The Good, the Bad, and the Enlightenment
Just back from a week in Vermont, baking under the tutelage of Jeffrey Hamelman, I was itching to get into my own kitchen and fire up the oven. But, what to make? We were going to have chicken gumbo for dinner the following day, so I chose a simple rustic bread. I had enough time for a preferment... check. I had the right flours... check. Okay, off to a good start!
I only wanted to bake two one-pound loaves, so I got out the calculator to scale everything to 1000 grams of dough---a nice round number (a little more than two pounds, I know, but I always lose some to the mixing bowl). Baker's math? Please. "It's no hill for a climber," as my husband would say. After all, I'd been crunching numbers for a week. I was ready. I mixed the pate fermentee and parked it on the counter to ripen overnight. Even though I had doubts about the calcutaled yeast amount, it matured right in the middle of the 12 to 16-hour window. Things are goin' really well.
Next up was figuring out the right water temperature for the dough to end up at 75ºF. But I don't really know the friction factor for my mixer, because it increases with mixing time. And my mixer doesn't follow the usual so-many-minutes-on-first-speed, second speed and so on, because it's not a KitchenAid or any of the usual mixers. I decided instead to wing it this time with cool room-temperature water, and calculate the factor for next time, from whatever temperature the dough turned out. The dough finished a little warm---81º---so I spread it a bit and let it sit on the granite for a few minutes to bring the temperature down to 75º. Still on track.
The bulk ferment and folds went like clockwork. The dough was nice and pillowy when it came time to divide, and I used my newly-learned Hamelman preshaping and shaping skills. (Jeffrey, you'd be so proud.) The loaves proofed in the time specified, and they looked great turned out of their willow baskets. The scoring even looked decent, so I am feelin' PRIT-ty good about myself ;-)
Into the preheated oven they went, as I systematically worked through my loading and steaming routine like a well choreographed dance---one that took me several sessions to get down... but I did. Right down to remembering to shut off the convection fan after I loaded and steamed my loaves (sometimes I forget), because I've found that the oven and stone heat more evenly with the fan, but the loaves open a little better without. Or so I thought. Turns out that maybe there's a bit of a catch...
I watched as the loaves started to spring, and then left the room for a few minutes. When I came back to check on them, one had bloomed quite nicely, but the other was struggling. They both looked the same going into the oven... I was vexed. Did I not cut deeply enough? The stone had preheated for more than an hour. There was plenty of steam. The crust was coming along beautifully. Maybe the universe just decided that I was getting a little too cocky.
The loaf on the left bloomed, the other not so much. They sounded like a bowl of rice crispies once out of the oven. Is cracking like this during cooling a desireable thing or a defect?
From the bread on the left in the oven shot, above. The one on the right---not quite as open on the inside, either. No surprises there.
There was one thing in particular that puzzled me. This doesn't happen every time, but whenever it does, I've noticed it always seems to be the loaf on the right that doesn't open well. That can't be just a coincidence, can it? Time to put on my investigative hat. What do I have here to examine---two loaves of bread and an oven. The loaves were the same going into the oven, but different coming out. What happened in there?
I picked up each loaf to take a closer look. The crust looked about the same from one to the other... until I turned them over. The bottom on the loaf that failed to bloom was a little lighter than the top, and the bottom of the bigger loaf was a little darker than the top. They looked very different. Interesting. So here's my oven setup. What's wrong with this picture?
The steam pan is on the right side, you say---must have somethin' to do with that. Yes it does. But remember, I preheated for over an hour, with convection, so I know everything was good and evenly hot for all intents and purposes. And since the heat was coming from the back of the oven instead of up from the bottom, the pan couldn't have been blocking the stone. And then the light bulb moment...
I preheated the stone to 450ºF. And what's the temperature of water when it's converted to steam? Less than half of that. And where does steam go when left to its own devices? Up. See where I'm going with this? A good amount of steam rises up under the right side of my stone, sucking the heat out from under the loaf on that side. But not every time. Just when I remember to turn off the convection fan right away. When I forget for a few minutes, the fan diverts it away from the bottom of the stone until the steam stops billowing out of the pan. It all makes perfect sense.... now.
So, I guess my new steaming routine, at least for now, will include a few minutes of convection at the beginning of the bake, just until steam stops rolling out of the pan. I will also start looking for a cast iron loaf pan that will fit my configuration a little better than the skillet, and hopefully eliminate the need to leave the fan on. I think the thing I like most about bread is that you never stop learning and refining. Well that, and it keeps you humble. -dw
To see my fix, skip to: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/16036/good-bad-and-enlightenment#comment-112898