Bread is forgiving and resilient, so it's a good place to begin if you're new to baking. And if you already love to bake, it's a good place to hone your skills, for, as many a professional bread baker can attest, the quest for truly great bread is addictive and consuming. Bread baking is not difficult—let's face it, people were making bread and cooking it on rocks 2,000 years ago, using unrefined flour and unpredictable yeast. As always, an understanding of the ingredients and how they work together will shed light on a subject that can be mysterious. Let's take a look at the main ingredients in bread and then explore the best way to combine them for the ultimate artisanal loaf at home.
The recipes in this chapter offer the option of using either active dry or instant yeast, though the measurements are slightly different. If you need to convert any of your existing recipes, these conversion guidelines will help:
For each teaspoon of active dry yeast: Use 3/4 teaspoon instant yeast (or multiply the weight of the active dry yeast by .75).
For each teaspoon of instant yeast: Use 1-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (or multiply the weight of the instant yeast by 1.25).
In direct contact, salt can kill yeast because it removes the water that yeast needs to live. Always blend salt with the flour rather than measuring it onto the yeast itself.
Flour is responsible for the structure of bread, as well as some of its flavor and its beautifully browned crust. There are several types of flour to choose from.
Wheat Flour Wheat is the only grain that has ample supplies of glutenin and gliaden, the two proteins needed to form gluten. These two proteins, when combined with liquid and exercised by stirring and kneading, form gluten strands. The strands link together and become longer and stronger as kneading continues. The web of gluten that develops is like a flexible fishing net woven throughout a loaf of bread. This net traps the little bubbles of carbon dioxide given off by the feeding yeast and expands as the bubbles proliferate, allowing the bread to rise.
Without a strong network of flexible gluten strands, bread cannot rise properly, so it is important to choose a flour that contains high levels of these two proteins. Bread flour has the optimum percentage of protein (12 to 14 percent), but you can also find high levels of protein in unbleached all-purpose flour (Gold Medal, King Arthur, and Pillsbury are all good choices). The recipes here can be made using either bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour. Do not use bleached all-purpose flour, as it contributes little flavor and may not contain enough protein to form sufficient gluten strands for bread development and expansion. Pastry flour, cake flour, and low-protein Southern flour have even less protein and are to be avoided in bread making, though they can be wonderful in pastries and cakes. Store your flour airtight and use it within a year—it makes a difference.
Other grains, such as corn, rye, buckwheat, oat, and spelt, may contain some amount of the two vital proteins, but not enough of them to form the gluten network. Perhaps surprisingly, whole wheat flour is among these specialty flours. While it has the proteins necessary for gluten development, it also contains the bran portion of the wheat kernel, responsible for the health benefits and brown color of whole wheat flour. The ground bran has sharp, jagged edges that cut into the strands of gluten during kneading, preventing them from lengthening. If you've ever tried to make whole wheat bread with all whole wheat flour, you'll know what this means—the result is a leaden brick.
Breads made with specialty flours always have some bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour to ensure formation of a baseline structure that will allow the bread to rise, yet still retain the flavor and health benefits of the specialty flour. Store specialty flours airtight in the freezer to prolong their short shelf life.
Yeast are the microscopic, single-cell living organisms that make bread rise. Feeding on the sugars in the starch of the flour, the yeast multiply. The by-products of their feeding—carbon dioxide and alcohol—create the breads we love. Bubbles of carbon dioxide are caught in the gluten web, causing the dough to expand. The alcohol adds flavor to the bread, but, if the dough is left unattended for too long, too much alcohol can develop, causing a pronounced alcohol flavor that ruins the bread.
See page 63 of the book for more of the Primer on Bread
This page created December 2008
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