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I Love Baking Bread

I bought Bread Baker's Apprentice on a whim at a book store in Portland, Oregon while I was on a business trip. I was compelled by Reinhart's poetic descriptions of the bread-making process. I first baked bread on January 14th, 2008.

About that loaf, I wrote, "Can you love bread? I think I love this loaf." I really meant it too. I have no idea why bread baking evokes such emotion in me, whereas baking cakes and cookies or searing a steak doesn't. Maybe it's because bread baking is, literally, alchemical. Raw flour is, for all intents and purposes, inedible, but through the fermentation and baking process, it is transformed into a wonderfully delicious food. Or maybe it's because raising dough is just a little bit like having a pet. The yeast in the dough are tiny living organisms, and their metabolic processes imbue the dough with a semblance of life. Maybe it's just because fresh-baked bread is about the most delicious food on earth, which is unexpected given how simple a food it is.

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I still bake bread pretty regularly. There are lots of reasons why. It's cheap, but home-made food usually is. It's exactly how I want it, in flavor and shape and type. Most of the time, it's hands-down better than the bread I buy in the store. I know exactly what went into it: no weird chemicals, fillers, or preservatives. And I know exactly what has happened to it, from conception, to mixing, to rising, to shaping, to baking, to eating. This means that it is mine in a way that a store-bought food never could be.

I used to think that baking bread was complicated and hard. Yeah, there are a few ways to go wrong, but ultimately, bread baking is pretty forgiving. If you end up with a dough that's too dry or too wet, it's easy to knead in a bit more flour or water to fix it. If you end up with not enough yeast, or the room is too cold, the dough will rise slower, but it'll still get there. And if the oven's temperature is off, well, perhaps the bread will be a bit crustier or softer, but it'll still make you swoon when you taste it.

I say that baking bread isn't complicated and hard, but honestly, I think the best way to learn is to have somebody who knows how show you. A recipe is an essential place to start, but there are so many parts of bread-making that are subjective that it's good to have an experienced voice to guide you. Plus, you get to socialize. But if you don't know anybody who makes bread, don't let that stop you. Find a recipe and give it a try.

Here are a "few of the ways" that bread-baking can go wrong.

  • Exposing the yeast to water or other liquid that is too hot will kill them. Water that goes into the dough should be no hotter than about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Body temperature is about 98 degrees, so water at 98 degrees feels neither warm nor cold. Water that's okay for yeast should feel neutral or just barely warm, but not the least bit hot.
  • Yeast is living organisms. They're dormant in their little packets, and can be stored for a long time, but they do eventually die. If your yeast are dead or weakened, your bread will not rise. Solution: always use fresh yeast and discard yeast that is more than a few months old. You can also "proof" yeast by stirring them into a cup of lukewarm water and watching for bubbles on the surface. This is carbon dioxide being released by the yeast, and is an indicator that they're alive and kicking.
  • Don't rush. Make sure to knead the dough enough. Under-kneading results in inadequate mixing of the ingredients and inadequate gluten formation. Gluten is what gives bread it's structure and makes it chewy. When the dough has been adequately kneaded, it will be smooth (all the ingredients will have been evenly distributed, and the dough will be evenly hydrated) and will pass the windowpane test. Kneading is actually a technique, so you should look up how to do it or have someone teach you. Not everyone does it the same way, but there are definitely some ways that are "kneading" and others that are just "pushing the dough around." Just pushing the dough around will require far more work from you to develop the gluten sufficiently.
  • Don't rush. Fermentation (rising) is the key to making bread. Without fermentation, you're just making Matzoh crackers. Let the bread rise as long as the recipe says to, which is usually until it is 1.5 to 2x it's original size. FORGET THE CLOCK. Rising times double or halve with every 17-degree change in temperature. So if your living room is a little cold or a little hot, your rise will take longer or shorter than the author of the recipe says. If you're not sure, you can put it in a straight-sided container with a ruler and simply measure it's original height and then when it has doubled. Yes, this is absolutely geeky, but it was how I learned to tell when dough had "doubled". Now I just do it by feel.
  • If your bread is just not rising, try this trick: set your oven to the lowest temperature it has, often about 200 degrees. When it has pre-heated, leave it on for ten more minutes, then turn it off. Then put your dough in it. The oven will not be hot enough to cook the dough, but will heat it to about 90 degrees, which is gets the yeast moving. If the dough still doesn't rise, your yeast are probably dead. You can try to salvage the dough by kneading in more yeast, but honestly, you should probably just start over. Good thing flour is cheap!
  • Thermometers are key to baking. At the very least, you should use an oven thermometer to confirm that your oven's temperature is close to right. Or you can just wing it, but if your bread seems to always be over or under-done, it could be your oven.

Oh, and a final tip. If, in a fit of excitement, you start making bread at 9 PM, don't be surprised when it's one in the morning and you're still waiting for it to come out of the oven. Bread-making doesn't require a lot of actual work, because the yeast do most of the hard lifting, but it does require being available when the bread is ready for the next step of it's production.

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Posted in Food Post Date 05/13/2023






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