After A Year of Answering Bread Questions, My Best Advice for Bread Bakers
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About a year ago to the day, the whole world began baking bread. And as the loaves emerged, the questions followed.
In all of my years of blogging, I have never answered more questions on a single subject. And while I couldn’t always get to the bottom of why a loaf of bread didn’t turn out as expected, these various exchanges always taught me something, helped me better understand the technical aspects of the bread baking process.
Answering these questions also confirmed:
- Bread still hasn’t shaken its high-maintenance reputation. The fact that it took being locked up at home for so many people to give bread baking a go, shows that this misconception persists: bread baking requires a lot of time and attention, requires being confined for hours on end to pull off successfully.
- Baking bread continues to fill people with a sense of joy and accomplishment. Pulling a loaf of freshly baked bread out of the oven never fails to inspire wonder. Bakers derive as much happiness from baking a loaf of bread as giving one away.
To help position bread-baking as a less needy undertaking — a constant goal of mine — and to encourage people to bake on even as the world opens up, I thought I’d share are some of the tips and ideas I’ve found myself reiterating time and again this past year.
10 Tips for Bread Bakers
- The refrigerator is your best friend. The biggest tip I have for the many people who still feel they can’t work bread-baking into their very busy schedules is to use the fridge. At any point of the bread-baking process — after you mix the dough, after it’s made one rise, after it’s made two rises, after it’s been shaped and transferred to its baking vessel — bread dough can be transferred to the fridge, and it can hang out there for a long time (days even, depending on the dough). Note: Dough should be stored in an airtight container in the fridge to ensure a crust does not form on the dough.
- A scale continues to be essential. I once only felt strongly about using a scale for flour and other dry ingredients, but I now encourage bakers to weigh everything — the flour, salt, liquids, etc. Using a scale ensures you are following a recipe precisely. It also allows you to troubleshoot and make adjustments in a meaningful way.
- A big part of making a good loaf of bread comes down simply to using the right amount of salt given the amount of flour you are using by weight. It’s like anything: bread has to be well seasoned. At a minimum, use 10 grams of salt for every 500 grams of flour. (I like to use more.)
- A big part of making good bread comes down simply to using the right amount of water given the amount of flour you are using by weight. Depending on the flour you are using and your environment, and depending on the type of bread you are making, the appropriate amount of water will vary. And it may take some trial and error to get right. A scale will make the trial and error process go more quickly.
- If you get #3 and #4 right, you’re 80% of the way to making a great loaf of bread.
- Be nimble: there is no foolproof bread recipe. Try as I might over the years to make bread baking as foolproof as possible, I’m realizing it’s a lost cause. What works for me in my environment, might not work for you, even if we are using the exact same brands of ingredients and the exact same measurements. Moreover, what works for me perfectly one month, may not work perfectly the next. As the seasons change, flours change, environments change. You have to go into bread baking with a willingness to make adjustments even to the recipes you are closest with. A scale makes adjusting easy. I am constantly tweaking my bread recipes, changing ratios, playing with different methods, and I encourage others to do the same.
- Focaccia, yeast-leavened or sourdough, is the best bread recipe for beginners, for a few reasons, namely: it requires no special equipment, it requires no tricky shaping technique, it requires no scoring. With focaccia, if you have a 9×13-inch baking pan and your finger tips (for dimpling), you’re good to go.
- Sourdough can be simple and delicious and made without an autolyse or preferment or levain. My biggest tips for having success with sourdough include:
- It starts with your starter. Be sure it is strong and active before mixing a loaf of dough.
- Use a straight-sided vessel to ensure your dough does not over ferment during the bulk fermentation. Stop the bulk fermentation when your dough has increased in volume by 50-75% (as opposed to when it doubles).
- Cold proof for at least 24 hours before baking.
- Stop buying commercial whole wheat flour. If nutrition is the goal, there is little point in using commercial whole wheat flour. To truly add a boost of nutrition to your breads, use stone-milled flours. (Read more about stone-milled flour here.) Keep in mind, the more stone-milled flour you use in your breads, the less light and airy the crumb will be. Keep in mind, too, a little stone-milled flour goes a long way in terms of imparting flavor, color, and aroma.
- A simple trick for getting a more open crumb? It’s all in the shaping. Instead of shaping a round, shape a batard. I have no idea why this works, but it does. Watch the video below:
Friends what have you learned about bread baking this year? I’d love to hear your biggest revelations or tips or advice for other bread bakers.
PPS: Find all of my favorite bread recipes right here → Favorite Bread Recipes
5 Secrets to Foolproof Bread Baking
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