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.