I post a lot of photos of my daily/weekly bread to my personal Facebook page. I get likes, and “oooooh yummy!” and I inevitably get the question, “may I have your recipe?” Well, no. Not really. Not because I’m not willing to share it, but because it isn’t a normal recipe. This is my standard recipe.
So that’s my problem! If I were to share that, people would still have zero clue what was going on. That’s where baker’s math comes in. So, what’s baker’s math? Baker’s math is a language where everything is based on the weight of flour in your recipe. Here is my same recipe in weights. I’ve used 1kg of flour, which makes one massive, or two medium sized loaves.
See? It isn’t that tough. It is nice because it is all about relationships. It’s easy to scale a recipe up or down based on need.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. Sure, you can use all purpose flour, and this recipe will come out a treat, but there are so many other options! High gluten flour, wholemeal, spelt, nuts seeds and grains, mixed flours, bran, etc. I just make sure to give my flour time to absorb the water. If I’m using a flour that is wholemeal, or a bit more coarsely ground, I will mix some of the coarse flour with all of the water, until it is the texture of a paste, and allow it to hydrate before adding the other ingredients. If I’m using a high gluten flour, or adding gluten to a wholemeal flour for texture, I know that a bit more water might be necessary. Gluten is activated by direct contact with water.
A note on gluten: Gluten is the protein in wheat, barley, oats, spelt, triticale, rye, and other grains. It gives dough its stretchiness, and the ability to make big bubbles trapping the gas made by yeast. In some countries they wash the starches out of flour, and use gluten as a protein source called seitan. Gluten gets a lot of bad press nowadays, because some people have a very serious condition called coeliac disease, in which they are unable to consume any gluten. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to avoid the stuff, and actually, eating bread products with the protein omitted can mean that you are unintentionally eating more starches, sugars, and fats. So, be careful and keep your eyes open if you decide to drastically change your dietary habits. Just because it’s good for someone else, doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be good for you.
That leads me to shortening, or fats! Fats inhibit gluten, causing bread to have a smaller holes, and a softer more cake-like texture. Sometime you want it, sometimes you don’t. Basic bread does not have any fat, but if you want to add it in, you always can! I will sometimes add butter, coconut oil, olive oil, or other oils. Make sure that they are fresh, and add them keeping in mind that you will need less water than you’re used to adding.
Sugar! It’s another thing I’ll sometimes add. In small quantities it will boost your yeast, making it go into overdrive. In large quantities, it works a lot like fat, changing the texture of your final product. It shortens the gluten strands. I really like adding honey, it will soften a loaf up nicely, make the crust develop a deeper tone, and give a nice aroma.
Eggs and milk products are also added to bread sometimes. Again, always watch the amount of liquid you use. Eggs and milk contain fats which will change the texture, like everything else. A great example of a bread that uses plain flour, sugar, milk, eggs, and butter, is brioche. It’s really a yeasted cake! It’s not exactly a daily loaf, but it’s mad tasty!
So, with bakers math you can add whatever you like, just make sure that you have your desired dough texture (it’s always better to err on the wet side), and that you’ve added your active yeast.
So, you’ve got all of your ingredients lined out, but now what? Well, this is where most people screw up bread. The kneading and the resting is where bread is made; it’s where the fermentation and structure creation occurs. If you want to be all fancy, you can mix your basic (no additions) dough without salt and yeast, and let it rest for 20 minutes or so, or in the fridge over night. This allows for autolysis, which is just a fancy way of saying that the naturally occurring enzymes will break down the wheat into tastier compounds. It also helps the gluten and the water get all friendly with one another.
Next you can add your yeast and salt. Give it a knead. Kneading is there to activate and arrange the strands of gluten. As your gluten develops it will trap more of the water, causing the dough to cohere and become smooth. Be firm, but not crazy, you’re aligning protein, not mashing playdough. And, when you see the taught sides of your dough ball begin to tear, stop. It’s done. If you keep ripping the strands, you defeat the purpose. Plonk it in a bowl, cover it, and let it rise.
Most people are SO impatient with their yeast. They set the timer for 40 minutes, and move on to the next step come hell or high water. That’s not how yeast do. Yeast is a single celled fungus. It eats sugars and, to put it in my favorite way, farts carbon dioxide and pees alcohol (in a similar fashion to some of my friends). Since it is a living being it needs to be nurtured and cultivated carefully. A slower rise will give you a deeper tasting loaf, so don’t just bang on the timer and move on.
If your water is too hot, you can actually kill your yeast. Different strains have different optimal temperatures, and you can find that information online. If you are slightly above your optimal temperature, but below a fatal temperature, your yeast colony will explode. It makes your bread look big fast, as they are farting up a storm, but you will get a really yeasty sour taste to your bread. If your temperature is too cold there is really no problem, it just takes FOREVER. Slightly over room temperature is usually what you aim for, or a very very slow refrigerator rise. Then you wait.
Wait until you see a beautiful ballooned top to your dough. If you’ve added anything to your basic dough, or used wholemeal flours, then your dough might not rise as high. That’s okay. When you poke it the indent should stay, but the whole dome shouldn’t collapse. If it does collapse, that means it has over-risen. It might be slightly yeasty, but if it’s on the first rise then no harm done. You can do this a few times, or only once, up to you!
Move on to shaping your dough. If it gets too elastic, cover it and let it rest a few minutes, that will allow the gluten to relax and allow you to keep going. Then it has to rise again! This final rise is really important. Too little and your bread will have an inconsistent texture, too much and it will fall in the oven. It should look like it has risen around 80% of the way. Then, when it hits the hot oven, it will spring put to 100% before the crust sets. That’s the goal! It takes practice, so don’t be afraid of getting it wrong a billion times. I will often have disagreements with my mom about whether or not a loaf is ready. She tends to put it in the oven slightly before I do, but she also cooks her bread at a lower temperature than I do. Trial and error.
You can slash the top if you want to. It will prevent the bread from bursting out all over when it takes its final rise in the oven. When it’s done it should sound hollow on when tapped on the bottom, or, if you’re like me and have baked a lot of raw bread, an instant-read thermometer should be at 200˚F/93˚C when plunged into the center of the loaf (do it on the bottom so the top is still pretty).
Finally, and this can sometimes be the hardest part, let it cool before you slice it. Just like a steak, the moisture will redistribute, and the starches and protein will set as the bread cools. If you cut it too soon the texture, or crumb, won’t be at its best.
Everyone loves fresh homemade bread. Even if it is “bad” they will eat it, so give it a go. Try the most basic type, and just keep at it. Make sure to add enough water and let it rise.
Until we eat again, Happy Adventuring!