The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Don't be discouraged: Knowledge is power, experience will come

dolfs's picture

Don't be discouraged: Knowledge is power, experience will come

I have produced several postings of bread I made, all receiving positive comments and often times surprise at the success I had for a "first time". Now I also frequently read messages from people having problems getting their bread to come out nice, rise properly, have the right texture etc. So I asked myself why I don't seem to have these problems, even with breads I have never made before. Could it be that I was just being lucky? 

Some of the postings:

I don't think so. I only baked bread a few times (raisin cinnamon bread) in the last 2 years. I only really got the "baking bug" in April of this year and I have only produced some 15 breads total since, and no more that 5 different kinds (4 listed above). As mentioned I started way back when with raisin cinnamon bread from the Joy of cooking. Don't laugh, for an absolute beginner that works out fine!

Then I decided I wanted whole wheat sandwich bread and produced several "bricks". That is what finally got me going and I decided that I needed to know more so I could figure out what I did wrong. This is when I found The Fresh Loaf and started buying, and reading, books about bread. I even bought Emily Bueler's Bread Science early on (I am an engineer after all), and it was interesting to see that Peter Reinhart only got into that book as part of his work on WGB. Since then, however, I have only produced good/great results, with two exceptions I'll tell you about.

My conclusion is that you really need to understand the principles of gluten development, fermentation, acidity and ingredients. Nothing fancy, you don't need bread science, but you do need to understand how to mix a dough properly and what it should look like. If you have the luxury of taking courses, or training professionally, great, but if you have no experience, like I did, and you are on your own, reading and gaining knowledge is your best option. Pick one interesting, but not to challenging recipe and work on it, systematically changing one thing at a time, learning from mistakes as you go. This is how you get experience. Once you have experience (and knowledge) you can tackle a lot and you will not be afraid to try a new recipe. 

Another thing that I can not stress enough for beginners, in particular if you are experiencing problems, is to weigh your ingredients. The measurements in cups etc. is imprecise and unless you have enough experience in "dough-feel" you will not be able to correct on the fly. Small amounts are difficult to weigh. I have a My Weigh 7001DX which I love, but still it only weighs 1 gram increments. For small amounts of yeast or salt, this doesn't work. Look around the internet for ways of converting weights into volumes (teaspoons etc.). I actually built a spreadsheet based on information from the USDA database, but no info for yeast in there. So, I got my own by scooping 10 or 20 teaspoons of yeast onto the scale and weighing the result and dividing. It works!

Some things did go wrong. After having made it many times, I made cinnamon raisin bread again recently and while it looked fine, when cut open it had a huge open space below the top. Now, however, I was able to figure out what happened. I had used a little more butter and cinnamon sugar than before and had not rolled the dough up as tight as I had in the past (I was somewhat distracted and while it didn't quite feel right, I proceeded). Also, I was now baking on a stone, causing more over spring than before. Bingo! I know what to watch out for next time: Roll that s*cker tight and create surface tension.

Another recent event was when I tried to make my spinach cheese bread, but this time I tried to put it in rectangular bannetons instead of round ones, tried to increase hydration a lot (for bigger holes), and decided to dust the banneton with rice flour instead of AP. Oh boy! The dough stuck to the bannetons and so when it was finally on the peel, it had collapsed and the tops looked like a scorched earth landscape (before baking). I decided to shove them in the oven anyway. The resulting bread was fairly flat, but... it still worked out nicely. The high hydration and some oven spring prevented a gooey mess. I used my new heave gauge cast iron pan for steaming and adjusted temperature a little. I actually got a better crust than ever. So I learned that we very high hydration you need to think more about dusting your dough and banneton to prevent sticking. I also learned that good steam is important, and finally if your crusts are coming out too dark (and a little bitter), you can play with the temperature, after steaming, to change the outcome.

Oh yes, finally, and not ashamed to admit it, during one of my initial steaming exercises when I still used a spray bottle, I did not close it properly, and a drop fell out of it onto the over glass. Ping! The crack is not so bad the heat leaks out so I haven't repaired it yet. 

Mistakes do happen, but learn from them, read books and forums, and be systematic in your approach and you will learn how to succeed at making the breads you desire. 


browndog's picture

JMonkey had this to say about bannetons:
Sticking to the banneton Submitted by JMonkey on July 10, 2007 - 12:56pm.

I had enormous problems with sticking until a few folks on the forum gave me some tips. Here's what's worked for me:

  • Dust the banneton and then lightly dust the loaf before putting it in.
  • Once it's in the banneton, flour the sides of the loaf so that, as it rises, it won't stick to the banneton.
  • If you can find it, use rice flour or a 50-50 mix of rice and white or whole wheat flour.
  • Don't dust with brown rice flour. It makes the crust chewy instead of crunchy.
Dolfs, I hope you (and JMonkey, come to that) don't mind me adding this. You've created an interesting, helpful primer.
Chausiubao's picture

Whats wrong with using a spray bottle for steaming?

dolfs's picture

Possibly nothing. BBA always suggests a cup of hot water in a pan first, followed up with the spray bottle. My interpretation is that spray bottle alone does not produce enough steam. Besides that I find that to create a reasonable amount of steam in one spritzing session the oven stays open too long, losing to much heat as well. When I first followed BBA instructions results were significantly better than not steaming at all. However, since introducing a heavy gauge cast iron pan to throw the cup of water in I get significantly more steam quicker and my results have been commensurately better. --dolf