To recap from part 1, I cited three sources that helped me discover how to make the best bread ever:
- The My Favorite Pain au Levain recipe
- Jim Varasano’s NY pizza recipe page
- The NY Times article on the Sullivan Street bakery
The methods in these articles break away from the traditional bread making techniques that seem to fill nearly every cookbook published. It wasn’t obvious to me first, but these recipes have three main things in common that really make them special. These three common items are the keys to good bread baking.
The first secret is a very wet dough. By wet dough, I mean a dough that has a lot more water than most recipes. The first pain au levain recipe calls for making a “levain” starter that is very loose and then combining with more flour and water. The other two recipes call for making a base dough with a lot more water than normal. The wet dough allows for the gluten in the flour to be more mobile in the dough. This mobility allows the gluten to develop more fully, which is otherwise done by kneading for a long time. A wet dough eliminates the need for the long kneading time but still yielding an even better structure.
The second secret is time. All three recipes require much longer than most recipes. This extra time could be one day in the case of the Sullivan Street recipe or up to six days in the case of Jim Varasano’s pizza recipe. This extra time or “aging” helps the flour develop a much richer and more complex flavor. This is largely responsible for the elimination of the common “homebaked” taste that most recipes yield. If you want to make great bread, it’s going to take at least a day.
The third secret is less yeast. This is largely possible due to secret #2 above. With this aging period the yeast will have more time to multiply and create CO2 so you won’t need nearly as much. You’ll also get some naturally occurring yeast from the air which will add additional complex flavors and structure. The resulting loaf tastes more like store-bought bread and less like yeasty homemade bread.
So now that you know the secrets, how do we use them to make the best bread ever? There are a few tricks to apply these techniques into your breadmaking.
The first trick is to adjust rise temperature so you can age the dough as long as you like without the yeast burning out. For aging a day or less, I’d let the dough sit at cool room temperature. For aging longer than a day, I’d keep the dough in the refrigerator and take it out at least a couple of hours before baking. After some experimentation, you’ll learn how much yeast you need and how long to age the dough to get the results you want. It’s going to be different depending on whether you’re trying to make a sandwith loaf, ciabatta, french loaf, etc… I often make small batches of dough and keep them aging in the fridge so I can make a small loaf any time I feel like it.
The next trick is to knead in enough flour near the end to make a dough of the right consistency for baking. The wet dough is great for aging but doesn’t always bake well. Ideally, you want to very lightly knead in some flour and then let the dough rest for 20-30 min before baking.
Finally, the baking technique is the last trick. I’d usually go hotter than your recipe calls for. Baking at 400F yields a nicer color and crust than you’ll get at a lower temperature. The baking technique described in the Sullivan Street recipe yields a loaf with an amazing crust. You should definitely try it! Sometimes I will even bake flatbreads on the grill. You can also try baking in a pre-heated cast iron skillet.
All of these techniques require a little practice, but once you get the hang of them, you can turn any recipe into something better than any bakery.
You’re going to want to have some flour and yeast on hand for the next installment because it’s time to bake some bread! I’ll provide a general formula recipe you can use right away to make your best loaf ever. I’ll go into exactly what your wet dough should look like and how to get it ready for the oven. I’ll also provide some hints for how to modify an existing recipe to use these techniques.