There are three amazing things about bread. No… Actually there are many more amazing things than just three — but these three are some of the most important ones:
First, getting started with bread and baking your first loaf is very easy.
Second, after baking that first loaf, the journey never ends. There is always something new to learn and try out.
And third, as you do explore the ideas in your home kitchen, you can get to great results that are just as good, if not better, as those made by professional bakers.
This possibility for learning and exploration is one of the key drivers behind BREAD: with the magazine, I want to give you tools and building blocks for your experiments in bread. Experimenting is fun, but without some insight into what other bakers are experimenting with and finding to be working, it can take much longer than it needs to. So, by sharing pieces of the map as I come across with them, I hope you can speed up the learning curve and get to amazing results faster.
With that in mind, I have collected fifteen of my favorite ideas for making better bread.
They are just a beginning — and many of the more advanced readers already know and use one or more of these ideas in their bread making. But I am sure that once these experienced bread heads share their ideas in the comments, we will all (myself included) be learning something new!
15 Ideas for Better Bread
- Take notes: Having a bread making diary keeps your experiments organized and helps you notice the effects small changes in recipe, fermentation time, temperature, and so on have on your bread. I don’t do this as much these days as I used to when just getting started with my bread making, but I still attribute it as one of the most efficient tools for learning I have used so far. Get a small notebook and a pen, and start writing — even if it’s just a few quick notes. It will make a big difference.
- Use a scale: If you are used to cooking by tasting the food and then throwing in ingredients according to your intuition (that’s how most of us cook, I suppose), this tip can feel strange. However, there is a good reason why it’s included in pretty much every bread making book. Bread is very sensitive to small changes in the proportions of ingredients. Sure, once you get a feel of what a good bread dough feels like, you can assess it without weighing your ingredients, but having accurate measures makes things a lot easier and keeps your results repeatable. Combined with the first idea of writing down the results of your experiments, this is a very powerful tool for learning: Measure the ingredients to the gram, writing them down in your notebook, and then, once you have the results, you can see whether this was a good formula or not. In your next bake, you then make small changes accordingly, maybe adding 50 grams of water — and when you finally reach the perfect formula, you don’t need to guess anymore. You know how much of each ingredient you need to get to results you like.
- Slow down fermentation: One of the best ways to add flavor to your bread is by slowing down fermentation. This gives the enzymes present in the dough time to do their work, breaking the starches into sugars and other flavor components. There are many ways you can do this, for example by using a pre-ferment such as poolish or biga (see our Fermentation issue for more information) but if you are new to bread, a great place to start is to simply decrease the amount of yeast to maybe half of what you would normally use and then place the shaped dough into the refrigerator to spend its final rest in a cold environment. On a cool night, the porch can work too…
- Autolyse: This technique is the closest we get to practicing magic as we bake bread (of course, it’s really all about science, but to get the great results, we can just as well think of it as magic). And it’s very simple: instead of kneading your dough, you let time do the work for you. Before adding the yeast or sourdough starter, mix flour and water and leave them to rest from 20 minutes to hours, depending on the flour you are using. One hour is usually a very good estimate. Then, when you return to your dough and add the leaven and the salt, you will notice that the dough feels like it has been kneaded. The gluten has developed without you even touching the dough!
- Fold your dough: Richard Bertinet says in his books, Dough and Crust, that he doesn’t like the word knead as it refers to beating the dough up using a lot of force. Instead, he talks about working the dough, a term he uses to describe a series of stretching and folding the dough repeatedly in order to create strength into it. The way he does this by slapping the dough onto the table is great fun, but I have found that even the slapping isn’t necessary: what really matters is that you stretch and fold the dough to align the gluten properly. When using the autolyse method, stretching the dough and folding it over itself just a few times, first right after the autolyse step and then once or twice (or more times, depending on your fermentation method) during the first rest, will do the trick. Try and mix the methods and see what sticks!
- Capture steam: Having lots of moisture in the oven during the first minutes of baking is crucial if you want to make bread that rises beautifully in the oven (this is what is known as oven spring). Many bread making books tell you to steam the oven, either by spraying water on its walls or placing a tray of water in the oven with the bread. But at least for me, moving from injecting steam to capturing steam was one of the biggest revelations in bread making and resulted in an immediate improvement in the quality of the bread I was making. I first got the idea from Tartine Bread, where Chad Robertson suggested using a combo cooker (a cast iron frying pan with a deep cast iron pan to use as its cover). This creates a closed chamber similar to a well-filled masonry oven that captures the steam escaping from the bread as it bakes. The steam then prevents the crust from developing too early and thus lets the bread keep rising as long as possible. After the first 20 minutes of baking, you then just remove the pot from the top of the pan and keep baking until you have developed a beautiful crust. But it doesn’t really have to be a cast iron combo cooker: a clay or stainless steel bowl placed upside down on top of the bread as it is baked on baking stone does a great job. Just make sure that whatever cover you use, it is big enough to fit your bread and doesn’t let the steam escape.
- Be patient: Waiting is often the hardest part in bread making. But try to be patient. Don’t hurry and skip corners, and your bread will reward you for it.
- Experiment with different flours: One of the questions I hear most often from people who are new to baking bread or haven’t yet tried it is “Does the choice of flour really make a big difference?” My answer is always yes. At first, it may look like all flour is just the same, but the more you experiment with different flour, the more you’ll see that this really isn’t the case. Some flours are great, some are not so. And all of them have unique characteristics that make the experiments fun. So, don’t settle with whatever flour you can find in your nearest supermarket. Try something different. (Stoneground flours from Bacheldre Watermill in the UK are the best I’ve tried so far…).
- Shape tight: The goal of shaping bread is to create tension on top of the bread. As Emily Buehler writes in Bread Science: “Shaping is the final chance to add strength to the dough. During shaping, the dough can be pulled tighter and tighter. Dough with a tight outer surface will take longer to rise, since more gas must be produced inside to push against the tight dough. This increases fermentation time. In addition, tightly shaped dough will hold up better than floppy dough in the oven, producing taller, rounder bread.” So, while this tip naturally doesn’t apply for all kinds of breads, in general, you shouldn’t be afraid of shaping your bread too tight. Don’t overdo it, but more often than not, beginning bakers are handling the dough too gently rather than with too much force.
- Preshape: In the spirit of the previous idea, I also suggest you do your shaping in two steps whenever possible. Roughly 20 minutes before the final shaping, shape the bread into the shape you are after. This helps you in getting the final shape right but also lets you stretch and fold the dough (gently) for a final time to give it just one more dose of strength before the final shaping.
- Use a proving basket: A proving basket, banneton or brotform as it is commonly referred to based on the French and German names, is a great tool in keeping your bread in shape while it proves. This is especially useful when slowing down the fermentation by retarding it in the refrigerator or by using a sourdough starter. And as an added bonus, using a basket gives your bread that nice finish of lines or other patterns impressed on the bread’s surface. You can also use any regular basket or bowl you have in your kitchen — just line it with a clean cloth and flour generously.
- Slash your loaves: Originally, slashing (or “scoring”) the tops of the loaves was developed as a tool for identifying the loaves belonging to different families as they were baked in a community oven. But marking, or decorating the bread is just one of the reasons why you should add this tool to your toolbox. Scoring your bread also guides the oven spring, telling the bread to which direction you want it to expand to, which in turn leads to breads with more volume and a more enjoyable internal structure.
- Add whole grains, but soak or sprout them first: Grains can give your bread a nice added texture — assuming you are like my wife and enjoy grains and seeds and not like my sons who try to pick the grains out of their slices of bread… To make the grain easier on the teeth, it’s always a good idea to soften them before using them in the dough either by soaking and then simmering them gently or sprouting for a few days. Check out the February 2013 issue for instructions.
- Make a sourdough starter: While I am not a sourdough purist, there is a good reason why different sourdough breads are considered the royalty of bread. The flavor in naturally fermented bread made with a sourdough leaven is earthy and full of character. A character I love and enjoy. So, once you feel confident — or actually, even before you do — go ahead and give sourdough baking a try. You can find my instructions for creating a sourdough starter in the (free) Fermentation issue.
- Read good books: I mentioned this in one of my earlier posts already, but this is something that I think is worth saying again. There are tens if not more great books about bread out there, and each of them give you some new ideas to experiment with.
Bonus: Have fun: Bread making is the best when it’s fun. If you feel overwhelmed by the long list of things to try, don’t worry! You don’t have to try them all at once. Pick one idea that resonates with you and give it a go. Then, if you are happy with the effect it had on your bread, keep it as a part of your process and — only then — try something else.
This way, you can keep the joy in baking. And that’s what it really is all about. Learning, joy, and connection!
And speaking of learning, I would love to hear your favorite bread making ideas. The floor is yours, so leave a comment!