Lessons from bread-making

As those of you who read my most recent post know, I’ve decided to learn how to bake bread. Like, really bake bread. I am determined to learn how to bake the shit out of bread. I shall walk the mysterious connections of gluten networks. The secrets of why bread rises shall soon be mine!

To aid me in my quest, I purchased a book called Flour Water Salt Yeast which, I trust, shall unfold to me the mysteries of the wild yeasts. This tome is at pains to teach the discipline of bread-baking: the precision of temperature, time, and ingredient amounts and quality. I have made three recipes from this book so far, and in this post, I’m going to share with you some of the sacred tenets of this book, as well as what my experience so far has taught me, all without violating copyright. Behold:

Good baking requires precision.

The book is very clear about this. For example: from the get-go, the author, Ken Forkish, makes clear that there shall be no namny-pamby volume measurements in his book. “Seven cups of flour”? What kind of measurement is that?! Perhaps your flour is affected by any one of a thousand circumstances that can make the difference of several grams between your seven cups of flour and my seven cups of flour! Therefore, measurements shall be given in proper grams, the culinary measurement preferred by reasonable people throughout the rest of the world. Only in America, where people still drive their cars on the wrong side of the road and drink light beer, could the vagaries of standard units be tolerated!

(Or so I imagine Ken’s thinking went.)

Fortunately, at this point Ken Forkish’s American editor stepped in and told him to include standard measurements or else his royalty would be converted from dollars to crates of Miller Lite. Therefore, the book begrudgingly includes the number of cups of flour that you need.

On my first recipe, a white bread, I tried to atone for my heinous lack of a kitchen scale by following those measurements exactly: fluffing my flour as per instructions, leveling each cup off with a knife, and getting so anxious and worked up about it that I lost count around the sixth-ish cup and had to re-measure everything.

I breathlessly added water and combined the two, noting with dread that the mixture seemed woefully underhydrated. My dad looks on from the background. “You need more water,” he said.

“But I followed the measurement exactly!” I returned. “This has to be right. I was precise.

“It’s too dry,” Dad said, pointing out the obvious. “Add more water.”

“No,” I said. “I can’t just add water. I measured everything exactly. YOU CAN’T JUST ADD WATER.”

Dad walked over and calmly dumped in a few teaspoons of water.

“There,” he said. “Try that.”

I tried it.

It worked.

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Precision requires a kitchen scale.

Success notwithstanding, I determined that I absolutely must purchase a kitchen scale. Because what, after all, is success when compared to doing things right?

I combed through online reviews to find a digital that combined quality with low cost, and found a lovely decent one for $18 on Amazon. I ordered it. It arrived. I excitedly took it out and started on a new batch of bread. I went to measure the flour, and…

…the scale returned a number that wasn’t anywhere close to where it should have been.

And as I watched, grams kept dropping off.

The scale was clearly mad.  My dad inspected it. My mom inspected it. Lacking calibration weights, we tested it using cans of soup, cans of cat food, and cans of artichoke hearts. It failed every test.

Disappointed but optimistic, I filled out a return form on Amazon and requested a new scale of the same type. It arrived a few days later, and filled with hope, I broke out the cat food, the soup, and the artichoke hearts, and breathlessly placed them on the scale.

This one, too, was bonkers. But a different kind of bonkers. It didn’t change weight, like the other one. It simply refused to acknowledge that it was weighing anything, unless quite a lot of weight was on it.

My mom, my dad, and I all stared at the scale. What were the chances that we would get two malfunctioning scales right in a row? And each malfunctioning in its own special way?

We stared some more.

And finally, my dad said, “Maybe if we took the lid off.”

Yeah. That worked.

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Dough temperature is crucial.

According to Forkish, the temperature of the dough when you let it do its bulk fermentation (i.e.: when you’ve finished mixing everything and are prepared to let it sit for several hours) can make the difference between OK bread and YOWZA bread. The variation of a single degree Fahrenheit (because apparently Fahrenheit is fine, even if cups have been exiled) can change the world, at least as the world pertains to your bread.

Just FYI, I haven’t, even one single time, managed to come within five degrees of the optimal dough temperature.

It still works.

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Real bakers know the difference between pizza and foccacia

Tell me, what is the difference between a white pizza, and a thin foccacia topped with cheese and herbs?

Oh, you don’t know? YOU PLEBIAN.

I’m pretty sure this is actually a trick question. I believe this because I used half of one of the white bread recipes for pizza dough. I made two pizzas, using nothing but the oven and some cast iron cookware.

The first was a quattro-formaggio pizza, which is Italian for “We have extra cheese to use up.” After a brief argument over proper cookware with my dad, which he won, I moved the dough from a skillet into the bottom of a huge cast iron pot, grumbling about how the extra manhandling was going to positively RUIN the dough, which, according to the book, should be treated as gently a butterfly.  One made of glass.  Glass and eggshells.  Glass and eggshells and innocent dreams and unsullied aspirations.

I spread it with sauce, topped it with cheese, and resigned it to its fate.

For the second, I lovingly gentled it into a 9-inch iron skillet, which is what Forkish’s book actually called for. “Hmm,” I thought to myself as I persuaded the dough into position. “I think this is going to be a rather thick-crusted pie. But whatever. PRECISION!”

I accurately added some precisely-cut fresh tomatoes in a specific fashion, layered on exactly 8 slices of panchetta, and topped it off with carefully measured cheese and 6 leaves of torn fresh basil. This was my masterpiece.

I popped both in the very hot oven.

When they came out less than ten minutes later, it was clear that the quattro-formaggio had spent that time thinking carefully about its purpose in life, and had emerged from its contemplation in the way that you hope your pizza will: full of flavor, with a chewy character, and only slightly charred in spots.

The panchetta pizza, meanwhile, was a battlefield. Apparently its gentle treatment had allowed the unmolested gas pockets to wage a final battle for supremacy in the heat of the oven. As the dough expanded from the edges inward, the topping slowly slid toward the middle until what was left to emerge from the oven wasn’t so much pizza as a lightly baked loaf with a little ditch of toppings in the middle. It was like a pizza donut.

So I called it foccacia.

And that worked too.

Barnaby begging for his share of panchetta.
Barnaby begging for his share of panchetta.

You are saved by grace, and not by works.

I have not, not even one single time, despite all my best efforts, managed to follow a recipe successfully. And still, bread has happened with astonishing persistence.

I’m convinced that this is down to divine intervention. I can in no other way account for the fact that despite my screw-ups, the flour and the water still very much seem to want to be together, to create beautiful networks of gluten to hold enthusiastic bubbles of gas. I have over-hydrated and under-hydrated, used incorrect flour ratios and the wrong kind of yeast, overcooked and undercooked and managed to do both at the same time, and still, bread happens.

Clearly this is divine grace. The bread just really wants to be bread, and it’s going to be bread, even if it has to use me to get there.

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3 thoughts on “Lessons from bread-making

  1. To preface: I have done no research yet in an attempt to answer my own question. But! You already sound very knowledgeable in the realm of bread, so I am seeking your advice. For Confirmation camp we want the kids to bake bread. We’re going to donate it to a local feeding ministry and need a recipe that a) is not too complicated for middle schoolers, b) doesn’t require hours upon hours of preparation, and c) preferably is free-form and doesn’t require a loaf pan. Any suggestions? Thanks!

    1. Hi Kerri! Sounds like a fun project. 🙂 I’ll share what I know if you’ll tell me how it goes!

      Yeast bread is better at holding its shape without a pan, but needs at least a couple hours to rise.

      Quick breads (leavened with baking soda) are ready in a single mixing, but usually need a pan on account of being pretty batter-like.

      So, two suggestions: Irish soda bread is quick, tasty, and doesn’t need a pan. On the downside, it has a lot of ingredients.

      Or: if you’re gathering over a couple of days, there are yeast bread recipes that are content with long fermentations. You could mix one evening and bake the next, as long as you have access to a fridge.

      Hope that helps! Let me know if you want to know more about the second method.

      1. Thanks! I am checking with the other camp leaders to see if they have a preference and will get back to you!

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