The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

BreadBabies's blog

BreadBabies's picture

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village - a village of Fresh Loafers - to raise my bread.

Things were going swimmingly until one day, my starter had an identity crisis. But it wasn't that simple, because it was a secret identity crisis. My starter culture, which consisted of purely rye, was rising beautifully after each refreshing...3.5x in 10 hours. It was so airy that beyond the water float test, it looked like it might fly.

My bread on the other hand was flat -- and not in a flat is beautiful kind of way. I wasn't making rye breads either. Sure, they had a few grams of rye for flavor, but these were primarily white sourdoughs. Hamelman's Vermont Sourdough was more like a Vermont pancake. And this was the sourdough people started with...the easy, introductory sourdough people recommended to first-time bakers because it's yummy and straight-forward. But I wasn't getting it.  I tried 3 times. Same story. I tried other recipes. No luck. My loaves looked nothing like the loaves other community members were making, even beginners baking their very first breads were putting me to shame. Frustrated, I considered giving up the whole thing. I have about 10 bread baking books and I've read every inch of them, but clearly, this just wasn't my particular talent. So the choice was to give in or double down.

The Fresh Loaf is the only reason I even had that choice. This community rescued me, troubleshot with me, advised and encouraged me.

I re-educated myself on shaping, benching, fermenting, everything I could think of that might compromise my rise. But in the end, this community helped me figure out that my problem was that my rye starter had become a picky eater, refusing to respond to any other variety of flour. And this community advised me on how to transition to a starter that would have more umph.

I'm still figuring out the perfect way to maintain my starter; it's a work-in-progress. But after about 2 weeks of working with it, I tried a loaf today. And as I have this community to thank for keeping me in the game, I wanted to make a TFL classic. Pictured is David's San Joaquin Sourdough.  It rose beautifully and tasted great. The crumb was as good as any I had baked, even before the identity crisis. It's not perfect...I'm still pretty new at this...but it's light years beyond where I came from.

So, this is a Fresh Loaf Loaf because without this community, it never would have happened.

Special thanks to Mini Oven, Trevor Wilson, and the patron saint of sourdough starters, Debra Wink.  And of course, to the good doctor for his great recipe and many others who offered advice.

I'm still working on it and the questions will still be coming...but a big THANK YOU for getting me here.

BreadBabies's picture

I recently posted looking for ideas on solving my problem of not having a solid surface counter top. This is not normally an issue except when working with high hydration doughs. Then, it's such a big issue that I find it very difficult to make a decent loaf.

What didn't work:

A pastry mat: I have a pastry mat but it can get damaged by the corners of the bench knife and since it's not on a solid surface to begin with, it tends to slide around. Also, they're difficult to clean.

Plastic cutting board: Big disaster. They are a bit porous (especially after being used and getting some knife cuts)  and not large enough to accommodate my dough.

Butcher block: If you've got $100+ to throw at a butcher block large enough to accommodate dough, then you probably have a solid surface counter top to begin with. Since I'm short and they are high, they also make the work space a little too tall for me.

What did work:

I went to my local granite store (like a indie shop that specializes in counter tops, not a big box store). I purchased a leftover cut piece 20 x 26" for $20. That's less than I paid for the pastry mat on Amazon. Now all is right with the world. Exhale.....

BreadBabies's picture

Making bread, great bread, takes some planning ahead and some dough babysitting. It's work worth doing, but sometimes you need bread fast. That's why I'm seeking the "minimum effective dose" for success. I heard this term coined in The 4 Hour Chef by Timothy Ferriss. It's not a groundbreaking concept, but he revolves much of his life around its pursuit, which is intriguing. He wants to find the balance of the best you can do with the least amount of work.

So, that's my question for the bread veterans out there. What is the minimum effective dose for great artisan/hearth bread? There will be times when I am able to plan 2 days ahead and get a great loaf full of complexity and flavor. But sometimes I realize around lunch that I'd like to have bread by dinner. So, let's say 5 hours from concept to a loaf emerging from the oven. On those days, I also don't want to wait around and fold the bread 4 times every 20 minutes. So, I need it to be pretty hands off.

Pictured is my first attempt. I used commercial yeast (of course) but also added unfed starter to the dough, not for the rising properties, but for flavor. I kept the hydration pretty high, since I wanted that hearth, open-crumb bread just not the long autolyse that goes with it. I also used AP flour because I wanted the yeast to be able to blow it up quickly. Those choices plus my desire not to clean a mixer, meant I didn't quite get the gluten development I was after by just hand kneading. Since I was going for speed, I proofed warm, which made it a bit hard to work with but not impossible with an assertive bench scraper.  I think I can tweak those variables. It had good texture and decent crumb, and while not flavorless, I feel I can do better.

I'm considering America's Test Kitchen alternatives to Jim Lahey's bread. They add 1 tbl of distilled vinegar (for acetic acid) and replace 6 tbl of water with lager (for complexity). They do the long autolyse with a small amount of yeast. But I'm thinking to myself, if I'm adding the flavor in those forms, why not just use commercial yeast and save time? Wondering if anybody has tried this or has other tips on getting a loaf out quick.

I know there are folks who have already tread this path with wisdom to share!

(Not sure how to include an additional shot of the interior without separately hosting the image.)

BreadBabies's picture

So, you've seen some sexy artisan bread pics...maybe on Instagram or Pinterest and you realize the loaves were all made by ordinary folks. You think, "Hey, that looks good. I want to make some bread, too." Here's my perspective on how you can get started with the least amount of pain. I'll tell you right now, it's not how I got started, which is why I know exactly what I'm talking about. I flew too close to the sun too fast, and it cost me quite a bit of angst, flour, and sanity. Here's the easier way for those interested in the hearth-style/artisan breads.

1. Make Jim Lahey's bread.  Method and recipe found here:

Start with this recipe because it requires very little knowledge, no buying of cookbooks, zero dough babysitting, and pretty much no specialty equipment (unless you don't have a Dutch oven). As simple as that is, it's still better than 99% of bread you can buy at a store.

Once you've made this bread, one of two things will happen. 1) Your bread-making soul will be fulfilled and you'll be happy to continue making this very easy and decent recipe for the rest of your days. Your friends will coo and bask in your baking glory, and you'll enjoy a life of lovely bread without the indentured servitude that comes with more involved methods. You will live happily ever after. Amen. 2) This will create an itch. You'll start to get curious about bread. Although this bread is tasty, you'll wonder how you can make it more complex, how you can add and alter things. You'll decide this is a hobby you want to dive into a little bit further and invest some time and research.

2. Read Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish. (You can get this from some libraries. I got mine at a discount used on Amazon.) I have consumed many bread books, but this is the one I recommend for taking the next step. That's because Forkish is writing for the home baker and he gives you a lot of fundamental information that will help you with your baking without going into too much detail.  (You probably aren't interested on reading a treatise about the 20 different styles of commercial dough mixers at this point.) There are many other fine books out there (I didn't start with this one though I wish I had). But this one has the right level of detail and his recipes are charted beautifully. If you don't yet have one, get a digital scale that weighs in grams. You're also ready for your first bread-equipment investment (it's a small one): get a bench scraper.

You might ask yourself, do I need a book at all? I have the vast knowledge of the internet. To that, I would answer a resounding yes. Blogs and community information is great and I use it all the time (I mean, look where I am writing this)! But in the beginning, the authority of a professional baker writing for the home baker is helpful and more efficient/effective than searching the internet for nuggets of information. Can it be done without books? Absolutely. But this book helped me sift through the information and develop a systematic understanding.

3. (optional). If you're getting into this thing, now's the time you may want to invest in some additional equipment, which is all very cost effective. This includes a lame and a banneton.  These items are really nice, particularly for beautifying your loaves. Just be sure your banneton size fits your cooking vessel. Neither the lame nor banneton is absolutely necessary. You can use a bowl instead of a banneton (which you've probably been doing up to now) and a sharp knife or razor in lieu of a lame. Or you can continue to go au natural as suggested by both Lahey and Forkish and just let the bread split however it wants. The only absolutely necessary tool is a bench scraper.

4. Here is where things get interesting. If you've made it this far and you're interested in more knowledge, consider picking up Hamelman's Bread: A Baker's Book of Te ecchniques and Recipes. He will take you into even further detail about the bread baking process and offer lots of recipes for classic breads, like brioche. He also gives you some really great information on how to work with other flours like rye. If you're willing to read this one, you've graduated from hobbyist to enthusiast. Congratulations! Another book that you might consider because it goes more broadly than artisan breads and because it offers you some good information about transforming recipes and making them modular is Barenbaum's Bread Bible. I have that one, but I have to admit, I've yet to use it. I do enjoy that she helps you categorize the different types of bread, which my analytical nature really enjoys. However, I've yet to put information from that book into practice.

There are many other great texts that get mentioned on this site a lot. I'd be very interested to hear what other books folks have found useful. Reinhart's Artisan Bread Every Day gets frequent mention, but I haven't read it so cannot comment.

Please add your knowledge to this list.  Thanks!

P.S. I started with Tartine. This was very aggravating for me. It wasn't until I read FWSY that I was able to make a gorgeous Tartine loaf. The principles explained in that book helped me to troubleshoot and understand where I was going wrong. Tartine does also have some fundamental information, but it wasn't quite enough to get me over the hump. Tartine loaves are lovely, so not a knock on the book, just my ability to use it as a newbie.

Subjects: Best artisan bread books. Which bread books to buy. How to start making bread.

BreadBabies's picture

After making multiple Tartine loaves, I decided to add some commercial yeast as insurance and to get a better crumb (wish I had taken a pic of the inside). This was definitely the best crumb bread I've made yet.

For a one-loaf recipe (500g flour), I dissolved 1/8 tsp commercial yeast into the 25g of water.  I added this yeast-water with the salt after autolyse. 3.5 hour bulk ferment and retarded final rise in fridge overnight.

Worked out amazing and still had the same flavor.

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