I’m flattered when friends ask about my bread-baking process. What I lack in skill I make up for in fearlessness as I bumble along according to a rudimentary understanding of food biochemistry and a principle of effort minimalisation. There are, of course, countless different ways to bake; here are some notes from my experience:
1. I start at least 12 hours before I want to be cutting my first slice. The earliest I’ve ever started was 5.5 days in advance. Out of all relevant factors in baking, time is usually the most inflexible for me, so I adjust all other factors to accommodate my schedule. This is convenient because I work full-time, have a lot of evening appointments, and travel frequently. Ain’t nobody got time to babysit a bowl of dough for six hours!
2. I start with the sourdough starter I made last July. The starter is a sticky wet blob of wheat, rye and wild yeast from the air. This is what will make the dough and bread rise.
3. The first step is to make a “levain”/”leaven”, aka “pre-ferment”. It’s an extra step before adding all the ingredients. The purpose of a levain is to:
- Warm up and wake up the starter
- Feed the starter to make it strong
- Test the viability of the starter
- Build strong gluten strands
- Ensure that the water is absorbed evenly into the flour (i.e. doubles as a “poolish”)
Scrape a few teaspoons of starter into a bowl. Add about 50g each of wheat and rye flour. Add an amount of water equivalent to the total amount of flour. Mix and cover. Why wheat and rye? No real reason except for the convenience and closed-loop-circle-of-life-type elegance where a couple teaspoons of levain can later be added back to my jar of starter. Where and how long to leave the levain? I usually leave it on the kitchen counter until it’s a wet puddle of bubbles. Bubbles means the yeast is active; it’s carbon dioxide that’s produced as a result of the yeast eating the sugars in the flour. Warmth, e.g. a slightly warmed oven, speeds up this process. Cold, e.g. the fridge, retards this process.
4. Now make the dough: Add all other ingredients to the levain. This is usually flour(s), water and salt, and any optional ingredients like nuts and seeds. Give everything a good mix with a spatula or electric mixer with a dough hook. I generally make high-hydration breads of 70-80%, meaning the amount of water is 70-80% the amount of flour in weight. Dough this wet cannot be kneaded by hand. Luckily, time can more or less replace kneading in terms of building gluten. Leave the dough at least 4 hours until it rises.
At its apex, either squish it down (“punch down”) to redistribute the sugars and dump it in the vessel in which it will be baked and leave it for a final proof of 1-2 hours, or dump it straight into a piping hot pre-heated pot and bake straight away. At such high hydration, without a pan it’d ooze everywhere.
5. What happens if you wait too long past the point where the dough has risen to its apex and starts to deflate again? It’s not the end of the world, but the bread might not rise as much. If you wait way too long, the yeast will run out of sugar to eat and start producing alcohol, which is a bad thing.
6. What happens in the oven? The dough rises as much as possible until a hard crust forms that prevents the dough from changing shape any further. The heat has two effects: it makes the air bubbles expand, and it evaporates the moisture, which pushes the dough upward. Sometimes the steam escapes by bursting through the top of the dough, which creates ridges and canyons called “ears”. Ears can be encouraged and controlled via the process of “scoring” the dough before putting it in the oven. Scoring is a specific way to cut the top of the dough specifically for this purpose. What retards crust formation? Moisture. Professional ovens have “steam injectors”. The rest of us plebs can use a regular spray can, cover the pot with a lid, and/or place a pan of water in the oven under or beside the dough.
Be adventurous, be curious, and have fun!