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February 2013

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The Mysteries of Bread

It's been said innumerable times that bread is very forgiving. I've said it myself. What's left out is how unpredictable bread can be.

I've been baking bread for over 30 years, consistently for the past 8 years. I've used different recipes over that time, and have encountered few problems. I tried various techniques, and spent some time messing around with sourdough. That wasn't exactly a blazing success, and I gave up on it after about 6 months. Like a whole lot of other people who read Mark Bittman's NY Times article about Jim Lahey's no-knead bread recipe, I eventually settled on that. I followed the directions to the T for a few months; ultimately, though, I was neither satisfied with the results nor enamored of the technique. It seemed wrong, and ridiculously lazy, to not knead the dough at least a little bit. I started kneading just enough to get rid of the air pockets and redistribute the gluten. We're talking about 5-7 minutes throughout the entire process.

Like all good, patriotic Americans, I had always measured the ingredients by volume, but everyone from Michael Ruhlman to Alton Brown to Julia Child* has said that weighing baking ingredients is imperative for good, consistent results. I already had a kitchen scale, so I started weighing everything - flour, water, yeast, salt - using the weight of the flour as the jumping off point.

The first loaf came out fine. It had a nice texture (also known as the crumb), the right amount of little holes, and a nice crackly crust. The second loaf gave me my first discovery. I used the same amount of flour, salt and yeast, but I needed a different amount of water to get the consistency I wanted. I knew the humidity in the kitchen and outside can affect flour and dough so, while it hadn't occurred to me that this would happen, I didn't worry about it. But I realized that anyone who says weighing ingredients is faster than using volume measurements is wrong. This is particularly true with bread, because even a 1/4 teaspoon of water can take the bread from too dry to too wet. That means adding the water a few drops at a time, stirring after each addition. Also, the dough gets really sticky, which makes it harder to work with.

Things went well for a few months. Then one day, I made a loaf that came out full of holes. Not those nice little holes that are a sign of good, artisan bread. I'm talking caverns; huge holes that ran the entire length of the loaf. Where one stopped, another started with little interruption. I could have driven a Mini-cooper through those buggers. My immediate reaction was "What the hell". I knew dough can collapse if it rises for too long but, as far as I can recall, the dough sat for its normal amount of time. I just wrote it off as a fluke.

But it kept happening. After about a month (I make bread 2-3 times a week, so we're looking at between 8 and 12 loaves of bread) I was ready to lose my mind. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. Research didn't help. Every book I checked and every website I went to said the same thing - the bread had risen for too long. I tried everything I could think of to fix it. I reduced the time for each of the three rises. I increased the rise time. I stopped using aerated tap water and started using bottled water. I used less water, then more water. I changed flour. I kneaded it more. I kneaded it less. I let it rise overnight in the refrigerator. After an oven check indicated the oven was running hot, I reduced the baking temperature by 25 degrees. I used every baking vessel I could think of, from a standard loaf pan to a cookie sheet. I baked it for an additional 5 minutes. I baked it for 5 fewer minutes. I stopped pre-heating the oven to 500. Our washer and dryer are in the kitchen, and I thought maybe  the vibrations from the spin cycle were causing the dough to collapse. I was wrong about that too.

This went on for 6 months. After going over everything I had tried, I came up with one common denominator. All the ingredients had been weighed. It seemed impossible that this could be the reason, but to be sure, I switched back to volume measurements. The loaf came out fine. I did a few more that way, and there were no problems. Then I went back to measuring by weight, and I ended up with another cavern-filled loaf of bread. I went back and forth a few more times, and the results were always the same; measuring by weight produced bread with holes big enough to house the Geico cavemen and their families. Measuring by volume gave me a loaf of bread with a nice crumb and a great crust.

It makes no sense to me, but I stopped measuring my ingredients anyway. Well, I still weigh the salt because too much salt can ruin a loaf of bread. But the only time I end up with caverns is when the final rise is more than 3 hours.

*I kind of made that up. In her book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", our beloved Saint Julia provides both weight and volume measurements. She made a lot of concessions to her American audience.

Comments

That is indeed a mystery. The good thing is we now know it's better to use volume than weight measurements. Great information.