Sunday, January 11, 2009

Advances in baking technique

I've been doing substantially more baking than I've posted about here--mainly French country loaves--and I think I've got a handle on the basics and am ready to start refining my methodology. I still haven't gotten the really airy crumb professional bakers get in those $5 loaves so I've been looking up tips that might improve matters in that direction. I recognize that my profound disinclination to knead wet loaves by hand is probably a limiting factor but I found some interesting tips, mostly from here that I want to give a try.

First off, I'm now measuring my ingredients by weight and aiming at specific levels of hydration that should give me predictable textures in the resulting dough. It doesn't actually work, but at least I'm limiting my variables so I can figure out why it's not working. For this loaf I'm using 450 grams of flour (including a quarter cup of whole wheat and a quarter cup of rye which is probably why it didn't work) and 270 grams of water aiming at 60% hydration. Obviously that's not a real hydration level; that's a "baker's percentage" that uses simple observables. Some recipes use volumes, but most agree we're talking about weights. Sixty percent is right at the dry limit for bread so why I got a wet slumpy dough, I dunno.

Next I changed the way I mix my flour and water together. I generally just dump everything in the mix and let it spin for a few seconds to get everything incorporated but there's a better way. You start with a wide shallow bowl, preferably a wooden one that's been used for mixing and rising dough for at least a generation, put in the water and then add the flour a handful at a time, stirring it in with wide sweeping spoon-stokes "whipping" the dough to develop the gluten. No, I don't know who I'm quoting there but the page I got it from had it in quotes so I presume it's baking jargon even though I don't see it anywhere else. Why developing the gluten now instead of five minutes from now during the kneading could possibly make any difference I don't know either. Maybe that whipping stretches out long strands of gluten that get wadded up during all of the punching and folding and such during kneading proper?

The yeast went into that mix too, but not the salt and not the old dough I kept from the previous loaf (which contains salt). Salt, I read, tightens gluten so you want to wait until you've kneaded a bit before incorporating it. And if you're going to stop in the middle of kneading you may as well go for a full autolyse--a twenty minute pause to let the flour absorb more water (although it seems a pause before any kneading would make more sense) and to let the gluten relax (although a pause after kneading and before forming into a loaf would make more sense). I just took a look around and most pages do the autolyse after mixing and before kneading, although if you use the whip method the distinction isn't a strong one. I found that the dough starting climbing the dough hook in the mixer almost immediately so I had plenty of gluten formed before I did any kneading at all.

One more thing that I've done for a few loaves now is to stretch and fold the dough instead of punching it down in between the first and second rise. This doesn't pop as many bubbles so it lets some grow larger. If you're making a sandwich bread punching would be better but I don't make sandwiches too often so that's not what I'm going for usually. I've just come across an interesting suggestion here to do 4-6 folds over the course of one long rise instead. I may try that next time. I do need to figure out a better place for that to happen, though. I've been using a deep plastic bucket but it's hard to get the dough out without deflating it unless I line it parchment paper which gets all crumpled up causing a different set of problems as I tranfer the dough. If I leave the dough freeform on a flat sheet of parchment paper it doesn't rise so much as spread. Maybe I need to get back to that wide shallow bowl I mentioned earlier to split the difference.

But that's next time; how did this loaf turn out? I think there's a small but noticable improvement in the crumb. I've had large holes before but this is the first time when I've had real cavities form. (Not that you can see them in the picture.) I think I'll keep the autolyse and the late incorporation of salt but ditch the whipping. That seems mainly a way of reducing kneading time by disguising some of it as mixing. But since it's a machine, not me, doing the mixing I don't care so much.

I'll get back to you on the multi-fold method and how that works.

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