The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Making Great Bread

ndowidar's picture

Making Great Bread

I'm struggling to fully comprehend how to make bread that looks like many of the regular pictures people post on the Fresh Loaf. it seems like there may be too much information out there for a novice to decide on which route to take. I took a class from a local bakery a year ago without knowing anything about bread making and am still grasping how to make such nice looking breads. I have tried following the book Tartine and Flour, Salt, Water, but there must still be steps missing. I wonder if I have to take an intensive hands on course to really understand what's missing, although this seems a little dramatic. (?) Does anyone have any good examples that I can follow to train myself to make bread? Hamelman's book is great but it relies on a mixer, Tartine and Forkish's book don't but require a special cast iron pot and mixing in a container, but then I haven't been able to reproduce such great looking bread. Are there any videos or well detailed recipes that I could follow to learn? 

 Specifically, I notice that my bread doesn't have the oven spring that it needs to fill out when I score the loaves. I guess, I'm also miking in walnuts & raisins or figs most of the time too, but I'm sure if I understood how to make regular Pain au Levain or some hybrid with instant yeast I'd be able to improve my loaves. I think I may be missing a step too, since I don't really know how to time the steps after the bulk fermentation; preshaping, proofing, and final shaping of the loaf. 

breadbythecreek's picture

read this entire blog. She is very informative. Also, spend the $ and get the cast iron combo cooker. It helps to have the right equipment.

Then choose one recipe and make it over and over. Keep detailed notes on what you did, what temp, what times. Oh and weigh everything-get a good metric scale.  You will get there I promise. Happy baking.

ndowidar's picture

Thanks so much for the blog about Chad's Tartine recipe. I will definitely keep trying his method now. I think the blog is really great as it's added some detail to the method that I'll try and follow. And thank you for your advice too! It's helps a lot!



Marty's picture

Another thread to read. Works for me.,13613.0.html


h2's picture

Get Pete Reinhard's book, The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. He explains the entire process of bread baking from yeast, water, flours, and salt, so by the end you'll understand what bread baking is all about. Pete is a bread baking instructor at Johnson and Whales, and he  really demystifies the process with an easy to understand writing style.

clazar123's picture

1. Get a simple recipe that you want to start with.

2.Get a notebook to write down what you did with each bake-keep track of recipe, ingredients and technique.

3. Critique each bake and change 1 thing each time.

4. Bake every week.

5. Add time



T.O.B.y's picture

Having been where you are just a month or so ago I feel your pain. I believe you are attempting one of the hardest kinds of breads to make (high hydration sourdough). This is, of course, what I set my sites on as well. As far as I can tell wisdom  and practice are critical for this effort and of course these are both things the beginning baker does not have. There is no substitute for trying over and over again and then trying to figure out what went right and what wrong. I heartily second the Tartine Bread Experiment blog particularly 2/13 Square One entry. Ask questions too, the blog's author is awesome about responding.

If you have the Forkish book I might recommend trying some of the yeast or yeast/sourdourgh loaves to give you a better idea of what the different stages should look and feel like (the timings will be different of course). Commercial yeast is sooooo much more predictable and forgiving than sourdough and can help build your confidence.

Also, there are a lot of wise people on this site. If you can publish the recipe, steps, temperatures, times, and photos if you can on this site people will jump in and help troubleshoot but details are critical for this.

Above all try to have some patience. This is a hard thing to figure out on your own but as you've probably noticed on this site you can bake incredible bread at home.

Les Nightingill's picture
Les Nightingill

Suggest you stay with the basic Pain au Levain until you have mastered it. A cast iron dutch oven (as suggested by Chad Robertson) is a very good idea too.

But the most important tip, in my opinion, is to not rely on the clock, but instead develop a feel for the dynamics of the process and interpret what your senses of touch, smell, sight tell you. You have to develop confidence in your ability to "read" the starter, levain and dough. If you try to use the clock you will probably not achieve the results you're looking for.

Bakingmadtoo's picture

I am still struggling with the high hydration loaves. I can't get Ken Forkish's recipes to do much other than spread. They taste nice and have a nice crumb, but that is as far as I can get at the minute. Having baked yet another spreading loaf this morning (in my cast iron Dutch oven), what I intend to do next time is reduce the hydration a little and increase it again as I improve. As you say, there is a lot to learn and take in so why make things so difficult for ourselves? Reducing the hydration a little makes slashing, shaping etc. a bit easier and personally after this mornings bake, I would rather produce a loaf that looks and tastes good than yet another flying saucer! And in all honesty I get a very nice crumb with lower hydration and I learn more. 

What everyone says above is true, practise, patience and persistence are needed!

MostlySD's picture

That makes perfect sense. I remember reading in a book somewhere ... or online, I'm not sure, that one shouldn't tackle high hydration until one is perfectly at ease with "regular" bread baking (say 65% hydration or around that level). As someone wrote in the comments here, there's so much to learn. I find that doing high hydration interferes with the initial learning process. For example, the techniques of stretch and fold is rather a pain to master with a wet dough. Even the master bakers don't find that easy, it seems. Dan Lepard says he uses a lipped tray when he is working with wet dough. That's a neat trick, which he picked up through experience, I'm sure.

One way to not be too frustrated with your bread baking is to devote some of it to what I call "regular" bread, and some of it deliberately to experimentation. For those, I usually make smaller loaves so as not to waste too much flours and what not. Still, there are squirrels & birds around my house that feast on my failures. I figure at least some creatures are happy with my baking! Good luck with yours! I hope you stay with it cause it's so rewarding, and on so many levels.

Bakingmadtoo's picture

The idea of making smaller loaves is a good one. I also deliberately make half recipes so that I can bake at least twice a week, just so that I get more practise. (I also have some very fat pigeons! The squirrels prefer cake round here!) .

breadbythecreek's picture

Are you doing an overnight cold retard before baking and baking cold? that should help with the spreading and make slashing, loading easier but still keeping the hydration. At least it helped with mine.  

Bakingmadtoo's picture

I agree totally with that suggestion too, although I am still struggling, cold dough is much, much easier to handle and slash. All the loaves I have been reasonably pleased with have been baked from cold.

richkaimd's picture

If you don't have the time, energy, or money to take an extensive course, the way pros do it, then at least lean on a text book.  I use and love The Bread Baker's Apprentice, don't get me wrong.  It's got a lot to say for it.  But I strongly recommend a true text, that's to say, a book written for a student taking a course.  Compare DiMuzio's Bread Baking or Hamelman's Bread, for example.  They both take you from the ground and build upwards, giving you lots of knowledge so that you're not working on the second floor before you get the basement done.  Both books might be in your local library.  If not, they're generally available used at Alibris or Powell's Books online.  Then devote a year to the process of learning.  Don't be in a hurry.  There's so much to learn.  Build your knowledge base gradually.  Also, watch as many of the videos linked to from this website and elsewhere as you can.  Then go back to them when you need to.  I agree with "practice, patience and persistence".  The fun of success will be yours.   At the end of the year you're success will be a regular thing.

DavidEF's picture

Lots of advice already given. I think the best bits are these:

Start simple and don't move until you've gained consistently good results from that. You learn a lot more by repetition than by skipping around, trying different things. The old adage "practice makes perfect" isn't quite right. It Perfect Practice that makes Perfect Results. Practice one recipe until you can do it right, then practice doing it right. After that, expand to recipes that are similar to the one you've mastered, with only a few differences, so you can see how those differences affect the end result.

Start with a lower hydration. Even a few percentage points of hydration can make a noticeable difference. Flour type affects hydration levels too, as in, some flours perform better than others at higher hydrations. Use what works for your flour. In case you don't know, hydration level is the percentage of total water content compared to the total flour content. Flour is 100% by weight, and really all of your ingredients compare to that (Bakers' Math - learn it). So, if you have 650g water to 1000g flour, you have 65% hydration, which is about where my dough usually likes to be.

Use a scale and weigh everything. This is super important. For consistent results, you need consistent measurements and processes. Hydration percentages are hard to get nailed down if you're using volume measurements, and all of your other ingredient interactions also depend on the ratios of one against another. Weighing gives you repeatable success.

Do what works for you. If you have a gut feeling about something, follow your intuition. If it turns out well, you've gained confidence. If not, you learn how to tune yourself in to get better results next time. Following recipes will help you get a direction to start baking bread. But, if you really want to learn for yourself how to make great bread, your senses and your intuition about your own dough need to be honed.

dabrownman's picture

on every aspect of bread making on YouTube and some on this site under the video tab.  I love looking at them and enjoy the new things you can learn from many of them

Happy baking

ElPanadero's picture

"Specifically, I notice that my bread doesn't have the oven spring that it needs to fill out when I score the loaves"

Does this mean that if you do not score the loaves, you DO get oven spring?  

ndowidar's picture

No, I do get some oven spring, but most of the time it's not any where near what other's pictures look like. I think, I'm missing something about the gluten development or something that will trap the gasses once it's folded correctly... not sure. But like everyone suggested, I should stick to one method and make sure I can do it correctly. I think I need to control my steps better and really follow the instructions as precisely as possible. But you can understand how difficult that may be for a beginner double guessing steps and not fully understanding what each step really represents before moving on to the next one. 

ndowidar's picture


Thank you so much for all the feedback! I feel totally grateful for everyone's responses, honestly. I'm going to stick to the Tartine method until I get some consistent results, like everyone's suggested. And I'll hopefully follow up with some better results. I guess that's why they call it "artisan"! :) Honestly, though, this support has been very helpful and I feel more encouraged to keep going now. 

 I think one thing that I will mention that no one's really noted yet, is that since the temperature control is so crucial, I definitely need to develop a proofing box or environment to control the steps that are listed otherwise the results will be harder to document and learn from. 

Thanks again! And if anyone still has comments or suggestions I'm very grateful for the help! 


breadbythecreek's picture

We are all here to help! I try to think of my expanding doughs as explosives - very gentle handling at every stage to avoid degassing.