Baking / Recipes

A Small Victory

The weather in St. Louis last week was incredible for February. The temperature rarely dropped below fifty and it was sunny and gorgeous outside. Things that I’d forgotten that I’d enjoyed: running outside in shorts (as opposed to fifteen layers of clothes) and driving with the windows down. I haven’t owned a car since 2000, and while I would rather not have to drive at all, if I am going to drive, I’m gonna do it with the windows down.

Anyways, suffice to say I spent a lot of time over the last few days pretending like it was summer vacation and not doing a lot of cooking. At the risk of this becoming an all baking blog, I’ve had a small victory with the bread making that I wanted to share. As I mentioned last week, my first attempt at cold fermentation baking resulted in lack-luster results. The bread came out just fine, but didn’t really have that OMFG effect that I’m looking for. The bread that I made this weekend isn’t there yet either, but I’ve made big strides in the right direction.

By St. Louis Food Photographer Jonathan Gayman

I recently picked up a copy of Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day which advocates the cold fermentation method of breadmaking: low yeast, long rise as opposed to lots of yeast and a short rise. The idea is that the longer the amount of time for rising, the more deep and complex the flavor will be.

As I said, my first batch of Reinhart bread was underwhelming. My second batch, however, is head and shoulders above the other loaves that I have made thus far and I can certainly see the potential in this method. As soon as the loaf came out of the oven I knew it was different. As it cooled I could tell that there was air pockets trapped between the crust and the crumb, giving it that real bakery feel when poked with a finger. And it only got better when I took the plunge and cut it open. In short, I knew I had scored a small baking victory when I cut open my loaf and found that instead of the dense, even crumb that I was used to in previous attempts, I had a light and airy crumb with all sorts of uneven sized holes (which is exactly that I was shooting for). Even more exciting is that the crumb has the best “custard” texture of any bread that I have made. This means that the crumb is moist and almost dissolves in your mouth.

By St. Louis Food Photographer Jonathan Gayman

Here are a few things I fixed this time around:

  1. I used a few tablespoons of water beyond what the recipe called for. I’m thinking that in future I’ll experiment with adding even more and see where that gets me. My apartment seems to be very dry, so the added moisture helped with the dough consistency.
  2. I finally broke down and bought a cheap scale, so I did all of the measurements by weight rather than by measuring. I don’t know if this made a huge difference but it certainly seemed scientific.
  3. I followed the recipe more carefully, and allowed the dough time to rest before doing the final mixing and putting it in the fridge.
  4. And I realized that Reinhart uses instant yeast and I used regular old active dry yeast. I found hidden on an introductory page the note that if you use active dry yeast instead of instant you’ll need to add about 25% more. I’m sure this made a difference as well.
  5. I remembered to slash the loaf before baking, giving all of that water and air somewhere to go.

More experimentation is needed of course. For example, I’ve only been able to make this latest batch of dough work using my banneton bread basket to keep the shape. Wet dough is extremely difficult to work with, so I’m dubious about my attempts to make batards and, dare I say, baguettes. The dough seems too flexible to keep it’s shape and kinda flops out flat on my board. There is a technique to shaping each type of loaf which I guess just requires practice.

More food other than bread tomorrow, I promise.

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