More thoughts about breadmaking…

I started making bread seriously something over a year ago, from – as I’ve mentioned previously – a position of minimal knowledge. I knew the basics, but there was still a learning curve. As with most things worth doing, that shows no sign of abating and, between then and now, I’ve read a hell of a lot – just not recipes – I might pick up ideas from books, but I almost never use anyone else’s recipes, whether for bread or food in general. And, the more I read, the more I realise that every writer believes something different.

Dan Lepard, in the Guardian, for example, apparently believes that bread-making lends itself to being timed, almost with precision. His recipes frequently say “leave for an hour,” or whatever, which is plain wrong. Leave until ready – you have to focus on the dough, not on the clock – it’s a biological process, not an engineering one.

You can’t say it’ll have risen sufficiently in an hour, even if it did that the day before. The same ingredients, brought together in exactly the same way, will behave slightly differently. Very differently sometimes – you just have to abandon the clock and roll with it, until it hits the oven. Then the clock matters. Not before.

The absolute worst thing you can do with bread – other than rushing it – is to try and  make it conform to a timetable. It’ll happen in its own time. Some days that will be faster than others, some days it’ll be slower. In general – even to putting the fermenting dough in the fridge to retard it** – slower is better.

**Something I’ve yet to try, even though I bought a fridge-freezer with a fridge section having enough space to do that – so, a job for this weekend. Or maybe not. I make bread when I feel well enough, not always the same day every week, so if I put dough in the fridge to slowly ferment, I’ll have no real idea when I’ll be able to take it out again. We’ll see…

Some things have changed. I mostly made round loaves, either a basic boule or shaped in a brotform, but if the hydration was correct, the loaf would spread rather than rise (which I’ve covered at length previously), and if I reduced the hydration so that the dough was firm enough to rise into a beautiful golden, floured, dome, the resulting loaf was a tad dry.

That’s not to say it was bad bread, but it staled rapidly (as much non-Chorleywood bread does naturally anyway). Even somewhat stale, though, it still tasted better than most shop-bought bread (a stale Marks & Spencer baguette, by the way, sprinkled with sea salt and olive oil, tastes amazing). I wanted, though, a loaf that didn’t just taste good, but kept well, too. The solution, I found, was using loaf tins (pans in the colonies).

I’ve covered the tribulations of finding suitable tins here so I won’t bore you by repeating it, except to say that loaf tins (and far too many cake tins are sold as loaf tins), in a sensible size – 2lb – and sensibly proportioned as well, are hard to come by, so here’s a tip for manufacturers – 4 or 5cm high sides are stupidly low for bread.

There are several advantages to using tins:-

I get uniformly-sized slices, good for sarnies and the toaster.

I can make two loaves at once, where with round loaves I have to make them one at a time. Once in the oven, I rotate them at half time, front to back, and turn the tins round too – this might not be necessary in a fan oven, I don’t know. That way they bake evenly. Don’t forget to allow a little extra time (40 minutes instead of 35 in my case), to allow for the oven being open.

Because I can make 2 loaves at once, I can use my mixer, which is futile, and noisy for just one loaf – it’s quicker and quieter by hand. For 1100g  of flour (two loaves worth), though, it’s perfect (and that’s too much for me to work by hand). Still noisy, it’s the nature of the beast, but it works the dough very efficiently and the resulting bread is excellent.

Probably most important, from the bread’s perspective, if not mine, 60% hydration is achievable, simply because the tin forces the dough to rise upwards, not outwards. I’ve found, too, that by adding the oil later in the mixing process (once all the water has been added, but before it’s fully mixed), the crumb of the finished loaf is softer and nicely moist, with a very nice texture. Keeps well, too. I still have the heel of the loaf I made last Sunday, and it’s slightly dry, but I’d happily eat it had I not baked yesterday.

From my perspective, at the moment – I’m having a bad spell – using the mixer is essential as it removes 99% of the work. Not that there’s a lot anyway, but right now I can do without it.

All I have to do is let the mixer do its thing, remove the dough, knead it very briefly into a coherent ball, set it on a sheet of baking parchment and put it back in the bowl, covered with clingfilm and a clean towel, to prove.

Once that’s done, I just knock it back, divide it into two equal portions – with practise it’s easy to get within a gram but, as I’ve said before, within 5 or 10 grams is fine. A quick knead, press it flat, roll it into a tight sausage the length of the bread tin (roll it if you need to make it longer – don’t simply stretch it, it’ll just retract), and drop it in seam-side down. I use the other tin to press the dough down firmly, so that it conforms to the angles of the tin. It also ensures that it rises evenly.

For slashing the dough immediately prior to baking, I’ve been using a lame (pron. “lahm”, not “lamé” as you often see it written), a little French gizmo that holds a razor blade. With a round loaf, the stresses imposed by the shaping process cause the slashes to open immediately, but in a tin, the dough is unstressed, and doesn’t open up. it’s actually very difficult to slash it as deeply as necessary, with the lame, to take best advantage of the oven spring.

However, since I started baking, and trying and failing to slash dough with a knife, I’ve treated myself to a new chefs’ knife and, to keep its edge sharp enough to shave with, I invested in a Minosharp Plus 3 sharpener.

Not cheap**, but worth the investment. Note: many sharpeners of this type, including some Minosharp models, have just two sharpening wheels, coarse and medium, and are a waste of money in my not very humble opinion. The Plus 3 also has a fine wheel (so it’s really a Plus 1), for finishing and not only gets knives sharper, they stay sharp longer.

**£31.70 from Amazon. Shopping around you might find it for less – you will definitely find it for more!

So, on my knife rack I have a hollow-ground carver, and a Swedish knife designed for gutting, filleting and skinning fish, which it does brilliantly (mysteriously, the back of the blade is also sharp – or it was until I blunted it – seriously puts fingers at risk otherwise). Both are capable of taking an extremely sharp edge and next time I bake I’ll see which one performs best. (As it turned out, the carver.)

A serrated knife is often recommended, but no matter how I try, I can’t get a good enough edge on mine. Oh well…

Note: As my bread posts do better here than on my bread blog – go figure – I’m reverting to my original system of publishing the full post here, with an introduction and link on my bread blog.

4 thoughts on “More thoughts about breadmaking…

  1. As always good to see your musings, Ron.

    One point you may find interesting – I was re-reading Harold Mcgee on bread and wheat at the weekend. He has some throw-away remarks about staling which I never noticed before. 1) It is a reversible process – reversed at around 140 degrees (can’t remember if it was celsius or fahrenheit, and I can’t check now because I’m stucK in a hotel). 2) It occurs quickest at just above freezing temperature – so I’ll stop putting the bread in the fridge to keep it fresh!

    Another tip worth noting – kitchen scissors work quite well at doing the slashing on a loaf. As deep as you like!

    • Oh, yes – it’s not a McGee secret. It’s been common in restaurants since god was in short pants, and I’ve done it myself for years.

      Run a loaf under the cold tap (spritz rolls), whack ’em in the oven at 200C, gas 6 (I don’t think the temperature is critical for ordinary mortals), for 10-20 minutes, depending on size, and they’ll freshen up nicely. It’s short-lived though and reverts quite quickly – with in a day or so for a loaf, far sooner for rolls. In a commercial operation, though – like a restaurant – it can cut bread losses substantially, though it’s considered highly improper, and I’m inclined to agree. If a restaurateur can’t figure out bread consumption accurately enough to minimise waste, he/she is probably in the wrong job.

      Kitchen scissors – fine for rolls, way wrong for loaves. Slashing loaves, you need a cut of more or less uniform depth, and conforming to the shape of the loaf – and for that you need a blade. My fish-filleting knife, as it turns out,works perfectly. Dough, by the way, and especially wholemeal, takes the edge off a blade quite quickly. Lame blades are good for maybe half a dozen sessions before they start to drag – probably explains why pro bakers often use razor blades, and eschew the lame altogether – much cheaper.

      There’s a video somewhere here from lame maker Mure & Peyrot, which shows a French baguette baker using half a razor blade with quite remarkable dexterity – how showing that is intended to encourage people to buy lames I’m not entirely sure – seems counter-intuitive to me. Incidentally, lame blades cost around £7 a pack of 10 – razor blades can be had online for £1.95** for 10. Go figure. I’ve not, incidentally, been able to find the standard double-edged razor blade in the real world for some years, but they’re widely available online.

      **I don’t appear to have saved that link, but these guys have them at £1.40 for 5 – still a substantial saving||razor~blades~@c~@b~@r~All|0|user|1,0,0,1|3|

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