Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Basics of Bread

Many of the procedures we invoke involve making our own bread. It's about time we let you know exactly what that entails. Bread is really easy to make — a far simpler process than most people think — and it doesn't take terribly long. We'll tell you how to make a basic boule (round bread) — in this case, specifically a Portuguese broa recipe. This is enough to give you a solid bread-baking foundation, and after you're comfortable with it you can work in some flair and whip up some egg-based challah bread or an oat-based multi-grain bread. All of it uses the same basic technique.

Equipment for baking bread

We bake our bread in a table-top convection oven, using half the ingredients recommended in the recipe found in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. If you're interested in baking bread frequently, I'd highly recommend picking up a copy on Amazon — it makes an excellent "bread bible".

The dough is mixed in a 3 quart container, which typically gives us two loaves to work with, or two half-loaves in the case of pan breads. We measure with a glass liquid measuring cup, a set of metal dry measuring cups in various sizes, and a set of linked measuring spoons. We'll stir the dough with a silicone spatula.

When we've mixed our dough and let it rise we'll cook it in the convection oven on a clay baking stone to distribute heat more evenly in the oven, and absorb moisture from the baking loaf. A lot of retailers and kitchen supply stores sell commercial baking stones for anywhere from $15 for a cheap quarter-inch thick stone, to $40 for a set of half-inch stones. Thicker stones will better withstand the repeated stress of heating and cooling; thinner stones will crack sooner rather than later.

Wanna know a secret? Baking stones are really just differently-marketed terra cotta tiles. You can pick them up from home improvement stores for around 50 cents to $2 for a 6-8" square half-inch thick tile. That's what we've been using, and it's served us well for six months now. A caveat: the floor tiles have to be seasoned before you use them.

To use the floor tiles as baking stones, first make sure that you get untreated tiles. They usually are, but since you are using them for food, under high heat, it's best to ask and confirm it before you bring them home.

Once home, wash the tiles thoroughly with dish soap and hot water to clean off any dust and dirt, and let them dry completely.  After that, take a paper towel and neutral-tasting vegetable oil, and rub the entire baking surface of the tile with the oil.  You'll need to do this in multiple coats, as the oil gets absorbed into the tile.  More is better than less, and keep rubbing it in, using a circular motion, until the surface is no longer shiny. Then place the oiled tiles into a cold oven, turn it on to 300 degrees, and bake for at least four hours.  Cool before moving them, although many people just store them in the oven, too.

The four basic foundations of bread (and corn meal)

Our basic boule bread uses very simple ingredients; the raw building blocks of bread, at its most basic, is just water, yeast, salt, and flour. For the broa, we'll need 1.5 cups of lukewarm water, a 3/4th tablespoon of yeast (one packet), 3/4th tablespoon of kosher salt, 3/4th cup of corn meal, and 2.5 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour. This will bake us two loaves, good for sandwiches or toasting or whatever it is you feel like using bread for.

Unlike other forms of cooking, baking is fairly precise. You don't want to seriously over- or under-measure ingredients. Flour, for example, measures very differently when freshly sifted than when it's packed. You want to make sure, when you're measuring the flour, not to pack it tightly as that will give you too much flour. On the other hand, bread — especially the "bread bible" recipes — is pretty forgiving. You want to end up with a fairly wet dough, but there's no need to be super-exacting.

Making bread dough

We fill our mixing cup full of water, microwave it until it's lukewarm (not hot!), and add the 3/4th tablespoon of yeast and the salt into it. If our recipe called for it, this is where we'd add other 'wet' ingredients — milk, vegetable oil and maple syrup for oat bread, an egg for challah, etc. We pour it into the plastic container we've been keeping our dough in and mix it up. You may have the traces of dough from previous mixings left in the container; this is totally fine and actually recommended as it acts as a sourdough starter.

To this mixture we add the flour and corn meal, and — in other recipes — other dry ingredients like wheat bran or rolled oats. We measure the dry ingredients simply by scooping it into the measuring cup (1-cup-measure or less so as not to over-measure) and leveling off with a butter knife. This isn't a kneaded bread — we just mix it all up until there aren't any dry spots of flour left and it all has a nice even consistency.

Let the bread rise

At this point the dough is left out to let it rise, for at least two hours, but basically until it stops and gets flat on top. The dough is covered, but don't make it airtight — there needs to be an airflow for the yeast to do its work. After it's risen, unless you plan on using it right away, refrigerate it (covered but not airtight) — the dough is easier to manipulate when it's colder.

Shaping and baking the bread

Boule is french for "ball", and that's the shape of the loaf we'll be making. When you're ready to get baking, grab yourself a double-fist-sized lump of dough. Dusting it (and your hands) with flour will make it less likely to stick to your hands while you shape it. What you want to do is basically stretch and fold it in your hands, turning it a quarter-turn and then doing it again, until you've made four folds and turned it in a complete rotation. This develops the "gluten cloak" and will give you a round lump of dough.

After shaping the bread you'll want to let it sit out for 40 minutes on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel. At the 20 minute mark you want to preheat your oven — with the stone on the rack and an empty broiler tray on a different rack — for the latter 20 minutes.

Baking your bread

Immediately prior to putting the dough in the oven you'll want to score the top with a sharp knife to allow for the bread to rise as it bakes. With practice, you can perfect the sharp forward-backward shake of the pizza peel to drop the loaf from the peel to the baking stone; until then, you can also shove it off the peel with a spatula. Pour a cup of hot water into the heated broiler tray just before closing the oven. This will create steam that gives you the crispy crust of artisan breads, while the inside remains moist and soft.

This particular broa will bake for about 30 minutes, until deeply brown with a firm crust. All bread recipes will follow this basic pattern, and once you have the confidence to follow it you can really bake just about anything.

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