Still Splitting Hairs

In my previous post, I quoted the following originally from a New York Times article:

Mitchell Davis of the Beard Foundation believes that the bagel, like ketchup, is a product ill served by current food trends. ‘‘The effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result…’

While that article focused on bagels, the same can be applied to bread. Having done a real deep-dive into ancient bread making techniques over the last several months, I’ve developed a sensitivity to innovating too much. As I mentioned in my article, when I bake bread based on traditional recipes, I do my best to stick to the traditional ingredients and techniques.

Take, for instance, the humble baguette. While technically, it has only been recognized as a specific loaf called a “baguette” for only a couple of hundred years, it is steeped in a tradition of French long loaves that date back a few hundred years. And in 1993, the French government ratified into law (known as the Décret Pain) the ingredients that define the class “pain de tradition Française” of which baguettes are a part, as being made of flour, water, salt, and yeast.

That said, there is a little grey area with the leavening agent as Article 2, Section 2 states:

Fermented with yeast suitable for breads (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and a starter, in the sense of article 4 of this Decree, or either yeast or a starter;

That kind of opens the door to using a sourdough starter to leaven the bread. But the general interpretation of a “starter” seems to be more along the lines of using a poolish, which is a yeasted starter.

Now, why does this even matter to me at all? Simply because what I’ve learned about baguettes is that they’re not defined by their shape, but by their dough. I know, you see a long, thin loaf of bread with diagonal scoring along the length, and you immediately say, “baguette.” And I suppose that to the consumer, it doesn’t matter. But now, when I see “sour” or “sourdough” preceding “baguette,” I know, based on my research, that loaf is technically “pain au levain” or bread risen with a levain.

Furthermore, circling back to “the effect of artisanship does not always produce a better product,” I’ve often found myself innovating for innovation’s sake. It’s not that the end product is bad by any means. But at least for me now, when I call a certain bread a particular type, I want to make sure that I’m not coloring outside the lines.

One of the things I was concerned about when making my baguettes was the mix of flours I was using. I typically use a combination of 60% high-extraction flour and 40% AP flour – both unbleached, so the crumb of my bread tends to be on the brown side. Luckily, the Decret Pain states in Article 2, Section 1:

Made only from a mix of wheat flours suitable for making bread, safe water and cooking salt.

I admit that I’m being a bit parochial. It’s actually a little out of character for me to so strictly observe tradition. If you knew me as a contemporary Catholic liturgical musician, you’d know that I’m not much of a traditionalist. Even in my career as a software engineer, I forged my path in technology as a visionary and innovator.

But with bread, it’s a completely different story. Don’t get me wrong, I have a few different types of bread that I make that are innovations on traditional recipes. But when it comes to making traditional bread, I’m pretty parochial. I have a real “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.

Some might say it’s limiting. But there’s a lot to be said about mastering the traditional techniques. As I journey forward in bread making (and yes, I have aspirations of eventually doing this professionally), I want to make sure that my technique is steeped in tradition.

Plus, some of the techniques are just downright difficult to master. Take the ancient Italian bread, Pane di Altamura, for instance (shown to the left). This is 100% durum wheat bread from the Altamura region of Italy. It is a very distinct-looking loaf, sporting a pompadour of sorts. The dough itself, like pretty much all Italian bread, is uncomplicated, as is the dough processing. But learning to shape that bread is a different story altogether. It has taken me several bakes to even approach what it should look like.

There are no instructional videos that teach how to shape Pane di Altamura, so I’ve had to watch slowed-down videos, of which there aren’t very many. And though the bread is distinguished by the region where it comes from, different bakers achieve the pompadour in slightly different ways. But luckily I did run across a video that had a close-up view of how one baker shapes his bread and I’ve been using that.

The point to this is that with this particular bread, there’s really no room for innovation. I suppose I could eventually tweak things here and there, but before I can do that, I need to master the basics first.

Speaking of tweaking, a few months ago I had a realization that I got to the point where I was innovating so much that I wasn’t getting consistent results. I was making tweaks everywhere. But it wasn’t until I stopped myself and stuck with a method that I started getting consistent results.

This was evident in my baguettes. I was trying a lot of different techniques and my results, while tasty, weren’t consistent at all. I now focus on two production methods depending on when I want to bake. I use a pointage en bac or slow rise method for flavor development that I learned from Chef Markus Farbinger (which is also my normal two-day method) or, if I want a same-day bake and a more grain-forward taste, I use the baguettes de tradition method that Jeffrey Hamelman presents in his book “Bread.”

But in both cases, I use the same shaping technique that I learned from Chef Farbinger. Now, no matter what dough development technique I use, my baguettes come out looking the same. It’s comforting because as simple as the ingredients are in baguettes, they’re probably the most challenging bread to get right. And shaping is absolutely critical, which is why I use the same technique for both dough production methods. Besides, if it’s good for a master chef, it’s certainly good for me. 🙂

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all against innovation. But as with anything in life, you have to be well-versed in the foundational aspects of different bread before you can branch out. But here in America, it’s almost expected to “do your own thing” and there’s this seemingly pervasive attitude to innovate for innovation’s sake. And I think that’s where many people run into the proverbial brick wall or worse – they come up with some pretty funky creations (the funkiest I’ve seen are blue croissants).

At least for me, I do heed those words Mitchell Davis wrote: The effect of artisanship does not always produce a better result.

Recipe: Sourdough Baguettes

As I’ve often mentioned in the past, baguettes are my favorite bread to make. Nothing gets me in the zone as much as making baguettes. The reason for this is that though they seem so easy to make at first blush, they’re actually incredibly difficult to get right. For me at least, making baguettes requires me to be on my game every step of the way; forcing me to be absolutely mindful of what I’m doing because one misstep can result in total disaster. Which explains why I haven’t released a sourdough baguette recipe until now. I’ve had quite a few disasters and I didn’t want to publish a recipe until I had a few successful runs.

As with all my baguettes, I make them for the express purpose of being a platform for sandwiches. But they work just as well for tearing up and dipping into olive oil and balsamic vinegar. They’re also optimized for baking in a domestic oven, so they’re more demi-baguettes than full sized 60-80 cm loaves.

Also, these use a hybrid rising technique using a levain and some yeast. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear the sourdough purists out there screaming, but I prefer the results of the hybrid technique over a pure levain-risen dough. I’ve baked several permutations and I have to be honest: While I love the flavor profile of a pure levain-risen dough, it’s far too extensible, and backing off the hydration creates too tight of a crumb. The small amount of commercial yeast used here helps lighten the crumb.

This is a two-day process. On the first day, you create the levain and mix the final dough. The second day, you shape and bake. This is in contrast to the traditional poolish-based baguette where you make the poolish the night before, then mix the final dough the next morning and bake.

Day 1

Levain

Mature, Active Starter150 grams
Whole Wheat Flour25 grams
Unbleached Bread or High-Extraction Flour300 grams
Water325 grams
I’m assuming your starter is 100% hydration. If it’s a stiffer starter, it’s not a problem. Just do the calculations to create 100% hydration levain.

NOTE: In the table above, I provide what I used to make my levain – at the time I originally wrote this. But now that my wild yeast starter is really mature and active and dense with microbes, I use far less of it, like 50 grams. The point to this is that you want to create a 100% hydration, 800-gram levain (400 grams total water/flour each).

Making the levain will take several hours, especially if you have to wake up your starter from the fridge (which is why I keep and maintain a couple of room temp starters). I don’t mix the final dough until the afternoon. You can push the process a little bit by putting your container in the oven with the door cracked so the oven light provides a little heat.

Final Dough

Levain800 grams
Unbleached All-Purpose Flour*600 grams
Water (90° – 95° F) ꝉ350 grams
Salt20 grams
Instant Yeast3 grams
* I recommend either King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill AP flour, or another brand as long as the protein content is above 11%. Most generic, grocery store AP flour is around 10%, while Bob’s and KA are around 11.7% protein. It may not seem like much of a difference, but believe me, it makes a world of difference.

ꝉ Though I provided a temp, the idea is to get the final dough temp to be around 75°-80°
  1. (autolyse) Mix the levain, AP flour and 300 grams of the water together until no dry ingredients are present. This should be a shaggy mass. Let the mixture rest for 30 minutes.
  2. Dissolve the salt in the remaining water, then pour over the dough, then evenly sprinkle the yeast over dough as well. Mix thoroughly until the salt and yeast are fully incorporated. The dough will still be a little shaggy.
  3. Rest for 30 minutes, then do a stretch and fold of the dough to build strength, making sure that you do enough stretches and folds to where the dough fights you a bit. This is important! If you can, flip the dough over onto the seams.
  4. Rest for another 30 minutes, then do another stretch and fold of the dough. Then once you feel confident you’ve built up good strength, flip the dough over onto its seams, cover your container with plastic wrap or lid, and pop it into your fridge for 12-24 hours.

NOTE: What you’re looking for in the overnight bulk fermentation is at least a doubling of the dough. However, don’t keep it in there so long that you get a high water mark on your container and the dough has collapsed!

Day 2

Whew! Still with me? I know, this seems like a long process, but it’s not complicated. There are just lots of steps and things to consider and I want to make sure I cover as much as I can. Here are the steps for shaping and baking:

  1. Preheat your oven to 480-degrees Fahrenheit (250-degrees C)
  2. Gently turn out dough onto an unfloured surface and gently pulling on the dough to shape it into a rough rectangle, then divide it into six equal pieces. I use a scale to measure out approximately 295 grams each.
  3. Using letter folds, pre-shape the pieces into rough jelly-roll-like logs.
  4. Once the pieces have been pre-shaped, lightly flour them and cover with a cloth and let rest seam side up for 20-30 minutes. If you have a couche, put them on the couche to rest.
  5. Rather than try to explain how to shape the baguettes, view this video. This is the ABSOLUTE BEST shaping technique I’ve learned, and best yet, it is focused on baking in a domestic oven!
  6. Place each shaped loaf on a well-floured couche. I can’t stress how incredibly useful a couche is! If you don’t have one, you can use a towel, but a linen couche holds flour better.
  7. Let proof for 30-45 minutes. Note: You want the loaves to be ever so slightly under-proofed, so when you do the finger dent test, you want the dough to have just a little spring, though the dent still remains. It is important you don’t take it out to full proofing because that will affect the oven spring.
  8. Transfer loaves to a loading board or peel and make sure there’s at least 1/2″ (1 – 1.5 cm) between each loaf.
  9. Score the loaves. Here’s Chef Markus again, demonstrating how to score baguettes.
  10. Transfer the loaves onto a baking stone. If you don’t have a baking stone, a flat baking sheet will work as well.
    1. If you do use a baking sheet, line it with parchment paper otherwise your loaves will stick!
    2. Also, it’s quite possible that you will not be able to fit all six loaves on your baking sheet at once. In that case, place your extra loaves in your fridge on another baking sheet so you can just pop them in after your oven reheats after your previous bake.
  11. Apply steam to the loaves for the first 12 minutes of the bake. I use the bottom portion of a broiler pan on the bottom rack and put a cup of scalding water into it, and I also throw a couple of small ice cubes on the bottom of my oven (I don’t have coils there, so it’s safe).
  12. After 12 minutes, remove your steaming container, and vent the steam.
  13. Turn down the oven to 400-degrees F (~200-degrees C), and set a timer for 10 minutes. But check for doneness at 8 minutes. My own oven can be a bit wonky with temperature sometimes, and on cooler days, I extend the final baking time at 400-degrees a few minutes.
  14. If you want a really crunchy crust (I love that, btw), then turn off your oven and crack the oven door with an oven mitt (see the picture below). This will slowly release the heat from the oven and cure your crust.
  15. Remove loaves and let cool for 15-30 minutes! Baguettes are meant to be consumed warm and fresh!
Curing the crust after the bake using an oven mitt to slowly release the heat from the oven.

Experimentation Sometimes Sucks!

These past several bakes I’ve been experimenting with different AP flours as I use a three-flour blend of whole wheat, high-extraction, and AP flour depending on the types of bread that I’m baking. I’m pretty much set in the whole wheat and high-extraction flour area, but I’ve been trying out different AP flours for one simple reason: cost savings. Flour expenditures add up and I need to be as economical as I can considering how fast I go through it.

Now you might be thinking, Just get some King Arthur AP flour. But here’s the rub: It’s almost $7.00 per 5-lb. bag! I go through 10 pounds of AP flour a week. No doubt, it’s a high-quality flour, but the cost adds up. Bob’s Red Mill AP flour is great as well and it’s only $5.00 per 5-lb. bag. BUT, Gold Medal and grocery store “house” brands (let’s call them generic flours) are less than $4.00 per 5-lb bag, making them excellent alternatives, at least cost-wise.

On the surface, the cost-savings is great, but from a practical standpoint, there is a cost, and that is that the generic flours are very low in protein. Whereas Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur AP flours are just below 12% in protein, generic flours are around 10%. That might not seem like much of a difference. But it’s huge.

The picture I included at the top of this post is of high-hydration sourdough loaves that I baked over the last couple of days (~85% hydration). They were all made with half Gold Medal Unbleached AP flour, 20% whole wheat flour, and 30% high-extraction flour. The crumb in each of the loaves is nice, but the oven spring was horrible! And developing the gluten in these loaves was incredibly difficult.

Granted, the high-hydration dough doesn’t want to hold up once shaped. But with proper gluten formation, it will not lose its shape readily, and with the whole wheat and high-extraction flour, I thought I’d have plenty of protein to give me some structure. But with these loaves, no matter how much I worked the dough, I just couldn’t get them to hold together. I even did an overnight cold ferment to help set the dough, but even that didn’t work.

As a result, the loaves are a little flat. Without a doubt, they’re delicious. But I can’t say that I’m not disappointed with the end result. I’m actually extremely disappointed. It takes a long time to make bread, so it sucks when things don’t turn out as expected. Technically they were all supposed to be batards, but they ended up being more like ciabattas. I swear that I spent lots of time with the loaves, developing an outer skin, but to no avail.

Now, one way of approaching this is to add some vital wheat gluten. I actually did that with the uncut set of loaves in the picture. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time developing the gluten, but all those loaves went through six sets of stretches and folds over the course of three hours. But for the life of me, I couldn’t get the dough to “fight” me in any of the sets. I’d feel a bit of tension, but not really appreciable tension. Even my regular ciabatta dough develops great tension!

So it kind of boils down to this: Generic, grocery store AP flour is great for things like cakes and cookies. But for bread, there’s a base threshold. I just can’t go below it. Luckily though, my favorite mill, Azure Standard, carries an AP flour that I can’t wait to get delivered. It’s unbleached, unbromated, and organic. I ordered 20 lbs. and I can’t wait until it arrives!

In closing, despite my disappointment, the bread didn’t go to waste. We made sandwiches from the cut loaf, and I gave the other loaves away. Like I said, they were delicious, so I didn’t have any worries in the taste department. But when you’re after an aesthetic, you expect the aesthetic, and falling short can be frustrating to say the least.

Consistency Is Important

Call me anal retentive but to me, especially with baking, if I’m going to do the same thing a number of times, I need to be consistent with how I execute; otherwise, I’ll get different results from instance to instance. Over the months I’ve developed my process and I do specific steps in specific ways. And it has been important to learn to do this because now, not only can I be confident that I’ll get consistent results, those steps have become second-nature and I just do them automatically.

Even with something as simple as washing my fermentation tub… As soon as I’ve dumped my dough out onto my board following bulk fermentation, I immediately rinse out my tub with hot water. The reason for this is that it is a total pain in the ass to clean off dried dough from anything. It’s like cement! Plus, once I rinse it out and put it away, it’ll be ready for my next round of baking.

And of course, the obvious candidate for consistency is shaping. I now do five different kinds of loaves on a fairly regular basis – though I probably do three of those much more frequently – and I’ve learned different shaping techniques for each that I do over and over again. And it has been comforting know that I can produce repeatable results.

But with respect to my batards, even though I’ve shaped them all the same way, for months I’ve been using two different bannetons which has meant that even though they come out looking nice, you know they’ve come from different proofing baskets. Well… I know because I see them side-by-side. And I have to admit that that difference has bugged the shit out of me!

It finally came to a head last week and I vowed that I wouldn’t make another set of batards until I had a matching pair of bannetons. So last week, I ordered a match to my favorite banneton and yesterday, I made a couple of sourdough batards that are shown above. No, they’re not exactly alike but they are consistently shaped in the right way to me.

The ears came up pretty much the same, the width of the loaves was generally the same, and they both sprung up the same. When I was using two different bannetons, one loaf would always be wider than the other because that other banneton had a wider base. Like I said, that bugged the shit out of me!

But now I’m a happy man. I feel that with respect to batards at least, I’m complete. Consistency is a good thing!

Ciabatta Using Levain Discard

I hate to waste anything, especially levain discard. I’m in the middle of creating a new starter so of course I have a daily or twice-daily discard, and rather than just toss it – and I can’t give it away because everyone I know who bakes has gotten a starter – I use it. Yesterday I made baguettes from the discard and today I’m making ciabatta buns.

This is a super-straight-forward recipe that doesn’t require a feeding like you would with a levain. And the great thing with making ciabatta, it’s a same-day bread! No overnight bulk or final fermentation! The challenge, as with any ciabatta, is that it’s a wet dough, so it’s sticky. But as long as you develop the gluten structure in the process, then it’s not too hard to work with.

Note: To help the discard microbes, I use a small amount of instant yeast ~ just 2 grams. No, it’s not cheating. I do this because discard can sometimes be a little unpredictable, and that little bit of yeast helps boost the fermentation activity just enough to keep the process on schedule. That said, the yeast amount is also highly dependent on the temperature of my kitchen that varies wildly. When I made this the other, my kitchen temp was 84° F, and I used just half a gram of yeast! Even with that small amount, the fermentation went a bit crazy and I had to shorten my bulk fermentation to just 10 minutes!

Ingredients

FlourWaterSaltYeastDiscard
Whole Wheat Flour 100 g
Bread Flour 300 g
AP Flour 600 g
800 ml20 g2 g100 g

The Process

  1. Combine the flours and mix thoroughly.
  2. Weigh out 100 grams of discard from your container, then place that directly into the flour.
  3. Add all the water to the flour/discard mix and combine everything until you fully incorporate all the ingredients, and you form a shaggy dough.
  4. Rest for 30 minutes.
  5. Sprinkle the yeast and salt evenly over the surface of the dough then mix thoroughly until smooth. I do all the mixing with a stand mixer. It’s just more efficient.
  6. Preheat your oven to 480° F or 250° C.
  7. From this point on, you can follow the process from step 9 in Chef Markus Farbinger’s Ciabatta Recipe.

Regarding “shaping,” as I mentioned in the process I linked to, I letter fold my divided pieces to shape them into pillows. And especially if I’m making sandwich ciabatta where I want the mini loaves to come together during baking, shaping them ensures that each piece has its own structure. Also, if I’m making sandwich ciabatta, I use parchment paper on my transfer board, and I place the mini loaves about 1/2″ (roughly a 1 cm) apart so they’ll spread out and come together during baking.

Next Stop… Ciabatta Town!

So in my imaginary bakery – well, at least it’ll be imaginary until I make it a reality after I retire – I’m only going to offer a finite set of loaves. I’ve decided on three loaves so far, but I probably won’t offer more than five. It’ll be a small-volume shop where I can sell all my stuff in the morning, so I can go and play in the afternoon.

One type of loaf that I will for sure be making is ciabatta. Now THAT is a loaf I’ve been wanting to make since I started baking, but up until recently, didn’t want to learn until I had baguettes down cold. And now that I finally have my master baguette recipe, it’s time to move on to ciabattas!

I’m SO excited to get this loaf down. To me, learning to bake ciabatta is like baguettes: So easy to learn, but very difficult to get right. But I’ve been doing my research, and now I’m ready to go for it.

What turns me on about a ciabatta is that like a baguette, it’s the perfect medium for a sandwich. Surprise! If you want to know just one thing about me, I love to make sandwiches! Even when I first started out making my early Dutch oven boules, I always had sandwiches in mind.

My first attempts at ciabatta have been well… just okay. They’ve certainly tasted absolutely delicious, but I need to get them a bit more puffy. It’s tough because the hydration rate of the recipe I’ve learned is 85%. It’s almost like a batter! And to create structure, you have to do letter folds. I’m okay at it, but I certainly need more practice doing those folds with a super-high hydration dough.

But as with anything, all it takes is practice! I can’t wait until I’ve fully arrived in Ciabatta Town!

Baguette Day Is My Favorite Day!

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!”

Gimme Some Skin!

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 – which 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; though on the surface it seems like a minor item, it really isn’t.

Happy Baking!

Baguettes Are Easy. NOT!

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.”

Sorry, I Just Won’t…

…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.