The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

My Baking Philosophy

amolitor's picture

My Baking Philosophy

This isn't a recipe, nor is it instructions to anyone other than me, it's just a statement of where I am right now in terms of baking bread. Some will be appalled, others might be inspired. Most probably won't care!

Right now, I'm keeping it simple. When we moved from San Francisco, CA, to Norfolk, VA, we found that there really wasn't the kind of bread here that we were used to. At that point, I sort of fell in to teaching myself to make european style breads, of the kind that we used to buy from Acme and Semifreddi. Since my wife and I have always cooked and cooked fairly well, we had a pretty well-equipped kitchen (including large, heavy mixing bowls, and some strong wooden spoons, a pizza stone+peel kit someone gave us once, and so on). I haven't bought any new equipment for bread baking, and that's the way I like it. I mix and knead by hand,  I score with a very sharp german-made paring knife, I bake on a pizza stone.

Since I've developed a little skill and some small understanding of how breads work, I've stopped measuring much of anything for breads I make frequently. I use measuring cups to scoop flour and carry water around so I know roughly where I am at, but mostly I follow my nose around familiar recipes. My goal is to understand the way the dough should feel, and to adjust it as I go. Sometimes I am trying to make it feel the same way it did last time, other times I'm playing a little 'what if it's a little wetter? I wonder what the result will be' game.

Consistency, as you will have guessed by now, is not something that matters to me. I have enough understanding to know that the result will probably be good, whatever it is. If it's a slightly different loaf from last time, well, perhaps I will learn something about how changes in handling change the loaf, and as a bonus, my family gets a new bread to enjoy!

Things I do worry about and take some care with:

  • dough temperature (I'm not completely fussy, but I do try to cool things down when the ambient temperature is too high, and heat things up when.. well, this is Virginia, it's not really too cold very much of the time).

  • salt, which I worry about to the extent of having a base idea of where it should be, and adjusting up or down a bit if I've got a bit more or less dough than the basic recipe.

Note that even here I'm not measuring, I'm following my nose, just to push things in the right direction. Nothing is too extreme here, so even these rough adjustments get the temperature within a couple degrees of right, and the salt within a gram or two of optimal. And, hey, every error yields a "new" kind of bread!

Anyways. This is really just a note to a future me, and maybe someone else will find something herein they can use!



mountaineer cookie company's picture
mountaineer coo...

I run a small bakery out of my basement, and when I tell people that's how I bake around 300 loaves of bread a week, they are always surprised.  But to me that is the true artisan way to bake bread.  You can rely on weights and measurements all you want, but if you can't feel or see the difference, your not really an artisan baker.  Keep up the baking.

msbreadbaker's picture

Mountaineer coo,

Wow! 300 loaves a week! Would you be interested in sharing some of how you do that? Is it 7 days a week, what kind of help and I sure would be interested in the equipment you have to produce that mcuh bread. Also, do you get ANY sleep?

Thanks in advance, Jean P. (VA)

mountaineer cookie company's picture
mountaineer coo...

Two winters ago my husband and I built a small kitchen in our basement with the intentions of starting a cookie business, cookies quickly led to bread, witch has now taken over.  I started with a double home oven and a 6 qt kitchenaid.  In the peak of the summer I was selling at 4 local farmers markets, most of witch were in the evening.  We upgraded the oven and the mixer early this summer, 20 qt and a double stack Moffat steam injected oven ( I went from baking 8 at a time to 32)  Shapping is by hand, I really don't measure much, I do weigh out a certain amount then play the rest by feel.  All my recipes are my original creations.  

     For a typical Saturday farmers market I will feed starters or start poolish in the morning on Friday, then start mixing at 5 pm Friday, I finish mixing around 8, then start on cookies, muffins and cinnamon rolls.  I start shaping  around 3 am Saturday  and finish baking at around 7 30, then it's off to market at 8 30. As for help, my husband does the dishes.  Sleep, yeah that's a tough one!  

We are hoping to open a bakery this winter, we are busting out of the basement, yeah!!


pmccool's picture

that I heard from Nico Steyn at Eureka Mills when he said "There are mixers and there are bakers."  And no, he wasn't talking about mechanical equipment.

Formulae are good: they let us know what another baker does to produce a particular bread.

Tools (scales, teaspoons, ovens, sheeters, whatever) are good: when used properly, they help us do our work with less error and effort.

In the end, though, it comes down to the individual baker's proficiency in selecting ingredients, using a formula and tools, understanding and applying techniques, and reading the dough that makes the difference between a bread that is pedestrian or a bread that is spectacularly good.  

In the commercial realm, there may be stringent regulations about everything from weights and measures to labeling to sanitation.  Those have to do with protecting the public from unscrupulous operators, not with producing good bread.  And a commercial baker is also driven by cost containment measures and the need for consistency.

All in all, it sounds as though you are applying the knowledge and skills you already possess in ways that a) provide the results you want or b) provide a springboard for further innovation.  As a baker with experience to draw on, you are in a different place than the person who just baked their first loaf of bread.  Consequently, you can follow your nose where the new baker is constrained to follow the formula closely until they, too, have enough experience to intuit the possible outcomes of a particular course of action.  It's fun, all along the spectrum.


Vogel's picture

I really respect your approach. I wish I would be able to have such a good feeling for making bread to not depend on measuring tools. I also think it is the best way to learn, as you necesarily have to trust your own senses and intuition in order to produce good results. It becomes much more natural as opposed to just following a recipe step by step without really knowing why these steps are neccesary.

Still, I believe that for people with a more casual approach, who only bake every week or two, recipes and formulae are very helpful. Paired with some basic knowledge about the craft you are able to make a variety of decent (albeit not perfect) breads, without having to go the "hard" way of a lot of trail & error. Although you will not become a true artisian baker, you will have a lot of pleasure.

Keep on posting about your baking philosophy. I'm really interested in the more scientific, theoretical and emotional stuff, so I enjoyed your post very much.

Mebake's picture

Though i agree with the part on "how dough should feel", Amolitor, and i similarly respect that, i found that Books and recipes exist in the much the same reaon schools do. If one does not graduate from school, and tries to bypass that to job market, he'll have some tough time trying to do his job, which requires intuition, and minimal education.

Sure, you could learn through trial and error, but it will take lots of uneducated guesses to perfect anything if you don't practice on some given "tried" trials that are much more educating.

Ultimately, people are born different, and what seems improper for me, may be perfect strategy for you.Your philosophy should always work, as bakers existed long ago used this approach.

However you do it, happy Baking!