Funny how an email from someone who basically just wants to say hello can make you think through the fundamentals of what you are about. Got a very enthusiastic message from a guy in Ulster who has caught the baking bug and is thinking of going commercial. He likes what I do so he must be a man of considerable taste.
Anyway he sends me a bread recipe; his friends and family think his bread is great but he thinks he could do better – always a good attitude.
He says: I am using organic strong white flour 500g, water 650ml, and 100g starter. I mix this and leave it covered overnight. Next morning I add 600g strong white organic flour, a squeeze of honey, a good glug of olive oil, 20g salt and then knead. I then leave it for about an hour and then knock back. I do this twice more then place in a proving basket until well risen. I then bake in an electric fan oven at 270 for 10 mins and for 35-45 mins at 180-200. I also have a roasting pan of boiling water underneath.
Taking the Bollocks out of Baking might be a losing battle, especially when you have the CRBC (Campaign for Real Bread Celebrities) introducing elitism into the equation, but one of my other aims is to reduce the process of good bread making to its essentials.
I realised years ago that every bread recipe you get off the net, and for that matter from general cook books, is the same as the one from the back of a Delia Smith book that got me baking in the first place. They all have the same proportions of flour and water, more yeast than is necessary (remember yeast?), some sugar (to boost the already excessive yeast), some fat (to give a smoother crumb and maybe add a little colour to the crust). I’ve talked about Gert a lot, the Dutch chef who changes his menus every week and expects me to keep up with him. Well, take my oft quoted story of the time he announced he was doing the Austro-Hungarian Empire the following week. I googled for ideas and a typical recipe for Hungarian bread that regularly reduced the poster to tears – one taste and he was back in the beloved homeland of his youth – guaranteed authentic, was Delia Smith plus a few caraway seeds in the dough and on the egg-white glazed crust. Me, cynical?
The same sort of thing applies to “good” bread. I’m assuming that the recipe sent to me is probably from a well known published baker, but let’s deconstruct it anyway. First off, why the honey (sugar) and the olive oil (fat)? To me it smacks of “a bread dough must contain sugar and fat” in the same way that it must contain flour and water. Unless there’s a real reason for it being there, don’t do it.
Second, the method is a classic overnight sponge which is a technique developed for yeasted doughs to reduce the amount of yeast needed and to improve the flavour of a commercially yeasted dough (Rick has a soft spot for this method from when he was a properly apprenticed baker back in 1921 – it was that or go to sea in those days and he didn’t fancy his turn in the barrel).
A starter is a sponge, the long fermentation period in making sourdoughs is going to produce the flavour anyway so why prolong the agony? From a practical point of view, if you want to produce bread commercially, you need to keep the process as simple and efficient as possible so long as there is no detrimental effect on the dough.
So my method is mix the dough. If it’s too large an amount to hand-knead it goes in the mixer “until it’s mixed”. This doesn’t mean for a specified amount of time, or x number of minutes at speed 1 followed by y minutes at 2 (like me it’s a one-speed mixer). It means until it looks right to me. If I mix by hand, I stir the flour and salt into the water and starter in a bowl, squeeze it through my fingers until it comes together, get it straight on the bench and give it ten kneads. Rest a few minutes: ten more kneads; repeat one more time. Then into the fridge overnight.
In the morning, scale and shape, prove in baskets or cloths for 3.5 hours. Bake for 50 minutes at about 210C. (65 minutes for 2K).
If I bake for myself during the day, same hand-mixing method, 4 hours fermentation (might stretch hourly but if I don’t, I don’t), 3.5 hours prove, same baking time.
Now then, take yer man’s recipe and deconstruct it. The sugar and fat is out. Assuming the starter is at 100% hydration (equal weights of flour and water), the total amount of flour and water in the recipe is 500g + 600g + 50g = 1150g flour, 650g + 50g = 700g water + 20g salt; dough weight = 1870g.
In bakers’ percentage terms, the starter weight in an average dough might be 25-30% (of the flour weight). My patent bakers’ percentage calculator produces 26.6% or 270g – i.e. 135g flour and the same of water. Subtract 135g from the total flour 1150g = 1015g. Subtract 135g from the total water 700g = 565g.
So reconstructed for my simpler method the formula becomes (with bakers’ percentage):
Flour 1014g: 100%
Water 564g: 55.6%
Starter 270g: 26.6%
Salt 17g: 1.7%
Now look at my own Pain de Campagne formula (does calling a white sourdough Pain de Campagne constitute bollocks? Must go away and think about that.)
Just happens to look a bit similar.
What am I trying to say? Well, no way am I trying to criticise the guy who sent the recipe. It’s just that I believe that the bread making process is actually very simple and that there’re only so many levers you can pull in the search for the perfect loaf. But all the time bread books are trying to complicate the process and, in fact, there seems to be some perverse desire on the part of learners for there to be secrets to be cracked.
I do my best.