Follow these bread-making tips to develop your baking skills and make delicious yeast breads such as crumpets or brioche muffins.
Remember, there is absolutely no work involved in letting your dough sit on the countertop to reap a lower temperature, a slower fermentation process and, therefore, more flavorful bread.
Photo by Ditte Isager
Bite into a warm brioche muffin and savor the fact that you made this delicious yeast bread yourself. A little goes a long way when you follow simple bread-making tips such as using organic ingredients or preheating your baking stone. In Simply Great Breads (The Taunton Press, 2011), author and artisanal baker Daniel Leader provides us with a collection of recipes for 50 mouthwatering yeasted treats ranging from breakfast classics such as English muffins and crumpets to timeless favorites such as ciabatta and challah. Follow these bread-making tips and try the recipe for crumpets or brioche muffins in this excerpt taken from Chapter 1, “Classic Breakfast Breads.”
In baking, little things can make a big difference in the quality of your bread. Individual recipes will give relevant tips for getting the best results, but here are a few general suggestions for making the simple breads and yeasted pastries in this book as good as they can be.
When I first started baking, I had to search far and wide for organic ingredients. Now, organic flour, cornmeal, seeds, nuts, eggs, milk, and butter are available at natural foods stores and most supermarkets. Not only do organic ingredients make better-tasting breads and pastries, but they also have a gentler impact on our environment. Yes, they cost more. But compared to the price of a loaf of bread you’d buy from your local bakery, a homemade organic loaf is still a bargain.
In my bakery, I follow the same procedures every time I bake. I weigh my ingredients on a scale, make sure they’re all at the same temperature, and use a timer so that every batch of dough is kneaded, fermented, proofed, and baked to the same degree. It is more difficult to be so consistent at home, and you’ll inevitably have to make adjustments from time to time: The temperature of your kitchen will be cooler in the winter than in the summer, so you’ll have to alter your schedule accordingly. Flour’s ability to absorb water varies from season to season and brand to brand, so you might have to add more or less water to your dough. But without question there is one thing you can do to get the same great bread consistently: Invest in a digital scale and always measure your ingredients by weight instead of by volume. Measuring by volume is simply not as reliable. Depending upon how much your flour has settled in the bag, 1 cup may weigh between 135 and 145 grams. That difference will result in two distinctly different breads.
Rustic Italian breads such as pizza and ciabatta traditionally contain a high proportion of water, which gives them a moist, bubbly crumb. But many other doughs benefit from high hydration, a fact that I took into consideration when developing a range of recipes, not just the ones for Italian flatbreads. So if your bialy dough seems wet as you knead it, just go with it for a while, resisting the impulse to add extra flour. This is easier to accomplish with an electric mixer and a dough hook than it is by hand, so when a dough is particularly wet, I recommend pulling out a KitchenAid® mixer.
As dough is kneaded, the proteins in the flour organize themselves into a stretchy web, called gluten, that will expand along with the gases that are a by-product of yeast and will solidify in the oven (like the steel skeleton of a skyscraper), providing the finished bread with its crumb structure. Large, chewy artisan breads often require lengthy kneading to develop a strong gluten structure that can support a high rise. But many of the items in this book are small, tender, and/or flat. This means that they don’t require as much gluten as larger, crusty, high-rising breads. In fact, too much kneading can overheat your dough, leading to over-fermentation. Even when a bubbly crumb is desired, as with ciabatta, it can be achieved by kneading minimally and then giving the dough a turn.
There is nothing like hand kneading to teach you about your dough. When you have contact with dough from start to finish, you can actually feel the gluten organizing itself as the dough is transformed from a lumpy, bumpy mass into a smooth and coherent one. But there is no doubt that using a powerful standing mixer with a dough hook will save you time and is often a better choice than hand kneading, especially if you are an inexperienced hand kneader and/or are working with a very wet dough. Most of the recipes in this book call for machine kneading, for ease and speed. Just make sure, when kneading with a mixer, to stop every so often to touch the dough. Press it, stretch it, run your fingers over it, just as you would when hand kneading. Frequent contact with the dough will teach you to recognize when it is properly kneaded.
The recipes in this book, in contrast to what old-fashioned American baking manuals usually direct, call for room temperature water and room temperature fermentation. Lowering the traditional temperature in this way will cause your dough to rise more slowly, which is a good thing, since a long, slow fermentation allows flavor to build in the dough. Remember, there is absolutely no work involved in letting your dough sit on the countertop to reap this benefit. Quite a few recipes in this book direct you to place your dough in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight. Refrigeration slows fermentation down, allowing you some flexibility in deciding when to bake, and builds incredible flavor without the risk of over-fermentation.
If you want a small taste of what a sourdough starter does for bread, try a recipe that employs a pre-ferment, which instantly “ages” a dough to which it is added, giving it flavor that it otherwise wouldn’t have time to develop during its relatively short fermentation period. Using a simpler (than sourdough) two-stage method for making dough, you just mix a small quantity of flour, water, and yeast and let it begin to ferment before adding it to a larger quantity of dough that you make later. A pre-ferment can give simple breads such as ciabatta surprisingly complex flavor.
Judging when to put the challah, brioche, or Parker House rolls into the oven is one of the biggest challenges an inexperienced baker faces. Under-proofed breads will have a tight, undeveloped crumb. Over-proofed doughs will lose volume when they go into the oven and lose flavor because of excess gas. In general, properly proofed breads will look pillowy but not over-inflated.
This simple step makes a big difference. When raw dough hits hot stone, the internal combustion creates a nicely risen dough. Using a baking stone improves the rise and enhances the crust color and flavor on items you might not have thought of as hearth breads, such as bagels or Parker House rolls.
Is your dad famous for his incredibly fluffy cheese omelet or your Aunt Sally known for her crisp-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside savory veal meatballs? If so, it is because practice makes perfect. Practice is especially important when working with yeast doughs, which become friendlier the more you get to know them. The first time you make Angel Biscuits, you won’t know exactly how long to knead the dough so that it’s sticky but coherent. You’ll have to guess how to cut the dough decisively but without tearing or stretching it. The second time you make them, you’ll have a previous experience for comparison. By the fifth time, you will be well on your way to becoming famous for your tender biscuits.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Simply Great Breads, published by The Taunton Press, 2011.
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