Nonfiction

Science or Art?

7 May 2019

I borrowed the River Cottage Bread Handbook (highly recommend) from family friends about a year and a half ago, read it near cover to cover, and started baking. Since then I have made a name for myself amongst friends and family as the bread guy, bringing fresh bread to picnics and potlucks, or making mouthwatering focaccia when hosting a barbecue.

I’ve often heard baking likened to a science. Where cooking is an art, full of inspiration, innovation, and improvisation, baking is different; there must be exact measurements, careful mixing, and precise temperatures. I find baking a lot like mathematics: the foundation is exact, very scientific, starting with very specific amounts of flour, water, yeast, and salt. But beyond that it becomes an art: feeling when the dough is properly kneaded, judging the rise, coercing it into specific shapes, and finally the baking, not a controlled spring but a desperate hope the bread will puff up and form a crisp crust and light, airy crumb.

There can be a lot of science that goes into cooking; Heston Blumenthal’s molecular gastronomy is a great example of just how far, and ridiculous, that can go. However, any bread recipe that calls for water that is 23˚C and specifies rising to the minute not the appearance or feeling is losing understanding for precision. While such measurements will work, and if followed exactly will produce good bread, any deviation or human error may careen out of control as such recipes allow for little judgement and recovery, teaching you to do without thought. Understanding when dough is well kneaded, risen, or proofed, and when loaves are well baked by your own senses frees you to experiment and take risks. You could be out camping, carefully stretching the gluten from your chair, kneading it in the air like wringing a teatowel, later putting the loaf in a hot casserole pot to bake in the campfire.

So, get to know the feeling of the dough as it is kneaded, the stickiness before and silkiness at the end, the spring of well-proofed loaves, and the hollow sound of a well-cooked loaf. Practice the art and skill, with feeling trumping precision. Then experiment, try some other flours, add some fruit and nuts, spread dough out on an oiled tray, let it rise, push deep holes in the risen dough, and sprinkle with flaky salt, rosemary, and olive oil, then bake for fresh focaccia. For other flours, I love spelt, the same ancient grain the Romans baked with. It needs a bit more kneading due to a lower gluten content, but gives a lovely, flavoursome brown loaf that is perfect for winter soups. Rye is another option, but by itself the low gluten content forms a hard, uncooperative, sticky dough. Fortunately, the dough doesn’t benefit much from kneading so only needs kneading until thoroughly mixed. Then flour the loaves well and don’t slash as the bread barely rises but cracks attractively while proofing and baking. You can even try sourdough, catching local wild yeast and lactobacilli bacteria in a cultured starter to provide your own rising agent, with the added benefit of longer shelf life and a taste unique to your starter.

There’s a great rustic pleasure in baking bread, so let’s look at how.

Recipe

Ingredients: Makes two large or three medium loaves

1kg flour + 2 handfuls for coating (or other extras instead)

600g warm liquid (usually water, but could be cider, milk, or even yoghurt)

10g dry yeast

20g salt

Optional:

Some oil or fat (a good slug)

2 handfuls of extras (nuts, seeds, fruit)

Note the proportions, as most bread is made not by a specific amount, but taking a percentage of the weight of the flour as guides for the other ingredients. The flour is 100%, then 60% of that weight in water, 1% in dry yeast, and 2% in salt is a good guide. Some flours or loaves like ciabatta need more water.

Plain flour can be used, but a higher gluten content white bread flour, which contains about 12% protein, will work better for white bread. However, I recommend starting with wholemeal (brown) wheat flour before attempting white bread flour or other grains. White bread is one of the hardest loaves to get right as small mistakes are much more noticable and a light, delicate crumb is essential. Other grains such as rye or spelt give great flavour, but their lower gluten content can leave them dense and difficult to work.

A nice mix of seeds, nuts, or fruit can be added to the dough and used to coat the loaves. Oil is handy during the rising stage and can be added to the dough when mixing to prolong the life of the bread, as well as adding some flavour.

Instructions

Mix the flour, yeast, and salt in a large mixing bowl, then add the water and mix by hand (they won’t stay clean) to a slightly sticky, combined dough. If using small extras or oil, add those now and give a good mix. Larger extras are added at the end of kneading. Turn the dough out onto a clean bench; it will stick a bit to the bench but that helps your kneading. If overly sticky add some more flour.

To knead, push the fingers of one hand into the bread about a third of the way along it, then push the dough down and away with the heel of the other hand. You are stretching and developing the gluten membrane that keeps gas in and allows your bread to rise. Gather the bread back together, turn it and repeat, kneading it for about 10 minutes, by which point it should be smooth. With white flour it feels almost silky at this point, and much less sticky. If you’re unsure, stretch the dough apart whilst holding it up; you should see a thin membrane that easily lets light through.

Next, form the dough into a round by placing it smooth side down, pushing it down flat and roughly circular. Then fold in the top edge to the middle, rotating it by a small amount (1/6 to 1/8 of a revolution is good) and folding down the top edge again until you’ve gathered all the edges in the middle. Flip the rough ball over, and, with mostly flat hands, gently squeeze in the bottom, where all the flaps you just folded come together.

Lightly flour OR oil the dough and place it in a clean mixing bowl at least twice as big as the dough. Cover with a damp tea towel or wrap the bowl in a clean bin bag and leave in a warm spot (your bench should be fine) to rise until it is about doubled in size. This can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half.

Once it has doubled in size turn it out onto the bench and prod it down firmly but gently with your fingers. You may form a round again and let it rise up to three more times to develop better gluten structure and flavour, or split it up and form it into loaves to proof.

Once you are done letting it rise, divide the dough into roughly equal parts. Our measurements can make two large or three medium loaves, or many rolls. Then form them into rounds (or another shape, get inspired!) and coat them with a good dusting of flour or wet them in a bowl of water and roll them in your extras to cover them. Next, leave them covered on a floured board to proof until roughly doubled in size, feeling puffy and springing back into shape when gently squeezed. This takes between one and four hours. I’ve found it better to err on the side of overproofing rather than putting them in the oven early; a little overproofing gives lovely large air holes, and a lot gives a slightly collapsed loaf.

Before they are finished proofing, preheat the oven to 250˚C or as high as it will go with a heavy-bottomed tray in the bottom and a tray in the middle with good clearance above it and enough space for the loaves. I find two large loaves easier to fit in a 60cm oven than three medium. Shortly before the bread is done proofing, boil a kettle of water and grab a sharp serrated knife.

Once the proofing is finished take the middle tray out of the oven, carefully lift up the bread and place it on the tray, then gently slash the tops with the serrated knife. Cutting between one and two centimetres deep, the slashes should open nicely if the bread is properly proofed. Slashes control rising and provide a nice bit of decorative contrast with your coating. Then, working quickly to keep the oven as hot as possible, put the tray with bread back in the oven and pour boiling water into the bottom tray to create a good amount of steam.

After 10 minutes, check on the bread. If it still seems very pale, turn it down to 200˚C; if it is browning quickly take it down to 170˚C; otherwise bring it down to about 180˚C. In total, large loaves will need around 45 minutes, medium around 35, and rolls around 15, each give or take five minutes. They are done when the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the base, though an extra 10 minutes rarely hurts, at worst giving a thicker crust.

Let the bread cool on a wire rack, it’s still cooking and releasing a lot of steam. You may tear it while warm, but let cool completely before slicing it with a good serrated knife.

Now go on and get baking, it’s great for pouring all your worries into, or to put breaks into your study as you check its rising. Best of all, at the end you get a fresh loaf, with full knowledge of everything that went into it.


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