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World's Longest Bread Rant

I know I haven't posted for quite a while. My apologies to the few people that I force to look at my blog.  I've been doing bread making research and I'm SO new to this that I couldn't even put it in the blog and pretend I know what I'm doing.  I've been baking bread for a few weeks though now, and I think just for my own sake I wanted to start documenting in case I wanted to repeat something.  I have made a few fairly yummy loaves so far, so I thought it was time to start posting again. :)

Here are some things that I learned mostly using the same Hearty Country Bread recipe from The America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book (that most bread makers will scoff at since they seem so rudimentary):

  1. I don't like "beer bread" recipes.  There are recipes that do not require yeast or kneading - recipes that remove all the hard parts about making bread and replace it with beer, which ultimately, like life, makes things a bit more disappointing than if you put in a little effort.  These breads end up more like a salty cake.  They taste better with cheese, as everything does, but I still don't like them. If you want to try, here's my hero Alton Brown's beer bread recipe. And a picture of one of the beer breads I made where I added WAY too much salt.

  2. Bread requires planning. This should be a "duh," but seriously, I didn't really understand how much time you need to bake bread.  If you are going to do it all in one shot (and eliminate the sponge [a little bit of wet dough that you make early and allow to ferment to give the bread more complex flavors]), theoretically, you need at least 4.5-5 hours.  This includes the initial mixing, letting it rise twice, heating the oven/baking stone, and baking the bread.  I suppose you could do some overlap of heating the oven and letting it rise, but that's really only 30 minutes and you'd have to be certain it wouldn't overproof in the time that you were heating the oven.  
  3. Forming the loaf is very important. Again, another "duh" postulate, but it is very important.  I had a few loaves explode out the side because they just weren't formed correctly.  I still don't understand the whole gluten thing, but you have to make sure all the strands are going the right way otherwise you get explodey bread (not literally, but the bread will mushroom out in places).
  4. You can't leave rising loaves completely unattended. So I've been using a heating pad under my loaves to speed up the rising process, but I didn't really understand over-proofing.  Sometimes dough can get way out of control.
  5. Bread needs salt. Let me repeat... BREAD NEEDS SALT.  I know that salt is always important, but I kept not remembering to put it in when I first started learning because you put it in after letting it rise once (after some very extensive research [aka: googled] I learned you have to do this because otherwise it kills the yeast), and boy is that bread boring and nasty.  In addition to leaving my poor bread loaves to explode from neglect, I also forgot to add salt to them.  After separating the dough back into two loaves and baking, they just weren't quite the same.  Texture was decent, but taste was definitely lacking.
  6. A bread stone makes a nicer crust.  After a disappointing dampened bread bottom (although this is probably more due to the fact that I left the bread on the baking sheet to cool), I went out and bought myself a pizza stone.  I also put the bread on cooling racks when they come out of the oven to make sure the crust doesn't get dampened by heat / cooling moisture.
  7. You can let dough rise in the fridge overnight. I am still experimenting with this, but it appears to be working, and the flavor and texture of the bread is optimal so far.  Co-workers appear to enjoy bread, and this is the only way they get it because I don't want to wake up at 2am just to indulge my current bread making obsession. 
  8. DON'T let the dough rise at room temperature overnight. This over-proofs the bread and you will find that it rose and fell overnight.  Once this dough is made into loaves, left to rise again, and baked in the morning, the texture of the bread seems to be a bit spongy.  The dough in front was left to rise overnight at room temperature.

    From this sliced picture, you can see that the air pockets are small. I think this may have contributed to the spongier and less moist, less chewy texture, which I didn't like.
    The other bread which was left to rise in the refrigerator, looked like this:
    And it looked like this when cut (you can see the air pockets are much larger and more irregular, which I think makes for a better tasting / textured bread:
  9. Humidity / Weather makes a difference in dough. I just discovered this last night.  Yesterday was a bit on the warm side, in the mid-70s (it's they bay area, I know, we're wimps) and my dough was much drier than it had been in the past couple weeks.  I still don't know if this is because of humidity or heat. 
  10. Make sure your oven racks are in securely. Turns out my bottom rack where I placed the bread stone wasn't sitting correctly and it ended up pitching forward and rolling a loaf of bread I'd been working on right onto the door of the 500F oven.  I ended up grabbing the dough from the door and throwing it into the sink out of frustration and had to peel off a burnt cracker later (which was surprisingly easy).  Also I had a little fit afterwards.  Apologies to my boyfriend. :]
  11. Basic Hearty Country Bread steps:
    • Make sponge (then wait, or not, still experimenting)
    • Make dough and let rise for 20 minutes
    • Add sponge AND SALT to dough and mix
    • Let dough rise
    • Form loaves
    • Let dough rise again (just like the south wanted to)
    • Slice notches in top of bread
    • Heat oven / stone
    • Bake bread
    • Let bread cool on wire rack
Here are the ingredients for the

Hearty Country Bread recipe:

1c warm water (110F degrees)
1c whole wheat flour
1/2c rye flour
1/2 tsp instant or rapid-rise yeast

3 1/2-4c bread flour
2 tbs honey
1 tsp instant or rapid rise yeast
1 1/3c warm water
2 tsp salt

The recipe says to mix the sponge ingredients and then cover it with plastic wrap.  Then you are supposed to leave it for 6-24 hours.

After that, mix the dough ingredients without the salt and start with 3.5 cups of bread flour and then let it sit in your standing mixer, covered, for 20 minutes.

Then you mix the sponge and the salt in with the dough, and mix for 8 minutes. You are supposed to use the last 1/2 cup of bread flour here if the dough is too wet and doesn't hold on to the dough attachment correctly when the mixer is on.  Test Kitchen shows an image of the dough halfway on the hook and halfway stuck to the bottom of the bowl.  That's how you know it's the right moist level.  I'm still experimenting with wetter vs dryer doughs.

Form this into a ball, mist vegetable oil over it (I just brush it on with a silicone brush), and allow it to rise for 1-1.5 hours in a bowl or container covered in plastic wrap, or until the dough has doubled in size.

After this, you form your loaf or loaves (this part is actually somewhat difficult), place them on a piece of parchment paper set on a rimless cookie sheet, and then allow those to rise for another 1-1.5 hours until the dough has doubled again.  During this last rising period, you are supposed to heat your oven to 500F for at least 30 minutes with your baking stone in there (so I'll let you do the time math) and then slide the parchment paper with dough on it into the oven, onto the baking stone.

Change the oven to be 425F and bake for 25 minutes if you're doing half the dough at a time, or 55 minutes if you're doing one big loaf.  The center of the loaf should be 210F on an instant read thermometer when it's done, but I usually just look to see if the crust is golden brown and basically looks like a loaf of bread I'd like to eat. :)

Here are the things I discovered with this recipe:
  1. Do not substitute the rye flour. I didn't have rye flour when I started using this recipe so I tried using other things: brown rice flour, millet flour, and buckwheat flour.  Millet was okay, but really nothing tasted better than rye.  
  2. Sponge fermenting has unexpected flavors.  My co-workers definitely noticed this and asked me if I used beer in the bread or if there were some sort of alcohol in it when I left the sponge out for the longer end of that suggested time period.  I asked if that was a bad thing, but it seemed to just be unexpected.  They liked it, but there were no oohs and ahhs wondering what it was, so I was moderately disappointed. 
  3. Don't try to put the salt in after you let it rise if you forget. Sometimes I'd forget to mix in the salt  and try to put it in later.  The dough just can't take that kind of kneading.  You're better off just tossing it and starting over.  Although I haven't tried sprinkling it on top of the loaf. Eating it with some sort of salty spread helps a little, but really I think it's just a waste of calories because it doesn't taste that good at all. 
  4. Forming the loaves. I'm still working at this, but basically you don't want to overwork the dough once it's risen.  You want to dump the dough out onto a floured surface and push it into a rectangle.  Fold the sides in like you would a letter into an envelope.  Turn this over and then fold the other sides under too.  Tuck everything in so that all the folded parts are underneath and the bread is like a smooth ball with no tears.  This is tough to do the first time.  Too much flour and you end up with weird folds, too little flour and it sticks to everything and tears.  Do it enough and you'll get the hang of it. :)  Or at least, that's what I keep telling myself.  Sometimes the bread turns out pretty. 

  5. Don't put two loaves too close together. Sometimes, when one bread loves another bread very much, a special thing happens...

    Bread loves bread, and so do I.

  6. Adding cheese or rosemary is always delicious. However, I'm still trying to figure out the best time to put this in.  So far I've been folding it in before I let the loaves rise, but I bet it's better to put it in when you add the sponge to the dough.


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