The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Breaking Bread, an exploration of bread and its many facets.

  • Pin It
ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

Breaking Bread, an exploration of bread and its many facets.

Timing is everything.

Good timing makes a joke work, as bad timing does the same for tragedy.

For bread, though, it means nothing.  Bakers who brag about using long fermentation times puzzle me.  I mean, I know what they mean, but do they?  I, too, am guilty of using this idea when discussing bread.  Why?  It's convenient.  Everybody knows it.  It's an available reference point.

And yet it all means nothing.

Handmade things that take a long time to make are usually thought of as being of a higher quality than a similar product made fast and cheaply on an industrial scale.  Why?  The answer to this question will help us a bit further on.

First, let's talk about time.  What is it?  For our purposes, it's the same thing as dough rheology, the progression from one physical state of being into another, with the possibility of never returning to the previous state.  The tricky thing to pin down, though, is the rate of change, which is consequently affected by the hows and whys of the physical transformation attempting to be measured.

For us, as bakers, time is merely a very long string connecting together a series of snapshots of a dough's state of being.  And, no, I am not about to get Heideggerian.  For me, this offers a better framework by which to understand time.

Some bakers view time as an ingredient.  This is silly.  It is okay to have one cup of thyme, but not one cup of time.  Others, still, insist it is a procedural parameter, which it certainly is.  In a real-world environment, we all have busy lives.  There are only so many hours in the day, and this might dictate our baking schedule.  It is much easier to control time when it is viewed as an outcome, and not as an independent variable.

Fermentation is the change in the physical state of being from a dough and into bread.  There are simply so many controllable variables available to a diligent baker that she might be able to make two loaves of bread, both with nearly identical results, but with vastly different times it took to achieve that end result.  This tells us that time is irrelevant to understanding fermentation.

So, how to we better measure the physical state of our would-be bread?  What tools are available to us to better understand and measure the rate of metabolic activity, the degradation of the dough?  There are many methods already available to the baker (e.g., measuring pH, CO2 production, and so on).  What other data points can we find to build a better, more robust model?

And why does taking a long time by hand necessarily make something better?  Because:  there's simply more time to interact with the substance to be measured, and thus more available data points for an astute baker to collect (with or without her consciously knowing).  Good bread is not about time; it's about doing the right thing at the right time.  It is in our, the baker's, interaction, when and how we handle the dough, from which good bread emerges.

So, let's take our time and find more reference points.  Answer why and we discover how and when.

Comments

ananda's picture
ananda

Hello ars pistorica,

Thank you for opening up an interesting discussion about bread and time.

Largely I agree with your own ideas about doing the right things at the right time.

On the question of "why", I thought maybe it would be instructive to comment about why bakers like me brag about using long fermentation...your words, and I am guilty as charged...and happy to be so, too.

I think taking pride in using long fermentation comes about as a reaction to industrially-produced bread which is transformed from ingredients to wrapped bread in around 3 hours.   We know that using fermentation as the means to ensure dough rheology, rather than mechanical/chemical /[added] enzymatic means takes considerably longer time to achieve.   But I am sure you will agree it produces far better bread, and more of the data points you refer to as well.

Happy New Year to you too

Andy

 

ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

Ananda, I agree with everything you have written, except that bread that takers a longer time to make confers quality.  For me, a better way to express the same idea but framed differently would be to say:  on average, the more physical changes that take place in a dough, the better the resulting bread will be (versus less physical changes).  Time is simply an outcome that's handy to track the rate of change, also allowing us a better clue for how and when we, the bakers, interact with the dough.

ananda's picture
ananda

AP, do you think there are less physical changes taking place in industrially-produced [ie. "no-time"!] bread than in bread which relies on, shall we say, the greater complexities of fermentation alone?

I ask because I have always assumed that inclusion of yeast in industrial bread is simply about gas generation, whilst physical change [significant dough rheology] is induced by chemical/energy/added enzymes.

But surely the key differences between good and, [shall we be kind??] say "average" bread are as much biological as anything.   Bacterial activity has no relevance to rapid bread production.   Why?   Because we need something called "time" to create bacterial activity...unless adding sour dough powders is considered legitimate, of course.

I like your last sentence a lot; but note that it also tells me that time is a pretty useful concept to have a handle on if you want to master breadmaking.   But, there are lots of other concepts to grapple with, and I endorse what you want to do in your discussion here, which is to unlock as many of these as possible.

Best wishes

Andy

ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

Yes to everything you have written!

varda's picture
varda

about what you are saying.   It's not just time, right?   It's time and temperature.   The effects you can get at one temperature are not the same as what you can get at another.    So if you want cold to get a certain effect, then you need long.    If you want hot for something you need short.    See for instance Detmolder's approach.   Am I missing something here?   -Varda

ars pistorica's picture
ars pistorica

I want to encourage bakers to forget about time altogether.  It is irrelevant when thinking about bread.  The traditional viewpoint says time and temperature are independent variables, but we know this is not the case.  Time is an outcome of the rate of physical change occuring in a dough; it has nothing to do with the end-state of the product.  In fact, any attempt at imposing time on a dough system will ultimately fail.  It does not offer a descriptive enough model because all "time" describes is the passage from a previous state of being into another, and, for most bakers, this simply means observations made about the way a dough looks and feels, and not what's going on inside.  Fermentation involves such a complex set of microscopic reactions, many occuring simultaneously, that a baker would need to establish a separate timeline for each type of change to more fully describe the dough's internal state.  This is not tenable, though.

Let's use a real-world example:  Dough 1 is a sourdough made with inoculation X at temperature Y.  Based upon the data available, a good baker could guess when the dough will be ready.  But what does that really tell us?  What is "ready?"  Answers to this question will prove futile, as the question itself is arbitrary.  The model we, as traditional bakers, use is simply not enough.

Let's build a better understanding of what is going on on the inside.

varda's picture
varda

Look forward to hearing more about your thoughts on "what is going on on the inside."   -Varda

ananda's picture
ananda

Hi Varda,

you are highlighting some of the many variables which AP is encouraging us to collect to develop a "more robust model"

Very best wishes

Andy

EvaGal's picture
EvaGal

As one who bakes with the "right side of the brain" without thinking of grams or minutes or percentages, I agree that the readiness of sourdough for its next manipulation depends on feel; elasticity and temperature to the touch tell me all that I need to know.   Even its doneness is by sight and smell.  For example, today I proofed the dough at nearly double the temperature I intended.  So after the first stretch n fold, I proofed it at room temperature, the next proofing between the two temperatures.  The oven's been preheating a long, long time, but when the dough seems ready, it will go in.  It helps to remember sourdough is alive, and has been around longer than clocks.

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

then I'm with you all the way, Ars.  That is true for doughs made using commercial yeast and, even more so, doughs made with wild yeasts.

However, I do (and expect to continue to) use time as a gauge for when those processes may have reached the desired result.  For instance, if my wife asks me to go to the store with her on a warm summer day when I have dough fermenting, I will probably decline since I know that the rate of fermentation may carry the dough to an over-fermented state before we return.  If she makes the same request on a cool autumn or winter day, I will probably accept, especially if the dough is for a pain au levain or sourdough bread, since I can usually rely on the rate of fermentation to be slow enough that I can return home before the dough incurs any degradation.

If that sounds as though I have just agreed with your reasons for discarding time as a determinant, you are correct, since each of us is concerned about the rate of fermenation.  However, I don't have a mechanism for measuring the metabolic rates of the various organisms in my dough.  Consequently, I use elapsed time, which I can measure, as an analog for the fermentation rate that I cannot measure.  I still verify the dough's condition by other means (tactile, olfactory, visual, etc.) instead of relying on the clock alone but the clock is a valuable tool in helping me estimate when the dough will be ready for the next stage.  In that sense, I think that your quest to encourage bakers to think of time as irrelevant is, perhaps, unrealistic.  Or, maybe, premature.

Another point for me to ponder after reading the exchanges between Andy and yourself is the elasticity of the word "better".  I find that I enjoy the aromas and flavors of bread whose dough has been fermented at a slower rate more than those of a bread whose dough has been subjected to a rather rapid rate of fermentation.  (Notice that I did not try to define "slower" or "rapid"; yet another lexicological swamp!)  Some will have a similar experience, others not.  So much subjectivity to deal with!  My education as an engineer has taught me the value of solid data.  My experience has taught me that a lot of our data is rather more squishy than we would wish to admit.  And so it is in my experience with baking: the better the information that I possess, the better the opportunity for me to achieve the bread that I want.  Still, every bake teaches me that there is much which relies on fine adjustments to non-measurable phenomena.

I like your intent.  It will be interesting to see where it leads.

Paul

varda's picture
varda

Have been thinking about what you are saying.   One thing I've always been confused about is the bulk fermentation step.    It has never been clear to me when this step is done, so I tend to do it by time and/or my schedule.    This is distinguished from say proofing, where it is pretty obvious when it is complete - the dough softens.    If I understand correctly, during bulk fermentation  co2 is released and  inflates the dough, while at the same time the bacterial action develops flavor.   When you shape the dough for proofing, you lose some of the inflation, but then during proof it reinflates, which indicates the yeast is still active, i.e. that fermentation continues.    That would seem to say that if you let bulk ferment go on too long, the yeast would be exhausted and that you couldn't get reinflation.    And if you cut off bulk ferment too soon, you may have underdeveloped flavor but I would think that that could be compensated for by a longer proof.    So ideally what is the change in the dough we are looking for that indicates bulk fermentation is complete?   Or is it arbitrary (within limits) which is how I tend to treat it.  -Varda