By Donna Levy
A crisp, chewy, golden brown crust; steam rising from the fluffy inside; freshly baked and riddled with airy holes—there’s something inherently comforting and soul-satisfying about bread. Bread has such a place in our lives and culture that even those who adhere to a gluten-free diet are in search of the perfect replacement that mimics the taste and texture of traditional bread. Even if you grew up with mass-produced sliced bread, in its plastic bag passing time on grocery store shelves, walking into a bakery with the ovens going full force is bound to touch your “carby” soul.
Bread’s popularity seems to be on the rise, and the feed on Pinterest practically exploded this year with bread postings. The use of alternative flours, including rice, spelt and even ancient grains, is also on the rise, as is the interest in innovative baking processes. And just like wine connoisseurs, bread lovers now have their own chart to help them describe the qualities of bread. Michael Kalanty, a classically French-trained chef, author, and instructor at various California culinary schools, developed “The Aroma and Flavor Notes for Bread,” analyzing bread in three key areas: crumb, crust and grain character. A key or guide highlights particular flavor characteristics.
Crumb details three different flavors: sweet/dairy, sour/fruity and sour/dairy, and may have notes of milk, butter for the sweet/dairy, grapefruit or lemon for the sour/fruity, and fresh cheese or buttermilk for the sour/dairy. Crust attributes include roasted, fruity, resinous, toasty and sweet, like those found in dark beer, figs, French roasted coffee, or butterscotch with nutty or malty undertones. Grain character, which is enhanced by the fermentation process, has four intensities: simple with hints of straw or dry yeast; moderate, which is reminiscent of cooked spaghetti or yeasty champagne; complex, with notes of green olive, flint or mineral; and over-fermented, the most bracing, giving the impression of grapefruit and turned red wine.
With cooler temperatures coming, now is the time to fire up the ovens and start exploring the gratification and satisfaction of homemade bread. Baking bread may seem like a daunting task, but with a little understanding of the science behind bread and yeast—and a lot of patience—it can change from a chore into a delight.
There are quite a few recipes for the beginner bread baker. Taking yeast out of the equation and, thereby, eliminating the worry of whether or not you’ll get the right rise, is a help to the novice bread baker. Flat breads (great for beginners), usually consist of no more than flour, water, a little olive oil and a pinch of salt. They have existed for centuries and are a staple for many cultures throughout the world.
Stepping it up a notch and moving onto a chemical leavening agent (assisted by some buttermilk), soda bread is the next logical step for student bakers. Soda bread is quick to come together and requires virtually no kneading or proofing. You don’t have to be a native of the Emerald Isle to love a nutty slice of Irish soda bread slathered in butter. Quick breads, which use chemical leavening agents, such as baking powder or baking soda instead of yeast, are another great cornerstone recipe. Quick breads encompass the ever-popular cornbread, in addition to banana bread, beer bread and muffins. Once a new baker is comfortable with these introductory recipes, tackling a simple loaf will be a less intimidating experience.
While some old-school bakers may balk at the idea of a no-knead loaf, quite a few bakers have recently developed these types of recipes to attract first-timers. The contention between kneaded and no-knead recipes is the fact that the purpose of kneading is to develop gluten, which is vital to the rise and texture of bread. Gluten is a combination of water with two wheat flour proteins, glutenin and gliadin. Mixing water with flour and then kneading, folding and stretching the dough causes different parts of the proteins to come into contact with each other. The more you push and move the dough, the more gluten will develop. The gluten structure holds in the gasses produced by the yeast, which helps the bread to rise. The gluten content will also affect the texture; more gluten is necessary for the chewy texture associated with artisan bread. As they say, though, there is more than one way to skin a cat. If the dough is wet enough (and no-knead bread doughs are very wet), then the two proteins (glutenin and gliadin) are free to float around and will begin to form their own gluten structure. Effort is saved, but some time will be sacrificed as the dough will require a longer rise in order for the wheat to bask in the liquid of the dough and for the glutenin and gliadin to work. Another caveat of using a no-knead recipe is that typically only lean doughs (those made with flour, water, salt and yeast only) will work.
With the increased interest in artisan breads, coupled with the fact that baking knowledge is not always passed down from generation to generation, bread making classes are springing up every day. They are worthwhile, but you need not be dissuaded from taking on a bread baking endeavor on your own. With a few key tips, anyone can produce a worthy loaf or baguette.
- Read the Recipe – It might seem obvious, but it bears mentioning. Don’t rush through the recipe or skim the details.
- Mise en Place – (meez ahn plahs) French for everything in its place. It means having all of your ingredients, tools and equipment prepped and ready to go. It goes hand-in-hand with reading the instructions. There’s nothing worse than finding out you are short a cup of something halfway through your recipe.
- Use a Digital Scale – Chefs, most serious cooks and bakers will rely on a digital scale for measuring. They do make a difference. Using measurements by weight instead of volume ensures accuracy. A difference in a few grams or ounces could produce less than desirable results.
- Know Your Yeast – Dry yeast is readily available nearly everywhere and is perfectly fine, but some chefs will prefer live (wet) yeast for its superior flavor, texture and livelier interaction with the dough.
- Knead, Knead, Knead – If you’re going to choose a bread recipe that requires kneading, put your all into it. Don’t get distracted by the ringing phone or the kids parading through the kitchen. Focus on the dough and the changing texture under your hands. A lot can be said through the sense of touch; good bakers rely on it heavily.
- Keep Your Eye on the Oven – Don’t abandon your baby in the oven. Ovens almost never bake evenly. Pay attention to the browning and rotate if necessary.
- Relax – Don’t stress if it’s not perfect, especially if it’s your first time. Each time is a learning experience, and knowledge is built every time you try a new recipe.
- Keep Notes – Taking notes is an important part of baking, especially when dealing with potentially delicate items. Conditions can change from kitchen to kitchen and day to day, depending upon temperature, humidity, etc. Take notes on the process, the way the dough looks or feels, whether or not the baking time varied, and the end result with respect to appearance and taste.
- Master a Basic, Then Broaden Your Repertoire – Get a recipe down pat before improvising or experimenting. Getting to know the relationship between certain ingredients and how they work together to achieve the final product is key. And, remember to take notes! They come in handy here, too. Jot down ideas for possible flavor variations.
There is nothing more satisfying than producing something with your own hands, except perhaps mastering it with finesse and flair. Once you see the yeast working, feel the flour on your fingertips and taste the results, bread baking will become a new favorite hobby.
Donna M. Levy serves on the Culinary Adventures team at Catering Works in Raleigh. Her mission is to create delicious memories for you. Her specialties include personal chef services and cooking parties for both private and team-building events.