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Water!

Our tap water is filled with iron. It’s a very hard water. Luckily, not too hard for bread making. Although, there are times I use the water from the cooler we have (the tap water flavor is all over the place), I am pretty happy using the tap water if need be.

Minerals in water can affect your yeast. They can also affect your gluten formation.

Gluten is a serious concern for some, both positively and negatively. For my sake, I want it! And with water that is too hard, that might not happen.

It is also important to make sure you aren’t using completely soft water, with nothing in it. Distilled water won’t make good bread. You need a few minerals to get things moving.

Some folks with municipal water will find the chlorine poor for yeast development. In this case, you only need to let the water sit a while. The chlorine will go away. You can also heat it up or pour it back and forth between two cups. This will all help.

Water is the least considered of the four bread areas, in my opinion. It’s tricky to weigh, tricky to make sure it is just right.

However, there’s a lot about water you can ignore, too.

Room temperature water is typically just fine to use. Cold water is, too, but not as good. Water that is too hot will kill your yeast, but warm tap water is usually fine. Of course, hot tap water may have even more weird minerals in it – hot water is quite the solvent.

A dough with more water – 75% or more -will act weird. It will usually be easier for a crust to form in a dutch oven process, since there will be more steam. The oven spring will be a bit more aggressive. Too much oven spring (the dough expanding as it cooks) can cause a dense loaf. The loaf will eventually shrink.

This is why I try for about 60-70% hydration in most of my loaves.

Your Bread Can Taste Like Dreams

Bread smells. There’s a lot of ways to read that, either the bread has an odor – which is correct grammatically – or it’s a statement of adjective and noun.

Regardless – walking into a room with fresh baked bread is (chef’s kiss). It’s delightful. And so disappointing if you cut in and the bread is sort of just dough.

The delightful smell of bread comes to us courtesy of yeast! Yes, their death rattles are your olfactory delight. They also offer up flavor. They give bread the “bread” flavor which screams for butter.

But salt is what makes your bread taste very, very good.

People malign salt. Even I look at labels and try to get lower-sodium selections. It is a LOT of salt, after all. But salt is really not too bad for you. (Also, lower-sodium products give you more control over the seasoning)

It’s why you add a full percent or two to your bread dough. My 500g flour recipe calls for at least 10g of salt! Why weigh salt?

Most people have salt in a salt shaker out of a blue can. It’s tiny granules, easy to get out of the shaker. More and more home cooks are using flaky kosher salt, which is made of flakes. A teaspoon of each is not going to weigh the same!

But with a kitchen scale, knowing all salt is the same density, you’re good to go. 10 grams. Done.

There’s a lot of hoopla about finishing salts, and styles of kosher salt, and brands, etc etc. I don’t get into that like I do my flours. By the time the salt is in the dough, there’s really not much you’re going to taste.

And that’s the real irony of salt – if things taste salty, you’ve added too much. If you’re inclined to experiment, though, try some bread with no salt. Then, try it with the right amount of salt. You’ll tell the difference.

I’m a big salt fan, though. I like to drizzle my boules in olive oil and salt as they bake. I add a little salt to my butter (a trick my Grandfather taught me, and he lived to 99, so stick it).

I typically go for Morton’s Kosher and it serves me well. Diamond Crystal is all the rage for many. Fancy chefs are all into sea salt and grey salt, and nonsense, if you want my true opinion.

But, leave with this knowledge: Your bread needs salt.

Yeast is Not Very Complicated

Yeast pees alcohol. It farts CO2.

Delicious bread!

It is highly likely yeast was discovered in the wild on grapes, as part of winemaking. Along came beer and bread. And cultivated yeast.

Yeast is a strange crop.

The crop is a fungus, grown by feeding it sugar, or carbohydrates that become sugar. As a reward, the sugar is turned into alcohol and carbon dioxide. You can use any yeast to make alcohol – and any yeast to make bread!

This is why sourdough works. You’re cultivating the natural yeast found in the flour.

(It is often said you’re capturing yeast from the very air of your environment, but this isn’t really true, but it is a bit more romantic)

Sourdough starter is yeast culture. It hasn’t been selectively bred like store-bought yeast, so it needs longer for the rise to happen.

At the store, there’s plenty of yeast to choose from. Well, there was before the COVID hit and everyone bought all the yeast.

But if there were, you’d have plenty.

Yeast is either slow or fast. It offers two rises or one. Instant Yeast or Active Dry are the two labels most often seen. Instant yeast will usually only need a single rise. Active Dry will need two.

Active Dry is the dough you punch.

This is, of course, a gross simplification.

With yeast, you really want to pay attention to the recipe. If it calls for Instant Yeast, and you use Active Dry, you might run into trouble. In all honestly, sometimes it still works out!

Yeast is a mystery.

I’ve very rarely taken warm water to “proof” the yeast, either. The chances of it not perking up in a bed of warm dough are so small as to be nothing to worry about. Save your minutes!

There are also yeasts that claim to be “better for pizza” or “Bread machine.” In my experience, they are just types of Instant yeast. I am currently using a jar of bread machine yeast because it was all that Meijer had for sale.

Yeasty bread is also a great prank to pull on your friends who insist they don’t like mushrooms.

This Is How I Make Bread

My bread is incredible. It is better than your bread. Oh, you own a bakery?

Well, I may concede.

If you are baking at home, though, I am happy to go up against you. It is very good bread I make.

I, of course, start with bread flour. My preferred powder is King Arthur, but I will happily use Gold Medal. And my recipe is very much the same regardless of using sourdough starter or normal yeast.

Well, I might use more water in sourdough, but that’s okay.

There is no recipe because I don’t use a real recipe for my bread anymore. I have crossed the rubicon into percentages, which is how I make bread.

It provides freedom. The scale gives you knowledge!

Using grams to weigh my flour and water and salt and yeast gives me tight control over my dough. If it is a little wetter, I know it can handle a longer rise and may need a little more love.

I typically make a dough at about 60% hydration. Sometimes, I like to pump it up to 75. This has been good for sourdough. It is very rare that I will go higher.

I also stick to a single loaf at a time. I start with 500g bread flour. I add my yeast and salt. The salt is usually at 2%, which is 10g.

The 500g is 100%. The other ingredients are a percentage of your flour. 1% (5g) of yeast. Yeast can work in different ways, so maybe I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

It all gets mixed together and I’ll add the water. A “normal” loaf I do about 60%, which is 300g of water. You can also use ounces since it’s easy to use nice round ones.

Then, it rises! Here is where people get picky. It doesn’t always take two hours for bread to rise! But, sometimes it takes 3 hours! I prefer to let mine rise in the fridge overnight. I let it warm up a half hour and I’m ready to bake!

I make boules, which are the round breads. These rise in a banneton (a basket lined with flour).

Into the oven I put a dutch oven, lid on, and I heat things up for at least a half hour to 450F. I take the lid off the dutch oven and drop my loaf in straight from the banneton. Lid on and bake.

Half an hour later, I take the lid off so the bread can brown a bit.

When is it done? I use a thermometer for that. I look for 190F.

It all gets pulled out and the bread cools on the rack! And this is a very easy, nice bread.

If I am using sourdough, the math is a little trickier. But, luckily, my sourdough is always at a 1:1 ratio of flour to water. So, if I have 100g of starter, I know 50g is likely flour and 50g is likely water. And 100g is a great amount!

However, this means I use more water in the final dough – 75%. This is 375g of water, but take away 50g for the starter. It becomes 450g flour and 325g water. I use the same amount of salt.

And I always do an overnight rise for sourdoughs.

Other tips and tricks – I knead with a stand mixer for about six minutes. There are some folks who encourage hand-kneading, but it is not fun. So I use the mixer.

I also don’t worry about tap water. If your water distinctly smells like a pool, you can use filtered or let it sit a bit. The temperature doesn’t matter much. I’ve also never bloomed my yeast and it always seems to turn out aces.

That’s my bread.

You Are Probably Using the Wrong Flour

There was a terrible loaf of bread. It came out of the dutch oven. There was spongy, wet crumb, an okay crust. Some flavor.

I had followed the recipe as written.

(I would learn later part of the problem was using volume not weight)

The bread still didn’t work.

It has been a long time baking. I have moved onto using a scale and weighing everything. My kneading is done with a stand mixer. I’ve even gotten bannetons and a lape.

Yet, the single greatest contribution to my bread quality has been my flour. Flour can seem expensive – particularly in a pandemic when its sold out.

(There was a frustrating moment at the grocery store where the only flour available was White Lily – terrific for biscuits, but not quite right for bread)

To further complicate things, I am only talking about wheat flour. I’m not bringing in corn, almond, rye, or the other plants. Only wheat!

There are a few variations, but flour is either soft, all-purpose, or hard. Also known as cake, all-purpose, and bread flour.

(“What about self-rising?” That’s just AP flour with some chemical leaveners already mixed in)

I don’t buy cake flour often. It is just as easy to use a boxed cake mix. Everything is ready to go in a boxed cake mix – including the flavor. Also, I like making bread.

I always have unbleached AP flour. Lately, I’ve considered buying bleached. Not instead of, but in addition to. The bleaching creates a slightly weaker flour, stronger than Cake, but better for some baked goods.

I don’t think my wife can handle two kinds of AP flour in the pantry. So I’ll stick to unbleached.

The color is nicer.

Bread flour is full of protein and makes better gluten. Make a loaf with AP. Make a loaf with bread flour. There’s a very real difference.

Of course, even then, there’s differences in brands. Store brand flour is okay, but name brand flour is one area where the name can matter.

The best mills carefully monitor and control their wheat for consistency.

The best of these bread flours, the most consistent, the finest for bread has been King Arthur.

I spend a little extra, but it’s noticeable.

Behind King Arthur I will use Gold Medal. If you are very serious about baking, you will notice King Arthur is a bit better. But Gold Medal is fine for a casual baker who likes consistency.

Store and generic flours are fine, I guess. I usually have some cheap AP flour on hand for thickening. But for baking, you need a name. That name is King Arthur.

There’s An Easier Way To Store Things

Did you know the Amish sell Tapioca Starch? They are fine purveyors of a variety of baking powders.

Powder plays a big role in baking. Flour is a powder. So is, well, baking powder.

Once you really get going, though, there’s a lot more powders.

There’s more flours: Cake, bread, AP.

There’s potato starch and tapioca starch.

There’s sugar and brown sugar and powdered sugar. And raw sugar.

You start making your own syrups.

What happens is you have a lot of powders and other things you need to keep in the cupboard. It’s very helpful if these things can stack or otherwise be easy to transport.

(I get all this powder from local farm stores of all places – the Amish are great sources of various starches)

Powder is already quite heavy, so it is not the worst thing to have a heavy container.

What I find works very well are canning jars. I do not have a preferred brand – but I am sure that will change.

These jars can be a very real pain for some. They imagine the lids and bands and the spilling capability.

Luckily, there is a lovely alternative.

The world makes reusable screw-on lids!

While they are rubbish for canning, they are incredible for storage. They also keep your pickles from spilling.

They sell metal, but I find plastic easier to keep clean. I am also boring, so I like plain grey.

But they come in many colors. There’s a technicolor dreamcoat of storage.

If you’re inclined, you can color code. I prefer a label maker.

Of course, you may have to deal with loved ones who aren’t part of baking world. “What the hell do you need special flour for? My bread turns out fine!”

It doesn’t, Bevy. It’s terrible bread.

Tapioca starch can be a harder sell. But it’s very inexpensive, so why not?

Baking

Baking is an experience. It values precision. There is a reward to a well-kept process.

Cooking often rewards creativity. There are many recipes for the stove top or oven which value tasting as you go. There is a show of technique.

Baking is a little different.

(I am not saying anything new here, of course)

To bake, you must follow directions.

There are opportunities for creativity, too, but you must first understand how the dough works. Or the batter. Or the mix.

There is precision in baking not only in the oven but in the path your ingredients take. Mix and knead and pull and stretch and you will not get a muffin.

It is this precision in baking I enjoy. There is a method to follow. Details matter. Precision matters.

If you enter my kitchen, yes, I have a thermometer. I use it to check my baked goods.

I weigh my ingredients – again, precision.

My oven thermometer is checked often as well. Control over variables is important.

But there is room for art. My loaves get cut in patterns or decorated with different seeds and toppings.

Pretzels are tied in fun shapes.

Cakes get decorated. Muffins have differing top sizes. Even pancakes can be used for drawing!

It has never been true that hewing to directions prohibits creativity. You only need to be more creative to make it work!

Of course, beyond the process, the end result is rewarding. I have yet to hear someone complain about the smell of fresh baked bread.

Or being able to spread butter on a warm muffin.

Dipping a hot pretzel into hot mustard.

Even listening to the crust crackle as a sourdough boule cools. Baking and the floury arts are a fun and rewarding hobby. It is like woodworking or welding. Perhaps with less danger.

Though, getting oven burns is no fun.

Poetry – Day Nine

There has been no lightning strike, no set of inspiration this year. I haven’t felt the time or love necessary to rhyme. It’s a troubling time this year. But I will still give it a shot!

SNOW IN APRIL

“Welcome to Michigan.”
Thanks.
I was born here.
I’ll likely die.
I know there was a blizzard
(in ’76).
I’ve worn long johns
And shorts
On the same day.

Snow in April
Is still unwanted.
Your superiority complex
Makes it worse.

An Arena

And in this arena I lay
And stand again.
Face dust-covered
Sweat like rivers
Heart pounding.
Waiting again to be laid down
(Knocked down)
And stand again.
Tears wipe flesh clean
Rivers flash below my eyes.
To stand
And stand
Not for worthy cause-
No.
But to stay down-
The unthinkable attraction.
So I stand
And fight
And fall
Always remembering
This is not the only arena.