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The Magic of Homemade Bread

Flour, water, salt, yeast.

The Magic of Homemade Bread

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The Best Bread You’ll Ever Eat

You know when you’re out at an Italian restaurant and they bring bread to the table with olive oil/balsamic vinegar and you can’t understand why the bread is so much more delicious than any bread you’ve ever purchased? It’s homemade. That’s the difference.

Homemade bread is a revelation. It goes moldy and becomes tasteless much faster than store-bought bread, but what it lacks in shelf life it makes up for in flavor. The comparison isn’t close. It is seriously night and day.

The Year I Resolve to Nerd Out About Bread

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2016 was to learn how to bake bread.

And I don’t mean in a bread machine or limited to the ever-famous Leahy no-knead, which is arguably the most famous bread recipe in all the land. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Leahy no-knead and it was my own fool-proof introduction to bread making. The first time I made it was nothing short of magical.

But after a few no-knead loaves I knew there was more to the bread world. In my late night cooking-related Internet browsing (which is totally a thing, to the dismay of my sleeping habits), I’d read about kneading/folding doughs, baker’s percentages, sourdough starters, proofing and fermenting times but I didn’t know what any of it actually meant. My goal for early 2016 was to figure it out.

Off I went into the nether reaches of the Internet, looking at r/breadit, various YouTube videos1 and the websites of major flour manufacturers. I also serendipitously found a contingent of coworkers as furiously nerdy about bread making as I was (shoutout to #breadsy!) Finally after some research I settled on learning from a book – Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish – and I was finally onto a path of understanding.

1 I say this with complete confidence – this is the greatest bread-related video on YouTube: Bakery work

Preparing the autolyse Preparing the autolyse.

Measuring water on an electronic scale Precision is important in baking (more so than cooking) and as a result baker’s percentages are by weight (g) and not volume.

Measuring water temperature Okay, I am willing to concede that this level of precision is probably unnecessary.

Measuring flour on an electronic scale Baker’s percentages are flour, water, salt, yeast, with each percentage being a percentage of the total flour. This loaf was 100%, 78%, 2.2% and 0.08%. Bread recipes scale perfectly this way, and one 500g loaf is a good size for my lilliputian kitchen.

Pouring water into autolyse 500g * 0.78 = 390g water, between 90-95F.

Autolysed mixed Mixing the autolyse.

The first four chapters of Flour Water Salt Yeast were exactly what I wanted: a definitive, comprehensive introduction into the theory and process of making artisan bread. It answered all the questions I had:

  1. What equipment do I need? (a bucket, a dutch oven, a scale, a thermometer, a banneton)
  2. Is this prohibitively expensive? (no)
  3. Can I do this in my tiny apartment without making a massive mess? (yes)
  4. How do I mix the dough? (Forkish advocates for the pinch and fold method)
  5. What’s a starter? Do I need to feed one? (it’s a pre-fermented portion of dough used to start a new loaf; not if you don’t want to)

As a disclaimer to this post, I haven’t gotten to the point of creating/using my own sourdough starter yet. There are a few minor reasons (a lack of refrigerator space, a lack of patience for waiting for the starter to mature, not wanting to waste flour when I have to carry flour from the grocery store) that I’d ignore if I wanted it enough, but that hasn’t happened yet.

I am super pleased with my results regardless, both with overnight doughs without pre-ferments and doughs using poolish (which a pre-ferment similar to a sourdough starter but using commercial yeast).

The first step is to create an autolyse, which means you mix the flour and water together and let it sit for ~20min. This gives the flour and water some time to fully incorporate before you add the other ingredients.

Measuring salt on an electronic scale

SAF instant yeast I started with Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast and didn’t get much dough spring. Once I switched to saf-instant the difference was huge. You can buy one pound of yeast for $8 on Amazon, which is a massive amount of yeast that should last any amateur baker forever (this pictured loaf used ~1/8 of a teaspoon).

Measuring out 1/8 teaspoon yeast

Combining salt and yeast with autolyse The autolyse with salt/yeast added, ready for initial mix.

Bread beginning to be mixed As opposed to a conventional kneading on a table, Forkish advocates the pinch and fold method of mixing.

Pinching the dough Incorporating the ingredients is done by pinching the dough together between your fingers across the length of the dough.

Pinching the dough

Folding the dough After pinching, you fold the dough over on itself, taking care not to break it.

Folding the dough Complete four folds of the dough from each side towards the center.

Completed dough after initial mix The initial mix/pinch/fold may take ~10+ minutes for all the ingredients to feel fully incorporated. You’ll notice the salt granules begin to disappear and the dough tighten with subsequent folds. To keep the dough from sticking too much to your hands, keep your pinching/folding hand wet with cold water.

Covered dough in bucket And then we wait.

Once you’re confident that the dough ingredients are fully incorporated you let it rest for ~90 mins, folding the dough ~3 times during that 90 minute period to aid in gluten development.

Fold the dough inside the bucket, watch it tighten and wait for the dough to relax before you complete another fold. By the end of 90 minutes, the dough should be significantly tighter than when you started.

Dough relaxed into bucket The dough has relaxed back into the bottom of the bucket. It’s ready to fold.

Dough after first fold First fold.

Dough after second fold Second fold.

Dough after third fold Third fold. It might be harder to tell in photos, but the dough feels much tighter at this point and less susceptible to ripping.

The next step is bulk fermentation.

Bulk fermentation is when you let the yeast do its thing: consume the flour, give off gas and sugars, and generally turn the dough into a bubbly, fermented mass that is 4-5x the volume of its non-fermented ancestor. It’s during bulk fermentation when the dough is imparted with its flavors that will differentiate it from store-bought bread. The longer the fermentation the more sour the end result.

Temperature and humidity are big factors that impact bulk fermentation, as warmer and more humid areas speed the process up. You can temper a bulk fermentation by retarding the dough (aka making it cold) in a fridge. I typically let mine go from anywhere between 12-24 hours on the kitchen counter and have been happy with the results.

Dough after bulk fermentation I typically use a post-it to mark off where the dough was post-mix and fold. As you can see this dough has risen like the dickens. The bubbles in the dough turn into the bubbles in the bread crumb.

Sili-bake silicone mat I don’t have a marble/steel surface in my apartment, which makes it really annoying to work with dough. This silicone baking mat from Amazon is a Godsend for both bread and pasta.

The next steps are shaping and proofing.

Shaping is the process of tightening the fermented dough into a shape while preserving its gases.

Proofing is the final rise before baking, completed after the loaf is shaped.

Photo of dough being removed from bucket Gluten, the scourge of modern diners everywhere. I added flour to the edges of the dough to help it release from the sides of the bucket.

Unshaped dough A shapeless mass without tension.

Shaped dough I don’t do this perfectly, but it’s a matter of rolling the dough gently to tighten it without compressing it too much. A loaf of bread emerges from the shapeless mass.

Unfloured banneton This is called a banneton, or a brotform, or a proofing basket. It’s these baskets that give artisan bread their iconic concentric-flour-circle look.

Floured banneton Protip: flour the HELL out of the banneton, or else it’s impossible to get the dough out. You can easily brush excess flour off the finished loaf with a stiff brush.

Dough in banneton, pre-proof And now we proof for 75 mins.

Oven turned to 475 15 minutes in, put a covered dutch oven into the oven at 475. We’re going to let it heat up for an hour and it’ll serve as the vessel we bake the bread in.

Covered dutch oven in oven As a side note, this Lodge enameled dutch oven is one of my favorite items on earth. All the power of cast iron but non-stick and none of the pain-in-the-ass-ness of keeping cast iron seasoned.

Dough in banneton, post-proof. It's risen considerably. 75 mins later: holla

Dough removed from banneton

Dough placed in heated dutch oven, scored Put the proofed, shaped dough into the dutch oven. The dutch oven is incredibly hot and good at burning you. Also if you want to score the dough (“slash” the dough), do so now. I make a half-assed attempt here with a paring knife.

Final step: baking.

30 mins lid on, 20-25 mins lid off, depending on how dark you want the final loaf.

Completed bread in dutch oven And the people said: boom.

Completed bread on wire rack

Side profile of sliced loaf I’ve read that it’s best to let loaves cool completely before cutting to maximize flavor development, but there is something amazing about eating warm, fresh-made bread. It’s the land of the free. Do you. Also notice the bubbles in the crumb: bulk fermentation for the win.

Half a loaf of bread besides slices of bread Slicing a big, crusty loaf of bread is really annoying. Use a good serrated bread knife and cut it with the knowledge that crumbs will go everywhere. I cut it on a wire rack above the silicone mat.

A picture of pan con tomate; slices of bread surrounding tomato sauce Pan con tomate: bread with a tomato sauce. Toast the bread in the oven and rub with a garlic clove before serving.

Our successful applications for homemade bread:

  1. Bread with olive oil/balsamic vinegar/salt/pepper;
  2. Avocado toast;
  3. Open faced sandwiches;
  4. Giving loaves away to friends and loved ones (the best application thus far, especially because this stuff loses a lot of its taste in ~3 days and molds at ~5. Also there’s something amazingly homey about gifting a fresh baked loaf of bread).

Even if you’re not going to go full bread-nerd and buy equipment, I really encourage you to try the no-knead recipe just for the revelatory experience of eating fresh, homemade bread. For others inspired to embrace their inner baker, Flour Water Salt Yeast is a strong resource I can personally endorse.