Rising Action: Making Bread at Home | General Food & Drink | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Rising Action: Making Bread at Home 

click to enlarge Bread from the oven of William Alexander, author of the upcoming book "52 Loaves." - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Bread from the oven of William Alexander, author of the upcoming book "52 Loaves."

Of all foods, home-baked bread might be the one that appeals most equally to all five senses. Besides the visual pleasure–the glossy russet crust, the elegant simplicity of the form, the intricate crumb–there’s the fresh, yeasty smell of the dough, and the supremely comforting smell of baking that fills the house. There’s the tactile delight of kneading, and the warmth in hand of a loaf fresh from the oven. There’s the faint ticking of bread cooling on the rack, spalling tiny bits of crust onto the counter, the satisfying hollow-sounding thump on the bottom that tells us it’s done, and the delightful crackle as we bite into the crust. And there’s the flavor, of course; nothing tastes better than homemade. Bread is the single most powerful culinary signifier of home, hearth, and sustenance. Why do so few of us bake it?

Over the course of the last six or eight decades, we’ve outsourced many formerly essential tasks in the name of convenience. Where food is concerned, we have usually settled for inferior quality as a result. Now we’re often afraid of these simple culinary projects, which hundreds of generations before us executed daily without the benefit of much technology besides fire. And that’s the important thing to remember: Though science has brought many astonishing improvements to our lives, better bread is not among them.

Yeast Gone Wild

Many of our staple foods would not be possible without the collaboration of microorganisms. Fermented pickles, alcohol, vinegar, cheese, and bread would be impossible without the help of millions of tiny creatures in every batch. The key with all of these products is to set up conditions so that the beasts can thrive, and then let them do all of the heavy lifting. (In the case of bread, the lifting is literal.) The creation and care of a wild yeast starter is incredibly easy, and the resulting bread is as good as it gets: tangy and complex, with lots of character. If you’re a novice, by all means begin with commercial yeast to get acquainted with the basic process. But if you have some experience, a live starter will make the best bread you’ve ever eaten.

Prior to the development of commercial yeast in the late 19th century, all bread for all of human history was baked with wild yeast. Yeast is all around us, all the time; simply leave a bowl of flour and water on the counter for a few days and it will turn into a sourdough starter. There’s a bit of technique to helping it along, but not much. It’s important to get over the notion that a live starter is some kind of finicky, high-maintenance pet. Once established, the simple act of baking weekly is sufficient to keep it thriving. If you fall off the wagon, don’t worry; an initially healthy starter can usually be resuscitated after periods of neglect lasting a month or even longer, and giving some starter to your baking friends is an excellent hedge against accidentally killing your own during a hiatus.

Start Loafing

As for equipment, there’s very little that’s required. Most important is a good digital metric scale with a tare function. Baking by weight is much more accurate than by volume, and your results will be far more consistent. Metric is important, too, because it’s so much easier. Nothing is more crazy-making than trying to multiply or divide fractions while your hands are covered in dough. A stand mixer is not required, though it can be helpful for certain recipes. A peel (the long wooden paddle used to load and unload the oven) is useful, but a rimless cookie sheet does just fine. A banneton, or proofing basket, also serves a purpose, but a colander lined with a dishtowel is almost as good. A baking stone is good, but a four-dollar quarry tile from the home center is better. It’s not a discipline with a high entry fee.

There are many bread books to choose from; the selection alone is enough to discourage, let alone what’s inside. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on some local experts who between them have written a pretty complete library on the subject. Daniel Leader, owner of Bread Alone in Boiceville and author of two books on baking, says “We tend to overcomplicate things, and most of the bread books out there have done a good job of keeping it complicated.” He stresses the simplicity of baking: “It’s about as difficult as planting a tomato seed.” Leader’s Local Breads (Norton, 2007) is an excellent and detailed survey of the famous artisan breads made all over Europe, most of which are made with wild starters, with clear directions for reproducing them at home.

William Alexander lives in Cornwall and is the author of 52 Loaves (Algonquin, 2010) a detailed and personal account of his determined quest to master the peasant boule by baking a loaf a week for a year, tinkering and learning along the way. His travels take him to wood-fired ovens in New Jersey, a yeast factory in Canada, and a monastery in France, and he even grows and grinds his own wheat to try to understand the very source. There’s plenty of humor to leaven his obsession; a computer scientist, Alexander brings a dogged, methodical, winking, and somewhat curmudgeonly temperament to his mission. And there is much useful information in the book, including his final recipe and an easy method for cultivating a wild starter.

For all his hacking of the baking code, chasing down variables and analyzing them to the point of near exhaustion, Alexander’s final version is really very simple. A mix of flours, levain (live starter), water, and salt, given a brief rest (autolyse in French) to give the gluten development a head start, then about seven minutes of kneading before proofing and baking. Alexander’s peasant bread has a medium-brown crust that contrasts nicely with the firm yet open crumb inside. It’s got character enough to eat wonderfully by itself, and is not so full of holes as to be unfriendly to sandwich making. He did an awful lot of work so we don’t have to. 

A few years ago, a mini-craze of sorts swept the Internet like a Roomba: a no-knead bread recipe from Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan. Taking the principle of Alexander’s autolyse to its logical extreme, Lahey discovered that yeast, left to its own devices, will develop beautiful gluten over the course of 12 to 18 hours at room temperature.

The wet, shaggy dough is shaped, dumped into a shrieking hot Dutch oven, covered, and baked off inside the regular oven (the cover comes off toward the end to brown the crust). Confining the wet dough to such a small space provides something that is hard to achieve without a commercial bread oven: steam, which makes for a shiny, crackling crust. The appeal of such a method is twofold; there’s nearly no work involved, and the crust is simply unbelievable. But wet dough can be hard to deal with, and sticks to everything it touches. When combined with a big iron pot that’s wickedly hot, it can be intimidating. Variations with drier dough exist, and are worth seeking out. (Here is Mark Bittman's no-knead bread recipe, via the New York Times.)

Fire in the Hole

Alexander vividly recounts the painful disaster that his homemade outdoor clay oven was to build, and he hardly uses it now that it’s built, but there are others who fervently espouse the virtues of having such a structure on one’s property. For those of us who love wood-fired pizza, this ancient device is the only way to truly achieve the scorched, blistered glory that seven minutes at 700 degrees can deliver. And the amazing oven spring (the dramatic final rise that occurs when a loaf hits the hot oven and the yeast goes into overdrive) cannot be duplicated in a conventional oven. Some books downplay the work involved; a well-built brick oven is not a one-weekend job. But it’s not hard for the handy, and can become the focus of every cookout for the rest of time, and you’ll never pay for a pizza again, so there’s that.

The Bread Builders (Chelsea Green, 1999) by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott is an inspiring how-to for anybody serious about fabricating an oven. Another good resource, from CIA instructor Eric Kastel, is Artisan Breads (Wiley, 2010). It clearly and comprehensively covers a wide range of recipes and techniques from basic to advanced. Jeffrey Hamelman, bakery director at King Arthur flour in Vermont, has written Bread (Wiley, 2004), which is another excellent choice for someone looking for one book to get started with.

The point is to find how breadmaking best integrates into the rhythms of your life and let it become part of your weekly ritual; it’s about experimenting a bit with methods and recipes until you ease into an understanding of the process, and then settling on the version that fits. “It’s much more wait than work” is how Leader puts it, and with a little practice you can go to work or to bed with complete confidence that your tiny helpers are busy metabolizing away until you’re ready to bake. There’s no need to worry about being a bit off with your timing; dough that has not fully risen can quickly be patted into flat circles and cooked in a buttered skillet (or, even better, on the grill) to make chewy, tangy flatbread that will sop up anything you throw at it. Soon enough, you’ll settle on the recipe your kids clamor for, or that friends ask you to bring over, or that makes a sublime substrate for your morning butter and jam. And speaking of kids, there’s no better way to combine physics, chemistry, biology, history, and a little elbow grease into one delicious lesson.

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