Basic Bread Dough

Bread is incredibly simple yet deceptively complicated at the same time. Four ingredients - flour, water, yeast, salt - that can be manipulated to produce an endless variety of products. Every step in making bread is important and attention to detail is key. A slip-up in any of the many steps can create a less than impressive bread.

Because of this, people are intimidated by making bread at home. It's complicated, I don't have a bread stone, I don't have a steam injection oven, I don't have a linen cloth, I don't have a mixer. To make an outstanding loaf of bread, yes, those tools really do help. But you can still make a great loaf of bread without all the extra equipment and it is much simpler than most people make it out to be. The only tool you really, truly need is a digital thermometer. You don't need a mixer (I did these completely by hand), but a thermometer is essential. Once you successfully make a loaf of bread at home, you'll be hooked on it.

The dough right after incorporation of the water and before kneading.

Before I started pastry school, I didn't know anything about making bread. I knew what good bread looked, smelled, and tasted like, but I had no idea how to go about doing it. It was scary at first, and I was incredibly worried that any wrong move on my part would mean a terrible loaf of bread. After my first loaves came out of the oven, I was amazed. They weren't perfect, but they were mine and I was proud. They tasted great, though the appearance was "rustic", a term we use in the kitchen when something is not as refined as we had hoped. And bread is the epitome of "rustic", when you think about it. It has been around for thousands of years and used to be the staple food of the poor. Nowadays, great artisan breads are heavily sought after because they taste like real bread

Knowledge of the ingredients, fermentation, and dough really is important in making a good loaf of bread. You could spend years just reading about bread before you even get your hands on some dough, but most of us don't have that kind of time. So here is a crash course of the basics of bread and bread making. If you are interested in bread and wish to learn more, there are countless books that really go in-depth with bread.

There are several steps that bread must go through to ensure the best loaf possible. The preferment (optional), mixing, fermentation, dividing, preshaping, resting time, shaping, proofing, scoring, baking, and cooling. 

After kneading, before fermentation. The dough is tight and quite elastic.

A preferment is a small portion of flour, water, and yeast that is combined and left to ferment for 12 to 18 hours. This is a really simple way to add more flavour and acidity to breads. There are many different kinds of preferments. You may have heard of 'sourdough starters', which are essential large batches of living dough that must be "fed" every few hours. Sourdoughs have such great acidic flavour because of the 4 to 5 fermentation time of a traditional sourdough starter. 

Mixing seems very straightforward, and it is for the most part, but the temperature of the ingredients has a huge effect on the fermentation of bread. The ideal fermentation temperature for bread is 24 degrees celsius, so that's what you should always aim for. If your water is cold and your room temperature is cold, the fermentation time will be much longer than if your water is the correct temperature. You figure out the best water temperature through a simple equation.
24 (desired dough temperature) multiplied by the number of factors affecting temperature - flour temperature, room temperature, water temperature, and preferment temperature, if you are including a preferment. 

24 x 4 = 96

Now, subtract the known temperatures from that total. There is another factor included, called the friction factor and is always 6 degrees. This accounts for the heat created by friction when kneading the dough, but is not included with the other factors. For example, if your flour temperature is 22 degrees, your room is 24 degrees, and the preferment temperature is 20 degrees, you have this equation:

96 - 22 - 24 - 20 - 6 = 24, which is your desired water temperature.

This seems straightforward, but preferments can be kept in the fridge and room temperatures can vary throughout the seasons, which all affect the overall temperature of the dough and the fermentation time. 

Kneading is included in this step and is another crucial process. The gluten is the flour is developed as it is kneaded and that has a huge effect of the overall texture and taste of the finished bread. There are three techniques in mixing bread: short, improved, and intensive. Short consists of a short kneading time, but a long fermentation time. Improved consists of a medium mixing time and a medium fermentation time. Intensive consists of a long kneading time, but a short fermentation time. There are pros and cons to each method in terms of taste and texture. The short method has a longer fermentation time and has a better flavour and an open crumb with air bubbles. The intensive method creates a bread that is very white and dense, with little flavour. Improved in a middle ground between those two. 

"Short" and "long" are relative terms, so how does one tell when their dough is at the desired stage? A window test is the easiest way to tell. Take a very small portion of the dough and gently stretch it with your fingers. When you hold up the dough to a light source and you can see through the dough, note the way it looks. If it is very uneven in colour and thickness and tears easily, that is short. If you continue kneading, do the window test again, and notice a somewhat even texture and colour, but still with "strands" in the dough, that is improved. If you really go to town with the kneading, it will all be the same evenness and colour and feel very smooth. These classifications help in ensuring a consistent product every time. 
Folding process during fermentation.

Next is the fermentation. This is the easy part for the baker, because they mostly just wait, fold the dough a few times, and assess the fermentation process. The dough is doing most of the work - producing carbon dioxide and acidity. 

Fermentation bubbles. You want to gently degas the dough by pushing these out.

Dividing and preshaping are exactly that - dividing up the dough into portions and making it into a rough shape of the final product. If you're making a baguette, you're not going make the full 2 foot long baguette now, it will be much too elastic. Instead, you're going to make a rectangle. However, if you're making a boule (french for ball), then you still make a ball because there's not much elaboration on that. By patting it down gently, you release bubbles of carbon dioxide. You don't want an overly gassy bread.

Resting time allows the gluten in the dough to relax, which makes it easier to do the final shaping. You must always have your dough covered and protected from drying out. Simply cover it with plastic wrap.

Shaping is when you make the final shape of the product, such as the 2 foot long baguette. It is important to know where the seam of the bread is and to create a smooth skin on the surface of the bread. Seaming is straightforward for a boule, but for a batard (football shaped) and especially a baguette, seaming can be trickier. The best way to seam for a baguette is by patting your dough into a rectangle shape about the width of your hand. With the long sides facing you, fold the top of the dough about 1/3 of the way over the rest of the dough and use the heel of your hand to press the seam into the dough. Bring the top of the dough down again in the same way and press the seam in again. Repeat once more, but bring the two long edges of the dough together and seam them together to create one seam spanning the length of the dough. If this seems confusing, refer to the photos. For a batard, it is similar to the baguette, except you bring in the corners of the dough before you start the seaming.  For a boule, simply turn your hands around the ball and bring them down in the same motion, gathering the seam at the bottom and creating a smooth skin at the same time.

The seaming procedure for a baguette.

Shaping and seaming for a boule.

Proofing is like a final fermentation before the dough is baked. This creates an optimal volume by releasing more gas. It is ideal to keep the dough is a humid environment at room temperature. A properly proofed dough will spring back and leave a small indentation when poked with a finger. If it is overproofed, it will not spring back when poked. Once again, don't forget to cover your dough to prevent it from drying out. 

Scoring seems like a completely decorative step for me at first, but I soon learned how much it affects the final volume and shape of the dough. Scoring effectively creates an easy pathway for the carbon dioxide to escape from. If your score is too small, you will most likely have 'blow-outs' on the side of your dough and may have an uneven rise. Certain cuts are ideal for certain shapes of bread. Even scoring means even rising and even shape. It is best to use a very sharp small blade, such as an exacto-knife or a paring knife. For baguettes, 5 almost vertical cuts are perfect for its elongated shape, while a four cuts in the shape of a square are ideal for a boule. I find it difficult to judge my scoring before baking. Sometimes I think I've done a great job, but after baking, I see that I haven't. It takes a fair bit of practice to get the hang of scoring.

Two examples of scoring boules. Although the scoring was good, I realized I could have scored deeper and longer.

Finally, baking the bread. It is best to be very gentle when putting the bread in the oven, so as not to deflate it. Steam is a great way to get a nice crunchy crust on your bread, but it a little tricky at home. Using a spray bottle to spray the inside of the oven with water just before and after the bread goes in can help. Another method is by preheating your oven with metal chains and rocks in it and then pouring water over them immediately after putting your bread in. The increased surface area of the chains and rocks creates more steam than just a spray bottle. This method is not really necessary, but it does help with creating a great crust. 

Cooling the bread is the last step, but is equally important as the others. As bread cools, it releases moisture. If the moisture cannot escape, it will manifest itself in the bread and create a soggy bread. Cooling your bread on a wire rack is ideal. Always cool your bread completely before wrapping it for storage and never cut into it while it is hot. The best way to store bread is tightly wrapped at room temperature or in the freezer. Never store bread in the fridge.

I know, it was a lot to read, but those are just the basics. My textbook has 301 pages dedicated solely to bread and I have read every single one of them. If you have never made bread before, this can seem like an overload of information, but please don't be discouraged. Once you make your first loaf, you will realize it's not as hard as it seems. It take a lot of knowledge and experience to make a really exceptional loaf of bread, but it doesn't take much to make a good loaf of bread. 

This is a great recipe to begin your bread journey with. It's a delicious bread with an incredible crunchy crust and is also quite an attractive loaf. With these measurements, you can make two boules or two batards, but if this is your first foray into bread, I suggest the boule to start off with. Baguettes are a very tricky loaf to shape and I figured it would be too much information to go in-depth with baguette shaping and scoring. Another post will eventually be dedicated just for baguettes, but until then, practice with boules and batards.

Bouchon Bakery knows their bread very well and I would highly recommend purchasing their book, not just for the bread, but for everything in there. It is incredibly detailed and informative. It doesn't just tell you what steps to follow, it really teaches you to understand how something is put together and why it acts the way it does. They have very in-depth instructions and wonderful photographs, especially in the bread portion. If you are at all interested in baking, this book is an excellent learning tool. Since this is their recipe, I will be repeating what has been said earlier in this post, but in their words, which may make more sense for some people. They suggest using a setup of chains and river rocks on a baking sheet, which acts as a steam generator when water is poured over it. While this is a novel idea, I do not have rocks and chains lying around and I assume most people don't either. I preheated the oven with a baking sheet in it, which I added water to when I put the bread in. This created a good amount of steam. Other than this, the recipe is solid. I know this has been a massive chunk of writing, but bear with me as I go through another huge chunk of writing. It's worth it, trust me.

Basic Bread Dough
Recipe from Bouchon Bakery
Poolish (Preferment)
146 g all-purpose flour
0.1 g instant yeast (a pinch)
146 g water (calculated for desired dough temperature)

437 g all-purpose flour
0.9 g (1/4 teaspoon) instant yeast
279 g water (calculated for desired dough temperature)
12 g fine sea salt

For the poolish, combine the flour and yeast in a medium bowl and mix with your fingers. Pour in the water and continue to mix until thoroughly combined; the mixture should have the consistency of pancake batter. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 12 to 15 hours.

The poolish will be bubbly, but the best indication that it is ready are lines on the surface that look like cracks that are beginning to fall in at the center, as the yeast exhausts its food supply. At this point, the yeast is ready to begin its leavening work in the dough.

For the dough, spray a large bowl with nonstick spray. 

Place the flour and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and give it a quick mix on the lowest setting to distribute the yeast evenly. 

Pour about half the water around the edges of the poolish to help release it, and add the contents of the bowl, along with the remaining water, to the mixer bowl. Mix on low speed for 3 minutes to moisten the dry ingredients and hydrate the flour and the yeast.

Using a bowl scraper, scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to make sure all the flour has been incorporated. Sprinkle the salt over the top and mix on low speed for 1 minutes to dissolve the salt. Continue to mix on low speed for 20 minutes. This is a fairly slack dough, so it will not form a ball or pull away from the sides of the bowl.

The dough is now in the 3 hour fermentation stage. Write down the time and set a timer for 1 hour. Use a bowl scraper to release the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. The dough will be very sticky. Gently pat it into a rectangular shape, removing any large bubbles and adding flour only as needed to keep the dough from sticking to the board. Don't dust the top of the dough; it should stick to your fingers.

Stretch the left side of the dough upward and outward and fold it over two thirds of the dough, then stretch and fold the dough from the right side to the opposite side, as if you were folding a letter. Repeat the process, working from the bottom and then the top. Turn the dough over, lift it up with a bench scraper, and place the seam side down in the prepared bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and set aside.

When the timer goes off, 1 hour after you stopped the mixer, set it for 1 hour again. Use the bowl scraper to release the dough and pat, stretch, and fold it as before, from side to side, then bottom to top. The dough will have gained structure. Gently return it to the bowl, seam side down, cover, and set aside.

When the timer goes off again, set it for 1 more hour. Use the bowl scraper to release the dough and pat, stretch, and fold it as before. The dough will have become pillowy. Gently return it to the bowl, seam side down, cover, and set aside.

Meanwhile, set up your baking stone (if you have one) and steam-generating kit (rocks and chains, if you have them, see above) and preheat the oven to 460 degrees F.

To divide the dough, spread a linen cloth on a large cutting board or the back of a sheet pan and flour the linen. If you don't have a linen cloth, a lightly floured wooden cutting board works too.

Use the bowl scraper to release the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured board. Gently pat the dough into a rectangular shape, removing any large bubbles and adding flour only as needed to keep the dough from sticking to the board. Divide the dough into 2 equal portions.

For preshaping for a batard or boule, gently fold the edges of each piece of dough into the centre to form a ball and turn the seam side down on the board. Let it rest for 15 minutes.

For seaming and shaping a batard, turn the dough seam side up and pat to remove any air bubbles. Position for hands with your fingertips touching at the bottom of the dough. Using the sides of your hands, lift up the bottom of the dough and fold it over two-thirds of the dough, then fold the top over and bring it down so it covers two-thirds of the dough. Use the heel of one hand to form an indentation in the dough. Fold the dough so that the bottom and top edges meet and use the heel of your hand to seal the seam. Turn the dough seam side down. With your hands on top of the other on the centre of the dough, rock the dough back and forth, applying gentle pressure while slowly moving your hands apart, until you reach the ends; keep the diameter consistent. Once your hands are no longer touching each other, the heels of of your hands and your fingertips should be resting on the board. As you roll the dough, it will increase in length and the structure will tighten. It's best to keep an eye on the centre diameter, as this will dictate the length. The finished diameter of the centre of the batard should be 2 3/4 inches. For seaming and shaping a boule, keep the seam side down and position your hands on either side of the boule. Using gently pressure, twist your hands clockwise while also bringing them towards each other underneath the dough, effectively 'pulling' the skin of the dough to a bunch at the bottom. Be gentle, as you don't want to tear the skin. Gently pinch the seam together on the bottom. Lay the loaves of a linen and bunch the linen to create small walls on both sides of each loaf to help maintain the shape as the dough proofs. If you don't have a linen (I don't), place the dough on the wooden cutting board, cover with a slightly damp paper bowl and a dry dish cloth. 

To proof the dough, cover with a plastic tub or a cardboard box and let it proof for 1 hour, or until when the dough is delicately pressed with a finger, the impression remains.

To bake the bread, gently move the dough to a transfer peel or a parchment lined baking sheet. Space them evenly. Dust with sifted flour. Score the batards or boules with a sharp paring knife, exacto-knife, or lame (pronounched 'lahm'). Transfer the bread to the baking stone or put the baking sheet in the oven. Immediately spray water onto the steam generator (rocks and chains, if you have them, or the preheated baking sheet). Quickly shut the oven door and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the bread feels lighter than you'd expect for its size and the internal temperature is 200-210 F or 93-98 C. Another good way to tell if it is done is by tapping the underside of the bread; if it sounds hollow, it is most likely done.

Let the bread cool completely on a cooling rack. As tempting as it is to eat warm, the bread will continue to cook when removed from the oven. Eat the bread at room temperature or rewarm in a hot oven.

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