Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Holy Grail of Bread

Once again, I must apologize for being a lazy blogger and not posting as often as I should. But usually when that happens, you should know that it means I have been kicking butt in my real life, getting things done and being busy otherwise. I've got a crock of sauerkraut fermenting and smelling downright stinky, which is how I like it. I've got a "ginger bug" going for a future batch of ginger beer--more on that later. I have seeds sprouting on the kitchen counter, and a sourdough starter bubbling away happily on the butcher block.
Which brings me to the good news, brothers and sisters. I have cracked the code of bread. You probably remember my bellyaching about how sourdough starters are a waste of time and result in only slightly better bread than a poolish or leaven. Well, it turns out that I just hadn't found the right recipe yet.
I've been baking yeast bread since I was fourteen, or something like that. My beginnings were humble--for a long time I used the whole wheat bread recipe on the back of the King Arthur Flour bag. It was a good place to start, but anyone who is passionate about good bread rarely stays put. I've done white bread--the only kind of bread that plain old tomato sandwiches should be made with (don't doubt, just believe). I've made ciabatta--the long, wrinkled loaf that immediately calls for the good olive oil that you hoard in the back of your cupboard. Then there was the occasional challah for special occasions--burnished and golden with egg yolks and butter. I can also think of a delicious cracked wheat loaf, struan bread (the best toast you'll ever eat), cinnamon raisin swirl bread, and these little Norwegian raisin buns that are so redolant of cardamom that the whole house smells like Christmas. There have also been occasional forays into pastry, but too few to really talk about.
So I've baked a lot of bread. The only problem was that none of these breads was my ideal bread. I wanted sour, but not overly sour. I wanted a deep brown crust as thick as a half-dollar coin. I wanted big, beautiful air pockets in the dough--perfect for forming pools of butter and catching runaway honey. In short, I wanted the effect that a wood-fired oven gives, but without the wood-fired oven.
I pored over baking books, searching for the answer. In most of them, the sourdough chapter is presented in such a way as to make it seem daunting. The smoke was fanned and the mirrors were polished to make sure the home baker felt intimidated. At least, that's how it seemed to me. But I tried anyway, feeding the starter religiously, keeping it warm, judiciously measuring everything by weight and not deviating one iota from the recipe. When it came time to bake the bread, however, the loaf that resulted was unimpressive at best. To have spent so much time and effort (and the better part of a bag of flour) on something so lackluster was pretty depressing. Let's not paint any rosy pictures about that.
But I'm a naturally inquisitive person, and so I continued to read about bread, biding my time until I felt up to the sourdough task again. My theory was that there had to be a reasonable method out there somewhere. After all, sourdough is the essence of rustic. I don't see paintings of pioneers carrying around heating pads and scales for baking their weekly sourdough bread, but I know they sure as hell made sourdough. As a baker, I despise the scientific baking method. The meticulous measuring by weight (in a commercial kitchen this actually makes sense, but unless you're making something really finicky at home, there's a good chance that using a scale will make you nuts), checking temperatures (of water, of flour, of the starter...), and generally making recipes more difficult than they need to be really riles me. In my opinion, those of us in the cookbook world should make baking more accessible and reasonable, not talk about another piece of equipment that you MUST buy to achieve success. Ok, the soapbox is safely stored away now.
Then John bought me a bread book. I had heard good things about it, but as with all cookbooks that double as eye-candy, I was skeptical. Then I started reading it. Beautifully written and photographed, Tartine Bread will inspire in you the immediate desire to bake bread. Every day. In fact, I seriously considered writing a letter to the author of the book and asking for an apprenticeship. No joke.
But the proof is always in the proverbial pudding (or pain, if you will), and so I tried to stave off enthusiasm while I worked on cultivating a starter. The book encouraged me to be patient. There was no time frame--feed your starter once a day (if your kitchen is very warm, twice a day) until it rises and falls predictably. The starter will rise after you feed it, climax, and start to fall slowly. By the time of the next feeding, it will smell vinegary. I gave my starter lots of time to develop. For several days nothing seemed to be happening, but I would pour off the brownish liquid that covered the starter and feed it again. Ultimately, my starter took.
I gave it a few days to strengthen and develop even further before using it. The day finally arrived. By 3:00 in the afternoon, I had two absolutely perfect loaves of bread. No, really. Perfect. Crusty, deep brown, heavily air-pocketed, gently sour loaves that rose like phoenixes in the oven. Magic, I swear.
The trick is the cast iron combo cooker. A combo cooker is a Dutch oven with a lid that doubles as a frying pan. You get the pan hot in the oven (both parts of the pan), turn the dough into the frying pan part of the cooker, cover it with the Dutch oven part, and bake it for 20 minutes. Then, you remove the Dutch oven part and let the bread brown for another 20 minutes. The Dutch oven captures the steam from the bread and results in a dramatic oven spring. The bread essentially steams itself. Taking off the cover gives the bread its crust. I am utterly stunned. I have found the Holy Grail of Bread.


tracingterroir said...

Megan. This post gave me chills. Please, if you write a bread book, call it "Phoenix Rising."

I'm so inspired by this to start another batch of sourdough - I haven't been in one place long enough to justify the souring period, but with moving into a new house, I'll finally get to again!

I love the idea of this Dutch oven you talked about. I'm going to have to research that - I'm not one for new gadgets and gizmos in the kitchen (aside from a really good garlic press) but large staples like Dutch ovens (especially ones that have double-use lids! are a whole 'nother fettish.)

PS - I tasted my kraut after 2 weeks today, and it's not quite as soured as I'd like. It's been at a pretty warm constant temp this whole time, may give it a couple more weeks.

TheFoodGeek said...

Very nice. Perhaps I should do some sourdough at some point. I keep putting it off. You know how it is.

I like your thoughts on measuring, with but one caveat: beginning bakers who don't have teachers will benefit from the precision of the scale. Also, some people really like the scale as well, but primarily it's difficult to learn what is the right way to do something if it's all higgelty-piggelty because you don't know how much flour you're using. Oh, and if you're using ratios or baker's percentages to measure stuff out, then weighing is handy.

However, once you've gotten to a certain level of experience with measurements, absolutely, learn to let go and feel what you're making.

meg said...

Camille--the Dutch oven is something that I consider a worthwhile investment. Cast iron will theoretically last forever if you treat it well, and the combo cooker is two pieces of cookware in one, which I really can't argue with. Lodge makes a good one that also happens to be blissfully inexpensive.

But seriously, the bread is so good that I really couldn't believe it. And NO KNEADING! Sometimes I really enjoy the kneading process, but I have strained wrist and finger muscles in the past, which isn't good. And since arthritis runs in the family...well, you get it.

Brian--Right you are. New bakers can really benefit from weighing things. I do have a scale, and I do use it, primarily for bread baking, but sometimes I just need to break free. Also, the book Ratio made me see why weighing can be really handy while cooking on the fly.