01/20/14

The Short and the Tall of It


Mixed yeast bread 01This past week saw several new experiments in my bread laboratory. Okay, it’s a kitchen, but sometimes it feels like a lab, what with all the tinkering and testing I do. I just can’t seem to stop trying new things in bread. It would fee even more science-like if Susan would let me buy the implements and tools I want.

First, however, the good news: my levain remains thriving and healthy. I have two batches now: one on the counter, the other in the fridge. The counter batch is used as a poolish right now; the fridge is the long-term colony.

I used most of the counter colony last week to make a mixed-yeast bread, based somewhat on a recipe in Peter Reinhart’s book, Artisan Breads Every Day. I’ve since restored the levain to fuller size by feeding, and will use it again this week for another mixed-yeast loaf; this one with some tweaks.

You can read some of Reinhart’s ideas about bread, poolish, hydration and cold fermentation here in this PDF file. Or check his blog for ideas and new recipes. I really enjoy Reinhart’s writing and recommend his books. There’s always something to learn in them.

The idea of mixing the two yeasts intrigued me. I’ve learned a lot about pore-ferments and cold fermentation since I started baking. Reinhart writes:

The use of old dough or pre-fermented sponges was developed by traditional bakers as a way of slowing down fermentation and, essentially, buying the dough more time to release its flavor (a result of starch molecules releasing some of their sugar and saccharide chains, as well as the formation of acids due to fermentation by yeast and bacteria). Some of these pre-ferments are wet and batterlike, while others are dry and firm; some are made with commercial yeast, while others use naturally occurring wild yeast (sourdough starters); some have salt, and some don’t. What they all have in common is the idea of adding older, slowly fermented dough to young, freshly made dough to instantly age it so that greater flavor can be developed in less time. This is an example of the manipulation of time by the manipulation of ingredients.

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01/12/14

Two more loaves, new lessons learned


Raisin breadFollowing up on my desire to make homemade raisin-cinnamon bread for Susan, I spent several hours collecting recipes online and entering their ingredients into a spreadsheet so i could compare them. Quite a range in the amounts of some (like cinnamon and sugar).

Then an Amazon order arrived, which included a 2012 book called 300 Best Canadian Bread Machine Recipes, by Donna Washburn and Heather Butt. Good book, lots of great stuff in it and many ideas to try.

And it’s by far the best bread machine book I’ve encountered. If you get it, be sure to read the introduction – these ladies know their stuff.

I decided to go with that book’s recipe, first, rather than cobble my own together. After all, the book is designed for Canadian bakers. Our flour is somewhat different from American flour (although some types are similar), so it’s nice to be able to bake something without fretting over adjustments to an American recipe.*

300BCBMR has two recipes for cinnamon-raisin bread I wanted to try: a basic one in four sizes (1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3 lb loaves – fifty of their breads have the four sizes listed; the rest one or two), and another called “Grandma’s Raisin Cinnamon Bread,” which includes an egg in the ingredients, and a slightly different mix of the rest. It also lists a 1.5 and 2 lb recipe for that variation. I decided to start with the basic, small size-loaf (10-12 slices), medium crust, sweet bread setting.

Of course, I can’t resist tinkering. Mad scientist runs through my veins. I should be a virologist.**

Raisin breadI changed the sugar called-for in the recipe to molasses (I pondered using agave syrup, but decided to save that option for a future loaf). Here I had to guess a bit: is the sugar content in 2 Tbs of granulated sugar the same as that in molasses? (No, actually, molasses has more, i found out later, but it also adds gobs of flavour).

I traded about 3/4 cup of the total unbleached flour for whole wheat. And I plumped the raisins first – soaked them in warm water before use. Several of the online recipes recommended this.

The molasses darkened the loaf, but otherwise didn’t do much to the taste (I may have used a little less than the sugar it called for – it isn’t as easy to pour or measure or get out of the measuring spoon as granulated sugar).

The whole wheat flour may have contributed to the bizarre shape/rise, and the plumped raisins likely made it a bit too moist for a proper rise. But I’m guessing here. The recipes all call for all-purpose or bread flour. I use unbleached white. I don’t see a difference in ingredients or protein content on the labels, but it could be in the amount of amalyse.

The loaf came out misshapen. The top looked like a 3D map of the Rockies. And one end didn’t fully reach to the end of the pan.

The crumb seems to have fully cooked, but it almost looked as if the top rose too much, then collapsed. I may have used a tad too little yeast, too. The plastic measuring spoons I have generate static, and I found after I added the yeast that some had adhered to the spoon surface. I didn’t think it was enough to make a difference, but it may have been. Note to self: get metal measuring spoons.

Taste is good, although not significantly different from commercial loaves. The crumb is slightly too chewy, according to Susan (I like it though), but the crust is good. I might turn it up to dark crust next time.

The cinnamon is muted and doesn’t come across as strongly as I had hoped. Not a bad bread – edible and very good toasted, but hardly presentable. Not sure if this is the machine or my tweaking.

I am unsure the machine (or any bread machine) can really mix the dough effectively. I’ve thought of removing the dough after the kneading cycle, pausing the machine, then fashioning the dough by hand with a bit of folding and stretching, and returning it to the pan for the rising and baking.

Next time: dry raisins, no whole wheat.

I may try to make a “swirl” bread which incorporates raisins and cinnamon sugar inside. Cinnamon is also a yeast inhibitor, like salt, so you have to be careful when adding it to the dough. This recipe called for 1 tsp, but I would prefer at least double that. Yet the recipe warned against adding more.

Making it by hand, in the oven, with a centre swirl, may be the solution. Use the bread machine for the dough setting only. Or just leave it in the cupboard.

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01/5/14

What, no raisin bread?


Cinnamon-raisin bread. Not mine, however.I have a large – and growing – stack of books about bread. So many that I’m running out of shelf space for them all. Some are for artisan bread, some for regular homemade bread (traditional recipes, usually with lots of kneading), others are for bread machines. A couple are generic “all-about-breads-of-the-world” books with recipes.

Yet only one of 15 has a recipe for making the basic raisin-cinnamon bread. This is a loaf I want to make in the bread machine on the timer, so next weekend we’d awake to fresh raisin bread, ready to toast.

There are all sorts of variations in the books; all sorts of recipes with either raisins or cinnamon, and a few with both. I have recipes for raisin sourdough, raisin rye, Chelsea buns, frosted raisin loaf cake, fruit and spice loaf, cinnamon buns, Greek Xmas bread, Greek Easter bread, hot cross buns, panettone, sticky buns, maritimer’s bread, stollen, ginger and raisin whirls, Polish babka, rum and raisin loaf, schiacciate con uva, cinnamon bagels, christopsomos, focaccia, lambrospomo,walnut-cinnamon bread, cinnamon raisin roll, cinnamon and cranberry bread, and others.

None of which is what I want, and on top of that, they’re all arranged for oven baking, not bread machine.

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01/4/14

A Tale of Two Loaves


Two loaves, Jan 3 2014

Fresh from the machine and from the oven

An interesting experiment this week: using the same basic set of ingredients to make bread, but one made by hand, the other in the bread machine, both made the same day.

I’ve been curious about this ever since I got the machine. Would the two methods create similar breads if I used roughly the same ingredients? I say roughly because I used a bread machine recipe found in a book, including all of the ingredients listed (substituting a small amount of honey for the sugar listed, and avocado oil for generic vegetable oil.)

In the handmade loaf, however, I included no additional honey or oil, because my tried-and-true recipe didn’t call for them.

In both, I substituted roughly 50g of water called for in the recipe for 50g of buttermilk.

Two loaves, Jan 3 2014

Ends sliced for comparison

Or would the loaves be very different? As you can see by the photographs, the height is clearly greater in the left (bread machine) loaf. A difference was expected, but the amount surprised me. The bread machine loaf was also less symmetrical than the handmade loaf. That’s just an aesthetic thing, but I like the symmetry.

I think I know the reason – or rather reasons – for that height difference (more below).

The bread machine loaf is almost too tall for everyday use. It doesn’t fit comfortably into the toaster – about 1.5 inches (38mm) sticking out. That means turning the slice half-way through the toasting. A bit of a pain.

The flour was in the same proportions, although quantities varied slightly. The bread machine recipe was listed in volumetric measurements (cups of flour), while the handmade recipe used weights. The mix of flours was approximately one third whole wheat to two thirds unbleached white. It’s not possible to match the two measurements exactly because a cup of flour weighs different amounts depending on whether it’s fluffed or sifted, its humidity and your own personal measuring technique.

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12/26/13

The last loaves of 2013


Pumpkin cranberry loafAs my stock of bread dwindles, I’m contemplating what breads to bake this weekend, as well as what I may want to try before the New Year. I’m also pondering my baking successes and failures these past few months. Mostly successes, although a few have been “qualified” successes – edible but not optimal.

First my levain – sourdough – mix got dumped last week. It went off and really stank. Unpleasant. I suspected it was struggling for a couple of weeks, ever since I tried – and failed – to make a decent sourdough bread with it as a starter. They rose only minimally, even when left overnight, and baked into bricks with uncooked centres.

The starter didn’t respond well to feedings any more, either. A crust formed over it and I knew it was dying. Very disappointing, but we motor on.

I have to try to make a starter again, this time I will begin with pineapple juice rather than water, to ensure a lower pH (more acidity), which will discourage some of the more competitive bacteria. I had used some in my first batch, but later, not from the start.

Black & Decker bread machineSecond my bread machine. I bought one recently on sale at Canadian Tire – a Black & Decker B6000C that advertises it makes 1.5,2 and 3 pound loaves. (What ever happened to metric? Isn’t Canada supposed to use metric?)

All of the recipes in its book have volumetric measurements, and I’m using weight measurements for everything else to have greater consistency, so I didn’t try anything until I found an interesting pumpkin-cranberry bread machine loaf online. That’s when I finally unpacked it.

The machine started grumpily and hesitantly, a bit like I am some mornings after a rough, sleepless night. It didn’t want to knead the bread, and after a few dis-spirited grunts that suggested it was having a difficult time with the paddles and the dough consistency, it simply sat there. The ingredients unmixed.

After an hour of fretting and waiting while it did nothing, I reset it, roughly mixed the dough by hand, and started again. This time it worked, the paddles paddled, and the cycle completed without any problems that I could find.

The bread that resulted was – well, okay. Nothing spectacular.  Although rather yellowy-orange looking, the pumpkin flavour is very subdued, the cranberries too few to really influence the taste.* I also used buttermilk and molasses instead of water and honey, so I set myself up with this loaf right from the start. It’s edible and not bad toasted, but hardly what I expected. The texture and crust were fine so I’m eating my way through it.

I’m also unsure if the recipes in the machine’s instruction book are designed for American or Canadian flours. I’ve read comments online that recipes need to be altered when using Canadian flour in many of these recipe. Again, one of those things that requires some testing.

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12/22/13

Salt and bread making


Salt is one of the four essential ingredients in making bread, along with flour, yeast and water. Nothing more is needed, although often a lot more is added.

Salt is listed in all the recipes. Only one bread I’ve ever read about is salt-free (a Tuscan specialty mentioned in William Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves).

We tend to assume salt is simply for flavour, but it is also part of our basic biology:

I find it easiest to think of salt as one half of the body’s water-regulation system, the other half being potassium. The membranes of every cell in the body allow water to flow through in direct proportion to how much sodium and potassium are present in the immediate area. Too much or too little sodium in the body affects everything from digestion to blood pressure to brain function.

Since proper sodium levels are so important, the body uses the kidneys to maintain a precise balance. The system is very efficient, which means that if you eat more sodium than the recommended daily allowance, you’ll simply excrete whatever you don’t need (within reason). That also means that we tend to crave more salt than we actually need to eat, which might explain its flavor-enhancing properties.

Salt, as the site above tells us, suppresses bitter flavours, which means some foods taste better salted (at least in my cultural background, which favours sweet and salty over sour and bitter). Because it suppresses bitter, which in turn suppresses  sweet and sour flavours, these flavours come across as stronger in the presence of salt.

Which suggests that a bread with a sweet factor – say raisins, coconut or cranberries – can have a higher salt content than a plain bread, because the salt will enhance the sweetness. So less sugar, more salt? (Okay, I don’t cook with processed sugar because I try to avoid it in my diet…)

Read this food science piece in Nature about salt, food and flavour. Very interesting.

Taste and flavour are not quite synonymous, as the National Institute of Health reminds us:

Taste and flavor are terms that are often confused. The word “taste” has two meanings, one technical and the other as commonly used in the English language, which encompasses the larger concept of flavor…

The sense of taste, one of the five major senses, is defined based on anatomy. In mammals, it is the sense subserved by taste receptor cells located primarily on taste buds in the oral cavity. These taste receptor cells are innervated by branches of the seventh, ninth, and tenth cranial nerves that synapse first in the brainstem prior to sending messages to other parts of the brain…

Virtually all foods and beverages impart sensations in addition to taste. For example, a complex food such as soup not only has taste properties (e.g., it is salty, sour, or sweet) but also has volatile compounds that give it its specific identity (e.g., pea soup compared to potato soup), and it may also have burning properties, such as those caused by hot peppers… In common parlance, the entire sensation elicited by this food is called its “taste.” However, most scientists would instead use the term “flavor” to refer to this total sensation, and that is how it will be used here. It should be noted that many also include the texture of a food as a component of flavor. Taste molecules such as salt can influence flavor in many ways, some of which are described below.

Of course, salt plays other roles in the baking, fermenting and gluten development stages. According to the Wild Yeast blog:

  • Salt affects dough texture, making it stronger and less sticky, as the commenter noticed.
  • Salt reduces oxidation of the dough during mixing. Oxidation causes the degradation of carotenoid pigments in the flour that contribute to flavor and crumb color.
  • Salt regulates yeast activity, causing fermentation to progress at a more consistent rate.
  • Salt affects shelf life. Because it attracts water, it can help keep bread from staling too quickly in a dry environment. However, in a humid environment, it can make the crust soggier.

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