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Reply to "Baking Bread"

Did it at least once a week since the late 1970s, haven't done it as much the past four years because I'm near pretty good bakeries, but in the winter I still have dough around all the time anyhow.

It's hard to actually "ruin" your bread, but if you're shooting for some particular vision, you can miss that and there are a few things that you can do to make your bread something to be recycled.

I have no idea what kind of measurements to use since you really can't measure the main ingredients with any accuracy anyhow. A lot depends on the weather, your flour, what you want to end up with, etc.

The best way to do it is as follows:

take some flour and water, mix to a slurry, somewhat akin to tempura batter, and set it on the counter or somewhere. You might need to add a touch of water in a day or so if it starts drying too much. In anywhere from three to six days, you should see a few bubbles forming. If you see mold, throw it out and start again. Anyhow, once those bubbles form, you know you've got some yeast. I use whole wheat flour most of the time, but I've used white too.

Let the yeast work for a day or so and then make the same flour/water mix and put a spoonful of that original, bubbling mix into it. Let that develop for a day and you've got yeast to use for your bread making.

Then it's about mixing with flour and water and heat.

You can use yeast that you buy too. That has the advantage of consistency, at least up to a point - the cake yeast is MUCH better than the powdered yeast, and it is also much more reliable. But it doesn't really add any flavor. The yeast you get going on your own may or may not add flavor. If you don't like it, try again until you get one that you like. If you've been baking bread for a while, you'll probably catch whatever's in the air. This incidentally points out the fallacy of the people who argue for "wild" yeast fermentation of wine - you really don't know what you're going to get but it's got a real good chance of being a commercial yeast that drifted in.

Anyhow, salt is used mostly to attenuate the action of the yeast. If you're putting your dough in the fridge overnight, which really helps IMO if you're making pizza or croissants, you put a little salt in to keep the yeast from going nuts. Conversely, if you want to speed things up, you can add more yeast or add some sugar and cut back on the salt. I'm not 100% sure about the need for sugar however, because there's plenty in the flour. In any event, remember that salt kills yeast so don't pour it directly on the yeast as I've seen idiots do on You-tube videos.

Flour matters. Winter wheat has a higher gluten content than summer wheat and will give your dough more stretch and a chewier texture. All purpose flour is whatever that manufacturer decides to package.

Whole wheat flour is similar, although some of them will tell you on the package if it's hard (winter) or soft wheat. But whole wheat has other properties to keep in mind. Some are milled more coarsely than others so you have bigger flakes of bran. I happen to like those, but some people don't. The bran however, absorbs water fairly slowly, so if you start out with a dough that's the consistency you want, it may be drier than you'd like by the time it's risen. So leave your whole wheat dough just a tad wetter than your white flour dough.

Also, the one thing you can do that will definitely ruin the bread is to let the dough rise too much. The dough is like little ballons. Imagine blowing up a ballon almost to the breaking point. Sometimes it actually does break and in any case, the rubber loses strength. The dough rises by the gas produced from the yeast and then the expansion of the air and moisture due to the heat of the oven. If you're already at the breaking point when you put it in, your bread will be crap. It's better to under-rise than to over-rise.

Density can be due to a number of things - the texture of the flour (whole wheat vs white), the amount of flour used, the baking time, the rising time, and the amount of rising allowed. If you allow one rising and bake, you'll end up with big holes and a "rustic" kind of bread. That's what I'd do for focaccia. If you let the dough rise, punch it down, and let it rise again, you end up with a much finer texture.

Focaccia is better the first way. I think it's a mistake to take what was essentially a peasant food and try to make a gourmet item of it. So remember that it was just some dough that they had laying around and they poured some oil on it and sprinkled some herbs and cooked it in the hearth. Eventually that became pizza, but it was just the local ingredients casually combined. So I'd make a slightly wetter dough, only let it do one rising, then bake it for a very short time in a super-hot oven. That will help it heat and expand as fast as possible and you'll get a looser crumb and a less dense bread.

Unfortunately most home ovens don't get really hot - they only go up to 500 degrees, so you have to work with that kind of limitation.

And if you have ruined your bread, grind it up and put it into the dough for the next loaf you're making. That will produce a real dense bread, but that's what I tend to like anyway. I like the German style breads much much more than the white breads from Italy and France that are good for only a day at best. Rye flour also produces a very dense crumb because it lacks the gluten of wheat so doesn't rise. Most of what people call "rye" bread is only about 30% rye flour. If you want to make a denser bread, you can throw in a bit of rye and generally people won't be able to tell by taste if it's not overdone, but you can attenuate the density of your bread in that way.

There are other things you can do too that will affect the final bread. You only need flour, liquid, a rising agent, and heat.

So make a loose polenta or corn-meal mush, add molasses or honey, and use that to provide part of the liquid. Eggs provide fat and consequently a richer bread if you use them as part or all of the liquid. Leftover mashed potatoes or oatmeal can be used. Milk provides a slightly different texture as well. Adding fat, in the form of oil or melted butter, will give a richer bread and will also help it keep from drying out like your baguette might. Cooking hot and fast provides a different texture and crust than cooking moderately and slow.

Happy baking.