I had been baking bread for years, on and off, with somewhat limited success. For a while I owned a bread maker and tried to convince myself that the resulting loaves where both tasty and healthy when they were really just crumbly and horrible. At other times the bread I made was flat and flaccid with none of the deep flavour and crispy crust I loved about artisan bread. Obviously, I was doing it all wrong but I didn’t know what, why and where to start to change that deplorable situation.
This all started to change when Mr. Stephenson called one day on the telephone and informed me that he had found a small place in Little Italy that was selling baker’s yeast and whether I wanted to accompany him for the purchase. Sure thing, I thought and when I returned home with a sample of the fabled Italian yeast I went to work and started researching what makes good bread.
Mr Stephenson, who drives a fast car, sometimes scoffs about my obsession with time. Time, for me, is a frequently overlooked but absolutely essential ingredient to many foods and has the ability to transform the mediocre into the outstanding.
Time, a good friend to people like us, is also the enemy of the food industry. Time, as we all know, is money and as a result many foods manufactured industrially have taken the results of time and tried to replicate them with chemicals, with flavour enhancers, artificial flavours, colourings, extra fat, extra salt, modified this and modified that.
The food industry has two goals: Manufacture food quickly, then make sure it has a long shelf life. Both of these needs are the antithesis of good food and thankfully we can bypass them entirely.
When it comes to bread, this is what I had always been doing: Take flour, water, a little salt, a little sugar. Mix, rise, deflate, rise, bake. The rise, I had been told, needed to happen in a warm place to get the yeast to work, so was the sugar.
My first mistake
What I have been finding out is that the above method has a snowball’s chance in hell to produce good bread. The magic ingredient, time, is missing entirely and the flour has no chance at all to release it’s flavours. The yeast feeds on the first food that’s available, the sugar, and leaves the wheat or rye alone.
What I do now, apart from frequently using sourdough starters, is give the dough time to work, give the yeast an incentive to interact with the ingredients. I use little yeast, in a cold environment, over a long time. Almost all of the bread I am baking starts life in the refrigerator, where the yeast will go to work very slowly, but with mouthwatering results.
Because I add no sugar, the yeast needs to look for nourishment elsewhere, and as a result the sugar in the grain itself gets used as fuel, breaking down the cell structure and creating depth of flavour. Many people we talk to don’t like to acknowledge the idea that the food we create is made with the generous help and support of many species of micro-organisms. Too many commercials telling them to disinfect their kitchens have done their work, hammering into their heads the message that bacteria are a bad thing and that a sterile environment is something to strive for.
This of course is absolute nonsense. While we do keep our kitchens clean, botulism is no joke, we also understand the symbiotic relationship us humans have with bacteria and other micro-organisms such as yeast, wild and otherwise. Our entire digestive system relies on the help of tribes of friendly bacteria to work and anybody who has ever taken antibiotics knows that kick-starting intestinal flora with a generous supply of yoghurt is a very good thing indeed.
What we do when we bake bread is to create a habitat that the kind of organisms we’d like to move in will find inviting. A bread dough provides shelter and food for yeasts, and in return we get flavour and rise. Not a bad exchange, especially as we’ll be killing off the entire yeast population during the baking process.
My second mistake
Most cheap bread baking machines don’t reach a temperature anywhere high enough to create a decent loaf. Baking bread needs high temperatures, 500º, with the addition of steam to create a crispy crust. Steam can be added in several ways. Commercial bread ovens inject steam at high temperatures. We can mimic that effect by keeping a pan at the bottom of the oven and filling it with hot water at the beginning of the bake. Then get a spray bottle and spray the walls of the oven to create an instant moist environment.
The drawback to this is potential mess and, especially of you’ve got an electric oven, the obvious disadvantages of mixing water with electricity. I own a very simple gas oven, so don’t have to face these issues, but I would be most cautious with a domestic electric model.
Thankfully there is a solution to this dilemma and it has changed the way I bake for the better. It is called a cloche, an unglazed ceramic bowl with a matching ceramic plate underneath. The cloche re-creates the environment we’d find in an old wood fired brick oven, or a steam injected bakery oven and loaves come out perfectly crisp, every time. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
I’ll be posting more about my personal bread making discoveries as I make them. Stay tuned.