In Pursuit of the Perfect Bread

It's a pretty long story to get to why but one of my goals for 2014 includes teaching myself how to make awesome rustic crusty bread at home. In Seattle I am surrounded by amazing bakeries but there is something about kneading and baking and filling my kitchen with the smell of bread that is extremely appealing. And thus, the search for the most delicious, comprehensive, no-fail bread recipe began.

  This dish may or may not be why I learned to make bread

This dish may or may not be why I learned to make bread

I started with the internet-- first Pinterest and then general google searches. I tried a few recipes from these sources but wasn't finding what I really wanted. Part of this was because baking bread is unlike any other baking I've ever done. It is very specific and the fermentation requires particular conditions. At that point I turned to the trusty Seattle Public Library for help and checked out a few popular books on the subject, including Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish and My Bread by Jim Lahey. I'm still working my way through a few other books and recipes but so far those are the two I like best. They include awesome tutorials on what is actually happening when you mix, knead, ferment and proof the dough as well as great recipes and photographs.

So here's how my experiments went down:

First, Ken Forkish's "Saturday White Bread", which is an all-day ferment so that one could begin at 9:30am and have fresh loaves by around 5pm. It (as with all the recipes in his book) contains only the four traditional ingredients for bread; flour, water, salt, and yeast. You'll have to check out his book to get the full technique and quantities. It is a really versatile recipe that can be used for a boule loaf (like I did below), pizza or focaccia.

As far as Forkish's principles and techniques, he is pretty easy for the home-baker to follow. Though I will say that some of the equipment that he recommends I think are too much of an investment to make before you even know if this is for you.

Here is my break-down on the major equipment and the poor-man's substitutes:

  1. Dough tub: he lists a 12-qt dough tub with lid for mixing and rising. But those are huge. And I just can't justify buying (and storing) and singular-use kitchen item. Thus, I used a pyrex mixing bowl with no problems. Same with the smaller tubs he lists... more mixing bowls!
  2. Dutch oven: this is pretty much the crux of his baking technique so you kinda need one. Frankly, they are awesome for just about everything so having one in the kitchen isn't a bad idea. I use mine for soup, roast chicken, pork loin and now bread. It pretty much means you don't have to try to simulate the steam generated by fancy bakery ovens in order to get crusty outside and moist inside (also called the "crumb").
  3. Digital Kitchen Scale: I really didn't want this to be a necessary item because it seems so superfluous but it actually makes the measuring WAY easier. Ultimately the deal is that the weight of the ingredients doesn't change no matter how packed down they are so there is no guessing. I found a pretty slick scale at Fred Meyer for $25 that is totally flat and takes up basically no space, there are also cheaper versions so it isn't TOO terrible. You CAN convert to cups but the weight is more precise. Pro Tip: when it comes to the tiny amounts of yeast, just use teaspoons since the scales aren't so sensitive enough to give an accurate measure.
  4. Instant-Read Probe Thermometer: Also something I didn't want to be required, and I think it is somewhat less helpful than the scale. But I did buy one because I have no concept of how 90 degree water feels. You may already have one you use for checking the temp of meat, etc. (Not the same as the analog thermometer you leave in the oven for your Thanksgiving turkey.)
  5. Proofing Baskets: Here's the big one that you SOOOOO don't need to buy. They are bentwood baskets (also called a "banneton") that you cover in flour for the final rise after shaping the loaves and while they are super cool they're also spendy ($45 on Amazon for one!). I used my trusty large pyrex mixing bowls with a lint-free tea towel dusted in flour, which works just fine.

Other things you will need include oven mitts for dealing with a G-D M-F HOT dutch oven. That baby is pre-heated at 475 degrees and it is not something you want to accidentally touch. Also in order to make sure you have that HOT HOT HOT oven temp, you should probably get an oven thermometer. You probably already have one because most home ovens aren't all that accurate. My oven tends to run hot above 400 so I have to set mine to 460 to actually get 475. If you want to try your hand at pizza, you will want a pizza stone or cast iron pan (my preference) and a pizza peel to get in in and out with (relative) ease. Did I mention the oven is HOT? Because it is. 

A note on the types of flour you use: always check what KIND flour the recipe calls for carefully. I tend to prefer unbleached because the chemical process reduces natural flavor and gives the crumb an unsettlingly bright white color. Bread flour, versus unbleached all purpose flour, has more protein and thus ferments and bakes differently. Protein can also vary from flour manufacturers but that shouldn't cause too much of a problem for the home-baker. To illustrate, here is what happens when you use the wrong kind of flour:

  Note how the loaf on the right hasn't risen nearly as much as the one on the left

Note how the loaf on the right hasn't risen nearly as much as the one on the left

This was even evident from the first round of fermentation:

  The bowl on the right is the wrong flour, the one on the left is the correct flour

The bowl on the right is the wrong flour, the one on the left is the correct flour

After I realized that I had used the wrong kind of flour I mixed up a correct batch but decided to let the first one go just to see the difference, and boy was there a difference! The second batch didn't have nearly as long to ferment as the first and it was still significantly bigger than the first. The recipe I used for that comparison was from the second book I liked: Jim Lahey's My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method. This technique allows the dough to ferment slowly over 12-18 hours so that it becomes unnecessary to do a lot of the kneading to develop the gluten. Other than that the two techniques are pretty similar, it really just depends on how much time you have and how dirty you want to get your hands. Both use a lidded dutch oven to create steam and both turn out beautifully rich, delicious loaves. 

I will be trying new recipes and new techniques so I'll keep you all posted on how they go and which ones are my favorites. Next up are more easy make-at-home body products and a round-up of the best jar-tinting techniques just in time for Spring!