Bread baking, on a realist’s schedule

Reader Candace posted a comment yesterday that got me thinking:

I have been looking for a good introduction to bread, but a question for you: you appear to be the only food blogger I’ve seen who has a job outside of food that manages to bake bread regularly.   How much time do you have to spend on it? I have zero faith in my ability to keep a starter going; but I can make excellent pizza dough with yeast in a packet.

Hmm…I never really thought about bread-baking as time consuming.  Mostly, the loaves I bake require short bursts of active time separated by long, slow periods of cold fermentation.  The highly yeasted (like an entire envelope of yeast per loaf), direct-dough, 4-hour enriched white bread that once dominated American home baking is far from the only way to get a good loaf.  Fortunately for Candace and the rest of us who have to fit bread-baking into our “regular” lives, recent baking literature has focused on slow, cold fermentation.  In other words, low-yeasted loaves (1/2 tsp per loaf or less) created over several days, often with a bulk fermentation phase that allows for baking at one’s convenience.

Two books in particular provide a good grounding in this slow-fermented technique:

  • Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day, a good introduction to delayed fermentation.  Along with his earlier book, Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Reinhart combines clear instructions with enough technical information to help a novice baker get at the hows and whys behind the techniques.
  • Jim Lahey’s My Bread:  the Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Technique, which might be the perfect introductory bread-baking book.  No science, no lengthy technical explanations–just a straightforward, mixed-and-long-rested dough baked inside a closed vessel for maximum crustiness.  Bake your way through this book, and you’ll be able to handle the wettest doughs with confidence.

Low-yeasted doughs are far more forgiving than you might imagine.  Last December, I mixed up a batch of Lahey’s stecce dough in the evening and fermented it overnight at cool room temperature.  The next day, I drove to Baton Rouge, where I left the dough in my trunk (in a plastic lidded tub) while I went ice skating with my niece & nephew.  Later on in the day, we shaped the dough into long, skinny loaves topped with cherry tomatoes and olives, let them rise a bit more, then baked them as an afternoon snack.  The loaves were delicious, despite their 18+ hours bulk fermentation.

On the other hand, tending a sourdough (whether passed-along or a wild-yeast version created from scratch) can be tricky, and it does require semi-regular attention.  Still, absolutely excellent loaves are possible without sourdough….or, if sourdough is a must, try a dehydrated sourdough starter to flavor a loaf.  I, for one, think sourdough (or levain) is a bit overrated.  Some of the most delicious breads around are created by Italian bakers who use commercial yeast.

In summary, all the baking books in the world aren’t a substitute for experience.  Get some flour, some active dry yeast, and try it out, beginning with a flavor or style you really like.  After a few loaves, the process will seem natural, and integrating it into a day’s activities will be a pleasure rather than a chore.

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9 thoughts on “Bread baking, on a realist’s schedule

  1. I don’t make bread all that regularly (primarily b/c I don’t eat many sandwiches- I’m a leftovers kind of girl) but when I do, it definitely hasn’t been a problem to work around my schedule. I do it on a weekend if I’m using a quick rise method (which is why I tend to have homemade pizza on Sunday night), but I completely agree with you that a long fermentation bread works really well around a work schedule. When I make the famous “No Knead Bread” I start it around 9 pm, let it sit out overnight, pop it in the fridge in the morning, then bake it when I get home from work. But I’ve also had decent success making a sweet braided bread after work. I just used the time it took for my sponge to rise and then for my dough to rise to run some errands, go to the gym, and make dinner. I blogged about it here: http://thedecayedgentlewoman.blogspot.com/2010/05/blueberry-braided-bread.html

  2. Even the faster rising breads are very forgiving and flexible. I regularly make a multi-grain, slightly sweet bread that we use for sandwiches. I usually use about 1 1/2 T of yeast and end up with three two-pound loaves. The old Tassajara recipe calls for three risings plus an hour at the beginning for the sponge. I can stir up the sponge and once it’s happily working I can refrigerate it for the rest of the day while I do other things, or even until the next day. The same goes for the two risings after I add all the flours, etc. — I can put the bowl in the refrigerator and come back to perform the next step when I have time. (Wrap tightly with plastic film or you could end up with a Lucille Ball-like monster in the refrigerator.) Yeast doughs can even be frozen and reawakened. When I was baking the breakfast breads in a restaurant I made large batches of sweet dough for sticky buns, portioned it out in muffin pans with the sugar, cinnamon and nuts, wrapped the whole thing and froze it. In the morning I would take a pan of rolls out and let it rise on top of the oven while it was heating. A long slow rise improves most any bread. (However, a cat in front of the computer impairs visability while typing.)

    • A couple times a year, I make from-scratch cinnamon rolls. I usually prep the dough the night before, but I never tried freezing individual rolls. I like the idea of baking one or two rolls at a time. I must try this soon: you froze the rolls immediately after shaping, or did you give them time to rise and then freeze?

      • No, just freeze right after shaping. And then there’s the concept of par-baked breads used by commercial bakeries, where the breads rise fully and are partially baked until the structure is set, and then frozen and finished later. I haven’t tried that.

  3. Thanks!

    I will have to give the no-knead and fridge-friendly styles another try; I had made one batch but lost lots of the bread onto counter and towel and got frustrated at the wet stuff. I need to get a new knob for the shiny new lecreuset to try that again though – it’s less heavy than the antique dutch oven I used the first time.

    • I’ve baked a whole bunch of 450-500 degree loaves with no LC black phenolic knob failures on various pots. If you don’t want to bother with new knobs but don’t want to chance the plastic one, just wad up some alumnium foil to plug the hole after removing the knob.

      RE: losing dough on the counter….a plastic bowl scraper is a great, cheap tool. Rounded on one side, straight on the other, it’s flexible enough to scoop under the dough whether in a bowl or on a flat surface. Alternatively, you can put the dough on parchment for the counter or bowl rest and transfer it, parchment and all, into the preheated pot. The parchment will darken, but won’t catch fire.

  4. Thanks. The pot’s only a few months old (wedding present), and I only have one of them so I’ve been trying to keep it in good shape.

    I’ve also got the shiny variety of crappy formica countertop instead of the textured kind I had at the last house, so this next run should go better than the last did.

    • LC is pretty tough stuff; I use mine on the grill all the time, for stovetop cooking, and it even gets a run through the dishwasher fairly often. If you like it shiny, a can of Barkeeper’s Friend is the best. It’s a cleanser, polish, & oxalic acid bleach, so it will lift tumeric, hard-water stains, soot, baked-on tomato sauce, and anything else off of enameled cast iron.

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