They say that the smell of freshly-baked bread is one of the true joys in life. I can say that it is an even bigger joy to make it. I love baking bread as it awakens senses and allows new ways of experiencing the world. I love it for its ability to forgive and give a clean slate with every new bake. I love the feeling of magic that is bestowed when the loaf is rising.
Baking bread is fundamentally a fermentation activity. It is a conversion of sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol, and, particularly, it relates to the relentless efforts of yeast and bacteria to deliver the texture and flavour.
It seems that to start baking, one doesn’t need much – a few ingredients and a recipe that specifies the process (see Note). However, fermentation is extremely context dependent. Take, for instance, the difference in flour or environmental humidity that can seriously affect the end result even if the recipe is observed.
For these reasons, baking bread requires bakers to understand the working of their own kitchens. Observing, smelling and touching trump the mind. Trusting one’s sense becomes paramount. This is why, for this conversation, I leave recipes aside. There are many great ones to follow, but I opt to share my field notes on learning the process, with several important observations that usually remain unwritten.
- Choose natural leavening. It is the birthplace of flavour and a true stamp of your kitchen. Home-grown sourdough starter contains a vibrant herd of microbes, which leaven and flavour the bread as well as boost gut health. Bob Holmes from Scientific American (2020) captures it so well when he writes:
“Where conventional breads rely on a single species of baker’s yeast — the microbial equivalent of a cattle ranch — sourdough is more like the Serengeti, a diverse ecosystem of interacting yeasts and bacteria. The nature of that ecosystem, and hence the flavour of the bread, is a profound expression of a particular time and place.”
- Make friends with time and temperature. The golden rule of all bakers is that time and temperature equals quality and consistency. Working together, but the inverse of each other (longer time – lower temperature, and higher temperature – shorter time), these are the soldiers of fermentation as they control the speed of sugar conversion. Finding a sweet spot within time/temperature duality is an ultimate skill.
- Embrace autolyse. It involves nothing but rest and, in so doing, helps your bread get stronger and acquire higher levels of elasticity. Mix water and flour and leave it for 30 to 60 minutes. During this process, flour enzymes that have been released with water will launch gluten-strengthening operations before any work is applied. It does not, however, substitute for the strengthening stage. You will still have to work, but it will go faster and yield better results.
- Push hydration. The reason is simple – higher hydration produces more gas that provides texture and flavour. Yet, the wetter doughs (70% and higher) need help in building strength. The secret is to give it a good workout. Put it in a standing mixer or apply some ‘slap and fold’ (see Note) technique and you will later enjoy the fruits of your own labour. As a final check, put it through the Windowpane test to make sure your efforts worked.
- Proof to the point. The common problem with proofing is knowing when to stop. Relying on time is tricky as it doesn’t really capture what happened inside the loaf. A poking test can come to the rescue here. Make a gentle indentation with a finger on the surface of the loaf and observe how the dimple behaves. If it springs back slowly and retains a bit of the fingerprint, the bread is ready to be baked. If it springs back very fast and fills the print, then it needs more proofing time. If it stays depressed, it might be too late. But bake it anyway, and learn.
- Bake until brown. So much of the bread’s flavour is in the crust. Crispy. Crunchy. Mahogany golden comes about as remaining sugars and amino acids interact under high temperatures. At this point, it is important to provide the right conditions for the loaf to spring in the oven, and yet for the crust to bake nicely. Introducing steam at the start can assist with the process as it helps in keeping the outer layers moist to manage expansion, and then dissipates when the loafs need to get toasty.
Bread baking is a craft that makes you want to do it over and over again. For some, working on the same recipe to reach the state of perfection is one side of the coin. For others, it might be trying various flours or flavours what draws them to bake. It is addictive if you can appreciate its repetitive or creative nature.
No matter where your comfort comes from, bread baking is pleasurable and deeply satisfying. Particularly, once you get the rhythm and confidence to approach a heap of flour with curiosity and an open mind.
Dr. Irina Mikhailava, a chef and a good food champion, happily residing in the Algarve and eating all over the world with an appetite for learning, sharing and writing. Instagram: incompanyoffood