It’s well established that I’m a “foodie”. You probably don’t know it unless we are personal friends, but I’m a pretty good cook, too. What I’m NOT, is a knowledgeable baker.
I know a bit about the chemistry of bread; and I buck the American trend of looking for things that are “gluten-free” because I think that the role that gluten plays in the organic chemistry of bread is so cool. But, my bread making has been limited to pizza crusts, challah, and a few other breads in my, dare I say it, bread machine. (I swear I never let that damn machine bake anything, just prep the dough, but still…). Other than that, I really have no idea what I’m doing.
That’s why, until now, I have relied on bakeries and have searched for my favorites. I’ve said before that’ Ken’s Artisan Bakery is my favorite bread maker here in Portland and that Ken’s baguettes are my favorite outside of France. That’s why, when I decided to take a shot at making traditional artisan bread, it was Ken’s (James Beard Award winning) book to which I turned. And, because I am so proud of what happened with this first attempt, I want to share the experience.
If, after reading about what I did, you want to try it for yourself, the best advice I have is to read, memorize, and internalize Chapter 4 before you try a recipe. It’s easier to know exactly what the specific techniques are before you try to autolyse, mix, and fold the dough than it is to do what I did and to try to flip around in the signed copy of the book with your elbows while your hands are caked with flour or pre-autolysed dough-goo. Best to study first. If you do that, then the recipes – or at least the one I tried – Saturday White – is remarkably easy.
I began, as one would expect, by measuring and setting aside my ingredients. I weighed everything as a good baker should and I found HUGE value in doing so. My wonderful wife helped me by pre-measuring the salt and yeast. Ken’s recipes give both volume and weight measures. Patt did the salt and yeast by tea- and tablespoons. When I cane to weigh these items, they were under weight by close to 20%. What that tells you is that there are a lot variables and, just like in your high school algebra class, your should minimize them. So, my real-world experiences as a novice confirms this: WEIGH THINGS!
Next I prepared to incorporate the flour and water. Ken’s recipes have you mix just these 2 items, by hand, and then to let them sit and autolyse for 20 – 30 minutes. (Autolysing is just the process of letting the flour and water sit long enough for the flour to become as hydrated as possible – who knew?). I got LUCKY. When I went to measure my water I discovered that my cooking thermometer had a dead battery. Fortunately, because I swim and, thus, know what an 80 degree pool feels like, I could guess at 90 – 95 degrees pretty well. Actually I don’t know that except for the fact that everything did what the book said it would do. So, I must not have killed the yeast 🙂 I waited 30 minutes just in case my house was a few degrees cooler than expected, and because I saw no downside to making sure the flour was fully hydrated. After that, I sprinkled on the yeast and salt (that I WEIGHED) and incorporated them as directed. I probably made a few more folds than necessary but I was just learning the pincer method of mixing so I was not sure when to call it done. Because the gluten strands are still pretty robust at this stage I figured that, if I was going to risk overworking the dough, it would be better now than later when the gluten strands are more delicate. Again, I must have done it close to correct since it worked.
The total first rise took about 5 hours. I folded the dough twice: once at 10 minutes and the second time at 1 hour 15 min. When it had tripled in size, it looked like this:
I took this as a pretty good sign. First, it has RISEN! (NO… not He has risen! I’m not THAT good). Second, because it’s very obvious that some nice gas bubbles are forming. In other words, I got the volume Ken said I should have. So I could move on to the next steps. Even though I have never made bread by hand, I do know how to divide and shape the loaves. I was probably too anal retentive about my stretches because I did not want tear the gluten strands and I’m really not very experienced. The way I understand things is that stretching, but not breaking, the gluten strands is a key to chewiness and over all structure. Some people have said that they stretch the bread in only one direction. Ken has you stretch and turn until you have gone completely around the loaf. This makes most sense to me (not that I have any real knowledge) because I figure that if stretching strengthens the bread’s structure then stretching in multiple directions strengthens the bread the most. (I just made that up but I’ll bet I’m right). Here is what my first shaped loaf looked like:
Next I proofed the loaves. Ken teaches that you can tell when a loaf is properly proofed when you can stick a finger into it about 1/2 inch and it will spring back slowly and almost (but not quite) completely. If the dough doesn’t pop back out, it’s over proofed and you probably blew it. If it pops out immediately, it is not proofed enough. Here is my attempt at the “finger dent test”.
Now for a couple of super-hip tricks.
1. Ken does not have you put slits in the top of your breads before baking. He gets a far cooler and more rustic looking crust by having you insure that you put your proofed loaf into the oven seam side up.
2. To replicate a commercial oven, Ken has you bake all the breads in the book inside a dutch oven. You heat your oven, with the covered dutch oven in it, for 45 minutes. Then you put the loaf into the dutch over, cover it, and bake for 30 minutes. After that, remove the cover. At this stage, my first loaf looked like this:
Yes, that is a crappy picture. I was so astonished that it had actually worked, even for me, even on a first attempt, that I was too excited to take a proper picture 🙂 In any case, after removing the cover from the dutch oven, you bake the bread for another 20-ish minutes. Then you remove the loaf from the oven and cool it for 20 minutes. Mine came out looking like this:
Here is what the final breads came out like. The inside was perfectly airy and chewy. The crust was so perfect that even if I had bought the loaf from a specialty baker, I would have said is was amazing. This essentially proves nothing about me except that I can measure properly and follow instructions. Alternatively, it says a tremendous amount about the ability that Ken Forkish has, to properly develop and articulate home baking instructions and to adapt commercial baking practices to the home environment. Not everyone has the kitchen skills I do. So, I’ll give myself a little credit. But, remember, I had NO baking skills and yet I make a perfect bread. So basically, if I can do it, YOU can do it. Here is my end result for both loaves:
I’m pretty darn proud of myself for making this perfect bread. I admit it. But I’m also pretty darn happy that a guy with the skill of Ken Forkish is willing to share some secrets with we amateurs. This bread was easy but time-consuming. Yet, most of what made it the latter was my own lack of technique. So, although I will most assuredly do this again and again my pals at Ken’s Artisan Bakery will still see me often: The 5 minutes and three bucks it takes to get a baguette is still the quickest way to perfect bread. Although…. if the dudes need an apprentice this would be a pretty rewarding thing to get good at. To my American gluten-o-phobic friends, all I can say in closing is this:
LONG LIVE THE GLORIOUS MAGIC OF GLUTEN!
P.S. Congratulations to Mr. Forkish on winning the James Beard Award for “Flour, Water, Sale, Yeast“! Well deserved!