The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

can artisan be done by feel and by hand?

browndog's picture

can artisan be done by feel and by hand?

Am brand-new poster. Recently bought J. Handelmman's Bread book. I've been baking bread for years and rarely used recipes-- just chose my ingredients and put it together by feel. Thought it was time for horizon-expanding, but this book makes me feel like they cancelled Christmas. I've made a few recipes, trying to adjust to the hyper-precise technique from my seat-of-the-pants approach, plus I do not own a mixer, what would be the fun in that? Yes, I certainly got some interesting bread, pretty to look at and pleasant to eat, and I learned a ton about process. But IT'S NO FUN. I LOVE kneading, I love letting the dough 'speak' to me and tell me what it needs (Ha) but all of a sudden I feel like I'm making bread the WRONG way. Is this what artisan bread is really about, or is there compromise bubbling about somewhere? Anything else I should be reading?

Caro_'s picture


I agree with your sentiments exactly. To me, the whole point of making bread is about kneading and shaping and experimenting with it. Admittedly, when I first started seriously on baking, I read masses of books, tried a lot of recipes, but more for the know-how about why things work or don't workd, rather than just blindly following the instructions. This was partly because most of the books were British or American, and I'm in Australia, where the flours, weights, measurements and ingredients are often quite different to those of the recipes, so I had to adapt.


But once I got the basics and lots of practice under my belt, I stopped using recipes almost altogether, except for inspiration, or new ingredients, or shaping ideas. I found some of the master baker books useful, like Reinhart's Crust and Crumb and the one you mentioned ( hamelmann?) but rely on the look and even more, on the feel of the dough. I worked successfully as a baker in a hotel for a year so my approach sems to have worked. In fact, the head chef said to that I shouldn't use recipes, partly because in a commercial venture, you dont have time! The hotel advertised my bread as "home-made organic or artisan bread, which allowed for the mild inconsistencies from day tot day and batch to batch.


Surely it's that more "crafted" look that comes from inconsistencies that is what Artisan baking is all about? Only hightly commercial bakeries need absolute consistency, I would have thought? 


I think the main thing is to be creative and HAVE FUN! You go with what you enjoy...

Sylviambt's picture

What a great topic.  Like so many others who've replied, I love to read up on a new challenge.  Even tho I've been baking since the 70's, the bread-baking addiction didn't kick in until a year ago.  I love the stories and photos in Glezer's book.  Reinhart's BBA continues to teach me loads about technique.  The more I bake, the more I seem to get out of these books.  Lepard's book gave me the confidence to try using levains - a starter that provides flavor complexities without the tang of sourdough. (I love strong sourdough but my husband won't eat it.)

And now I keep rereading sections of Hamelman's "Bread", esp about flour, hydration, temperature and degree of fermentation.  I'm no professional baker, but really enjoy this information.  Who would have thought that I'd bake with a scale and calculator by my side so that I could figure out how to covert a stiff levain to a liquid one as I moved from recipe to recipe!  And when I do that, I ultimately have to work by eye and feel to get to the dough texture that'll work.  Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't.  But it's always a lesson.

The books, comments on this website and experimenting make all of this so rewarding.(Special thanks to mountaindog and Floyd - outstanding ovenspring two weeks ago with my levain - Thom Leonard's recipe using Hamelman's levain build.)

I guess I just really love the diversity of opinions and experiences on this site and in the books.  And to think it's all because we love baking great bread.


in search of the perfect crust and crumb

Floydm's picture

I agree w/ your sentiment as well. Hamelman writes for professionals who need to know how to reliably reproduce a high quality product every day. It is a great book if that is what you are after, but that isn't what most of us as amateur bakers are after.

As always, I recommend The Bread Baker's Apprentice or any other of Peter Reinhart's books. Peter's writing is much more inspiring. His writing aims to capture the heart and soul of the artisan baker more than the mind (as Hamelman does).

Drifty Baker's picture
Drifty Baker

I am reading Hamelman's book now and I am getting a lot out of it.  He teaches how different conditions can change the way the bread tastes and looks.  But I am also like you, I love to knead my dough by hand especially after reading how you can easily start to break the dough by over kneading.  I don't think this can be done if I knead by hand.

If I had a commerical bakery I might be concerned about having all the conditions the same so I could produce the same quality loaf every day.  I don't make bread for that reason.  I make bread because I love the process, the feel of the dough, the smell of the ingredients while mixing and after baking.  I like to try different things and have produced a fair amount of door stops in the process.  Both us amateurs and the professionals have the same goal in mind to make a loaf of bread that not only tastes great but looks great too.  Follow your muse!



crumb bum's picture
crumb bum

While I agree that Hammelmans book is a bit technical I think it is the best bread book ever written bar non.  I continually read it and learn new things.  I don't think we should confuse Hams scientific approach with a lack of heart and artistry.  I also love Peters books as well and think he tries to communicate a more romantic vision of baking.  That said, in a perfect world I would like to see Peters pictures and prose combined with Hams recipies and formulas.  That would the book I would grab on the way out of the house if it was on fire.

You can't go wrong with either of these books.  I started out following these books to the letter.  The more I have learned the more I have strayed from these formulas.  I look at these books as a foundation and once you have that foundation you can go crazy and sort of know what to expect on any given loaf.  My 2 cents

Da Crumb Bum

bwraith's picture

Hamelman's "Bread" is one of my favorite books because it gives overall baker's formulas for many basic recipes around which you can improvise all you want. He also explains mixing, folding, and other details in ways I hadn't appreciated until I read this book. The Hamelman book definitely has helped me make better bread. Knowing some of the science of bread making, which I've picked up from his book and several others and from some of the internet sources, has been a satisfying and fun part of bread making for me. It has given me a better chance to then know what to look for as far as "feel" when making bread. Acquiring the skill to make adjustments based on look, feel, smell, taste, even sound is also an enjoyable part of the process. All in all, good use of measurement, techniques, scientific knowledge, note taking, spreadsheets, some experimenting, and whatever falls into the quantitative category is not only helpful to making better bread, but very satisfying and enjoyable to learn and understand, as long as you understand the limitations. You still have to realize those disciplines only give you part of the picture, and that your senses and experience provide additional knowledge about the complexities of bread making that are essential to making good bread, too. While not apologizing for being more of an engineer in my approach, and at the same time wishing browndog to be happy with more feel than science, I'm just saying the fun you get out of it is a matter of personal preference. Sometimes a little science and technology can spice up your day, at least it does it for me now and then.

helend's picture

Thses comments all resonate with me - I am the (un)happy product of book loving family and find it impossible not to read/research everything in detail, including baking. I have read all the books mentioned, learnt loads, been inspired, baffled and irriated and have tried out their different approaches - some work for me, some don't, some do sometimes! However, I also love working with my gut instinct and often have trouble sharing recipes because everytime things are a little different - bread is so easy to work with by feel - texture, shape and taste are so responsive to a little tinkering and besides, every batch of flour is different, absorbing more or less, every day the temperature is different (I am in England after all) and every day my store cupboards hold different ingredients that just need to be used up. So today's 5 seed bread with walnuts and currrants actually has 6 seed types, pecans and raisins and after having eaten a heavily hydrated chewy rye for a week I chose to cut the hydration, add egg and oil to get a soft, close, smooth crumb. All this decided whilst stood at the counter - recipe, what recipe?

Baking makes you smile, have fun whatever way you do it Helend :))))))





pumpkinpapa's picture

I understand exactly what you mean, I've bought only one book, Peter Reinharts BBA and it has given me great insight into the hard science of bread. Baking using weights, and the finest ingredients yet inspiring to use all his recipes as a starting point.

I do tend to follow recipes but always get distracted and change this here or that there to achieve what feels right or what there is on hand.

And mixing and kneading my hand too I firmly believe in, having recently hand kneaded 13 pounds of Sicilian dough (BBA recipe with some mod's) was done in a shorter time than in small amounts in my KA (which I like when I have to chase the kids). If I need to make more dough in great quantities then I'll invest.

In the mean time I work my dough in my sunny window and enjoy the workout. 

JIP's picture

I personally keep getting caught up in the whole equipment issue but that unfortunately is how I approach most things. I think if yo uhave a good feel for doing bread by the seat of your pants I say more power to you!. Getting too caught up in all the technical aspects gets away from the reason I think we all make bread to be closer to our food and to know what goes into it.

zolablue's picture

We all get caught up in our own favorite book author, methods, recipes but that is part of the fun in sharing our passion.  When I first got my scale I wondered how I ever cooked or baked for so many years without one.  I think it is wonderful fun and love the idea of knowing precise ingredients. 

Then I start thinking about my great grandmothers and how they made bread and baked them in their open fireplaces.  And when home baked bread and homemade jam was served at every single meal no matter what else was on the menu.  I marvel at those abilities.

I also love the tactile qualities of bread making so you are not alone in that.  Perhaps you would like to take a look at Dan Lepard's book, The Handmade Loaf.  It is full of the most interesting recipes - everything is in grams though so you may need a scale.  Some ingredients are going to be hard to find but I have a feeling worth the search.  I love to take his book out and read it.  I've made his sourdough raisin cinnamon bread a couple times and it is fantastic.

Do what pleases you.  It doesn't matter what anyone else does if you're happy doing it your way and if you make great bread what could be better!

Floydm's picture

Dan Lepard's book is another very good one. It has good recipes but I also find it exudes enthusiasm. It is hard to find in the States though. I ordered a used copy online from the UK and had it shipped here.

browndog's picture

You guys are great, thanks! Never thought I'd need moral support for my bread-baking. I am going to look into Lepard and Reinhart. (Hammelman, yes...I'm blushing, trust me...) I HAVE learned things from this book, despite the angst, that I'm incorporating regularly and am making better bread as a result. Still, how you make a dough of 70+% hydration by hand quite escapes me. And does it seem ironic to anyone else that one would trouble to measure dough, air and water temperature only to pop the dough in the refrigerator? Perhaps I didn't read closely enough... I do understand the value of these formulae to a professional baker requiring a consistent result. Yet what did the bakers of a hundred or two years ago do? I need THAT book. At any rate, thanks for helping me screw my head back on right, and reminding me that my baking remains in MY hands (and mouth of course!) And the international flavor of this board's a treat!

scott lynch's picture
scott lynch

First the specific--working a very wet dough by hand.  There is an explanation and photos in the Maggie Gleezer book.  It did not click with me until I saw it done at a King Arthur baking seminar and then I understood what the method was.  One thing to realize (from the science!) is that these wet doughs develop their own gluten structure just from sitting around and being wet.  So with the very wet (80%+) doughs, you don't actually have to do much with them.  You can whip them around a bit and then give them a turn/fold every so often and you would be amazed at how they evolve.  Of course it does not do much to get out your aggressions, but when you eat them you will acheive inner peace without violence.
Regarding the overall approach and the measuring, study, etc, I totally buy into it, but that's just because it works for me.  In addition to the eating part, one of the things I love about bread baking is that it satisfies my control fantasies.  By that I mean that I start with an end in mind, and using the techniques I've picked up along the way, I can see how close I come to what I intended.  But as for approach, I think we all agree that if it makes you feel good you should do it.

browndog's picture

Sorry, sorry...time-lag...Well, okay, if you say so...I made Hamelman's 40% rye yesterday and I COULD NOT help myself, I added an extra cup of flour so I could get something remotely similar to what I'd call dough. It was still pretty gooey yet turned out very well and maybe I'll feel bolder next time, just let the muck sit there and have faith in y'all telling me it WILL turn into bread. Bother science. And I assumed KA seminars either taught you how to open a bakery or taught you how to make banana bread and coffe cake. They have 'handmade' bread classes?

scott lynch's picture
scott lynch

Yes, King Arthur does a sort of national tour where they have a group of 3 or 4 people who demonstrate techniques.  I was lucky to catch one right here in my home city (Madison, WI, pop. 200,000) so it is not just the usual LA, Chicago, New York thing.  The one I attended was on Artisan breads and was quite informative for a buddy of mine who was not terribly experienced--he learned a lot, and I picked up a few pointers as well.  If I had paid $75 for the class I might have been a bit let down, but it was free, and they give away a ton of door prizes.
They post a schedule:
but it appears that the last tour has maybe just concluded and they have not announced the next one.  It also appears there are on-line classes, but I don't know anythign about that.  Sniff around the site and see what you can find.

sphealey's picture

> And I assumed KA seminars either taught you how to open

> a bakery or taught you how to make banana bread and

> coffe cake. They have 'handmade' bread classes?

King Arthur's National Baking Tour classes are two two-hour seminars with 1-2 hours in between (and given that the instructor talked non-stop for the two hours they need that break). The first seminar covers soft/sweet breads; the second seminar covers artisan breads. You can attend either or both, but at least in my city you need to be there very early if you want to be able to see directly rather than just on the video monitor (they have a video camera focused on the work area which is helpful even if you are at the front).

KA also has classes at their main location in VT on how to run bakeries, make sourdough, and many other topics. Those cost big bucks though.


pelosofamily's picture

I have been passionately making home made bread for the last , well forever!  But I have recentely taken two artisan courses, and am now out of my comfort zone.  I  don't have a feel for the bread as the texture is very different and I have a tendency to keep the dough quite wet.  But sourdough spreads out . and I can't shape it.  The obvious , more flour, but will that help to form  bread shapes?

SourdoLady's picture

Have you tried the dough folding technique? Ever since I learned to do that I have had no problems with spreading. Another factor with sourdoughs is that they are easily over developed in mixing if you use a mixer or bread machine. This will cause the dough to become shiney and gloppy feeling as it causes the dough to release the water. I have better luck when I do an autolyse for 20 to 30 minutes and then mix only until the dough just comes into a nice ball but is not completely developed. Let the dough rest for 45 minutes to an hour and then fold it over onto itself like a letter. Turn the dough 90 degrees and fold again. You will instantly feel the dough strengthen up. If needed you can repeat a second time after another rest. According to Hamelman most doughs do not need any more than two fold sessions. It is possible to get the dough too strong if you fold too many times, which can impair rising. 

bwraith's picture


I've had much better luck, particularly with whole grain breads and higher hydration doughs after learning about folding. However, do you have any rules of thumb for how to know when you've folded enough? For example, after two folds, the typical miche I've been doing (about 80% hydration,  70% whole grain) seems to be fairly slack. After four folds, I can barely stretch it at all, and it's not easy to fold.


SourdoLady's picture

I just go by how the dough feels. Once it strengthens enough to hold its shape I don't fold anymore. Sounds like maybe you should stop at three folds with the one you are speaking of. Every dough is different so I don't think that there is any 'rule of thumb' that you can go by. Hamelman states in his book that most doughs don't need more than two folds.

EffigyOfFaith's picture

browndog5, I agree completely I've been baking for a few years and I don't think that I have ever followed a recipie all the way through. I can't afford fancy flour, fancy book, or fancy balances, but I LOVE making bread. I started making sourdough bread because it's yeast is expensive. That said I do enjoy reading recipies for new ideas for techniques, and ingrediants.


browndog's picture

do you know what I think is funny? I have bought almost no bread for 25 years so I don't even know what good artisan bread is! I've never had any-- but the co-ops around here have begun carrying these fantastic-looking loaves, and I didn't see why I shouldn't be able to make bread just as pretty. I didn't expect to be embarking on a complete redefinition of my baking self. Hah!

staff of life's picture
staff of life

Hurrah for the variety of bread books I say! I love to glean information from any place I can, and while I think Hamelman's book is very helpful, there is a certain almost mysticism about bread that the book lacks--and that's where Reinhart's picks up. I must say however--I enjoy the actual breads out of Reinhart's better. That Caramelized Onion and Asiago Miche at the end is pure heaven! And Cranberry Walnut Bread served with a little Brie--magnifique!!

browndog's picture

Yes! That's it- speaking as someone who cut her bread teeth on Tassajara Bread Book where you practically kiss the dough goodnight and invoke blessings over it before you set it to rise...and who is functionally math-illiterate (ah, they were right all those years DOES come in handy and I SHOULD have paid attention.)

tigressbakes's picture
tigressbakes of course I had to read almost all the recommended books out there before I even dipped my hands in flour. I am a new baker - I hope that some day I will have enough experience and guts to improvise.

BTW - why does BBA and The Bread Book make BAKER'S MATH seem so difficult? I really just can't even deal with it right now - it causes me anxiety. Will I really never be a great baker if I can't figure it out ;-)

Has anyone baked - or made sourdough starter from Breads from LaBrea Bakery? The photos of Nancy's breads make my mouth water! That is my next project - trying to bake from her book.

...Wait a minute, I just realized, I did improvise! I spent this past month cultivating my first sourdough starter and I kind of combined a couple of techniques from a few different sources until something seemed like it was working - until it felt right. -And it worked!

I guess there is hope for me yet!

Squid's picture

Tigressbakes, my very first sourdough was from Nancy's book. I look forward to making many more. I think my next project will be to make her bagels.

mij.mac's picture


Make your bread how you want to make it. It doesn't matter one bit how anyone else does. I think some people get a very unfair bashing because they suggest this or that way of baking is great. It doesn't mean you have to do it that way. I don't understand why you need support. I bake the way it suits me and don't give two hoots what others think about it. Why would I? It's my kitchen. There's a few facts about baking that people over look. 1. the range of hydration is big, from <60 to >85, so if you can't manage to judge something in this range without a measuring device you really shouldn't be allowed in the kitchen. lol.2. the only other thing you really 'need' is salt and you can taste that to see if it's right. Now if I were to write a recipe you would expect it to be given in some kind of unit. Grams is the most universal of these so most authors give ingredients measured this way. I'm not sure how you can complain about 'accuracy' there. One has to write something.  The world will never be exactly the way we want it when we want it, it's the nature of our minds to see it that way, not a problem with the world. Just be okay with things not being okay and you'll be fine.


browndog's picture

Hard to explain why words in a book could send me into a tailspin--I'm sure I could work it out in therapy, but getting feedback here is way cheaper and decidedly more helpful.

mij.mac's picture

One word, 'ego'. Sorry you won't like that either but it's true. If we didn't have ego we'd all be getting along swimmingly, no conflict or anguish, we'd put others and happiness first. But we don't want to here that do we. lol.


browndog's picture

Sure, I think it's a bizarre reaction- really asked myself the same question...and ego's as likely an answer as any. I want to make bread as pretty as anybody else can, preferably prettier, as a function of ego? Well sure, that and a pretty firm aesthetic ethic, and I didn't want to give up the process I love to get it- Hamelman (in my reading of him) was telling me to blow that process out my ear. He comes off like the God of bread in that book, and he has the photographs to prove it! I AM easily led! I'm the only 'commited' (don't misinterpret that word...) bread baker I know, so you guys' feedback has been massively helpful, interesting, and I do believe at a relatively small karmic cost. But I don't resent a well-placed dope slap when appropriate (not much anyway...)

mij.mac's picture

lol, glad you've got a sense of humour and I'm sure you'll be making breads for the show very soon then. There is absolutely no reason why you can't make bread tasting and looking fantastic by 'a bit of this and bit of that', you'll quickly learn what doesn't work so well, not do that again and what you've got left is great technique and great bread.


longlivegoku's picture

I must agree that bread should be made the way that you feel comfortable.  There are so many different ways to do each's really about what's convenient and enjoyable for you.  I recently started bulk fermenting my doughs overnight.  I bake once a week and make approximately 30-70 loaves at a time.  I found it was just easier to have the dough ready to go in the morning for me.  I'm able to wake up, shape, proof and bake.

A word on high-hydration dough as well.  Recently I made a 110% hydration 100% WW bread by hand.  I used the stretch and fold method every 15 minutes for about 1.5 hours.  It was unlike anything I have tasted.  The hole structure and nutty taste were great.  Most breads I make any more are >75% hydration as I like the flavor it produces and the hole structure.

Another good book worth mentioning, even if you aren't planning to build a brick oven, is The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens.   I think the  information they provide on bread making is invaluable.