I baked a loaf of bread today. It came out of the oven around 4:00. This is what’s left of it this evening:
Yeah, that didn’t last long.
I’ve started a new bread tonight. I’ve discovered that one of the secrets of bread is to start part of the dough the night before so that it can get all bubbly and ferment a bit overnight. The other secret I’ve discovered is the magic of the autolyse. Once your dough is mixed up, bread books now recommend letting it rest for 20 minutes before beginning the kneading process. But I’ve discovered that if you let it rest for an hour, or even an hour and a half, the dough has done much of the work itself and kneading time is cut in half. The third secret is to invest in an accurate kitchen scale. Ours measures in ounces, so I may soon be investing in a gram one as well, since I’m running into more and more recipes that rely on metric measurements.
How did I discover this? Well, let me point out that distraction and forgetfulness has been a hallmark of scientific discovery. Think of penicillin! So, yeah, sometimes our,”Oh, crap!” jumping-from-the-chair moments turn into our “Eureka!” moments.
The other times are best forgotten.
Anyway, after this loaf was casually devoured by people standing around in the kitchen, I feel obliged to provide another loaf of fresh bread for my darling daughters, who arrive tomorrow. Alas, I tumbled into bed tonight without starting the preferment.
This is where the OCD part kicks in. Also, drinking caffeinated tea in the evening is not a great idea. So here I am, preferment started, babbling about bread baking.
It almost seems sinful not to include a recipe at this point. So here goes:
Gini’s Olive Oil Bread
(derived, but not copied, from assorted bread books)
4 oz. warm water – bath temperature, not too hot to touch
1/4 teaspoon dry active yeast (not the instant/bread kind
1 oz. rye flour (if you don’t have rye flour, just increase the next measurement to 4 oz. The rye gives a bit more flavor kick, but is optional)
3 oz. quality all-purpose flour (King Arthur is readily available and works well)
Pour water into a bowl (large cereal bowls work well). Add yeast, stirring to dissolve slightly. Add flour, stir together, cover with plastic wrap, leave overnight.
Dough for small loaf (double for a large one):
6 oz. warm water
1/4 teaspoon yeast
8 oz. all-purpose flour, plus another ounce or so to add if dough is too soft
2 tsp. kosher salt
3 tbsp. olive oil
Measure water, then pour over preferment to loosen it. Sprinkle yeast on top. Measure flour into a medium-sized mixing bowl, then add preferment and stir all together until well-incorporated. Set aside for an hour or so (autolyse period).
After autolyse period, clear and clean a decent-sized counter space. Pour olive oil onto space, and sprinkle with salt. Place autolysed dough on top of the puddle. Take a moment to rinse out and clean your bowl – don’t worry about the dough; it’s not going anywhere. Dry the bowl and give it a good spraying with cooking spray. Now that that’s all done, you can begin to knead your dough.
When you first start kneading, you’re going to think that something is radically wrong. This is a slick, squishy mess that can’t possibly be right. That’s normal. It takes the first few minutes of kneading to incorporate the olive oil and salt into the dough. Just keep going. Once the dough has absorbed most of the oil, it’s likely to start sticking to the counter. This is also normal, and where bread baking becomes a bit of an art. You want your dough to be on the soft and sticky side, so don’t go crazy adding flour. If the sticking pieces look like gobs of dough, then just keep working the dough. If they look like smears of flour-water, add flour a little bit at a time.
A word about kneading: the classic method is to push on the dough with both hands, then give it a quarter turn and push again. That will work eventually, but during the oil incorporation stage adding a squeeze with the fingers really helps out. And you might want to keep one hand out of the fray at first, to make it easier to add flour.
Knead until long strands of gluten are visible on the dough and it can be pulled into a webbing. You’ll get a feel for this, trust me. Once it reaches that stage, scoop it up and dump it into your sprayed bowl, then cover and let sit for 20 minutes. Ignore all the advice you’ve heard about putting it someplace warm. You want a slow rise that lets flavors develop. While this is happening, clean off your counter and give it a spray of cooking spray.
After 20 minutes, uncover your dough and lift or tip it out, making sure the top of the dough is face down on the counter. You’re not going to see a lot of difference in the dough yet, so don’t worry. Gently flatten the dough into a circle, then fold the top down, the bottom up, and the sides in. Flip it over and put it back into the bowl. You will notice that the top side now has a slight “skin” look to it – congratulations; you are beginning the crust. Repeat the procedure after 20 minutes, and then once again after another 20 minutes, always being sure to keep the top side toward the counter so that your stretched gluten skin stays intact. After the third time, leave it all to rise for an hour and a half, or until doubled.
(BTW, this is the point at which you can stick the whole thing in the fridge and let it rise slowly overnight. Bread is much more forgiving than people realize.)
(Also note that there is no “punching down.” By gently flattening and reshaping the dough, you accomplish the same goal – getting yeast to new food sources – without pushing out all the lovely gases your yeast beasties have already incorporated.)
After an hour and a half, gently turn your bread out, turn it “skin” side up, and round it. Let it relax for about 15 minutes, while you prepare for baking.
In an ideal world, you will have a baking stone that you put into the oven, and a pizza peel with a piece of parchment paper on which to rise your bread. In a less-than-ideal world, you can put an upside down cookie sheet into the over to preheat, and let your bread rise on the back of another cookie sheet. In a truly unideal world, you can sprinkle that cookie sheet with cornmeal and hope to hell your bread doesn’t stick to it. But get the parchment paper. Seriously.
Once you have the final rising place for your bread prepared, shape your loaf. Slide your hands around the dough, rounding it and tightening the skin. If you are doing a round loaf, just lift that into the parchment paper. I tend toward oblong loaves these days, as the pieces are more manageable. I do it by Continuing the scoop-under motion but without turning the loaf so that it gets longer. Once you bread is on the parchment, cover with plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray and let rise for an hour and a half. 45 minutes into this rise, turn your oven on to 450 degrees F. (Particularly if you have a stone; you want it heated through.) Find that crappy baking pan you don’t use anymore but haven’t managed to throw out and put it into the oven on a rack placed at broiling height.
When your final rise is done, use a sharp knife or a razor blade to slash two or three slashes across your bread – be bold and make decent slashes, because these are where your oven spring with expand. Then slide your bread onto your cooking surface, and pour a cup of water into the heated pan. (If you have a spray bottle around, and if you want to take the time to optimize your crust, squirt the inside of the oven thoroughly when you put the bread in, then again after 3, 6, and 9 minutes).
Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the bread and bake for 20 minutes more. At that point the crust should be fairly dark brown. If it’s still pale, give it 5 more minutes. Cool on a rack for at least half an hour before cutting. Devour.
This is not the ultimate answer to bread. There are lots of other breads out there, and lots of other cooking techniques. But this is a yummy one that pleases my family and friends. I hope you enjoy it!