from a bread newbie : long autolyse + cold and long fermentation makes a killer bread !!!
Hi to all of you guys and girls, and thanks a million for this precious website.
I'm french, and pretty new to making bread even though i've always dreamed to. I just love bread and, unfortunately, the bread you can find nowadays in french bakeries is pretty much unedible nine times out of ten. Tasteless, chewless and essentially stale only a couple hours after you bought it, not even mentioning the price which, sincerely, gets just about scandalous these days...
Fortunately enough, i bought myself a good, reliable and sturdy oven about six months ago, which at last allowed me to try my luck and find out if i could ever get good at making a decent bread. So i browsed on the internet for quite a while, finding an awful lot —even though often contradictory— of infos on how to elaborate and cook a nice loaf.
After a couple months of researching and discriminating, i finally ramped up for production, bought the best ingredients i could find and, as a typically french expression litterally puts it, threw myself off into cold water...
The first tries ended up in a total mess : my loaves looked, felt and tasted just like a log, even though i followed the instructions i found as closely as i could and, frankly, i was just about to give it up altogether. After thinking it over for a while, i decided i would try and figure out what, chemically and dynamically speaking, was occuring during the bread making process. And frankly, that was the key to success.
I won't insist on the chemical process too much, since lots of you guys have already explained it in detail on this very site, but here's a few hints which may help another newbie, just like the one i was a couple months ago. Those may seem pretty empirical to most of you but, once again, i'm essentially writing this for total noobs, who don't have the slightest hint about how to actually proceed. So, here's my two cents contribution.
- The autolyse step seems just about essential to me, especially for a beginner. When one wants to work with a highly hydrated dough, in particular, one often gets puzzled by how liquid it initially is, wondering how the hell anyone could be able to later knead it. Well, autolyse fixes it all. I read —here and there— that a 30 mns autolyse was good enough to express most of the dough's gluten. I actually noticed that a 4 or 5 hours autolyse in the bottom of the fridge was working better, still. Because no matter how hydrated your dough may look at the beginning of the process, the fact is after that a few hours of autolyse followed by six or nine folds, the dough gets practically workable.
- Then, the fermentation process. I tried various lengths and temperatures, but the best results i got came from a cold and lengthy fermentation process, only interrupted by a few foldings here and there. Obviously, the process begins after the autolyse has fully happened. I usually start it at mid day. I add my yeast (dry instant SAF yeast, as a matter of fact) and salt, knead it for a short while (10 or 15 folds) and put it back in the fridge overnite, where the yeast will slowly but surely digest all of good part those delicious sugars. On next morning, i take the dough out of the fridge, and leave it on the counter for about an hour, in order for it to get back to a decent room temperature. Once the temperature has gotten back to normal, i give my dough another 10 or 15 folds, before putting it back in the fridge for another night of yeast banquet.
- So here we are on the following morning, about 48 hours after the autolyse process has actually begun. While it may seem quite lengthy to some of you, i sincerely found out it makes a whole world of difference. My dough is now strong, way strong, very elastic, it does not stick anymore and develops a nice, sweet and slightly acid smell which presumes for the best. I give it another 4 or 5 folds straight out of the fridge, and let it rest for about 15 minutes on the counter before entering the preshaping step. I turn my oven on, max temperature (about 300 C°, which is about 570 F°), just to make sure my baking stone will accumulate enough heat for later. This single process will take at least an hour. I then split the dough as needed, and preshape my wannabe-loaves in order to put the dough in tension, kinda, then let them rest for another half an hour on the counter, covered with a cloth.
- Before entering the last shaping stage, i turn the temperature down to 260 C° (500 F°), throw a couple glasses of water at the bottom of the oven, and repeat this process every ten minutes or so until it actually gets saturated with steam. In the meanwhile, i give my loaves their final shape, very carefully and tightly seaming them once their shape and internal tension is satisfying enough. I then let them sit on the counter for another half hour for their final proofing, score them mercylessly —not too deep, though— and put them delicately but rapidly enough on the baking stone, before adding a couple more glasses of water at the bottom of the oven. Close the oven, turn the temperature down to 240 C° (460 F°) and, if everything went swell, watch your loaves slowly spring up 'til they gain between 50 and 100 % in volume, depending on how carefully —or lucky— you are. That should take another 10 minutes or so. Open the door, quickly steam your oven up again, close the door, and turn the temperature down to 220 C° (420-430 F°).
- Let your loaves cook for another 30 to 45 minutes, depending on their size and weight and, once done, turn your oven off, open the door slightly and let the bread sit on the stone while the oven cools down, for another 15 minutes or so. Take your bread out and let it fully cool down before even trying to cut a slice of it, you'd otherwise risk making a real mess of a beautiful piece of art
Last, but not least, i would like to add that what overall seemed just essential to me is the delicacy you treat your dough with. As i read here before, you need an iron hand in a velvet glove. Your gestures need to be fast, precise, and delicate. Don't mistreat your dough, it's alive and, unfortunately, very, very easy to kill.
So just remember you're working on live stock, kinda, and everything will be allright.
Voilà, i hope this can help well intentioned noobs, just like the one i was barely a few weeks ago.
Best regards to you all, and keep up with the great work.