Shaped by yeast

Musings of a sourdough baker, from a decade past

It’s past midnight. I am alone, loading and unloading bread into a deck oven. When I fill the oven with steam, small particles of milled grain deposited on the lip of the oven blow onto my already lightly-floured, sweaty brow. There’s a good chance my hair has turned gray, having been trapped in a room full of flour all evening. As I settle into my zone, there is little break between the loading and unloading. Most nights, I move rhythmically in a clockless-dream until the sun peeks over the Northern California horizon and paints the sky with vibrant reds and oranges.

My routine is interrupted by a couple of noisy passerbys asking for fresh bread. At first I ignore them, but it’s impossible to pretend that I’m invisible when I’ve left the windows open to cool the room. I rationalize that only good can come from giving strangers one of the world’s most amazing experiences, so during a small pause between loading and unloading the oven, I send a warm baguette through the window into the outside world. They giggle and thank me profusely. The sense of gratitude when receiving and partaking in a fresh loaf of bread is an indescribable feeling—it just feels right.

It’s only fitting that I recall this memory with a Lone Star in hand, as beer and bread have both been shaped by the discovery of yeast. Though belonging to different strains, the most common top-cropping brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is the same species as common baking yeast. Incidentally, a cold beer while baking in a warm room is the perfect refreshment. (The bread-making process can be a long one, so stock accordingly.)

I started baking bread because I was told every good pastry chef should know how to make bread. What happened next became an obsession with four simple ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt. How could something so simple be transformed into so many variations, everyday pushing toward perfection?  Bread baking shares a few similarities with pastry making, but it’s not a restrained science. For me, it’s a bit more emotional. If you’re lucky enough to stand in a bakery when crusty loaves come out, a yeasty aroma and a song of crackling crusts fill the room—it’s a symphony that moves you to tears. If you want to overwhelm your senses, bake some bread.

Bread is symbolic. It has a powerful history that reflects place and tradition. There is a ceremony to bread making. The starches in flour break down into sugar to feed the yeast, and when it’s all said and done, whether is it dense or light, round or flat, cooked on a griddle or baked in an oven, bread is meant to nourish our bodies, to give us energy—the basis of life. Baking bread is easy, but it takes time. In a culture where we work more than anyone, we need to find time, because there is no better way to spend a moment than baking bread.

Though formulas define the make up of dough, the beauty of bread lies in our hands. A simple loaf in baker’s percentages (in which a formula is expressed as a percentage of the flour weight) will on average consist of 100% flour, 70-80% water, and 2% salt.  Adjusting how dough is mixed or how the flour is pre-treated can yield a magnitude of different flavors and densities. Sourdough is believed to be the first leavened bread. It is thought to be an accidental discovery, when dough from a previous bread making effort was saved and then added to a new batch of dough. The partially fermented dough was lighter and more palatable—not needing to soak up as much of a meal’s juices before being consumed. Over time, bakers learned how to control this live dough to make a more desirable bread. The discovery of conventional yeast was made popular with industrialization, which encouraged a higher yield in less time.

Industrialization in the 1920s changed the dynamics of bread baking. Mass-produced bread resulted in a wonderfully light, white loaves—with names such as Wonder Bread and Iron Kids—which go really well with peanut butter and jelly or the melty Kraft American cheese. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, a backlash against white bread was spurred by the notion that supporting whole wheat bread meant fighting against corporations or fighting for nutritious food. Today, large-scale production has affected our biodiversity, changed our habitats, and disconnected us from our food source. Let’s continue the movement that is building up small farms, supporting small businesses, including a rising number of small bakeries. Know your baker, the small-scale producers of hand-made loaves. It doesn’t mean that everything is done by hand, rather that there is thoughtful choices on use of machinery during the entire bread-baking process, while also improves traditional methods to create better loaves.

A lot of bread baking cannot be described accurately in written instructions and relies on emotion and practice. As a starting point, here are a few things to consider when making your own bread:

  • Using a scale to weigh your ingredients will give the most consistent measurements.
  • A pre-ferment, whether it be a pâte fermentée, sourdough, or sponge will give the bread more flavor and increased shelf-life with the added acidity.
  • In general, longer mixing gives a tighter and more regular crumb structure, while shorter mixing (with the help of stretch and folds) gives a more irregular open crumb structure. While some oxidation is needed for dough development, too much mixing causes compounds that contribute to color, flavor, and aroma of bread to be lost.
  • Whole wheat flours take longer to develop than white flour because the whole wheat tends to have a puncturing effect on the gluten network.
  • Doughs with high hydration (75-90%) benefit from folding.
  • Sugar softens the gluten structure, and as sugar content increases, so too does necessary mixing time or careful gluten development.
  • In the first few minutes of mixing, the dough may feel a bit firm as the flour absorbs the water, but in the latter part of mixing, when the water is more evenly distributed, the dough will feel more hydrated. There is a subtle difference between firm, soft, and just the right amount of soft. Getting in the habit of touching the dough for sensory memory is monumental for bread baking. The dough should feel like there is strength, but soft enough like a child’s plush animal.
  • Each varietal of grain and time after milling will affect water absorption. Initially, hold back a small amount of water; add as needed. Better to hold back water than to readjust the recipe for needing more flour. A baker’s percentage is based on flour, so if the dough has too much water, adding flour will throw off the ratio of ingredients.
  • The ideal temperature of mixed dough is 24-25°C or 75-78.8° The easiest way to achieve this is to alter the temperature of your water when mixing. For note-takers, try recording the temperature of the flour, water, air, and the temperature of the final dough. Notice any patterns.
  • Find creative ways to hold the dough at an ideal fermentation temperature. In the winter I keep the dough in the laundry room as my clothes are drying to maintain warmth, though an oven filled with warm water (or oven light) would achieve a similar result.
  • There are many variables that effect baking times and temperatures. When altering the size of a loaf, smaller loaves should be baked at higher temperatures with less time. In addition,

I find that most published bread recipes should be followed once or twice, used mainly as guidelines and inspiration. Every bread-baking scenario is a bit different, and the beauty of baking bread is adapting to that environment. Recipes that have produced wonderful results have been adapted to the environment I am baking in. Most doughs mixed on a typically warm humid Texas day may require less cool tap water.  On the rare occasion that A/C is not needed indoors, the water may need to be warmed for mixing. When baking, in attempt to keep loaves crusty, let some of the steam out by opening vents (which is similar to removing the lid on a dutch oven or opening the oven door) at the end of baking to ensure the bread will create a messy array of crumbs when torn.

Learn to love the many failed loaves that get turned into croutons or breadcrumbs; they are great teaching tools. With bread, the best way to learn is through a series of noted disappointments. Follow the recipe as closely as you’d like or can, but try to fill in the gaps of wonder with your own emotions. My favorite thing to do when traveling is to collect locally milled flour. It could be the most simple way to make a unique loaf with the same recipe you hold dear. Throw out what’s holding you back, but remember it’s okay if the scale is a little off today, tomorrow will balance it out.

Be your own baker

Baking can be a meditative activity. It starts with an intention of mindfulness–how you want to feel, how you want to make others feel. There are enough recipes on the internet to keep us busy for a lifetime. Slow down, perfect a few recipes, share those recipes, repeat the practice. Make it your own.