At the start of the shelter-in-place order for the Bay Area I decided to try my hand at making bread. Me, and tens of millions of others. I got started thanks to a friend who gave me a bag of Italian Doppio Zero flour, and thanks also to a small pack of yeast I happened to have. Both ingredients had completely disappeared from supermarket shelves. I found a recipe on the web - which turned out to be seriously flawed. Still, my first effort was pleasant to eat, and encouraged me to keep trying.
Six months have now passed. I've made bread twice every week since then, on Friday and Sunday mornings, which amounts to about 50 loaves. I think that now I've got the hang of it. There are really only two ingredients in bread, flour and water, plus of course yeast. Yet there are amazing variations in what you get with only small changes in the ingredients.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. My two-pound bag of Doppio Zero was quickly exhausted. We had some all-purpose flour, but bread should be made with proper bread flour, which has a higher protein content than normal flour. The protein is what turns into gluten, which is what gives bread its structure and texture. Normally you can buy it in the supermarket, but not in March 2020.
Looking online, I discovered a high-end flour producer (Azure) who claimed to have ten-pound bags of bread flour available. I ordered one, and hoped it would arrive quickly. But it didn't. When I chased them, they assured me it was on its way, but delayed due to the problems arising from the pandemic. That seemed fair enough, but it didn't help me.
I looked some more, and discovered that I could get a fifty-pound sack of flour from King Alfred, the top name in flour in the US. It seemed crazy to buy that much, but it didn't cost all that much and it would solve my problem. I placed the order, intending to cancel the Azur order when the new order shipped.
You can guess what happened. Literally within minutes of the King Alfred confirmation, Azure sent me a shipping notice. The two showed up within a day of each other.
I had a few packets of supermarket yeast, but given we couldn't know when bread ingredients would reappear on the shelves, I needed more. Through a similar sequence of events as the flour, I ended up with two packs of yeast as well, a total of three pounds - enough for about 160 loaves. On the bright side, it keeps for a long time. Incidentally the Fleischmann stuff doesn't make very good bread.
A bunch of tricks I've learned along the way...
One thing you quickly discover with bread is the importance of the "hydration", which is to say the amount of water. Too little gives you a very dense bread, while too much delivers decent bread but the dough is a sticky mess that won't hold any kind of shape. I've found 71% works very well, for example 340 ml of water with 480g of flour. This may seem over-precise, but when on occasion I've got sloppy and used an extra 10ml (2%) of water, the dough is really different.
Early on I tried adding hazelnut flour to the normal wheat flour. I add 30g of it to 450g of bread flour. That gives a delicious nuttiness to the taste, and also contributes to the crispness of the crust. I tried walnut flour too. That gives a different taste and less of a crust, but it's interesting too.
At first I tried to knead the bread by hand. It's very satisfying, but it takes a long time and makes your wrists ache. Now I put the flour (and a tiny amount of salt) in the mixer, add the yeast starter, then slowly trickle in the remaining water while the mixer runs. I leave it for ten minutes, occasionally stopping the mixer to scrape the dough off the mixing hook. After that a quick, one minute hand knead finishes everything off and gets the dough to the right texture.
Personally I like bread to have a crisp, crunchy crust. It's tricky to get that to come out right. It all has to do with the way the starches react in the early stages of baking. Industrial bread ovens have a mechanism for injecting copious amounts of steam at the right time. The idea is that in the early stages, the surface is kept moist by steam condensing on the relatively cool dough. This promotes the right reactions in the starch, leading eventually to the Maillard reaction which turns starch and sugar into delicious light brown caramel.
Since I don't have an industrial oven, I have to improvise. I put a shallow pie dish of water in the oven when I turn it on. By the time it is at its operating temperature of 500°F (250°C), this is boiling nicely, creating a very humid atmosphere in the oven. Then, when I put the bread in, I empty half the water onto the floor of the oven. This fills it with steam (and generally makes a bit of a mess on the floor too). I leave the pan in the oven for the first five minutes of baking time. When I open the oven to remove it, a hot blast of scalding steam emerges - showing that it has done its job.
I cook hazelnut bread for a total of 29 minutes, 5 with water and the rest without. This results in a perfect, crunchy crust, just beginning to turn deep brown in the darkest places along the top, yet moistly soft inside. Walnut bread does better with a couple of minutes less. Really the goal is to take it out just before it burns.
It has been a challenge to get bread to be the right shape, which for me means roughly circular and 3-4" (80-100 cm) across. If you stretch the dough to the shape you want, it has an annoying tendency to have "memory" and go back to its original shape in its first couple of minutes in the oven. Finally what I have found works is to flatten the dough, as part of the final "knocking back" which removes over-large bubbles. I work on the flattened, pizza-like dough to get it the right length, then fold it over and roll it like a giant sausage roll to get the circular shape.
Even so it happens sometimes that a loaf "explodes" - it develops a big split along one side. This doesn't affect the flavour but it's not very pretty. Cutting slits across the top, half an inch or so apart and quite deep, helps a lot. The other important thing is to make sure the dough joins together properly. Generally I sprinkle flour around when working with dough. Thats coats the surface and makes it stick less, but it also stops it sticking to itself when you roll it up. A sprinkling of water (not much!) helps, and massaging the join together.
I generally split off some of the dough to make a couple of rolls. About 80g of dough gives a little roll, perfect for breakfast, with a disproportionate amount of deliciously crunchy crust.
At first I had problems with bread sticking to the baking tray. A piece of parchment paper covering the tray solves that problem. Surprisingly, considering that the ignition temperature of paper is famously "Fahrenheit 451", it chars a little at 500°F but doesn't burn.
I use the following ingredients to make a "one pound" loaf:
- 450g of King Arthur bread flour
- 30g of ground hazelnut flour
- a pinch of salt (about 3g - the amount is fairly critical and a matter of personal taste)
- 8g of yeast
- 5g of sugar
- 340ml of water
The water and flour can be adjusted as long as they are in the same proportion.
I mix up the yeast and sugar along with 30ml of water and 20g of flour and leave them somewhere warm (around 40°C, 100°F) for 15-30 minutes. That gets the yeast going well. This is mixed in with the remaining solid ingredients and the remaining water prior to kneading.
Since getting up at 4am isn't really my thing, I make the dough the evening before. Once it is kneaded, I leave it to rise for a couple of hours, then put it in the fridge overnight. I generally get up briefly around 6am, and use that to get the dough back out and let it warm back up to room temperature by the time I do the final stages starting some time between 8 and 9. A couple of times I have started too late for that, and left it out overnight. It doesn't seem to make much difference to the final result.
I was very surprised, a couple of weeks ago, to realise that I was near the end of my fifty pound sack of King Arthur flour. When it ran out I switched to the ten pound bag of Azure. This turned out to give a completely different bread! The Azure flour is grey rather than white. The bread is denser, tastes different, and has a less crunchy crust. Obviously this is all a matter of personal taste, but both of us greatly prefer the King Arthur flour. Now that flour is easy to obtain again, I have bought another ten pounds of King Arthur. That seems to give even better results than the original sack, though I have no idea why.
My friendly English baking neighbour once gave me a sourdough starter. This is supposed to have all kinds of mystical, magical properties. You have to feed it - to the point that if you go away for a few days, you have to arrange with the cat sitter to feed the sourdough as well. There's something very primal about it all, which I think is its attraction.
It also totally failed to work. Luckily some conventional yeast added just before going to bed did work. I was feeling a bit badly about what I'd say to my neighbour. Then she reported the exact same experience.
So much for sourdough.