The New Art of the Old: Baking Artisan Bread


bread rising Oct 14So far, my re-entry into the world of baking bread has gone fairly well. I started rather hesitantly, unsure of the results, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the flavour, texture and quality so far. Yesterday I baked my latest loaf, as well as started a larger batch for baking in a few days.

I have not ventured into any of the challenging or regional breads, but will do so once I am confident in making this simple artisan-style bread.

I began with a simple recipe and technique from the Bread Experience blog.  I had scoured the web for recipes and found way too many to absorb. As a novice, I wanted something quick and easy, but also small. I anticipated tossing my first efforts into the compost, so I didn’t want to waste ingredients. The recipe here came with illustrations and a well-written description that made it look like a good place to start.

Bread baked Oct 14The recipe is adapted from the book that seems to have revolutionized home baking: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I haven’t read it, but almost every bread baking site and blog I visit refers to it in glowing terms. I have in my basket on Amazon. I didn’t want to invest into books yet until I had some feel for the basics.

The blog lists four simple, natural ingredients:

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1/2 tablespoon Kosher salt
  • 1 – 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water

You should also have either cornmeal or parchment paper to keep the bread from sticking to whatever surface you bake on. I chose the Robin Hood all-purpose flour marked “best for bread” on the package. I used the basic dry Fleishmann yeast, poured into the mix right from the package, as the recipe suggests. And also parchment paper.

Oct 20 risingI spent quite some time online exploring the business and science of both flour and yeast, a few weeks back. It was interesting, but also inspiring. It didn’t, however, make me a better baker. I had to do the actual baking, get flour on my hands.

You can see my first dough at the top left of this post; divided into two pieces. Not much; pretty small, unexciting.

Compared to the images in the blog, they seemed rather puny. The runts of the litter, so to speak. But they baked up reasonably well. Chewy, a bit dense, but tasty. Good for dipping in soup, but too small for sandwiches. And the bottom quarter inch or so wasn’t as well risen as it should have been. Well, it wasn’t a complete failure. At least it was edible.

I wrote about this earlier this month, when I first ventured into the artisan baking adventure. I wasn’t displeased, because I had learned a few things in the process. But I clearly needed to do better. And read a lot more about baking bread.

First lesson is: make sure you let the bread rise sufficiently after taking it out of the fridge. That means letting it warm up for a longer time that the recipe suggests. We keep a cool house, so my dough needs more time to warm than the blogs and cookbooks suggest. Patience is required.

Baked bread Oct 20Second: proof the yeast. Or use more than the recipe suggests. Proofing gets the yeast started, so it gets to the work of rising the dough sooner. The recipe may be a little light, too. Another 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon might work better. Yes, yeast grows over time, but the time I have given these doughs so far is probably too short to get enough yeast in it.

My second attempt, a week later, was better. Same recipe, same ingredients, just a touch more yeast. And I used a mortar and pestle to grind the salt.

I gave the dough more time before putting it in the fridge, and more time after I took it out. I also proofed the yeast, although probably not for as long as I should have. Still, the result was quantitatively better. I made a single loaf from the dough, not the two I made the first time.

This time it has taller, and less dense, but still tasty and very edible. Not quite tall enough for sandwiches, but enough to pop a slice in the toaster and lather with peanut butter when it popped. The bread rose fairly well, but didn’t have the large pockets typical of artisan bread. Still, a clear improvement. And a great crust.

Lesson learned: apply even more more patience. Give it the time to rise before baking. I want a taller loaf, something that works for sandwiches. Less dense.

Bread rising Oct 20Third time, I added still more yeast (1.5 teaspoons) and proofed the yeast a bit longer (in warm water with two tablespoons of flour). I also let it rise far longer than the previous breads. And rise it did.

I didn’t change the amount of flour or water.

This time, I chose to put it in an oven-ready ceramic bowl, rather than simply on a flat cookie sheet. I used the parchment paper to keep it from sticking to the bowl, too. This makes cleanup much easier and faster. What a great invention!

Another experiment: I started the oven at 425F, rather than the recommended 450, and turned it up to 450 after 15 minutes. Not sure what that did, but the result was the best yet. I have to read more about bread baking and temperature. The Fresh Loaf has a column about the effects of time and temperature. I gleaned two things from it. First:

Longer, slower fermentation extracts more flavor from your flour.

I kept that in mind when I started my fourth batch. Leave it alone for a few days. Second,

The general rule is that crusty breads should be baked at as high a temperature as possible. Soft shelled breads should be baked at lower temperatures. When you increase the temperature of your oven your bread bakes quicker (duh).

I also have a Corningware tray that I put some water into for steam on a lower rack. But it seems I really only need this for the first few minutes:

For the first five or ten minutes of baking, having steam in the oven will improve the quality of your crust. Steam does two things: first, it keeps the outside of the loaf from drying out until the dough has fully risen; second, steam coagulates the starches on the outside of the loaf, which improves the color and texture the crust.

Bread Oct 25Another technique I need to figure out: how to get steam in the first few minutes, but not the whole baking period. More research is required.

I brushed the surface with avocado oil, too – I saw a video on Youtube (see below)  that recommended brushing the exposed surface with oil to brown it. Works, but I clearly need a better brush (the silicone baster brush I used is too coarse and puts too much oil on it). Avocado oil is a nice choice – mild, but thick.

The bread rose beautifully in the oven.  It baked nicely throughout. Crust was chewy on top – perhaps a touch too chewy (it was tough to cut into slices at first, but that may improve now it’s been in the fridge overnight), and fairly soft on the sides and bottom.

A little too much oil on the top, perhaps, but that’s part of the learning curve (I’m off to  find a better brush at local stores today).

Delicious, as expected. Tall enough for a sandwich, what’s left (we ate half the loaf at dinner last night, with a bowl of soup). You can see that it’s showing more of the interior air pockets than any of the other attempts. I’m getting closer to the loaf I want.

Downstairs in the basement fridge my fourth batch of dough is sitting and fermenting. More ingredients this time: four cups of flour and the appropriate amount of water and yeast. I want to make two pan loaves next week, so I followed a slightly different recipe from a YouTube video. You can watch it here:

This time, I proofed the yeast in water, flour and a tiny bit of molasses. I also used fast-rising yeast this time. The real difference between the yeast types is the acidic base (ascorbic acid, which seems to make it get started faster, but doesn’t really make a difference over time). And, following the above recipe, I added a little margarine (instead of shortening – I had no vegetable shortening available). Not sure what that will do to the bread, but thought I’d try it anyway.

And I let it rise a longer time before putting it in the fridge, where it will sit until Tuesday or Wednesday. Unless I get antsy and take it out Sunday.

I may want to try a sourdough in the near future. I was inspired by the video below about sourdough and the science of the yeasts:

I need to check some online sources for some alternate ingredients like yeasts (can I use a lambic yeast for sourdough? can one buy sourdough yeast or starter online?). Many questions.

More to learn, more to experiment with. Have to do more research before I leap into different types of breads. Ciabatta. Pugliese. Boules. Baguettes. It’s a fun and tasty journey.