe the flavor and texture of the final bread that this combination of flours produces. It’s chewy but with a velvety-smooth texture. I just can’t say enough about how great these Azure Standard Unifine flours are!
Lots of changes to my process… I used to pride myself on being able to make bread in a day, but with the switch to these flours, that’s no longer possible if I want to get results like I got above.
The first thing I had to do was up my hydration to 82%. I started out with 75%, 78% and 80% hydration, and while the loaves turned out pretty good, they were still a little dense. Just that extra 2% between 80 and 82 made a HUGE difference. Now you might think that at 82% the dough would be difficult to work with. I won’t lie. It’s a challenge, but it’s not nearly as bad as one might think. You just have to get used to working with a wet dough.
The next adjustment that I made was using a poolish. But instead of doing an overnight poolish, I started it at 7 AM in the morning, let it bubble up for 12 hours. then made my final dough at 7pm.
After mixing the final dough, I kneaded it until smooth, let it rest for 10 minutes, then did a stretch and fold. I then did five more stretch and folds every 10 minutes over the next hour or so.
After I did the last stretch and fold, I moved my container to the fridge where I let it bulk ferment for 14 hours. After the bulk ferment, I divided and shaped the loaves, then proofed them for 45 minutes at room temperature, then popped my bannetons in the fridge for an hour.
I then baked the loaves at 500 degrees for 30 minutes on my baking stone.
Here’s the recipe:
In a separate container, make the poolish and mix everything together until smooth. This wet, you don’t want any lumps. You can make this in the early morning then let it sit out all day (at least 12 hours) at room temperature, then make the final dough in the early evening – you’re going to refrigerate it for awhile. At the end of the 12 hours, it should be pretty bubbly.
Just before the poolish is finished fermenting, in large bowl, add the remaining flour.
Add the water to the remaining flour, but reserve a little bit (like 50-100 grams) to rinse out the poolish container after you’ve added the poolish.
Mix the flour and water until you get a shaggy dough, then let it rest and autolyse for 30 minutes. We just want to get it started because bulk fermentation will take place in the fridge.
After the final dough has rested, evenly sprinkle the salt and yeast over the dough, then add the poolish to it.
Rinse out the poolish container with the water you reserved and make sure you get everything in the poolish container. Add that to the final dough.
Mix well until all the ingredients are fully incorporated.
At this point, you either dump it out on your board and knead it until it’s smooth, or if you’re using a stand mixer, mix at Speed 2 until the dough is smooth.
Let the dough rest for 10 minutes, then do a stretch and fold.
Over the next hour or so, do a stretch and fold every ten minutes until you’ve done 5 or 6 folds. You’ll know you’ve done enough when you pick up a corner of the dough and the whole ball comes will try to come with it without tearing.
Cover the container with a lid or plastic wrap and let it ferment in your fridge for at least 14 hours or until the dough about doubles in size. It really depends on the temperature of your fridge. I have my mini fridge set to 49-degrees and 14 hours is the sweet spot. You should see some nice bubbles in the dough. If not, let it ferment some more. It could take up to 30 hours.
Once the dough has doubled, remove it from the fridge and divide and shape it as you normally would, but be EXTREMELY gentle with the dough. You do not want to degas it!
Once shaped, proof for 45-minutes to an hour at room temperature, then move the loaves into your fridge once again to chill for an hour.
Once chilled, remove the loaves from their proofing containers, score the loaves, then bake for 30 minutes at 500 degrees.
Yes, this is at least a 2-day process. But believe me, the results are totally worth it!
And I mean in the old days like a few thousands of years ago. Archaeological evidence has been found that people have been making some form of bread for almost 30,000 years! But I want to fast forward to Egyptian times (about 3000 years ago) as they seem to be credited with the first “mass” production of yeasted bread and generally establishing what we now know as Artisan Bread. If you look at the ancient pictograph above, what we do today to bake our bread really hasn’t changed much since those days… or has it?
The basic technique of mixing flour water and salt and adding a leavening agent really hasn’t changed much since those ancient times. But let’s make no bones about it: What we do today is MUCH easier than how they did it back then.
Think about it: The way we make Artisan Bread – whether at home or commercially – today is graced with a plethora of conveniences that our predecessors just didn’t have. Bread making has come a long way since then. Let’s look at a few things that we take for granted.
Our forefathers had to grind their flour. Though the Mesopotamians invented the grinding wheel and what we know today as milling, this was low production, highly manual intensive work to get flour. Even today, there are countries where community millers still exist. And if you think about it, the type of wheat or grain people baked with was highly regional. They basically baked with what grain crop was grown in the vicinity.
We, on the other hand, go online, and get our organic, hard red or white wheat, either stone ground or steel rolled or processed with a Unifine mill. We can get AP flour, bread flour, high-extraction flour, whole grain. We can get wheat, spelt, rye, millet, ancient grains like einkorn or durum. The variety that we have accesses to – literally at our fingertips – is mind-blowing!
Also, look at our baking apparati! At home we have our electric or gas ovens. For the more rustic-thinking, there’s the Ooni and other hearth-like ovens. Commercial bakers have deck ovens or huge stone or brick hearth ovens. For those using the tradition wood-burning ovens, sure, there’s a lot of labor that goes into maintaining a fire. But consider this: Our environments are controlled and somewhat predictable. Ancient bread makers didn’t have HVAC.
Furthermore, not everyone had a baking hearth. Most villages had a community oven. In his wonderful book, The Apprentice, chef Jacques Pepin described being a boy in a village in France where on a certain day, the whole village would bake at the community oven. Us? We preheat our oven at home and pop our bread in any damn time we choose!
Also, think about how information was passed on from baker to baker back then. It was all word of mouth. And it was truly a craft where master bakers took on apprentices, and the apprentices went on to being masters and pass that on. But today, we open up our browser and look at bread making blogs and join home baker forums. We learn in a matter weeks or months what would have taken years for an apprentice to learn.
For instance, I went from this:
…in just a matter of months. Sure, it was a lot of learn by doing, but I also had the luxury of the Internet to help diagnose issues. And mind you, that loaf above is one of my so-so loaves. I’ve been able to reach a level of consistent quality not just by doing it a lot (I do bake practically every day), but having information readily at my fingertips. And I’m not alone in this. What I’ve seen other home bakers create is absolutely amazing! And I’ll submit that it’s the quick, free-flow of information that has enabled people to get to relative mastery much sooner than in the old days.
And while there are people who have totally geeked out on creating and maintaining a sourdough culture, I’m not one of them. I generally use a poolish or a biga to get the slightly sour taste in my bread. But I can do this because of the easy availability of commercial yeast. Back in the old days, people had to create and maintain their starters. But let’s take a deeper dive into that.
They didn’t have refrigeration. They didn’t have convenient little tupperware or glass jars. They didn’t have high-precision gram scales to get the right proportions. They certainly didn’t have silicone spatulas to clean out their bowls! Get the picture? While there is still a definite amount of craft that goes into our baking today, our lives are SO much easier than the artisans of old!
As I was watching a YouTube episode from Proof Bread in Mesa, AZ, Jonathan mentioned that Proof uses Type 85 flour, which is a high-extraction flour where 85% of the wheat kernel is retained in the milling process. At the time, I was trying to make a transition to including more whole wheat into my bread for nutritional reasons and Jonathan mentioning his flour really intrigued me. So that put me on a quest to find Type 85 flour.
I did finally find a Type 85 flour through Azure Standard, but they were sold out. Then I ran across their Ultra-Unifine Unbleached Bread Flour and got really intrigued. This is what sold me:
“We’ve taken a strong, full-bodied hard red wheat flour and refined it slightly by removing about 10% of the bran,” said Azure Mill Manager. “In the milling industry it’s known as a particle reduction processing technique. We’re taking an already fine Unifine flour, sifting out some of the bran and giving you a finished product that has softer flavor notes, rises better and adds a little lightness to your artisan breads.”
I love this flour! But I have to admit that though it kneads and folds and feels like regular bread flour when you work with it, it acts a lot like whole wheat flour when it bakes; that is, it doesn’t have the oven spring that I’m used to with white bread flour. But that is to be expected because even though 10% of the sharp bran particles have been removed from the flour, there’s still a lot of the germ and bran left over. So given that, I’ve had to make adjustments.
First of all, just like with baking with 100% whole wheat flour, I’ve upped the hydration ratio when I’m working with this flour. I experimented with 73%, then went up to 75%, and today I prepared a 78% straight dough.
The 73% hydration dough produces an okay oven spring, but has a fairly dense crumb as one would expect from a whole wheat flour. It’s not bad, and by no means does it taste bad, but it is a little dense.
The 75% hydration dough has much better oven spring with a much more open crumb than the 73%. And it amazed me how just a 2% increase in water content could have such an effect on the oven spring.
Finally, the 78% hydration dough… Well, I think I found the sweet spot. As I mentioned, I just did a straight dough today. I made two baguettes and a small batard, and they all turned out fantastic!
You’l notice that the crumb on the batard is a little wonky – not sure what that was about, and though the baguette crumb seems to be dense, it’s actually not. As opposed to big holes, there a lot of small holes. The bread is amazingly light in texture.
I didn’t change a thing with respect to how I prepared the dough. I just added a bit more water. It really made a big difference. And while I think this might be the sweet spot for hydration, I think I’m going to try a dough at 82% hydration to see how that works.
So now that I’ve got the basic sweet spot, I’ll start working with a poolish and then I’ll cold proof overnight. I’ve found with high-hydration flour, a cold-proof works best and the dough will hold its shape better when I score and put it in the oven, promoting a more vertical rise as opposed to spreading out. I’m also going to see what adding a bit of diastatic malt powder will do to open it up even more.
Stuff like this just gets me SO jazzed about baking bread! There’s a definite precision that you must observe, but at the same time, variations in the environment force you to make adjustments on the fly. It’s a lot like golf where even though you develop the basic swing, conditions like wind direction and humidity force you to make adjustments. And it’s that constant challenge of making adjustments that keep you coming back for more!