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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bread Science

Malted milk buns
I love baking bread. Many find it intimidating, but in reality, it is one of the more forgiving things one can undertake. Unlike pastry baking, you can pretty much improvise, and something edible and delicious will come out on the other side. You may never be able to replicate it again if you're not careful about note taking - but even with notes, you may not be able to replicate it exactly either, as is the wont of fermented foods. Treat it like an enjoyable summer fling.

At its most basic, you only need four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. Well, not that really. There are versions of bread with no salt (Tuscan bread, which has split critics), bread unleavened or chemically leavened, and even bread with no flour. Varying how these ingredients are mixed, incubated, and baked pretty much accounts for most varieties of bread, from pita to fougasse. And ultimately, whether you're doing something "right" or not is entirely a matter of tradition.

For many, the entry to breadmaking will be the "no knead" bread recipe popularized by Jim Lahey. There are now numerous variations of this recipe posted all over the internet, but the basic idea is to have a very high hydration dough, with a small amount of yeast, and a long incubation time.  The point of kneading is to develop gluten, but it turns out that given enough time and water, autolysis will take care of gluten formation for you. Plus, the added benefit of long rises produced a wonderful flavor profile.

The other trick comes in the baking technique. The no-knead bread is baked in a hot heavy pot for 30 minutes, and the last 15-30 minutes with the lid off. When a high hydration dough hits a hot oven (and you need a really hot oven), the water inside the dough starts to turn into steam, and form the bubbles inside the bread. However, the heat of the oven will also cook the surface of the loaf to form the crust, and this can impede the expansion of the bubbles for that open crumb highly prized in rustic breads. The key is steam - professional baguette bakeries employ ovens that inject steam into the oven at the start of the baking process, and the sealed pot replicates this process. The steam slows down the crust formation so that the crumb bubbles can form. The lid is taken off to allow the steam to dissipate - the dry heat will continue to set the crust, and lowered moisture will encourage the Maillard reaction that results in the delicious browning.

This is all right for things like boules or large loaves, but presents a larger challenge when one is making smaller items like buns. For those, I have learned that brushing on a generous layer of milk just prior to baking slows down the crust formation long enough, and also creates a beautiful brown coat from the cooked milk. I'm leaving room to experiment with alternate flours and flour admixes, which I hope to report in the future. Here are some other observations I've already made:

  • All purpose flour makes perfectly acceptable bread, if bread flour isn't available. 
  • You can buy gluten as "bread enhancer" to add to AP flour and increase its elasticity.
  • You can replace the water with any number of liquids. Adding dairy into the dough softens it. Yogurt bread is like a gentler cousin to sourdough. 
  • You don't have to be too strict about the rising times. Some doughs can be stuck in the fridge for a week, and still bake up fine. Do allow it time to come to room temperature and a second rise before baking, though. 
  • High hydration doughs make excellent pizzas. And those can be baked on a grill. 

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