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.