COVER STORY: Food
A good bread dough should be firm, with good elasticity.
Photograph by: Émy Charest, The Gazette
MONTREAL – Nothing is simpler than bread: flour, yeast, water and a dash of salt. Yet nothing seems scarier to most people than making bread at home.
The reality, of course, is somewhere in between. It is easy to make bread. But it is much harder to make really great bread. That requires practice, patience and a good sense of observation.
This summer I attended the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, Maine — a two-day event entirely dedicated to the vast world of artisanal baking. More than 250 people were present at this conference — established in 2007 by the Maine Grain Alliance to foster local grain economies and artisanal breadmaking — to hone their baking skills, for professional or home use. Experienced home bakers and new enthusiasts were constantly finding ideas to improve their skills and techniques, reinforcing the notion that even after years of doing it, you can always improve.
With practice, baking can bring a lifetime of wonder and pleasure. For home bakers (like me), getting a new batch ready is life-affirming.
“Isn’t it wonderful that something so simple can become so complex?” says James MacGuire, once owner of Montreal restaurant Passe-Partout and one of the great authorities on baking in North America. MacGuire’s workshop was a highlight of the Kneading Conference.
“There’s always something to wonder about,” he says. “I went through a divorce and a bankruptcy, and what kept me going was the next batch.”
Without necessarily becoming a lifetime discipline, baking can certainly be a highly satisfying craft. Here are a few tips for helping your dough rise and your crust get crispy.
Don’t panic. Don’t expect to make the perfect baguette on your first try — baguettes are actually one of the toughest breads to make successfully. It takes practice to feel comfortable with the various steps in bread recipes (pre-fermentation, raising the dough, kneading, etc.). Find a recipe you’re comfortable with and start with something easy, like pizza dough.
Watch your bread. A recurring piece of advice at the Kneading Conference was simple: “Remember, folks, you gotta watch your bread,” as one of the instructors put it. Recipes give precise timelines, but these can be affected by various factors — if it’s hot and humid or cold and dry, if you changed your flour, if your yeast culture is more or less energetic. Instructors often repeated that by looking, touching and tasting, you’ll learn to know if the dough is rising well, if it needs more or less time in the oven, and so forth. Blindly following recipes can create problems. Take notes from batch to batch, to better understand and improve your skills.
All flours are not the same. Don’t think that all flours are created equal. The type of wheat (or other grains), the milling and the age of the grains can all affect flour’s behaviour when you decide to turn it into bread. Some absorb more water, some less, some have more taste, others more structure (due to the amount of gluten). When you find one that suits you, stick with it to eliminate one set of variables and make batches more predictable.
MacGuire also points out that our flours suffer from the North American tendency to think that bigger is always better. Bread flours in Canada contain up to 16 per cent protein, he explains, while a French bread flour would have only around 9.5 per cent. Proteins create structure, but too much protein “is like using steel girders to hold up a Victorian house: it’s too heavy,” he says.
His advice is to use all-purpose flour instead of bread flour, so that the dough is more flexible and rises better. “A dough with too much protein is like a clenched muscle: it won’t rise as well, and because of that, it won’t cook as well, so you’ll have a heavy bread and your crust will likely soften after baking.”
Find a bread and a method that works for you. Whole-wheat levain giving you trouble? How about making a San Francisco sourdough? There are innumerable variations in bread recipes and approaches: rye bread, whole wheat, white flour, minimal or heavy kneading, recipes using dry active yeast or levain, ones with added butter, milk or eggs, different shapes and weights, and so on. Different bakeries are renowned for different breads, so it can be the same thing at home: Maybe your brioche will be better than your rye sourdough. Exploring bread’s diversity should be easier if you start by establishing a comfort zone.
Get your oven stoned. When artisanal bakers make bread in big stone or brick ovens, they benefit from the oven’s huge thermal mass. To get your home oven a bit closer to that, put a bread or pizza stone on the oven rack. “You need the sudden heat from the bottom to make the bread rise. It’s hugely important,” MacGuire says. To benefit from that heat, you should slide your loaf-to-be directly on the stone. To make it easier, put your loaf on parchment paper as it rises on a cookie sheet, and then slide the paper and loaf on the stone. Also, put a pan of water in the oven: steam allows the dough to expand before its outside dries and forms the crust.
Pre-fermentation rules! While it is entirely possible to make bread with packages of active dry yeast, your bread will be significantly more interesting and tasty if you make it with a pre-ferment, which creates a more complex brew of yeasts and friendly lactic bacteria. Pre-fermentation, whatever its form (poolish, sponge, sourdough starter, biga), gives the bread an exciting, tangy taste and provides it with a number of other qualities, including the capacity to keep for several days. (For a method to create your own starter, see the sidebar.)
Have fun. Whether you just make an occasional pizza or weekly batches of batards and brioches, and whatever your explorations may be in the world of bread and fermentations, do try to enjoy yourself. “The process is reasonably forgiving,” MacGuire says, so don’t be too hard on yourself.