Another Day in the Lab

Baking is a bit intimidating for a lot of people. I’ve known people who can cook a really good bit of fish or season a steak to perfection, but ask them to make some rolls to have on the side and they become instantly sullen. I think the reason that baking evokes so much fear in so many would-be chefs is the methodology of baking.

Baking is a science. If you’ve ever spent time in a chemistry lab you’ll know that you must be sure of quantities and reaction times or risk blowing up the entire Science Department. While there’s little fear of blowing up your kitchen with biscuit dough, it is important to understand the chemical process of baking to yield good results.

Making a decent loaf of bread is the result of a variety of factors. People tend to think of bread in terms of components. Yeast, flour, and water are indeed useful, but the single most important ingredient in bread is carbon dioxide. The device whereby every loaf of bread, every roll, and every muffin you make rises is the distribution of CO2 throughout the dough.

There are certain rules of thumb I tend to follow when I bake bread:

Rule #1: Activate your yeast.
I tend to bake with potato water (reserve water from boiling potatoes) for a softer loaf of bread with a bit more longevity. If you use this water (warm, but not hot (yeast dies at 140°F)), mixed with a teaspoon of sugar, to activate your yeast, you’ll have a really good foundation to build on. I allow my mixture to stand for at least ten minutes until it gets very frothy.

Rule #2: Sift your flour. Sifted flour has more air in it. Don’t make your yeast work harder than it has to.

Rule #3: Knead your dough until it’s done, not until you’re bored.

Rule #4: Allow your dough to rise for as long as possible. This, of course, is not always easy, but do it anyway. Most bread dough requires an initial rising and a secondary rising. The first rising in a bowl in a warm place. The second in the pan it will be baked in. In most cases, you can let the dough rise in the fridge overnight, but make sure it’s up to room temperature again before you punch it down.

Rule #5: Score your bread with a razor. If you imagine your dough as a plastic sack tightly packed with sponges. When you slice through the bag the sponges are free to pop out. The outside of a ball of dough develops a surface tension from kneading which traps air inside. If you make a clean cut through that skin your bread will rise much higher as carbon dioxide escapes through the cuts. A knife is not sharp enough for this procedure though, so I keep a razor blade on hand for this procedure.
Rule #6: Turn your oven up as high as it will go for the initial cooking, even if this is only for five minutes. Bread dough rises more in the first few minutes of baking than at any other time. Bakers refer to this as “Oven Spring” as the bread can increase in size by 1/3 in just 2-3 minutes.

Rule #7: Humidify your oven. Keeping a bottle with an atomizer around is very important. This isn’t to lower the temperature of the oven; it serves to keep the outside of your dough moist. This prevents a crust from forming too rapidly. Subsequently, your bread has longer to rise. I generally spray my oven thoroughly before my dough goes in and then every ten minutes or so until the bread is finished.

Rule #8: (Taken from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.) Don’t Panic!

This week I have made rice bread. The recipe is slightly unusual in that it makes use of cooked rice and rice water, but it is also very simple to make. I have made two variants.

The first was last Saturday at my mother-in-law’s house. For that version I slightly undercooked the rice (easy cook long grain) leaving a bit of bite in the middle. I left the grains of rice whole and mixed them into my flour. The rice was distributed throughout the bread and some was on the outside of the loaf. It was similar in texture to a seeded loaf, but without exacerbating my Freya’s intolerance to seeds and grains. My mother-in-law ate an entire loaf and didn’t complain despite her problems with white bread. Freya and I polished our loaf off in about two hours some of it going to make massive grilled cheese sandwiches!

The second loaf, made tonight, was prepared a bit differently. I cooked the rice (Basmati) until it went mushy. I drained the water into a bowl and then forced all the rice through the sieve with a pestle. I would give you more information about the taste and texture that this method yields, but we’re saving the bread for Pig in a Trough tomorrow night. I’ll have to give you that recipe and tell you about the bread later.

6cups plain white flour sifted
¼ cup rice, any white variety
2 cups water
7g dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt

1. Boil rice in water for twenty minutes until tender or longer until mushy. Drain water through a sieve into a bowl. Reserve rice for later or push through the sieve with a pestle.
2. Allow water to cool briefly (Temperature should be about 100°F). Add yeast and sugar, mix thoroughly, and allow ten minutes to activate.
3. Mix flour, salt, and any remaining rice in a bowl. Add yeast and water and mix until all ingredients are amalgamated.
4. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead for 15 minutes adding more flour if dough is too sticky or more water if dough is too dry (I boil a kettle and let the water cool a bit before I start making my dough. Then if I need some tepid water while I’m mixing I can take it from the kettle.).
5. Put dough in a clean bowl, cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise for 2 hours. Punch down the dough and knead for about a minute. Reshape the dough and put in bread pan or onto a pizza stone. Make a few slashes in the bread with a razor and allow to rise for 30 minutes.
6. Preheat oven to 450°F/230°C. When the oven is up to temperature, humidify. Put the bread in the oven. After 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 400°F/200°C, misting with water again. Cook for an additional 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.


Saffron said...

It's true! Baking is a very incredible thing: it's wonderful and you need concentration to have a good result!
Happy weekend!
P.s.: My dog sits on the table...sometimes!she's a noughty girl!

Kathryn said...

I wrote a comment and Blogger ate it! I wanted to say that this looks really intriguing - looking forward to hearing how loaf 2 came out.

I bought a KA! I am so naughty. A cream/almond colour. I will be reading you for tips...

Kathryn x

Anonymous said...

Kathryn! Mine is almond too!! Now you have to get the accessories to match (ice cream maker, pasta maker, etc. etc!)....
Freya x

Brilynn said...

Your loaves of bread look like mushrooms!

Very good info though, I'm forever striving to perfect bread making.

FreyaE said...

Saffron-Our dog Benji used to always sit at the table after we ate. He would sit in front of a plate with a look on his face which said, "If I sit here long enough and look hungry enough, eventually, somebody will feed me!" The picture at the top is of him. Sadly, we had to put him to sleep last Christmas.
Kathryn-I made the bread fully intending on using the entire loaf for a dip I make and following that up with a post tonight. Most of it lasted!
Brilynn-We had thought the same, or maybe elephant feet. I accomplished this by making a single circular cut near the top of the loaf. The resulting rise was so great that the top folded back on the rest of the loaf. I ate some of the second loaf tonight with some cheese, then some peanut butter, then some jam, then.....
Thanks for the comments!

Carolyn Johnson said...

Freya, I know what you mean when you say a lot of people are afraid to bake. Its so different from "cooking" as you definitely have a lot less room for improvising the recipe, making substitutions, etc. But the more you bake the more confident you become because you get very familiar with the stages.

Those are great guidelines, freya. I know I used to never let my bread rise long enough before and they always turned out gummy. Now I let them rise until they are nice and high and they turn out that way too.

Great post! :)

Kirsten said...

Oh dear, now I know why my baking is so bad. Despite being in advanced placement courses in high school and having an academic scholarship for college, I am TERRIBLE at sciences. Chemistry was passed only by the luck of having a lab partner who had a deep crush on me and did all the work. baking may never be up to par. The good news is that I will keep bakeries in business. :)

FreyaE said...

Carolyn-There is so much information available about bread-making methodology that it was difficult choosing what to include in the post. I know what you mean about the rising process. It's easy to let the thought of the fresh bread coming out of the oven overwhelms common sense.
Kirsten-I scraped through chemistry by the skin of my teeth, but that was because I was argumentative. As far as I'm concerned when the teacher asks for a diagram of an atom, it's perfectly acceptable to turn in a drawing of a house with a proton dad, neutron mom, and electron children. I argued that the atomic structure is purely theoretical! It hasn't affected my baking though.