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The Art of Making Bread

I have been making my own bread since my roommate taught me how to do so, shortly after she moved in last May. I really enjoyed making bread. I think I enjoyed making it even more than I enjoyed eating it!  The way we were making bread was very simple: we have a bread machine, and would just toss the ingredients in and push the “dough cycle” button. One hour later, we had bread dough. This we’d remove from the machine, knead for a minute or two into the shape of a loaf, pop it into a pan, and bake.  23 minute later, we had bread.  The house smelled wonderful and the bread tasted oh so much better than anything I had been buying.  I really was impressed by our efforts and quite enjoying the routine.

This idillic little scene was shattered when I went to visit my brother and sister-in-law over Christmas.  My sister-in-law makes her own bread. 

WOW.

Ok, so apparently I don’t really know how to make bread after all.  My sister in law suggested I buy the book “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” by Peter Reinhart. I picked it up with a Chapters’ gift card I received for Christmas and have been struggling away, trying to make decent bread, ever since.

If nothing else, I have discovered that making bread is as much an art as it is a science.  Probably more so, because if it simply consisted of following a recipe (like making bread with a machine does), then I’d be well on my way!  But so far, not so good… At the same time, the scientific side is important.  Reinhart’s book is excellent for explaining the actual biochemistry and such behind making bread, and understanding that makes a lot of the process make more sense.  Or at least makes it clear why I shouldn’t skip steps I might otherwise gloss over.  

I have decided to start by learning how to make sourdough.  My choice for this bread is because a) I LOVE sourdough bread; and b) sourdough does not require any store bought yeast.  It requires sourdough starter, which uses wild yeast.  Wild yeast is found already on flour, so if you ferment it properly, it will bloom and there you have it.  Getting the starter going is a bit tricky, but I received some for Christmas from my brother and sister-in-law, so didn’t have to fuss with that part.  

The sourness comes from lactobacilli which also grows in the dough.  The longer you ferment the bread before baking, the more sour it will be as the more lactobacilli will be present.  I discovered this today when I baked a loaf of bread I had sitting in my refrigerator for 3 days.  This was not intentional – sourdough requires a lot of babysitting and you become slave to your dough pretty quickly.  There are many steps required, each several hours apart. I keep screwing up and being out when I should be home doing something with my dough.  I ended up missing a crucial phase with the last batch: baking!  I just didn’t have time to pre-heat the oven for 1 hour prior to baking, so ended up tossing it in the fridge for the next day.  Then I just didn’t have time the next day.  I figured I’d throw it in the composter, and left it in the fridge until the next time I was taking out compost.

That was this morning (3 days later) and, much to my surprise, I discovered that the dough had not fallen.  Indeed, I had two perfect little loafs wrapped up in their bowls, waiting to be baked.  So I figured I’d bake them, and if they were horrible, compost them at that point!

They weren’t horrible. In fact, they were my best effort yet!  Good crust, nice soft inside, big cell structure, very sour taste.  Yum!!  Still, one ended up really flat and neither browned.  I am having a heck of a time getting them to brown for some reason.  But this small success is encouraging me to keep going.  I have two more loaves proofing away in the fridge, and I may very well leave them for an extra day for good  measure!

A few photos of my trials to date.  Well-fed starter:

The ‘firm starter’ – a little ball of dough you make from the above, soupy starter.  This dough serves as the base of your bread after it ferments for a day (or longer if you are as disorganized as I am).  The recipe I use calls for a 3 step process over three days.  No wonder we aren’t all expert bread makers!  This firm starter was too firm, I have since discovered:

Here is a slice from my second attempt.  The first batch (made from the above firm starter) ended up barely rising and both looking and tasting like biscotti.  This batch at least rose a little, although is still very flat (a problem I have yet to resolve).  It is also very pale, and look at the very small cell structure of the bread.  It almost looks like wonder bread!  This is the texture that my bread-machine loaves also produce, and I am assuming are the result of fairly fast rising (it’s shiny because it is frozen):

Now, don’t laugh too hard at this next one.  This is one of the loaves that sat in my fridge for 3 days.  This is the one that collapsed when I scored it.  I almost didn’t bother baking it, but the oven was hot so I popped it in.  It actually came back to life, barely:

Note how anemic it looks (pale).  The same is true of the second loaf, which at least kept its shape better after scoring.  I don’t understand why the paper browns, but not the bread!  Argh:

I felt rather dismayed by these loaves, even though I knew they might now work out since they sat in my fridge for so long.  Then I decided to slice one and at least try it.  Check out the cell structure!  The crust was lovely, the insides soft and chewy, and sour!  

My roommate and I were both very impressed.  Despite the rather unappetizing exterior, I may actually be on my way to making sourdough!  That is, if I can actually repeat whatever it is that I did to get the bread to look (on the inside) and taste like this last loaf.  I am enjoying making bread more than ever now, and I am also enjoying eating it more.  But I still need to figure out how to get it to rise, and to brown.  Suntan lotion anyone?

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