Sunday, June 8, 2008

Basic bread tutorial

While I have been following bread recipes for many, many years, I have also been through several periods of making up my own. The best bread is usually made from just flour, water, salt, and yeast, and once you have a good technique, you don't really need a recipe any more. Good bread is really much more dependent on technique.

The amounts given will be for two loaves, with the amounts for three loaves in parentheses, and six loaves in brackets. Keep in mind that these amounts are not exact - it's not important to be perfectly precise. Start with 1.5 (2.25) [4.5] cups warm, wrist-temperature water. Add about .75 - 1 tsp (1.25 tsp) [2.5 tsp] active dry yeast, and wait until the yeast activates, about 5-10 minutes. Add just enough flour to absorb into all the yeast, to make a sort of batter or very wet dough. Set aside for about 20 minutes, to allow the flour to hydrate, and the yeast to start its work before adding salt, which acts as a retardant for yeast. After 20 minutes, add about 1.5 tsp (2 tsp) [4 tsp] salt and mix in. Add more flour as necessary until you get a very wet dough. You want it to hold together, and to stick to your fingers, but not so wet that you can't handle it at all. It takes some practice to learn the right amount of hydration. Mix or knead the dough for a good 10-15 minutes.

Let the dough rise in a large bowl, covered, for several hours. For the first two or three hours, you will want to fold the dough every 30-45 minutes, for a total of 2-4 times. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a well-floured counter-top. Flatten it, then fold it as follows: fold the top part down to the middle, fold the right side into the middle, then the bottom part up, and the left part over. Fold the dough in half again if necessary, then form into a ball and place back into the large bowl and cover. When you're done with the folding, allow the dough to rise undisturbed.

If you want to let it rise overnight or even up to 24 hours, place it in the fridge AFTER you're done folding, then remove it about 30 minutes to an hour before you are ready to proceed.

Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a well-floured surface. Shape it into a ball by stretching it and pulling the edges down to the bottom, then tucking them under the ball. The idea is to create surface tension, which will prevent the wet dough from just flattening out. Here's what it should look like. If you're making a baguette or torpedo-shaped loaf, you should then elongate the ball (I didn't take a picture). Cover it with a towel and let it rest about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to at least 425.

Turn the ball of dough over so the smooth side is down, and flatten it into a rectangle, like so:

Fold the bottom third of the rectangle up, like you're folding a business letter:

Fold the top third down (again - like a business letter):

Use the side of your hand to press the dough along the center to seal it, and to form an indentation along the length of the loaf.

Fold the dough in half along in the indentation, and use your hand to seal it together into a long, skinny loaf. This isn't a very good picture, but you can get the idea:

Make sure the loaf is well sealed. Tuck the ends under, if necessary, to get a nice, smooth, round end. Space the loaves evenly on a sheet of parchment paper, cover them with a towel, and let rise for 30-60 minutes.

After the bread has risen, slash it with a VERY sharp knife or a razor. Make three slashes at an extreme diagonal - don't just go horizontally across the loaf. The slashes will expand in the oven and let your bread rise when it is exposed to the extreme heat. It will rise quickly, and the length of the slashes will allow the crumb to become light and holey.

Slip the bread into the oven and bake for 30-45 minutes, rotating half-way through if it is not baking evenly. If you tap the bread, it will sound hollow when it is done. Because my oven does not do a great job of creating a crispy crust, I have tried various tricks to achieve it. This last time, I turned on the broiler for the last couple minutes to really brown the crust. Let the bread cool on a rack.

Enjoy! Especially with homemade butter!


CalCandide said...

Should I cut the bread into two or three sections before forming it into a ball to rest on the counter?

sunflowerchilde said...

Yes, you should divide it first, then let it rest.