The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Play it by ear

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Rupert's picture
Rupert

Play it by ear

I've only recently started baking bread. I read lots of books & TFL posts & advice.
I followed recipe instructions to the letter, bought thermometers for the oven and kitchen & the rest but the results were never that good. I was always trying to achieve the 'window pane' test with dough but failed.
To test for rise & prove I poked my fingers in & never had it bounce back or whatever it's supposed to do.
The bread either didn't rise in the oven or there were crumb/crust problems. Basically I followed all of the advice and achieved poor results.
So, in the end I forgot all I'd learned. I tossed some flour/salt/yeast in a bowl & added water until it felt right. I neaded the dough, once again, until it felt right.
Rising & proving times I guessed & then I stuck it in the oven till it looked done.
I'm now making excellent bread (IMO).

So, it seems you just need to develop a feel for the process. You've gotta make a few duff loaves before you get it but hey, failed experiments are not expensive. Read up on the general stuff to get an idea of the territory and then just play it by ear. It certainly works for me.

 

Levin bred's picture
Levin bred

Great time for me to read this post.  I'm baking my first loaf of bread tomorrow . . .

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, haha!

Rupert's picture
Rupert

Hope it goes well. Don't be too disapointed if it doesn't. Just a bit of patience and you'll crack it.

Ford's picture
Ford

It's not wrong, if it works for you.  However, it is hard to teach someone how to make bread by the instructions, "I tossed some flour/salt/yeast in a bowl & added water until it felt right. I neaded (sic) the dough, once again, until it felt right.  Rising & proving times I guessed & then I stuck it in the oven till it looked done,"

Ford

Rupert's picture
Rupert

Yes of course, they're no kind of instructions. It was just my experience. Concentrating on details just didn't work for me. I've made my fair share of duff bread. After making at least 40 loaves not once have I achieved the 'window pane' or the finger test - and I try it every time! Initially I'd be downhearted that I'd done something wrong but now I don't care.

As I said, you need to familiarize yourself with the basic processes. I started off cooking by carefully following recipes to the last detail & would not even start a recipe unless I had the exact ingredients whereas my partner would just toss a bit of this and that in, substitute and add stuff willy-nilly & produce excellent results. To me that's proper cooking & that's where I'm slowly heading for with baking bread.

It's one of the best things I've achieved for a long while - being able to bake bread. I never want shop-bought stuff again. And thanks to all at TFL for the tips and encouragement.

Levin bred's picture
Levin bred

is in the oven as we speak.  I couldn't wait until tomorrow I was so excited.  I just turned the oven light on to check on it.  Good oven spring, a little lopsided.  It has about 10-15 more minutes in the oven.  I hope it tastes good.

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

...how does it taste???? Congratulations on your first loaf! 

Levin bred's picture
Levin bred

Everything was going very well.  I got good oven spring, it didn't collapse or anything, but I think I took it out of the oven a few minutes too early.  I knocked the bottom and it sounded hollow, but after I let it cool I cut it in half because I suspected that I underbaked.  Sure enough, there was a corner that was a bit more doughey than the rest of the loaf.

 

Question:  doesn't poking a loaf of bread with a thermometer dry it out by giving vent to the steam?

 

At any rate, I put the two halves back in the oven for 3-5 minutes.  It's definitely edible and tastes great; I just wish I would have listened to my instinct.  The wife and I always toast our bread anyway, so it's not catastrophic by any stretch.

Levin bred's picture
Levin bred

I should have let it bake for another 2-3 minutes probably.  Tasty nonetheless.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

"When you think it's ready, give it 5 more minutes."  

Also when it pops out of the pan this pale, you can pop it back into the oven, naked onto the rack or stone for some more browning.  A little lower in the oven closer to the heat might also help next time.  

For a first loaf, Very Good!   :)

Mini

Greg D's picture
Greg D

I have more or less given up using my "intuition" in favor of sticking an instant read thermometer into the bottom of the loaf.  For me at least, "thumping" bread loaves to determine doneness is about as helpful as "thumping" watermellons at the market to determine ripeness.  Many recipes give a target final internal temperature.  If your's does not, try for 205.  I have done this 1000 times and have never felt I compromised the crumb or crust by poking the 1/16" or 1/32" hole through the bottom of the loaf that the thermometer requires.

Happy Baking.

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

I think many of us have had experiences much like yours - following cookbook instructions, as you say, "to the letter," yet failing to produce good results. I still recall the flat, pale, gummy loaves that were my first attempts at sourdough baking. <shudder> That was about 7 years ago. I won't name it, but part of my problem was I was using a rather inferior recipe book. However, I don't think giving up on recipes altogether is the best way, even if you can make edible bread by feel, based on a little experience. You will want to be able to reproduce breads you really like, and for that you need a recipe. 

Why is your bad experience and frustration so common? I think there are several reasons. 

1. While there are lots of excellent bread books available, some are better for beginners and others for professionals. A few are just plain poor.

2. Books are good ways of communicating facts and abstract concepts. They are a great vehicle for learning the science behind baking. They are not very good at communicating manual skills or qualitative measures. For example, I did learn how to get a window pane pretty early on, but, when I took workshops given by professional baking instructors, I saw that they were able to get a much better window pane than I could from the same dough. I learned more from watching the instructor than I had from reading many excellent bread books and practicing for several years. 

3. The best baking books share an attribute most often attributed to the bible (but also to Alice in Wonderland). As you mature (as a baker), you understand more and, in fact, find information you didn't recognize as important on previous readings. As your knowledge and experience expand even more, you begin to understand why certain choices were made  as to ingredients and proportions. This impowers  you to make your own choices intelligently and modify recipes for specific reasons. At that point, you also have a pretty good idea of why a bread turned out poorly (because that will always happen some times, no matter how good you get to be).

4. Many beginning bakers run off in all directions simultaneously and never get anywhere. I think that one of the best pieces of advice that a new home bread baker can get is to choose one or two specific breads and make them over and over until you have solved all the problems and feel you have really mastered them. Then move on. 

5. Failures are opportunities for learning. In fact, they may be the best kind. However, to "learn from your mistakes" you need to know what you did. That means what you did needs to be documented in a way that can be communicated and reproduced. We call that kind of documentation a "formula" or a "recipe." Get one from a book or make you own, but do it. If you have this recipe, including your methods, by sharing them, for example with other TFL members, you can get help solving your problems and learn how to assess problems on your own.

So, I'm glad you are enjoying the breads you are making by "feel," but, in the long run, you are going to advance your skills better and faster by going back to the books and working out why a particular recipe didn't work well for you. We can help you with this, but we need to know what you did. 

Happy baklng!

David

Rupert's picture
Rupert

Hi
I would have to say that I haven’t really had bad experiences, disappointing maybe but I didn’t expect to achieve anything without failures & frustrations & as you suggest, learning from one’s mistakes is probably one of the better ways to learn.
I think I’ve read far too many books for my own good. After a while you start noticing the inconsistencies & opposing advice. I think some of the videos I’ve seen are probably the most instructive, especially for kneading techniques & other manual skills.
As an example there’s a basic white bread I often bake. Although I usually improvise, the recipe calls for 500gm strong white flower, 7gm easy bake yeast, 10gm salt, 40ml olive oil & 320ml water. It’s a fairly soggy mix & I’ve kneaded it for anywhere between 10 & 25 minutes using either the heel of hand method (difficult due to stickiness) or the French method. I check for ‘window pane’ every couple of minutes & it doesn’t happen for me. Either it just rips apart or only very small part is see-through. The dough is also quite sticky.
It takes around 2 -3 hours to rise in a slightly oiled & covered bowl. The ‘double in size’ rise test I’ve yet to understand. I can’t see how you can judge such a thing. So, when the dough has ‘significantly’ increased in size (another judgement call) I consider it risen. The finger test doesn’t work because it’s still sticky. Furthermore, it’s not possible to take hold of the risen dough & remove it from the bowl as it’s stuck to the bottom & sides so I have to almost pour it out.
After knocking out & shaping I place it on a non-stick tray, cover & prove it for about an hour. Once again it rises ‘significantly’ but is too sticky for a finger test.
I then spray with a fine mist of water, gently cover & spread a little flour on the surface & score.
Now for scoring I’ve tried a razor but it kinda catches & tears the surface. A very sharp knife is better but still catches. I found that to help avoid this I wipe a little oil on the blade.
Then in a pre-heated oven (220 degrees) I add some water to a tray at the bottom & put the loaf in for roughly 25 minutes. Here’s another puzzling thing. By opening the oven to put the water and loaf in the oven temperature has dropped by 20 – 30 degrees! I would have expected recipes to counter for this by suggesting a higher initial temperature but I’ve yet to see this advice.
After 25 minutes I reduce the temperature to 200 degrees and continue baking for around 10 to 15 minutes or until it ‘looks done’. I always tap the bottom to test for the hollow sound but I’ve found that this is no real guide since, in my experience it can sound hollow when not fully baked.
Now this mostly produces a good loaf – oven spring is excellent, crust & crumb are fine but of course, a ‘good’ loaf is very subjective term.

I’m sure that many experienced bakers here will recoil in horror at some of the above & possibly think that I wouldn’t know good bread if it jumped up and bit me on bum.
I know that I have a great deal to learn but for everyday bread the above seems to work for me.

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

Okay. I'm back but multi-tasking as usual. (Got some zucchini - courgettes to you - grilling for bruschetta. The agradolce sauce for the salmon is made. Hmmm ... vinegrette for the salad's next up.)

You did not mention any problem with shaping your loaf, so I won't comment on this step. Regarding scoring, I suggest you read the TFL "Scoring Tutorial" (Scoring Bread: An updated tutorial).

The hour you specified for proofing should be about right. I'm still bothered by your loaf being sticky, but try the procedures in my previous reply and we'll see. In any case, the poke test still works for me with pretty sticky doughs. The trick is to wet your finger before you poke. Poke and get your finger right out of the loaf; don't let your finger linger.

Now baking: I read in another topic that you found your oven thermostat inaccurate. I believe you are getting a new oven? I'll hold comments until I here what you are getting, except to say, if you haven't yet purchased, get electric rather than gas, if you have the option. Right now, I'm not sure whether the oven temperatures you mention are with an old, inaccurate oven or a new one.

Regarding the oven temperature dropping when you open the door: You are correct. This is an issue, but not a big one if your oven gets back up to temperature quickly. Your suggested solution is also correct. I bake most of my hearth breads at 460-480 dF, and I pre-heat my oven to 500 dF with a baking stone in place. But most of my breads are not enriched. Bread with eggs, fat of any type, sugar or milk usually get too dark if baked this hot. 

When is bread "done?" For un-enriched breads, when the temperature at the center of the loaf is greater than 205 dF, measured with an instant read digital thermometer. For highly enriched breads, a final temperature of 190 dF is generally sufficient. Note that this indicates when you take the bread out of the oven, not when you slice it. Once you have made a particular bread many times and consistantly use the same procedures, actually measuring the loaf's temperature becomes unnecessary, but when you are making breads for the first time, it's very useful.

Well, there's a lot more that could be said, but this is probably too much already. If you are game, try the procedures I suggested. Read the scoring tutorial. And let's see where that gets you.

Happy baking!

David

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

Hi, Rupert.

With the details you have provided, we have a chance to suggest some changes that might give you a more satisfactory result. I'll take it step by step.

Your Formula

500 g strong white flour

320 g water

10 g salt

7 g yeast (not sure what kind from your terminology)

40 g olive oil

So, you have a 64% hydration dough with 8% fat enrichment. You repeatedly describe it as sticky, which is surprising. "Strong" flour generally has 12-14% protein, as I understand the term. This should absorb more water than, say, American "all purpose" flour, and the dough should be pretty dry at 64% hydration.On the other hand, a higher-gluten flour will require more kneading to get the gluten fully developed.

Maybe the oil is the culprit. In baking, the general term for fat in doughs is "shortening." That term stems from the fact that fat interferes with gluten development and "shortens" the strands of gluten that form. A little fat (1-2%) might not make much difference, but 8% is a significant amount.

So, if you like the taste of this bread, keep the ingredients unchanged, but I'm going to suggest some changes in your procedures. Try this:

1. Mix just the flour and water in a large bown into a shaggy mass. (All the flour should be incorporated into the mass.) Cover the bowl tightly, and let it rest for 30 minutes. This is an autolyse. It allows the gluten to start forming without fermentation or interference by salt and oil.

2. Add the salt, yeast and oil by sprinkling them over the dough. Mix in the bowl by squeezing the dough with your fist and between your fingers. It will come apart but then come back together in 2-3 minutes. Form the dough into a ball, still in the bowl, cover it and let it rest for another 20-30 minutes.

3. Now, knead the dough using your method of choice. If it starts to tear, replace it in the bowl, cover it, and let it rest for 10 minutes. Then resume kneading. I would expect the dough to need no more than 10 minutes kneading, and probably less to become smooth and satiny. 

4. Wash out your bowl, lightly oil it, and put the dough in it to rise, covered. At 20-21dC, I would expect the dough to need no more more than 60-90 minutes to double. A couple notes on your experience with this: Using a transparent or translucent container for bulk fermentation will solve your problem. I actually use a 2 liter glass pitcher which is graduated like smaller glass measuring cups. Not only can I objectively monitor volume expansion, but I can also see bubbles forming in the dough. Cool! With a plain glass bowl or plastic container, you can pour in measured amounts of water and mark the levels with masking tape to create your own "measuring bowl." In regards to the poke test: This is meant for monitoring proofing loaves. It is said to be unreliable with bulk fermenting dough.

*******************************

To be continued with shaping, proofing, scoring and baking. But now I have to get to the Farmers' Market to stock up on fruits and veggies. Please stay tuned.

David

 

 

Rupert's picture
Rupert

OK, thanks for your time. This should be interesting.

The yeast used is also known as Easy-blend/Fast-action/Rapid Rise and comes 7gm sachets.

Regarding measuring rise I have considered getting a large measuring cylinder but have yet to find one - I'll have another look around. As far as using masking tape on a bowl I wonder how this can work. For a liquid that's easy but from a lump of dough?

When I find a cylinder I'll try the same recipe (with the oil). Now to find a cylinder.

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

In the US, the dominant manufacturer of plastic food storage containers is Cambro. I don't know if they get to the UK. Here's a link:    Dough-Rising Bucket (219) 5060    

I use that sometimes, but my favorite is this: Kitchen Supply 2 Quart Glass Batter Bowl With Lid Oooo ... It's on sale!

These links are meant as examples, not necessarily recommended vendors. No affilliation, etc.

David

Rupert's picture
Rupert

By the way, that's 40ml of olive oil

Rupert's picture
Rupert

1. Mix just the flour and water in a large bowl into a shaggy mass. (All the flour should be incorporated into the mass.) Cover the bowl tightly, and let it rest for 30 minutes. This is an autolyse. It allows the gluten to start forming without fermentation or interference by salt and oil.

2. Add the salt, yeast and oil by sprinkling them over the dough. Mix in the bowl by squeezing the dough with your fist and between your fingers.

After 30 minutes the dough is really stiff like modelling clay. To add salt, yeast & oil at this point is quite difficult. The salt & yeast don’t seem to incorporate very well at all.

It will come apart but then come back together in 2-3 minutes. Form the dough into a ball, still in the bowl, cover it and let it rest for another 20-30 minutes.

3. Now, knead the dough using your method of choice. If it starts to tear, replace it in the bowl, cover it, and let it rest for 10 minutes. Then resume kneading. I would expect the dough to need no more than 10 minutes kneading, and probably less to become smooth and satiny.

It was tearing so I returned to the bowl for another ten minutes then tried again. It still tore so once again I rested it for ten minutes. Upon kneading it was still tearing so I continued kneading for ten minutes, checking every two minutes for the elusive ‘window pane’ but didn’t achieve it.
I wasn’t downhearted as I’ve never achieved it previously and have produced good bread. (I know ‘good’ is a subjective opinion but we like the results). The dough, however, is far less sticky than with my previous method.

4. Wash out your bowl, lightly oil it, and put the dough in it to rise, covered. At 20-21dC, I would expect the dough to need no more than 60-90 minutes to double.

Indeed, within 90 minutes it had doubled in size. Folded and knocked out the air, shaped the dough & placed on non-stick tray. I then covered it with large bag and left to prove.
After 45 minutes I tried the ‘finger test’ but dough surface was too sticky. Dough now lost its shape and flattened out. Left for a total prove of 1 hour.
Spray with water but can’t score surface because both razor and sharp knife drag rather than slice. Cover surface with dusting of flour & place in oven at 220c.
There’s little or no oven spring.
After 25 minutes reduced temperature to 200c then continue baking for 15 minutes.
Top looks done. Remove from oven & turn over. Bottom looks unbaked and no hollow sound when tapped.
Return to oven upside down for 10 more minutes and then remove to rack to cool. Loaf tastes OK but is far too flat.
-------------------------

Hey Ho! Another day, another duff loaf.

What am I learning?

The 'window pane' & 'finger test' are probably not that important. Previous loaves I baked that failed these tests were fine - lots of oven spring, good shape, great taste.
Since the above tests are mentioned all over there must be something to say for them. I'm still attempting to discover just what that is.
In the mean time I just baked some great Baguettes, hand-kneaded, no tests, love 'em.

Rupert's picture
Rupert
Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Sounds too dry, add more liquids, and get it sticky!  Don't be afraid of sticky.  Sticky is wonderful!  You learn to be quick with your fingers so the dough doesn't have the time to grab you.   I worked for years with modeling clay and that clay is too stiff to compare to dough unless it was melting on a hot sidewalk.  The tearing, the slow rise, all sounds like the dough is too stiff.  Up the hydration a little bit.

If "sticky" bothers you, move to "slimy."  Use water instead of flour to knead.  Keep a bowl of tepid water near you and wet your fingers slightly when the dough gets all lovey dovey and wants to hang on to you.  Amazing how that works.  The first time can be awkward but it gets easier.

Rupert's picture
Rupert

OK, several things here in response to various of the above.
I did purchase a new electric oven a few weeks ago and the temperature is pretty accurate.

The recipe I originally used (see: 'Hi I would have to say that I...') was very sticky throughout the process but it produces a well risen and shaped loaf.
My point in that post was that although the result was good, there was no way I could produce 'window pane' regardless of how long I kneaded or the 'poke test' due to the stickiness of the dough.

I did try out the methods outlined in 'Let's problem-solve @ Rupert' and the outcome I posted as 'Result 1'.

In response to 'the dough is really stiff like modelling clay' I have no problems with sticky - I love getting my hands in there. The modelling clay dough came about as a result of the autolyse suggested in 'Let's problem-solve @ Rupert' as did the scoring problems. It was not a problem in the 'Hi I would have to say that I...' method.

By the way, I used my new vertical sided dough bucket which makes it far easier to judge 'doubled in size' than using a bowl.