Formulas and preferments
I'm a newbie on this forum, and probably a newbie to bread machines - had one for about a year and a half. I bake 2-3 times a week in my West Bend Hi Rise, a spiffo little double-paddle machine that makes a 2-2.5 lb. horizontal loaf. Shortly after I started baking, I departed from both direct method (where you add yeast directly to the dough) and recipes, and moved to indirect method (preferment) and formulas. I don't make many kinds of bread, so my formulas have been thoroughly tested and refined.
It turns out the bread machine is perfect for preferment. I depart again from the usual preferment - I add all the yeast and all the water to the preferment, and none directly to the dough. I'm probably doing this wrong, but I've generally had poor results adding additional yeast at the dough stage (loaves fall). But hey! It works for me.
I departed from recipes after using King Arthur All Purpose (KA AP) flour the first time - I got a salty loaf after measuring the old-fashioned way (more on this below). Now I do everything by formulas, and my bread is just right. In a formula, every ingredient is measured as a percentage of the flour. I bought a small kitchen scale and weigh everything in grams, so my measurements are very precise - much more precise than cups and spoons could ever be. Commercial bakeries use formulas for the same reason - precision and repeatability.
When I bake, I follow this procedure:
1. Weigh the flour. Calculate all ingredients as a percentage of the flour. I have a little spreadsheet that does this for me. I've done these formulas so many times now that I know the optimal amount of flour for each formula in my machine. Optimal size in your machine could be different from mine - not a problem, scaling up or down with a formula is a snap. I like the top of my loaves to rise above the bread pan so the tops brown in the bake cycle.
2. Put all the water into the bread machine (water is typically about 60-70% of the flour weight). Add an equal amount of flour. Add some yeast - 3 or 4 grams for a 2-lb loaf.
3. Using the Dough cycle, mix and knead the starter. Scrape down the sides of the pan while the starter is mixing. Turn the bread machine off.
4. Add the remaining flour as an even layer on top of the starter.
5. Add the remaining ingredients on top of the flour. The flour layer keeps salt and sugar away from the starter. The only "liquid" ingredients I use are butter, oil, or honey - everything else is dry (dry milk, dry buttermilk, rolled oats, wheat germ, etc). There's no reason to add any dry ingredients that don't contain gluten to the preferment.
6. Select the machine cycle that works best for you - I always use Basic. Set the timer on the bread machine to 13 hours (longest cycle time on my machine). Press Start. I always allow the bread to cool a bit in the machine before removing it - this makes the loaf come off the paddles more easily.
I bake my loaves in the machine. I suppose you could remove the dough after the final kneading cycle, shape the loaves for a pan and do the final rise outside the machine, but I don't.
Why does the formula work over the recipe? For precision and repeatability. My first KA AP loaf was the object lesson. It turns out that a cup of KA AP flour (11%+ gluten) only weighs about 127 grams. A cup of Gold Medal Better for Bread weighs about 135 grams. When I measured my KA flour using volume, my dough was about 10% lighter on flour - so it was salty. Now that I measure all my ingredients in grams, the ratios between the ingredients are always spot on. And the formulas make adjusting ingredients a snap. I had a couple of loaves collapse this summer and reduced the water in my formula by 1% - bingo, problem solved! When you get the formula right, every loaf turn out the same.
Why preferment? Well, for one thing both the flavor and texture of the bread is better. Instead of a loaf with every hole the same size, the size of the holes varies. That means a chewier texture and more flavor. And second, the bread keeps better, though I rarely get a loaf through its third day before I've eaten it. And third, it's way cool...
I'd be happy to share formulas if anyone is interested. I'd also love to hear from anyone who's experimented with either formulas or preferments.