Consistency vs Improvement: a Baker’s Dilemma?

It’s been some time since I did a bread post – not that this is a bread blog – I’ve never said that, mostly because I’m pretty much a generalist – and if I had a bread blog, I’d soon violate the narrow confines of its design.  But I do love bread, and I like blogging about it – and just because I haven’t recently done a bread post doesn’t mean I haven’t been baking.

I bake constantly – however, just like other bakers, I tend to bake a short list of favorite breads that we enjoy, and I think it would be quite boring for me to continually write about the same bread, over and over and over – and it certainly would be boring to keep reading about it over and over … – and frankly, as a generalist blog reader, I avoid regular readings of ‘one trick’ blogs.  However, I do appreciate the occasional introduction of ideas which stimulate my imagination to try new ways.

As I’ve said many times here, when I retired some 10 years ago, one of my prime intentions was to learn how to bake bread -sourdough, specifically- but after 9 years of baking almost all sourdough breads, I simply tired of sourdough.  This is both the prerogative and the failing of all generalists (it is very difficult for a generalist to be an ‘expert’ in anything!).  So if you are here because you are seeking expert advice on bread making, you will, I fear, be disappointed – however, if you are interested in my continuing observations of the behavior of bread, you are invited to come along as a guest on my journey.

Over the past year, my breads have been leavened by commercial yeast, aka baker’s yeast.  I don’t share the sourdough fanatic’s sense that baker’s yeast adds an off flavor to the breads it leavens.  Maybe it does, and I like it – who knows (I often suspect that my own ability to discern tastes is not as sharp as it is in other people – but then, how does one test that suspicion?).  But, recently, the breads I’ve leavened with baker’s yeast have used so little yeast that I can’t see how it would affect the taste – besides, when one uses only a tiny bit of baker’s yeast in their dough, it is essential to let time do what an initial heavy blast of of yeast would accomplish, and during that time, fermentation is literally changing the taste (and perfume) of the dough – have you ever smelled the aroma of a 16 hour dough that had been leavened with only a pinch of baker’s yeast?  Heavenly is the only word which comes close to a true description!

A 12 Hour Active Preferment

Case closed.

But I have a question for you today:  which is more important, a consistent baking process (so we always have good breads coming out of our ovens) or the concept of continual improvement (so we always strive for perfection)?  I think when I was young and less experienced, I thought that my goal should be to get to the point where I could bake one bread really well, and then move on to another bread.  Now I’m quite sure that I’ll never be totally satisfied that any of my breads are REALLY GOOD – or that any are consistently consistent, for that matter.  And I now suspect that the more experienced a baker becomes, the more consistency and improvement are intertwined!

OK, enough philosophy for awhile – let me share where I am in my current baking experience with a bread which we are especially enjoying right now – it’s a white baker’s yeast bread, but it’s got tons of flavor, and it’s a ‘free form’, with no final proofing.  It’s also a bread which is a hybrid, comprised of bits and pieces of several other breads – and thereby representing my behavioral baking changes over time.

Doubled and Ready to be Cut into Loaves

As one of our ‘everyday’ breads, this one, which for the moment I’m calling ‘Free-Form White with Preferment’, meets all the criteria for an everyday bread:
* must be easy (goes without saying that if I’m going to include a regular activity in my routine, I’m going to streamline it as much as possible)
* must have lots of flavor (and with a yeast bread, that means using a nice, long preferment)
* and it would be nice not to have to worry about a final proof   (I suffer from a tendency to over-proof my breads!)

This bread borrows from the amazingly flavorful baker’s yeast baguettes of France, which often give bakers problems in the final proofing stage because of the high hydration of the dough.  Although this bread is also a high hydration dough, there is no problem with proofing, since we also borrow from the ciabatta process, the result of which is a free-form loaf with lots of oven spring and an attractive, one of a kind, no score shape.

A Tub Like This Makes Proofing a Wet Dough Very Easy

I really do think this one is a breakthrough in my own baking – so here it is.

Free-Form White with Preferment

14 oz water
8 oz white bread flour
¼ tsp yeast

Mix and leave at room temp for 12 – 24 hours (It will have separated – it’s fine!)

Final Dough Mix:
To the above preferment, add:
10 oz white bread flour
2 tsp salt
1 tsp yeast (or even less, if you’re willing to wait longer!)

*  Put on K.A. (stand mixer) for up to 8 to 10 minutes – this is important for gluten development (the dough will not pull away from the sides of the bowl)
*  Allow dough to rise in well greased, covered bowl (or tub**) for 30 minutes
*  Give dough a fold and stretch in the bowl/tub and re-cover
*  Do this every 30 minutes for the next hour and a half, while dough doubles in volume (do not allow dough to rise more than double to avoid over-proofing)

*  About 1 hour prior to baking, preheat oven to 500F degrees
*  Place cast iron skillet in bottom of oven to heat to heat

*  If dough has doubled in volume within the initial proofing time (or before), move on to the next step
*  If the dough has not doubled within that time, give it enough additional time to double before moving on

*  Gently move the risen dough to a well floured board, and roll the dough in the flour
*  Gently stretch the dough into a roughly 15″x6″ rectangle
*  With a long, sharp knife, gently cut the dough into 3 long sections (about 15″x2″)
*  Gently roll each long loaf in the flour, and move each to either a sheet of baker’s parchment (if baking on a stone) or a parchment covered sheet pan (no need to score!)
*  Pour 1 cup of boiling water into the heated skillet in the oven
*  Move loaves onto stone in oven with a peel, or slip sheet pan with loaves into oven
*  Immediately lower baking temp to 450F
*  Bake for 25-30 minutes, turning loaves/pan halfway through the baking time
(** I use a clear plastic food grade tub -see pic above- with cover to proof ciabatta and other wet doughs – this works very well, but the tub must be very well oiled for this.)

Nice Airy Texture and Thin Chewy Crust

When I See the Shiny Interior of the Crumb, I Know All is Well

This is one of the best tasting yeast breads I’ve ever made – and yet, it’s an easy loaf to put together and bake – I know the instructions above are long, but that’s only because I’ve tried to be very specific – it’s really quite a simple bread.  I hope it tempts you to try these tricks in your own baking.


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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15 Responses to Consistency vs Improvement: a Baker’s Dilemma?

  1. Glenda says:

    Oh Doc your question is dead easy for me. I am never content with doing the same thing over and over. Once I have ‘conquered’ something it is time to move on so I will opt for your ‘concept of continual improvement’. We are always eating my attempts at new loaves I have seen in a cook book or on the web. I would hate to make the same loaf over and over. It would become a chore for me. I need variety and a challenge.
    I am a little confused with your instructions. Are we doing the stretch and folds whilst it is trying to double in bulk? Won’t each stretch and fold deflate it? How many stretch and folds are we doing?
    BTW: Your bread looks delightful, as always. The crumb is to die for. I bet Sandee is glad you took up baking.

  2. drfugawe says:

    Yup! Each time you do a stretch and fold, you do lose a tiny bit, but you are redistributing the yeasties so even more are active, and even more gas is produced – so, not to worry – it works. Do one stretch and fold each 30 mins until the dough doubles in volume.

  3. Sandee says:

    This bread has been heavenly! I do wish you’d do some awful breads–these yummy ones are death to any diet! I’m so thankful you love to cook and bake, I just get to eat!

    • drfugawe says:

      You are too gracious, my dear – ours is a symbiotic kitchen relationship, where I can ‘mess’ to my heart’s delight, and never have to even think about the cruel task of cleanup. And then we both are rewarded with the fruits of our labors,(or fun in my case).
      Thank you, love.

  4. tuppercooks says:

    Love that pic of the crumb Doc! I aspire to get to that point, and after reading this I’m inspired to give it a shot. I only have one itsy bitsy complaint-where’s the butter shot!

  5. drfugawe says:

    A point well taken, my friend (the lack of a butter-shot in no way suggests that most of this bread wasn’t enjoyed with overloads of said wonder elixir). This is a good one for you, amigo – you can do this!

  6. tuppercooks says:

    I believe I can. I think I can, I think I can, I know I can………

  7. that looks heavenly…perhaps if my husband would do the cleaning, I’d consider doing more baking as well…think i’ll point that out to him and see what it’s worth…he’s easy to please though so i suspect he’ll just be okay with what we pick up ready made…i do love homemade bread though so maybe I’ll try your recipe just once for Christmas…

  8. Pingback: Ciabatta Bread | Silvia's Cucina

  9. Pingback: Ciabatta Bread | Silvia's Cucina

  10. Joanna says:

    Hello! How did I miss this?? I love it when you write about bread my friend 🙂 I think we are of one mind, a person has to bake what a person wants to bake, it’s no good baking something you don’t want to eat, unless you are baking it for someone else who wants a particular bread and we have so much choice in what we can bake. Just keep doing what you are doing – it is all good 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      You are a very kind and supportive fellow blogger, Amiga – I fear I am losing my enthusiasm for this endeavor – but maybe tomorrow my batteries will be recharged.

      • Joanna says:

        the blogging or the baking? I find the blogging a little much right now, but I have promised a quick post on the delectable French Gibassier to someone, so I had better sharpen my fingertips and get on with it 🙂

  11. Doc, I once heard a wonderful quote from Frank Oz about puppeteering. He said, “The craft is your rocking chair, you lean back on it so you can rest, and then have the artistry..”

    I think that is true about bread baking as well. We practice and practice until we develop skills and intuition, which then frees us up to experiment and play and create. 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      Ah, nice! I see art as a mix of inspiration and technique – for me, a cookbook is for the inspiration, and the practice develops technique – the ‘granny’ effect. I strive one day to be a granny baker!

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