Baking with the CIA: Day 4

Man cannot live by bread alone, unless perhaps it's really good bread.

Let me get something out of the way first. Our instructor today was definitely bread for success. We made some good dough; it was a license fer menting money. We kneaded nothing else to be happy. We took the time to stop and smell the flours.

Now that that's out of my system, you can probably guess what we focused on for Day 4. I have no objection to cakes and other sweet treats, but more than anything else I wanted to leave this week with a more solid feeling for the process of making good bread. Store-bought bread rarely satisfies in the way home-baked bread can. Bread machines can cover some of the gap, but their loaves still feel soulless in a way I can't quite describe.

Enter my new savior, Chef Robert Jorin, who spent today taking us on a whirlwind tour of some basic breads. Contrary to some very small fears, Chef Robert taught us patiently and comfortably, with none of the feeling of impatience one might expect from one of the world's top breadmakers when dealing with complete bread newbies. He began with a quick rundown of the breadmaking basics, covering not just the actions of yeast, but the myriad ways of letting yeast go about their job. Today's first bullet point describes the different ways of setting up fermentation:

1) In "simple mixing," the baker mixes all of the ingredients at the same time. The yeast begin their fermentation at this point, and within hours the bread may be baked. Such breads have a very simple taste, not bad but not interesting on their own.

2) In the "sponge method," the baker mixes a portion of the flour with some of the liquid and all of the yeast, allowing it to ferment overnight. The next day, this sponge joins the remainder of the ingredients, and the bread is made normally. The longer fermentation allows more complex flavors to develop. Sponges vary in density, from the more watery "Poolish" sponge to the stiff "Biga" sponge to a generic sponge somewhere in between. In softer sponges, yeast produce more lactic acid, leading to a yogurty flavor. Harder sponges produce more ascetic acid, for a vinegary flavor.

3) Sourdoughs, in which one maintains a culture of natural yeast on a daily diet of flour & water, simply using it in place of dried yeast in the recipe. This produces the complex flavor associated with the eponymous bread.

Today we explored all three varieties, using a Poolish sponge to make ciabatta, simple mixing to make baguettes, and two varieties of sourdough. The sourdoughs represent two different approaches to the same bread: the traditional sort composed only of flour, water, salt, and starter, and the contemporary "basic" sort which added milk and some other minor ingredients to spiffy up the product. We didn't bake these today, so I'll have to describe them tomorrow.

After bringing the first round of breads into the fermentation phase, we started another, this time exploring more involved recipes. Tiff and I tackled bagels, while other teams made rosemary & olive bread, whole wheat sunflower bread, and challah.

Then came shaping, the tricky art of subdividing your dough and preparing it for baking. I had great fun braiding a 4-strand loaf of challah. Indeed, I had fun with all of it, though it's quite challenging to turn out seamless bread.

Finally, we were ready for baking. Chef Robert showed us the art & science of slicing the top of the loaf just before oven insertion, and how to use steam at the start of the baking process to give bread a proper crust. Ever wonder why bread from a bread machine often develops cracks in the side? It turns out that when you bake bread in unmoistened air, the crust forms too quickly and any weak spots will give later. To delay the process and ensure a beautiful crust, give the loaves a last-minute spritz of water.

Before I knew it, finished loaves popped out onto the cooling rack, looking as appealing as any food I've ever seen. The baguettes, as expected, lacked the deeper flavor that comes with pre-fermentation but were excellent nonetheless. The challah came out moist and pretty, though the loaf that I braided developed a tumorous bulge right in the middle. The ciabatta, which had been pre-fermented, garnered the most acclaim; it was as close as I've seen to perfect bread. When we served it to the entire school at lunch, once of the long-term baking students walked up and complimented us on turning out a better ciabatta than they had earlier in the week.

Unfortunately, there was no time to bake the sourdoughs, so we left them to finish rising overnight in a "retarder" that keeps conditions optimum for just such a procedure. I'm more than a little intrigued by the difference between our two sourdoughs. The bagels and rosemary bread will also be finished tomorrow. And for one last final project, we made the dough for naan! If I can learn to make a good naan, you can expect Indian food to overrun my kitchen.

One more day left. Tomorrow's update may take some time to get written, because I've got to drive straight home from the school tomorrow, but it will show up soon.


Today's random factoid: someone asked Chef Robert about bromated flour, which I've never seen in any store. This flour contains potassium bromide, which has the twin effects of maturing wheat more rapidly and allowing it to absorb more water. Both represent cost efficiencies when running a large-scale operation, so some commercial bakers rely on it. However, both California and New York have banned it for reasons unknown to Chef.

Posted by patrick on January 16, 2003 | TrackBack

me! me! me! i know!

the water by-product of potassium bromate causes cancer and CA has a law that requires any and all items that cause cancer to be listed. so if you want to sell something in CA (and I guess NY too) that causes cancer it has to be labeled very clearly on the front of the packaging. imagine how many folks wanna buy or work around something clearly labeled CAUSES RENAL CANCER IN LAB RATS?

can't wait to hear about how the naan came out! do you grill it? or does the crunchy outside just come out that way after baking. i've always wanted to know that.

Posted by: mo on January 17, 2003 11:16 AM

Re: "can't wait to hear about how the naan came out! do you grill it? or does the crunchy outside just come out that way after baking. i've always wanted to know that."

That's the way it comes out. You must use a strong flour.

Posted by: Episure on February 1, 2003 10:17 PM
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