I Use a Stand Mixer. So There!

When I’m mixing my ingredients, I use my handy-dandy KitchenAid Artisan mixer. I love that contraption! It has made my life so easy. I’m sorry, but I don’t have any romantic notions about mixing dough by hand. I did it when I first started on this artisan bread obsession, but then when I started baking daily, I abandoned doing that in favor of having a more automated way of bringing my ingredients together.

Like many, I’ve read books and watched videos where the bakers extoll hand-mixing, elevating the process to one of honor. It’s like there’s a certain romanticism attached to the whole artisan bread making process and making bread the old fashioned way where every step is done completely by hand. I bake bread at least six days a week and I’m doing it while I’m working at home. I don’t have time to do everything by hand for goodness’ sake! I’ve got meetings to attend and actual work to do. So the more efficient I can be the better.

But I laugh when professional bakers say to mix by hand because you know they’ve got an 80-quart Hobart (or maybe even a few of them) mixing up their dough! I realize their intent is pure and that they’re trying to reinforce that we learn and know what it’s like to feel the dough develop. But for me, once I learned what to look and feel for, I went straight to the mixer so I could “git ‘er done!”

That said, I think that it’s important to mix by hand when you first start out. That way you know what the dough feels like at every stage of mixing. And to this day, even though I use a mixer, I frequently stop it to feel my dough. I don’t just set it and forget it. I monitor the state of my dough carefully and get it to the point where I can throw it into its fermentation container, or dump it out onto my board to knead. Yes, I hand-knead my lower-hydration dough. I have to because it strains my mixer too much.

But one thing that my mixer does that I can’t do without a lot of effort – and time – is evenly and efficiently distribute the ingredients. Okay, yes, I can achieve that with time. But I have to admit that mixing ingredients is probably my least favorite baking activity. So I’d rather have a machine do it for me, then I’ll take over and do the rest.

I do have to admit that I feel just a little guilty about using a stand mixer at times. But then I remember how much I don’t enjoy mixing by hand, and that guilt disappears – quickly.

Happy Baking!

My Rules for a Successful Bake

An artist by nature, I’m not naturally inclined to being disciplined. But I’ve had to be very disciplined to bake the loaves I bake with any semblance of consistency. To that end, I’ve come up with rules that I follow to ensure all my bakes are reasonably successful.

Rule 1: Be Prepared

In a commercial kitchen, this is generally known as mise en place, where everything that I need – from ingredients to implements – is within easy reach and my workspace is cleared and set up for my process. There is nothing worse to me than having to scrounge and scramble for something I need in the middle of the process.

Rule 2: Keep It Clean

“It” means pretty much everything. I’m obsessive about keeping my hands clean, but I also keep my workspace clean. If I flour my bench, as soon as I’m done, I use my scraper to clean up the loose flour and put it back in its container. As soon as I’m done with a mixing bowl, I wash it and put it away. Clutter is the enemy!

Rule 3: No Peeking!

Actually, this is another way of saying, “Be patient.” This especially applies to bulk fermentation. When I first started out, I’d check my dough every 15 minutes to see if something was happening. But with the generally small amount of yeast I normally use, things just don’t happen very fast. Of course, I’ve gotten to the point where I implicitly know how long things will take given different parameters. So when I set the timer for some part of my process, I just let the dough sit. That said, I do usually check about 2/3 of the way through, but it’s a quick inspection just to confirm everything’s okay.

Rule 4: You Do You!

Like many, I learned a lot by watching videos and participating in online forums, and interacting with lots of different bakers. All that activity was critical to my process because it opened my eyes to different shaping and scoring possibilities and even more importantly, showed me the most efficient ways to do things. But once I established a sense of what works for me, I stopped trying to achieve a particular look or follow someone else’s process. Especially with respect to my process, I had to work out what worked for me and my equipment and environment.

Rule 5: Use the Right Tools for YOU

You’ll read or get advice that you should get this or that or whatever. But my advice would be to not have a knee-jerk reaction and get everything you read about or hear about and instead try to use what you have on hand first. For instance, when I first started taking bread-making seriously, like many, I read Ken Forkish’ Flour Water Salt Yeast book. In it, he recommended getting a 12-quart tub. When I read that, I immediately got a quizzical look on my face because that size of tub seemed awfully big for the amounts of dough in the recipes. Lucky for me I already had some food-safe tubs on hand and I used those until I finally got an 8-quart tub (I actually still use them as pre-ferment containers). But I’ve encountered so many people who purchased one of those 12-quart tubs and now no longer use it because it’s TOO DAMN BIG! But that story aside, you probably have a lot of the tools you’ll need already. Yes, they may be old, but that doesn’t make them obsolete.

One Size Does NOT Fit All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Open Crumb? Sure… But Not All the Time

Generally, the bread I bake has a fairly open crumb, considering the high-extraction flour I use. With the loaves pictured above, the only pure white flour bread is in the top-left corner. I can get that kind of open crumb every time with any kind of loaf I bake when I use white bread flour. But the other ones? They use my 75-25 combination of high-extraction and white whole wheat flour.

Their crumbs may appear to be pretty open. But if you pick up a slice, there’s a certain heft to it. In fact, your first reaction will be that it’s dense. But when you bite into it, it doesn’t feel dense at all. The reason is that instead a really big holes, what I get with this flour are lots of small gas pockets, which makes the bread a lot more airy than how it might feel. And that’s exactly the end product that I’m after.

I want to strike a balance between open crumb and density to make my bread versatile. A loaf with big, open pockets isn’t really good for making sandwiches. But then a super tight crumb is just too dense and filling. But striking a balance between the two is perfect. I get to make my sandwiches, and my wife and kids love making avocado toast! And the bread is great with pasta and sopping up sauce!

This really isn’t a rant. But there is this preponderance of thought that an open crumb is the ultimate aim of artisan bread. For me, getting an open crumb was certainly a goal when I first started. But now that I’ve gained a lot more experience these past six months, what crumb I get is based on what I want to achieve with the bread.

For my baguettes and boules, I definitely want to get a nice open crumb. But for my batards and hand-shaped long loaves, I want a slightly less-open crumb (not tight, but less than open than a boule or baguette). For my loaf pan breads, I definitely don’t want big bubbles at all, though I do want to make sure the dough is airy.

The reason I’m writing this is because once you get to the point of consistently being able to create bread with an open crumb, you may also start asking yourself what you want to do with the bread; in other words, practicality may make you think about the different loaves that you make and what their ultimate purpose might be.

Mind you, I’m not arguing against an open crumb. But what I am saying is that an open crumb doesn’t necessarily define what makes a good loaf of bread. To me, what does define success is if the loaves I create fulfill the purpose I have in mind for them. And, of course, they have to taste good…

Best Videos Yet on Shaping and Baking Baguettes

I’m always trying to learn different techniques of shaping bread, and just when I thought I had baguette shaping down, I ran across the following videos with Chef Markus Farbinger. He has this quiet, soothing teaching style that I just love and great technique! But best of all, these videos are for making baguettes in a domestic oven! To me, this is the best of both worlds: A professional chef instructing for home baking. It doesn’t get better than this!

Shaping Baguettes

Scoring and Baking Baguettes

I love his passion and I really connect with his excitement. Even with all the loaves I’ve baked these past six months, I still get totally jazzed when my bread comes out of the oven! I addicted to the warm and fuzzy feel-good!

And following his techniques, here’s what I produced today!

Okay… I’m following his shaping technique from here on out. These came out perfect!

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.

Still Scratching My Head: Is It Poolish or Is It a Levain?

As some might know, I technically don’t make traditional sourdough in that I don’t maintain a starter culture to inoculate my dough. There are a number of reasons for this which I won’t go into here, but in lieu of a starter culture, I do use a poolish I create the day before I bake, which means I make practically every evening.

I know what you’re thinking. I could just maintain a starter and use the discard every day. But I have to be honest. I don’t want to invest the minimum five days in creating the culture – at least not right now. I’d rather be baking. Plus, as I greatly admire Nancy Silverton who started La Brea Bakery in LA, when I’m ready to do a sourdough starter, really want to try her grape sourdough. It’s pretty amazing. But I digress…

So as I mentioned, I use a poolish as a starter for my breads. A poolish is made from a 50-50 mixture of flour and water, and literally a pinch of yeast (I measure out 0.4 gram). I make mine at about 6-7 PM in the evening, then let it sit in my fermentation bucket on my counter overnight. Then at about 9-10 AM the next day, I prepare the final dough.

Now here’s where I scratch my head. Technically, a poolish is not a levain. A levain has no commercial yeast. And conventionally, a levain equates to a sour taste. This is because the airborne yeasts and lactic acid bacteria work in concert to consume the sugars in the flour and create that sour flavor. But my poolish is sour.

I let my poolish develop around 14 hours. And in that time, the natural yeasts and bacteria have time to activate and make a contribution to the flavor and gluten development in the starter. And it seems that at that point, the predominant microorganisms that act on the dough are the natural ones, not the commercial yeast. But of course, unless I actually do a chemical test, I can’t be absolutely certain.

But if my assertion is true, is my pre-ferment starter a levain at that point? Frankly, it’s not really important at all, but I just like to understand things so it remains a bit of a head-scratcher for me.

And as Nancy Silverton, founder of La Brea Bakery in LA said, “For me when I think of any food product, the most important test is the result, right? And how you got there is sort of incidental…”

When I first heard her say that, it gave me a lot of encouragement because I’ve lately had this feeling that even though I’ve been absolutely methodical and meticulous with my technique, I’ve been a bit unconventional. But the results have been great for the most part and it’s great to hear one of the greats in bread making provide some validation. So I guess I can keep scratching my head about this, but at least I know that the results are what matter.

No-Knead ≠ No Work

I have to admit that I was originally compelled to make bread when I saw a recipe entitled, “Easy Dutch Oven No Knead Bread.” And with that recipe, all you did was mix the ingredients together and let the dough sit overnight. Other than forming the dough into a ball the next day, you don’t touch it. I made it and it’s easy and no fuss. But then after making it a couple of times, I started looking at other no-knead bread recipes and each one of them had some sort of manipulation involved; specifically, stretching and folding. So I set out to understand why these recipes involved folding and not just leaving the dough alone.

And in my research, which also involved making bread from the recipes I encountered, I came to realize that even though the mix-together-and-let-sit-for-24-hours method works because it gives the yeast time to convert the proteins into gluten, it can have inconsistent results. The reason why is that if the dough wasn’t sufficiently mixed with all the yeast distributed evenly through the dough, the rise will be uneven. On the other hand, folding the dough ensures that not only is the dough mixed well just in case I missed some, it also ensures that the yeast gets distributed consistently through the dough.

Now technically, stretch and fold, coil fold, slap and fold and other dough folding techniques aren’t kneading. But they are methods to physically work the dough, albeit a gentler approach than kneading or using a machine which is the most intense way of developing gluten. And no matter how you work it, it’s going to help the yeast evenly distribute throughout the dough and help build up the gluten network.

So given all that, while no-knead can mean fire and forget, to develop a good loaf, you need to work it somehow.

No-Knead, No Oven Spring? No Problem!

I lurk a lot in online bread baking forums in search of tidbits of information and insights that will help me improve my skills. And though I’ve finally reached a point where I can consistently make a pretty good loaf of bread, I’ve refrained from contributing to public forums. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to share, which is one of the reasons I devoted this blog to bread baking. A large part of this blog is a diary of the things I discover, the other part of it is sharing the lessons I learned. And a HUGE lesson I’ve learned is this:

With no-knead bread, if you want good oven spring, you have to have achieve sufficient dough strength so the gluten network retains the gases to promote forming gas pockets and be strong enough to hold the dough’s general shape in the first 10-15 minutes of baking.

Okay, for the experienced baker, this is a given. But for many folks like myself up until recently, it wasn’t an intuitive thing. I now know how to feel that my dough has strength and the telltales, but when I first started making bread, I was just following the recommendations in the recipes I’d follow.

Specifically, I’m talking about the recipes in Flour Water Salt Yeast (“FWSY”) by Ken Forkish, which seems to be the “reference” book for many home bakers. It surely was mine when I first started out. I still follow many of the principles Ken lays out in the book, but after having created dozens upon dozens of loaves over the last few months (I bake at least two loaves a day), I realized that there was one discussion that was missing in the book, or more implied rather than specifically called out and that is developing dough strength and why it’s important.

On page 35 of FWSY, he has a page devoted to folding. The salient point of the section is in the first paragraph:

Doing this [folding] several times during the bulk fermentation of the dough helps organize the dough’s gluten network, which allows it to holod on to gases produced as the dough ferments… The more complexly knit this network of gluten becomes, the more strength the dough has.

That nails it. And for a more experienced baker, the implication is clear: Developing dough strength gives you a better rise and oven spring.

But for the beginning baker following recipes, they don’t have the experience and, more importantly, haven’t developed the feel for dough strength. So like me, they’ll just follow the recommendations as in the Saturday White Bread which specifies just two folds. But that’s assuming you’re using AP flour or white bread flour. But even with those flours, if you haven’t sufficiently folded the dough and developed the gluten network, even those will collapse or spread out in the oven like the loaf shown below:

As you can see, the crumb on that loaf actually wasn’t all that bad. At first, I thought it was a proofing issue, but if it was, I would’ve gotten a really weird, uneven rise. So after doing a bit of research, I learned that I hadn’t developed enough strength in my dough.

I have to admit that I kind of scratched my head at that discovery because I followed the Saturday White Bread recipe in FWSY absolutely closely. But two folds was just not enough. As a dough expands in the oven, you should get both horizontal AND vertical rise. If you don’t get much vertical rise, it means the gluten network isn’t strong enough to support the vertical height. Also, if you look at the loaf, it’s also not scored on the top. That also could be a contributing factor as there may have not been enough give in the top skin, which forced the bread to expand outward instead of up, but that’s another discussion altogether. For now, we’ll just focus on developing dough strength.

How Do You Know Your Dough Has Strength?

I’m just going to start off by saying that there is no magic number to the amount of folding you need to do. Even Ken Forkish says in the last paragraph of “What Is Folding?” on page 35:

The recipes in this book each give guidance on the time and number of folds recommended, usually specifying a range, such as three to four folds. However, I don’t want to be overly hard and fast with rules about this. When working with your douh, you’ll be able to see the physical change after you’ve folded it. If, based on what you observe, you want to give it one more fold, go ahead and do it.

I remember reading that last line and saying out loud, “What the f$#k am I supposed to observe?” But despite that, I went on reading because I thought he might delve a littler deeper into the observation. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as he went with it.

So I had to do a bit of research and did a lot of baking and have a couple of telltales that I use to make sure I’ve developed enough strength in my dough.

The first test is a common one that you’ll probably see online – a lot. It’s known as the windowpane test. Basically, you take a hunk of your fermenting dough and stretch it. If you can stretch it into a thin membrane (window) without it tearing, then you have good dough strength.

But there’s also a way to feel the strength developing when you’re doing your stretch and folds that I use to gauge how far along my dough is. When it’s time to do a stretch and fold, if, when you do the first stretch, the dough stretches really easy and you can stretch it to two times the width of the dough ball, it’s likely not strong enough. And when you finish the last fold, if the whole dough ball doesn’t want to come along when you pull, you don’t have enough strength in your dough.

Furthermore, when you stretch and fold, you’re supposed to turn the dough over onto the folds after you’ve formed a ball. You should be able to do this easily if your dough is strong. But if you finish and the rest of the dough settles back, then you don’t have enough strength and you’ll need to do more rounds of folds.

That said, if you’re working with a super high-hydration dough (like above 80%), your dough will have a tendency to collapse, no matter what you do. But when you stretch high-hydration dough, the dough mass should come along with your stretch. If it shows signs of tearing, you’ll need more folds.

For this very reason, as opposed to following the guidelines in FWSY, I’ve taken the Tartine Bakery approach where they do 6 folds over the course of 3 hours, doing one every half-hour. I know, that’s very involved. By the time you do the last stretch and fold, you can really feel the resistance!

Folding Forms the Foundation

A lot of emphasis is put on shaping and creating a taut skin to get a good oven spring. No doubt, it is critical. But if you don’t have the good foundation of a well-developed gluten network with which to start, you won’t get as good an oven spring. It’s really the combination of a well-developed gluten network AND a nice, tight skin that will give you great oven spring, at least as far as structure is concerned. There are other factors as well, but those are beyond this particular discussion.

For me, I started getting great oven spring when I started to trust what I was feeling in the dough as I folded it. Was it too easy to stretch? Did it feel like tearing? Or did it put up some resistance and want me to take the whole dough ball in one pull? These questions led me to fold the dough more than the prescribed or suggested amount of folds in FWSY, and since then, I haven’t had to worry that my loaves will collapse, even with really wet dough. And especially now that I’m using a whole wheat and high-extraction flour combination, those extra folds have worked wonders with my oven spring.

I thought that maybe it was my folding technique that was flawed. But as I mentioned in a previous article, this is exactly what they do at Tartine Bakery!

Now all that said, I’m only sharing what works for me. You may do fewer folds and still get great results. The great thing about making bread is that though there is a certain exactitude to the process, there’s also a lot of variability. So what may work for some, may not work for others and vice-versa.

Happy baking!