More loafing about

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I am always trying to create the perfect loaf; that one loaf that captures every element of bread in perfect harmony with the others: taste, crumb, crust and appearance. An impossible quest, I appreciate, given my lowly talents, but great bread is the Holy Grail of cooking and I cannot stop searching. It’s the journey that matters. Every step leads me towards the mountain.

Good bread is easy to make – or at least relatively easy after you’ve learned and mastered the basics. You can even make reasonably good bread in a bread machine with almost no effort aside from measuring the ingredients. But not great bread. That requires the human touch. That, and a combination of serendipitous conditions like the right heat, humidity, flour, yeast and time.

Those loaves that approach that hallowed perfection are works of artistic excellence. Mona Lisas of bakery. There is something that is both physically and spiritually gratifying about their creation. And their eating. In the latter the art proves transitory. Great bread does not last, and cannot be judged without being consumed. You give it life, then death. Then start another. Religious metaphors abound in bread baking.

Like every obsessed home baker, I have a stack of books, a binder of recipes printed put from the Web, and a head full of ideas, all collected to aid my effort to sort out what makes a more than just a good loaf, and do it consistently. To date, no single recipe, no single technique seems to achieve that every time – but that does not discourage me. In fact, it energizes me to continue my efforts.

I have a particular affection for those few of Peter Reinhart‘s dozen books books I own, especially The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (Ten Speed Press), which has the appropriately challenging subtitle, Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. In it he has explanations, not just recipes, that help me understand the chemistry behind the magic of baking.

Reinhart is not just a remarkable baker, but he has a personal story about his life and his search for meaning that resonates with me. In a delightful interview at, Reinhart – of a similar age to me – talks about his spiritual quest that began with his native Judaism, then branched out to Eastern religions in the 1960s and threaded itself through to becoming a Christian, a seminarian, and then back to the secular world. A journey that took decades. And becoming a chef and a master baker along the way. Bread is a metaphor in so many ways for his life and his beliefs.

My own journey in search of meaning – despite some parallels in pursuing Eastern philosophies – has been much less exciting and perhaps less adventurous. And my journey as a cook stumbled; I never climbed those steep peaks he conquered. But I try to follow in his footsteps – at least where they lead towards bread in the kitchen. Okay, maybe not in every footstep – I tend to experiment by traipsing outside the beaten path rather often. It’s not so much the different drummer as the different baker.

Anyway, this post is about a particular recipe that makes good bread, but which I think can be improved for consistently great bread.

I found it in a 2018 grocery-store magazine called Cooks Illustrated: All-Time Best Bread Recipes. It’s actually quite a good resource because it explains a lot of things in sidebars, like ingredients, equipment and techniques. The recipe that caught my eye was the “No-Knead 2.0” bread (p.14-16). I’ll come back to the recipe in a bit.

The basic ingredients are:
3 cups (15 ounces) all purpose or bread flour
1/4 tsp. instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. (7 ounces) water at room temp
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. (3 ounces) mild flavored lager
1 Tbs. white vinegar
Yes, I realize those are old-fashioned imperial, not modern metric measurements, and mostly volume not weight. But it’s from an American source, so you have to make allowances for the anachronisms.

Most home bakers know about the “no-knead” technique since it was made popular with the 2007 publication of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois (new and updated edition released in 2013) or Jim Lahey’s 2009 book, My Bread. Most of these breads use variations on the long-ferment technique production, similar to what Reinhart advocates, albeit with a focus on convenience (i.e. less handling of the dough). You can read the duo’s “master recipe” from the latest edition on their website, and Lahey’s recipe is here.

I’ve used their techniques – with my own variations – many times and they generally produce good breads.

In basic terms, slow fermentation means the yeast has longer time to break down the starches into digestible sugars in the flour and thus produce the chemicals that contribute to flavour. As Reinhart says in his TED talk, yeast sweat and burps are what makes bread taste good. So to a point (baked before the sugars are exhausted), the longer the dough is left to rise, the more the flavours it will have. And over the extended period the gluten chains will form (somewhat).

It’s not an exact science, because you need to balance the amount of yeast carefully. Too much yeast or too long a time fermenting and the fungi will consume all the sugars too soon: the bread won’t have that “oven spring” when baked because there’s nothing left to eat – and that spring is necessary for great bread.

One of the sub-techniques is to let the dough rise for about two hours, then put it into the fridge overnight to retard the dough. During this time the yeast continues to eat, and the gluten continues to develop, but much more slowly. It should come back to life when taken out of the cold and let warm up for the final rise.

The other technique is to autolyse the dough, a method developed in France in the 1970s. This simply means mixing the flour and water (not the yeast, salt or oil – fats deter gluten development) and letting the dough stand while it hydrates for 20-60 minutes (sometimes longer for whole wheat flours). During this time, the two basic proteins in flour – gliadin and glutenin – bond to make gluten, the material that gives dough its texture and strength (without water, flour has no gluten). During this resting period, amylase enzymes start to break down the flour’s starch into sugars to feed the yeast, so they will be actively gassing sooner. Isn’t science grand?

Mixing (and kneading) help lengthen the gluten strands, making them even stronger and more elastic. But there’s also such a thing as over-kneading. This is where art meets science. It’s unlikely you’ll over-knead by hand, but it’s easier to do so with a mixer.

So it seems – to my amateurish perspective – that if these techniques on their own help make better bread, then combining the three – autolysis, kneading and slow fermentation – should produce something closer to great bread. The gluten will be better developed, the strands longer, the sugars more accessible and the flavour better. But it’s not that easy, otherwise everyone would be doing it. Is it doing too much?

First problem is mixing the yeast and salt into the autolysed dough. Since I knead by hand, not machine, I can’t be sure that my techniques fully integrate the yeast and salt into the dough. My recent baking where I tried to use all the dough for the autolyse period suggest I created pockets where the later-added yeast flourished and areas where it failed to reach (or grow into). It is also possible I didn’t give the dough sufficient time in the rise that would allow the yeast to migrate into those areas.

So I think it works best to use, say, only two-thirds of the flour/liquid and save the rest for the final mixing. That should be easier to mix the two. This will need some further testing to determine the optimum percentages, but the idea of mixing partially-formed dough isn’t new either: bakers have been using similar methods with starters for centuries in the form of a poolish or biga pre-ferments (there are others, including levain and pâte fermentée you can also try.

A discussion of this Cooks Illustrated recipe (but not the recipe itself) is on their website. The recipe, however, is available on several sites including Breadtopia, Epicurious and other sites. It should be a staple in your baking repertoire. Some adventurous bakers have also offered their own twists on it.

There are two components that intrigued me: beer and vinegar. Why use either? Well, Cooks Illustrated says this about beer:

During a starter’s fermentation, yeast produces alcohol, carbon dioxide, and sulfur compounds, all of which contribute to good bread’s unique flavor. These three elements are present together in another location—a bottle of beer.
But why choose lager over other types of beer? It’s all about the fermentation. Most non-lager beers undergo a process called “top fermentation,” whereby yeast floats on top of the wort (grain mashed in hot water), which is exposed to oxygen and kept warm. Oxygen and warmth persuade yeast to produce spicy, astringent flavor compounds called phenols and fruity, floral compounds called esters that are desirable in beer but not in bread.
Lagers, on the other hand, undergo “bottom fermentation,” where the yeast is kept submerged in the low-oxygen environment at the bottom of the wort at colder temperatures, which causes the yeast to produce fewer phenols and esters, so that the breadier yeast and sulfur flavors come forward.

Okay, I get the chemistry: beer is both a liquid and a flavouring. I suggest that it would be best flat or non-alcoholic, to avoid poisoning the yeast with the alcohol. The author recommends using “a light American-style lager” but most of these I’ve tried seem little more than fermented cardboard (and some use corn as a fermenting base); I recommend using a local craft lager or something from a small Ontario brewery rather than one from a large commercial brewery.

But the article doesn’t mention the reason for vinegar, and that took some research. Vinegar is acetic acid, and an acid helps restrain the growth of other bacteria while yeast prefers a slightly acidic environment (which is why pineapple juice is best for a sourdough starter- it’s mildly acidic). So, according to comments on various bread forums, a small amount of vinegar increases the acidity of the dough, making it more environmentally friendly for yeast growth. White vinegar is recommended because other types (like malt) have strong flavours that might affect the bread’s taste.

The site also says:

…the acetic acid in the vinegar weakens gluten molecules, making the dough more susceptible to bubble formation. Second, the chemical composition of acetic acid is CH3COOH, meaning that additional carbon dioxide is made available due to the release of carbon dioxide by acetic acid as it is neutralized by the gluten.

That suggests vinegar counteracts the gluten strengthening you get from kneading. Being a small amount should not have serious implications to the dough, but it does hint at a beneficial kneading after the autolysis.

Should the vinegar or the beer be added to the autolysing dough? Do either have any affect on gluten formation? None I can find yet, so I think it’s safe to add them for the first stage, and I doubt the vinegar will lose much of its acidity during the short time the dough waits.

And the final bit is the Dutch oven. I hadn’t cooked bread in one before, but had purchased one last year to try. This recipe was my opportunity. The recipe doesn’t say whether the pot has to be warmed first. And a search online found both were used by different bakers. Hmmm. I suspected cold is better because it gives the dough more of a chance to rise. Maybe warming the pot (but not to oven-level temperature) will help the heat transfer. Another thing to try…

The main purpose of the pot is to trap the released steam from the baking bread, helping create a warmer environment around the dough to encourage oven spring. 

The recipe calls for the dough to be cradled in parchment paper (usually silicon-treated to be non-stick). This is heat-resistant product with a theoretical limit of 400-425F while the recipe calls for an oven temperature of 500F turned down to 425 when the pot is placed inside. Parchment paper doesn’t release its heat to the items on it until it reaches around 140F, so the pot will heat up before the dough does. 

The paper (sprayed with oil) makes it easier to transfer the dough from its rising container to the Dutch oven, too, without excessive handling that could deflate it. However, the bottom of the pot will be lined with a dual layer of parchment paper, which I suspect slows the temperature transfer even more. Not sure what this might mean to the bottom of the loaf – a tad under-cooked perhaps? The solution to that might be to remove the loaf from the pot after about 30-40 minutes and bake it on the open rack for the remaining time.

I have wondered whether putting a small, thin, metal trivet or rack under the dough in the Dutch oven and adding a very small amount of water would also help develop more steam, but it has to be a very small amount to avoid boiling the dough (or soaking into it).

I experimented with a silicon rack meant for cooking veggies at the bottom, but found it too deep, keeping the dough too far from the heat from the pot. This doesn’t get transferred to the dough efficiently, so the bottom was undercooked compared to the top.  Perhaps just putting a few fragments of ice into the sides of the pot might be a solution, too.

In my two tests, the crust came out very nicely done, but the crumb not so well. I often add powered milk  and/or sugar to a mix, but both milk and sugar tend to caramelize the crust faster, which might make it overdone in the pot. Oil or butter, as I mentioned, tends to limit gluten production, which in a no-knead or reduced-knead recipe is not desirable.

But rather than just all-purposed unbleached flour the recipe calls for ( Reinhart recommends bakers always use unbleached flour!) I think the substitution of a 1/2 cup of bread flour, with its higher gluten potential, could help the gluten build. And maybe a half-cup of whole wheat – although that might mean extending the autolyse a few minutes if it’s added then, and perhaps increasing the liquids a tad more.

Anyway, the recipe makes a good bread as is, but my own curiosity couples with my quest for the perfect loaf to make me want to try some tweaks of both ingredients and technique. I’ll let you know who they turn out in later posts.

PS. I am trying to construct a simple, inexpensive proofing box. Commercial models sell for $250-$500, and more. Well outside my budget. Instead, I bought a couple of hot/cold (reusable, microwaveable) gel packs ($4 each) and got an old, sealable (with zippers) cooler box from the basement. These seem to work, although you have to reheat the gel packs every 30-45 minutes to keep them warm (making it marginally more labour-intensive to use). Still, the box retains a warmer environment for dough than my normally cool house. I’ve only tried it once, but will be using it again when I bake a new loaf this week.

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