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!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Using up cooked barley

I live for a good summer salad.  One that you can just throw together and eat for dinner on a hot summer night when the last thing you want to do is stand over a hot grill or stove.

My criteria for a summer salad is the following: it cannot be mostly greens (in fact, I usually don't include ANY greens), and it has to include seasonal produce (such as zucchinis, corn and tomatoes).  To top it off, I'll add some feta or goat cheese, a fresh herb like basil, oregano or mint, and a drizzle of olive oil and vinegar.

So basically it's:
Fresh Vegetables + Crumbly or Soft Cheese + Herb + Olive Oil & Vinegar + Salt & Pepper

Pretty easy, right?

Sometimes I'll throw in a cooked grain such as wheat berries or barley to give the salad some added heft, which is what I did for our church's after-worship fellowship hour

I tried to keep the proportions of the different ingredients more or less equal, which unfortunately meant that after my salad was constructed, I still had massive amounts of cooked barley left over.

I decided to look for recipes that would incorporate the cooked barley, as well as some other things I had on hand that I wanted to use up.  I adjusted each of these so much that I feel justified including my recipes here.  If you want to check out the original versions, just click the links.

Buckwheat Multigrain Bread (guided by this recipe)

You will need:
8 ounces/240 grams bread flour
4 ounces/120 grams whole wheat flour
6 ounces/ 180 grams cooked barley
2 ounces/60 grams buckwheat flour
1 ounce/30 grams flax seeds (I used ground flaxseed meal
12 ounces/340 grams water
2 teaspoons/10 grams kosher salt
1 teaspoon/3 grams active dry yeast (if you need a fast rise, you can double this)

1. Mix together everything in a bowl.  Add about 250g of the water first, then add more if you need to.   Once everything is combined into a wet dough, let it rest for about 10 minutes in the bowl.
2. When the 10 minutes are up, gently shape the dough into a ball and cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a towel.  Let rise overnight in the refrigerator.
3. In the morning, remove the bowl from the refrigerator and let it get back to room temperature (I usually do this while I'm at work and it's ready when I get home 9 hours later).
4. Punch down the dough and shape it back into a ball.  Lay out a piece of parchment paper and put the ball on the parchment paper.  Wash your bowl and use it to cover your ball during the second rise.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F with your dutch oven inside.
5. When the oven is ready, remove the glass bowl and use a sharp knife to score the top of the loaf.
6. Bake in the covered dutch oven for 30 minutes, then take the lid off, bump the heat down to 375 degrees F, and bake another 20 minutes or so, until the bread has a crusty exterior, is a deep golden brown, and sounds hollow when tapped.

And here it is sliced.  You can see the barley grains too.  This bread is fantastic toasted with peanut butter for breakfast.

Banana Barley Muffins (guided by this recipe)

You will need:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup sugar (I used brown sugar because I had some lying around)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons oat bran (not necessary but adds some fiber)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 ripe bananas
2 large eggs
1 cup cooked barley
½ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil (or however much you need for the right consistency)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Butter a 12-cup muffin tin.
2. Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, oat bran and salt in a large bowl.  Set aside.
3. Mix together the bananas, eggs, barley, milk and butter in a medium-sized bowl. 
4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir with a spatula to combine.  It should be the consistency of oatmeal.  If it's too dry, add the vegetable oil a little at a time until you have the right consistency.
5. Fill the muffin cups 2/3 full with batter.  Bake for 20 minutes until they turn brown and are firm.

And once again, the inside of the muffin with the intact barley grains:

I hope these recipes will inspire you to experiment with barley and try something new.