I took this weekend off from baking because I went on an annual trip to Lake Tahoe to spend a few days with some of my oldest friends from college (yes, I brought up a bunch of bread that got completely gobbled up – it was very pleasing to witness that). Throughout the weekend I was having what amounted to mental withdrawal symptoms because I wasn’t baking.
My best friend who came with me asked me on Saturday what I felt like not baking. I replied, “I have to admit that I don’t quite know what to do with myself. For the past six months, my hands have been covered in either flour or dough, so to have completely flour-free hands the entire day is a little unsettling.”
But now that the weekend is over, I still can’t bake this week at all as my house is being tented for termite fumigation. I have to admit that even though I know that I’ll be just fine, baking bread has been part of my daily life these past six months that I’m feeling a little… weird…
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…
That loaf above is supposed to be a boule. And to the untrained eye it looks fine and truth be told, it’ll taste great. I’ve really gotten a handle on my sour poolish! But see the white bottom? That’s a telltale that it wasn’t proofed long enough, and the oven spring was uneven through the loaf. Here’s an extreme example of under-proofing that I’ve shared before:
With those loaves above, I was really impatient! Actually, I was over-excited. I got a great rise in my bulk fermentation, and I got a little over-zealous… 🙂
But back to my most recent fail… Rather than get mad about it, I just laughed. In fact, ever since I started making bread, I’ve really had to learn to laugh at myself and my blunders. Despite the fact that I’ve come a long way in a fairly short amount of time, I’m still a novice at this. I’ve certainly gotten to the point where I can consistently make a good loaf of bread. But I also have accepted that I haven’t experienced all the pitfalls and of this craft and there will be times when things don’t go as expected – like this time.
Admittedly, it’s a challenge for me to not freak out. As a Type 4 on the Enneagram scale, I’m highly individualistic, self-motivated, and driven to excellence, which can easily devolve into perfectionism which, in turn, can lead to self-loathing and depression. But enough of the psychoanalysis! Let’s just say that I’m driven to always do a great job, and when I fall short, it’s easy for me to get down on myself.
So to combat this, I remember that making bread is a joyful experience. After all, I’m doing it purely by choice and not for survival. And besides that, there’s always another loaf to bake! So when I screw up a loaf, I laugh at my blunder, take stock of what I could’ve done differently. Then I move on.
And this has been a valuable reminder and lesson for me in my life in general. Especially with all the stuff about image that we’re bombarded with day in and day out, it’s so easy to take ourselves way too seriously. I’ve done that in the past, but that has led to pretty dark places that I never want to visit again. So I remember the joy and I laugh at myself!