Thursday, July 17, 2014

Top Five Myths about Baking Bread

 Hi y'all! Deciding to teach a bread-baking class has opened me up to so many questions I had never considered before, and made me explore so many of my preconceived notions about baking.  I'm going on ten years of baking bread, and there is still so much to learn.  Here is a quick list of five beliefs *I* had starting out, and what I learned along the way. 

Myth 1. You must be precise and follow the bread recipe exactly.

Yes and no.  It's important to get the hydration (the proportional weight of the flour and water) correct, but there's a lot of wiggle room too.  Unless you're looking for perfection, decent bread can be made between 65-100% hydration.  For 375 grams of flour, that is between 245-375 grams of water!

If you're curious, I found a great hydration calculator here.

A second point to consider is that dough can be influenced by the humidity in the air.  So the same dough made in DC and Austin will require a different amount of water.  For my 1-2-3 loaf, I used 250g of water in Austin but only needed about 225g in DC to get the same result.

Finally, if you do decide to experiment just remember that some add-ins can affect the hydration while others do not.  Add-ins like salt, seeds, nuts, spices and cooked grains do not affect the hydration of your bread (obviously they do affect taste).  Liquid add-ins like eggs, milk, oil, broth, and butter do affect the hydration, as well as uncooked grains like oatmeal, oat bran, and flax seed meal which will absorb water in the dough.  So play around until you get a combination you love.   

Myth 2. Baking bread is "harder" than baking other things.

I hear this a lot from my friends when they find out I bake bread.  I don't think it's harder, just different!  I have a hard time baking things like cakes and cookies because they do require so much precision in the amounts of ingredients and the baking conditions.  Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

I think what makes people nervous is working with yeast and trusting the bread to do what it is supposed to do.  People don't want to wait around for their dough to rise; they want to know with certainty how long it will take to rise and they want guaranteed success.  Bread just doesn't work that way. It takes time to figure out all the variables that can influence bread, and that can be scary.  

To me it's easier and more reassuring to know that by watching and checking in all prior steps, I can ensure a bread will be successful in the baking stage.  What is scarier to me is putting a wet gloppy mess in the oven and trusting the chemical reaction that will hopefully take place and form the mess it into a cake. But that's just me.

Myth 3. You MUST knead bread for the gluten to develop.

You can- but it's not always necessary!  If given enough time, bread dough will naturally form the gluten strands that provide structure to a loaf and trap yeast gases while it rises.  By "enough time," I mean between 12 and 24 hours.  You don't really want to go much longer than that.

Instead, many bakers use what is called the "stretch and fold" method to redistribute the yeast and gluten at several points during the long rise.

When bakers want to let the dough rise for a long time, they cut out most of the yeast, from the typical 2 teaspoons that come in a yeast packet, to one teaspoon or less.  That way the yeast will take more time eating up the sugars and release gas more slowly.

In short, if you are making a loaf that will rise only a few hours (between 2-4 hours), it's a good idea to knead by hand or use a bread hook in your stand mixer.   Otherwise, feel free to skip this step.

Myth 4. More yeast is always good.

Nope! Think of your dough as a balancing act: the flour and water work together to make gluten strands that trap yeast gases like a balloon traps air.  A successful rise means the gases have been successfully trapped by the gluten strands.  If you have too much yeast, the bread will rise too quickly and then deflate in the oven like a balloon, creating a flat loaf.  Or you might get a flat loaf with one big pocket just below the upper crust, like this:

This happens because the gases were not being trapped by the gluten strands, so they were able to escape (but the crust formed during baking trapped them in at the last minute).  As Alton Brown would say, "not good eats."

A final consideration is that if the dough rises too quickly due to too much yeast, it won't have the time to develop yummy flavors and will just taste yeasty (which some people like, don't get me wrong).

Like I mentioned in my response to Myth #3, sometimes less yeast is better because it gives a chance for the gluten strands to form naturally, and more flavor to develop in your loaf.  So less yeast = tastier bread!

5. Bread flour is the best flour to use in baking bread (duh, it has 'bread' in the name).

For my last myth, some science: bread flour has more protein in it than all-purpose (AP) flour.  More protein = more gluten formation, which in turn makes a dough that is more elastic and a finished loaf that is more chewy.  More protein also means the gluten formation happens faster, trapping more yeast gas and allowing the creation of big holes in your bread.

The type of bread you want to make will determine what kind of flour you use.  For french bread, which typically has big holes and a chewy interior, you would definitely want to use bread flour.  If your dough is a quick-rising dough, you should consider using bread flour (or a mix of bread flour and AP flour) for its quick gluten formation.  You would never use bread flour for baking banana bread because you want a crumbly texture.  Most doughs do well with a mix of bread flour and AP flour. 

Sometimes if I'm using a little bit of rye or whole wheat flour, which are low-protein flours, I'll also throw in a little bit of bread flour to compensate.  I don't want my bread to look like this:

 I also add some bread flour to breads that have cooked grains in them, because those can sometimes affect gluten formation in the dough.

In sum, bread flour is good for creating certain types of desirable textures in bread, but it's not *the best* flour to use.  Different flours do different things.

So that's it; my top five myths about baking bread.  What myths did you believe starting out?  I'd love to hear them in the comments!

1 comment:

Slow Learner said...

I love your posting! I also tell people who voice the opinion that bread-making is difficult that, depending on the recipe, it's largely about timing. A couple/few hours for the starter to rise; then 3-4 hours for the mixed dough to rise; then another couple of hours for the bread to rise in the pan; then pre-heat your oven for a while, and bake. The baker just needs to be around at the appropriate times to take the proper next steps.