5 Tips for Better Bread

Bread finished 2

Bread is one of those things that people seem to have very strong opinions about. In a very short amount of time, bread has gone from being the measure of greatness (and, really, who doesn’t love sliced bread?) to something that should be avoided at all costs lest it RUIN your LIFE, or something like that. I don’t think autoimmune disorders and allergies are things to be taken lightly or made fun of, but I’m going to go on record as being pro bread and seriously confused by the recent trend of anti-bread histrionics. I mean, of course bread can make you gain weight if you eat too much of it. So can chocolate. And dried fruit. And nuts. And chicken. And wine. The point is that anything and everything can make you fat if you eat too much of it, so why point the finger to bread?

If it’s not obvious to you yet, let me be clear: I love bread. Not only do I eat it almost every day, I’ve devoted a fair amount of my spare time learning about bread. I’ve been known to curl up in bed with my baking books and fall asleep reading about formulas and technique, and I’ve spent countless hours in the kitchen practicing and perfecting my bread baking skills (giant nerd or obsessive perfectionist? You decide…). Naturally, any new blog, book or TV special about bread baking immediately captures my attention, so imagine my excitement when I first learned about BBC’s new show, Paul Hollywood’s Bread. When it comes to food porn, nobody, it seems, does it better than the British.

Before The Great British Bake Off, I had never heard of Paul Hollywood, the token Grumpy Judge of the show. According to Wikipedia, he got his start by apprenticing under his father and, later, made a name for himself by authoring a reputedly best-selling book that I’d never heard of before I looked him up, and by selling high end (read: needlessly expensive) loaves to places like Harrod’s. In short, Paul Hollywood has an impressive pedigree. And no matter how I feel about surly judges who sometimes seem as though they’d rather pass a kidney stone than give positive feedback, it’s hard not to get excited at the prospect of watching a master at work.

Except…. the whole time I watched him, all I could think (and say aloud, much to Keith’s annoyance) was, he should know better! I know this probably seems precocious of me, because who do I think I am? He runs a successful bread brand that capitalizes on, among other things, his decades of experience with baking. I, on the other hand, am nothing more than an amateur enthusiast. And, yet, watching him explain the process of building a levain and creating a loaf was beyond infuriating. The instructions he gave regarding mixing, proving, shaping, all of it was just plain wrong. Like his claim that bread dough rises more quickly with salt? Um… no. Or his claim that overproofing the dough makes it taste bitter? Wrong again. Part of me thinks that I shouldn’t be too hard on him because he’s merely repeating the conventional wisdom of home bakers, and those are the people watching his show, after all. But then I remember that he’s also selling a companion cookbook that contains much of the same bad information, and my sympathy goes away. If he expects me to part with my money, he has to give me something that will make my bread better.

Which, I suppose, brings me to the point. Today, I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about how to make good bread. For free! These are tips I’ve learned from my bread heros and through trial and error. Making picturesque bread certainly takes a lot of  practice, but the tips I’m about to share with you will go a long way to helping you make really delicious bread. And, away we go!

Tip #1: Use a digital scale

Making good bread doesn’t require a lot of equipment, but one thing you should have on hand is a digital scale. The reason is simple: weight measurements are more accurate than volume measurements. A cup of flour, for instance, can be lighter or heavier depending on whether you’ve packed or sifted your flour, while the weight of a cup of water is more or less same every time you use the same measure. By weighing your ingredients instead of measuring with cups, you’ll end up with more consistent and predictable results.

Tip # 2: Use more water

People seem to be afraid to add water to their doughs because they think the whole thing will become messy and unmanageable, which I understand. If you’re new to bread baking, it might seem like it takes forever for the whole thing to come together and, meanwhile, you’ll probably be muttering profanities under your breath as you struggle to stop the dough from sticking to, well, everything. Adding less water (or, alternatively, more flour) is not the answer, though. Even if your bread tastes great right out of the oven, bread without enough water will begin to stale within a few hours and will likely be inedible before you get to the end of the loaf. When you add enough water, though, it’s much easier to get better texture and a more open crumb. And even if you leave your bread on the counter in a paper bag, like I do, it will be soft and relatively fresh for several days.

High hydration spelt and prune bread

High hydration spelt and prune bread

So, how much water is enough, then? I prefer to work with higher hydration when I bake, so I rarely make a loaf that contains less than 70% water. Calculating this amount is very simple to do using baker’s math, in which all ingredients are calculated as a percentage of the weight of flour. Here’s an example: let’s say you want to make a large loaf of bread that is hydrated at 70%, and you have 500g of flour to use. To figure out what 70% of 500g is, multiply 500 by 0.7, which gives you 350. So, to get 70% hydration using 500g of flour, you’ll need to add 350g of water. Again, this is just what I prefer, and you could certainly make bread using less water. But anything less than 60% hydration is going to result in a dry loaf that stales really quickly.

Tip # 3: Handle the dough less

This might be my favorite tip because it actually saves you a bit of time as well as improving your bread. Many bread recipes will tell you to knead your dough into a smooth, elastic ball, but this is bad advice. Why? Because a dough that is worked to its full strength at the beginning of the process has very little room to grow stronger by the time it goes in the oven, which is when you most need it to be strong. When bread dough is overworked, the probability that the risen dough will collapse, instead of rise, once it hits the heat is really high, and there’s nothing worse that putting a beautiful dome of dough into the oven and removing a pancake 45 minutes later. Fortunately, it’s really easy to avoid this: just handle your dough a bit less.

What, you may be thinking, does it mean to handle your dough less? Many recipes will tell you to knead your dough for anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes in order to achieve smooth, strong dough. If you’re working by hand and you’re not particularly strong, that’s probably about the right amount of time. But if you’re using a stand mixer on its lowest setting, that is far, far too long. Instead, knead your dough until it looks like this:

Bread dough kneaded

As you can see, it’s not exactly smooth, but the gluten strands are starting to line up and get stronger. This takes no longer than 5 minutes using the lowest setting of a KitchenAid stand mixer.

At this point, you might be concerned that your dough is underworked and that it won’t rise properly, but, happily, all your dough needs in order to grow stronger is time. This is the brilliance behind Jim Lahey’s (in)famous No Knead Bread formula: time does the work and, with minimal handling, bread dough can become stronger with little or no help from the baker. This same principle applies to regular bread, too: short kneading time + stretching and folding occasionally during the first rise = strong and minimally worked bread dough.

Tip #4: NEVER allow your dough to double in size

I think the piece of advice I was most annoyed by while watching Paul Hollywood was that bread dough needs to double in size. In his book, he even suggests letting the dough triple or quadruple in size, which is just so, so wrong. Bread dough is elastic and, like all things elastic, it will snap back and/or break when stretched to its limit. In other words, dough risen to more than double its original volume is overproofed and will collapse in the oven. So, instead of letting it double, triple or quadruple in size over 3-5 hours, as Hollywood suggests, let it rise until it’s 1.5-1.75 times the original size of the dough, which will only take between 1 and 2.5 hours, depending on the type of yeast you’ve used.

Tip #5: Let it cool down

Cooling, the final step to bread baking, is the step we all want to skip the most, and who can blame us? It’s hard not to be enticed by the scent of the bread while it’s baking, and often our first impulse after we take the loaf out of the oven is to tear into it while it’s still warm. I suppose this isn’t such a big deal if you eat the whole thing in one sitting. But if you want to make your bread last a few days, it’s important to let it cool down for at least an hour before you cut into it. If you cut into it too soon, the crumb quickly becomes gummy and unpleasant. Letting it cool for at least an hour, but often longer, not only prevents the crumb from becoming sticky and gross, it also helps improve the flavour. Bread, like most other fermented food, tends to taste better with age, and leaving it to cool even a few extra hours before cutting it open can make it taste so much better than it does right out of the oven.

Now, I want to assure you that I still make plenty of mistakes (that go unphotographed) when I bake bread. I can go for several weeks making perfect loaves and then have a streak of bad luck in which every loaf I make is just plain bad. Sometimes, I know that my failures are a result of having rushed through the process, and other times there are different factors at play. The weather can make a big difference, and so can the water you use, especially if your water filter is old or something like that. Some brands and types of flour absorb water better than others, and I’m most likely to bake something inedible when I’m experimenting with new flours. But I’ve observed a drastic improvement in the quality of my bread since I began making use of these tips. Few things make me feel more capable than making a beautiful and delicious loaf of bread, and I hope that my sharing what I’ve learned will give you the confidence to try making your own. Bon appetit!

Bread finished

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