Bread is Life

No really...it is! No matter where in the world you go, you will find numerous varieties of bread. Each have their own cultural and historical significance, and each have been sustaining life for centuries. Don't worry...I'll save the history of bread for a later date. Today I'll try to breifly discuss my trials and tribulations with the fine art of bread baking.

I haven't told anyone this before (I don't think) but I have been toying with this idea that maybe someday in the far off future I could be the local baker of a town - you know, as a side job from the awesome photo gig I'll have. I imagine myself outside on a crisp snowy morning, sliding beautifully crafted loaves into a wood burning oven - which I built by hand of course. Not bland split-top white breads, but flavorful, traditional, and rustic breads. The kind of breads that make your soul happy.

Okay...back to reality...

I have worked in various grocery store bakeries, mostly as counter help, since 2007. I know that doesn't seem significant, especially since the longest bakery position I've held is my current one at 5-ish months. At work I sometimes pan out pre-formed loaves, toss them into the proofer until they're big enough, then toss them into the oven...375 degrees, 60 seconds of steam, 18 minutes total bake time. All of that has been figured out for me and I don't really have to think about it.

At home it's a whole different story. No proofer, no steam injected oven, no frozen, pre-formed dough. I start from scratch with just the basics - flour, water, yeast, salt, and maybe some seeds or whole grains - but from where everything would go awry (a rye? ha...ha...ha). The dough would be too wet, too dry, proofed too long, not proofed long enough, stuck in the pan, beheaded. Yes, beheaded. I almost gave up everything.

I scoured the local library for a good bread baking book and found The Culinary Institute of America's Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft. I gasped and put it on hold immediately! What better source than the textbook that teaches culinary students how to bake bread?

Yesterday, after a brief introductory skimming, I put the book to work and prepared their recipe for White Wheat Lean Dough. I had to improvise a little by subbing all purpose flour (moderate gluten) with some vital wheat gluten (pure gluten) mixed in for bread flour (high gluten). I also had to cut the recipe down quite a bit - from 8.5lbs of dough to about 2lbs for one good sized loaf.

The dough came together very nicely and I popped it into the fridge overnight. I did this because I made the dough at 11pm (I was super excited and couldn't wait), and I read that slow fermentation (the first rise) aids in flavor development. In the morning I covered the dough with a *clean* well floured kitchen towel, stuck a probe thermometer in it (the book states that it should rise at 75 degrees), and put it outside to warm up and finish fermenting. After that I pre-formed the dough and let it rest to relax the gluten, then put it in the pan to let it rise.

Next came the tricky part. To get a really nice crackling crust on these kinds of breads, you have to introduce steam to the oven. The steam promotes gelatinization of the starches on the surface of the dough, which ensures a nice, crisp crust (science!). In the past, since I don't have an oven with handy-dandy steam injection, I tried tossing a cup of water into a preheated pan placed on the lower rack...which always scares the crap out of me....

One: hot oven.
Two: hot steam.
Three: my cheap sheet pans always warp and jump when I do that.
Four: I'm afraid of breaking the glass on the inside of the oven door...even more so than it already is...like shattering...

Instead I opted for the super soaker method...

Okay...so I didn't use a super soaker...but that would have been sweet! When the oven was preheated and before I loaded the dough, I used a spray bottle and gave the wall of the oven a good soak. I sprayed the top of the dough to help it along, then loaded it into the oven with a few more sprays. I must say, this is the best method so far because the crust is thin, even, and delightfully crisp...although a little dark from not paying attention. Next time, I won't go scampering off to play video games.

Now that I have really good instructions, I'm feeling better about my baking abilities. Also, starting with the most basic bread dough is always a good idea for beginners! Stay tuned for the next installment...I promise I'll post more often!

*Note: I will update this post with a photo...once I find the cable for my camera!

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