“Can I have your bread recipe?”

Many people ask me for my bread recipes. While I happily share them, bread is less about the formula and more about the technique. It is for this very reason why the favorite bread recipe from your grandmother is almost impossible to recreate. Much of the satisfaction that comes from my hobby comes from turning what is often viewed as a difficult craft into a series of reproducible steps that can be pulled off in just about any kitchen. What follows is a breakdown of one of the simplest breads based on a technique I learned from the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI) with a couple of changes to make it easier for the home kitchen.

This recipe makes a simple French style white bread formed into an approachable freestanding shape called a bâtard. To improve the keeping qualities, the recipe will also make use of what is called a preferment to improve flavor and slow the staling process so the bread keeps longer.

Before we begin, I wanted to talk a bit about equipment. The most important is a kitchen scale. I have one that cost about $25 and is accurate to 0.05 oz. Bread quality is highly dependent on the ratio of flour to water and that is almost impossible to control without a scale. I often wonder if the reason why most people don’t bake bread is because of the frustration of trying to make it without a scale.

To achieve a nice crust from a home oven, you will also need some thermal mass in the form of a baking stone. A pizza stone would work but you might run into size issues and would likely need two of them. Taking a cue from both Alton Brown and Peter Reinhart, I went to the local home improvement center and got 6 unglazed “quarry” style floor tiles for about $0.50 each. While I don’t believe there is any risk to baking right on the tiles, we will be using parchment paper to transfer our loaves so in this case, the bread will not come in contact with the tiles.

WARNING - What follows may cause damage to your oven and has the potential to cause a nasty steam burn. Proceed at our own risk. You have been warned.

To get a nice crust on the bread, we will also need to generate some steam in the oven for the first part of the baking. The workshop at SFBI and Jeffrey Hamelman in his book Bread use similar techniques that work pretty well.

A few words of caution are in order before we go further. When I was presented the technique at SFBI we were warned that the amount of steam can force open the door of an oven and even break the oven window. While I can see this would pose a risk for electric ovens, I bake in a gas oven and the large vent doesn’t allow pressure to build up. All the same, proceed with caution. Also be mindful that steam can easily cause a burn. In my case, since the oven vent is right below the oven controls, I have to be careful when adjusting the oven while the steam is being generated.

The steam generator is composed of a cast iron or other heavy oven safe pan and disposable pie tin with some holes punched in the bottom. You will place the pan on the lower rack of the oven while you preheat and use the pie tin to transfer some ice to the hot pan when you put the bread in the oven. The ice will melt and generate a gentle supply of steam during the first part of baking resulting in a nice crust. More on this when we get to the actual baking procedure.

So the equipment you will need is:

  • Large bowl
  • Mixing spoon
  • Measuring spoons
  • Dough scraper
  • Rimless cookie sheet with parchment paper
  • Razor blade
  • Large pizza stone or 6 unglazed floor tiles
  • Cast iron skillet or other heavy oven safe pan and a disposable pie tin with holes punched in the bottom
Recipe and Planning
Every time I bake, I like to take a few minutes well ahead to review the recipe, figure out how much bread I am going to make, and figure out the timing. This recipe is scaled to make two 18 oz loaves of bread which will yield approximately 8 slices each. As I mentioned above, this recipe has a preferment called a poolish that needs to be mixed the night before. Therefore we have two related recipes. They are:

Poolish Preferment
6.30 oz Unbleached Bread Flour (Gold Medal Better For Bread) *
6.30 oz Water (room temperature)
Pinch (scant 1/16 tsp) Instant Yeast **

Final Dough
4.20 oz Unbleached Bread Flour (Gold Medal Better For Bread) *
10.50 oz Unbleached All Purpose Flour (Gold Medal Unbleached All Purpose) *
8.30 oz Water (room temperature)
⅜ Tsp Instant Yeast **
0.45 oz Non-Iodized Salt
All of the Poolish Preferment

Additional Ingredients
Extra flour for dusting
Spray oil
1 cup ice cubes

* If you use King Arthur flours, use the All Purpose type for all the flour in the recipe.
** Do not use yeast labeled active-dry. Fleischmann’s RapidRise, Red Star Quick-Rise, or something labeled for use in bread machines would all be acceptable.

From the time you mix the preferment, you have committed yourself to a process that is more or less now controlled by the clock. Start to finish, this recipe will take you about 5 hours of on and off work with a little prep work for the preferment 12 hours before. So your planning step is to figure out when you want the bread to come out of the oven and work backwards to when you should mix the preferment.

Prefermentation is all about processing a fraction of the flour ahead of time to build flavor by letting the yeast do it’s thing. The process is simple. Combine the flour, water, and yeast in a container, cover the container, and let sit at room temperature for 12 hours. If your house is like mine in the winter, you will want to warm the water to just above body temperature to give the yeast a bit of a jump start.

After 12 hours, the poolish should be nice and bubbly with a smell that is a bit like yogurt.

Measure out the rest of the ingredients into a large mixing bowl. As before, if the house is on the cool side (below 70F), warm the water to about body temperature before adding. Scrape the poolish into the mixing bowl. Mix with a spoon just until everything comes together, cover with plastic film and record the mix time.

At this stage, the dough hardly looks like anything that could be formed. Don’t panic! During fermentation the dough will get folded and the dough will come together.

Fermentation is where the yeast, the enzymes in the flour, and the water work together to build the gluten matrix that will give the bread structure. It’s all about making a very open structure of air bubbles surrounded by the gluten matrix called the crumb. From the time you mix, you are going to ferment the dough for a total of 3 hours, with a folding process every 45 minutes. Thus if you mixed at 7:00am, the following is the time sequence for fermentation:

  • 7:00am - Mix
  • 7:45am - 1st fold
  • 8:30am - 2nd fold
  • 9:15am - 3rd fold
  • 10:00am - Ready to divide
The procedure for folding is the same for all three with a slight variation on the first fold. To fold, take one side of the dough and bring it to the center. Bring the opposite side over the first like you are folding a letter. Rotate 90 degrees and repeat, ending by putting the seam on the bottom. I find the first fold is easiest to do by scraping the dough out on a heavily floured work surface and doing the fold there. This also gives you the opportunity to clean the mixing bowl and oil it with some spray oil before returning the dough to the bowl.

The remaining folds can be done right in the bowl with a little oil to coat your hands. Keep the bowl covered with plastic film between folds.

NOTE - When it comes time to divide, preheat your oven to as hot as it will go. My gas oven goes to 525F but some ovens will only go to 500F. Place your baking stones or tiles on the oven rack in the middle of the oven and place the cast iron fry pan on a second rack at the bottom of the oven. At this time, the pie pan with holes should not be in the oven. You will need to preheat the oven for at least 1 hour but longer is better.

Dividing, Pre-Shaping and Resting
After fermenting for the three hours, you are ready to form your loaves. For a recipe that makes only two loaves, you can often get away with dividing by eye but if you are inclined or if you scale up the recipe to make more loaves, you will want to scale each piece to 18 oz of dough.

After dividing, the dough is formed into a pre-shape. The pre-shape starts to build tension in the dough and will lead to a nice final shape. The pre-shape for the freestanding bâtard shape is a ball.

Gently pat each piece of dough to de-gas and then fold in thirds like an old fashion letter. Rotate the dough 90 degrees and then fold again in thirds. With a rolling motion, bring the two exposed ends together so you end up with a ball of dough with a smooth and taught surface. Place seam side down on a lightly floured surface. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes.

Resting after the pre-shape gives the gluten matrix an opportunity to align to the shape you are trying to form. When the dough is rested, lightly flour a work surface and take one of the pre-shapes and flip it over so it is seam side up. Again gently pat the dough to flatten it into a round. Take and gently stretch the round into a slight oval that is about 15% longer than it is wide. Orient the dough on the work surface so the long axis points away from you.

Fold the edge furthest away form you forward so you end up 1/3 of the way down the oval and gently pat down. Avoid using your finder tips during this process. From my observation, the dimpling from using your fingertips can be one of the reasons you don’t get those nice big holes in the final loaf.

Now bring the left and right upper corners into the center, forming what looks like an inverted “V”. The bottom of the inverted “V” should be about ⅔ of the way down the original oval. Again gently pat down so the dough holds position. Fold the top of the “V” down so it comes to the bottom of the oval and again pat gently so it holds position. You should find that the dough ends up looking a bit like an elongated clam.

The next series of movements work to tightly seam the dough into a loaf. I will describe them for a right handed person. A left handed person would mirror the action working from left to right. Using the thumb of your left hand, tuck in the right end of the dough and then use the heal of your right palm to seal the top and bottom folds of dough together. If the folds are aligned, you should then be able to use the heal of your right palm and work from right to left, sealing the folds until you get to within a few inches of the left side. If they are not aligned, gently pinch the top fold with your thumb and index finger to align before sealing with the heal of your right hand. Before sealing everything off, tuck the left end in and then finish sealing.

Roll the seam under and then gently roll back and forth a couple of times to slightly lengthen and taper the ends. You may need to use a board scraper to separate the dough from the work surface, especially where you sealed the seam. Lightly spray some spray oil on a parchment covered cookie sheet. Place the loaf on about 2 inches from the short end of the cookie sheet. Repeat the process with the second piece of dough, placing it about 2 inches from the other end. There should be about 3 or so inches between the two loaves.

After shaping, the bread goes through a second fermentation called proofing. For freestanding loaves, a little support is needed. To provide the support, slide the loaves together so the parchment paper tents up in the center and then use some rolled up kitchen towels to prop up the ends of the parchment.

The loaves should end up sitting in two valleys of parchment paper so only the bottom third of the loaves are touching its parchment cradle. Cover with cling wrap and let sit in a warm area to proof.

NOTE - When it comes time to bake, you will need to score the loaves. Scoring is the way to control how the loaves expand as they bake. If not scored, the loaves will expand and crack in unexpected ways and you will end up very irregular loaves. While there are many ways to score the bread, the simplest is a score that is offset from the center of the loaf about 1 inch starting 1 inch from one end and stopping 1 inch from the other.

To make the score, take a clean razor blade and with a uniform motion make the cut, striving for a depth of about ½” at the middle of the score. If you do not have a razor blade, a very sharp knife works as well.

The bread will be ready to bake when it passes the “dimple test”. Take your finger and gently dimple the dough about ¼” deep. If the dough springs all the way back it is not ready to bake. If it springs back about half way, it is ready for the oven. If it does not spring back at all, you waited a little too long and is what is called over-proofed. All is not lost if things over-proof but the shape won’t be as nice.

When ready to bake, load the loaves into the oven in the following sequence:

  • Uncover the loaves, remove the kitchen towel supports, and spread the parchment out flat again.
  • Put 1 cup of ice cubes into the disposable pie tin and make sure the tin is within arms reach of the oven.
  • Score the loaves as outlined above.
  • Transfer your loaves to the baking stone or tiles by taking the cookie sheet, placing it at the inside most edge of the baking surface, and pulling the cookie sheet out sliding the parchment with the loaves onto the baking surface.
  • Carefully place the pie tin of ice into the hot cast iron skillet and close the door.
  • Set a timer for 23 minutes.
After about 1 or 2 minutes, you should hear hissing from the steam being generated as the ice melts. It is very important that you don’t open the oven door so the steam stays in. Once the hissing from the steam has stopped, lower the temperature of the oven to 460F. After 23 minutes, open the oven and rotate the loaves end for end to get an even bake. If there is any water left in the cast iron pan, remove the pan from the oven now. Close the oven and continue baking for another 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, check the loaves. If the crust is a little light or you want extra crunchy crust bake for another 2-3 minutes. The loaves should register an internal temperature of 200F when done.

When you take the bread out of the oven, place on some cooling racks and cover with a dry kitchen towel. As tempting as it might be to cut right into bread just out of the oven DON’T DO IT! The structure of the bread needs about 1 hour to set up as it cools. If you cut in too early, the bread will feel gummy. Patience will be rewarded.

This type of bread will be at its peak flavor about an hour or so after coming out of the oven. After that it is all down hill as the staling process takes over. If you are going to use the bread in the next 2 or 3 days, the best thing to do is just wrap it up and leave it at room temperature out of direct sunlight. I use plastic bags to keep things from drying out but this will cause the crust to get chewy. Paper bags will keep the crust of the bread but will cause it to dry out faster. If you want to keep bread longer, the best thing to do is put it unsliced in a plastic bag and freeze it. The staling process is most active between room temperature and freezing. For this reason, the worst thing to do is put the bread in the refrigerator. Happy baking.

1 comment:

ttam said...

This is the best baking write up I have read in a long time. Great job!