June 16, 2006

Dr. Atkins Be Damned!

Last night I attended a 3-hour bread making class offered through Discover U, a local organization offering adult continuing education classes ranging from exercise to book publishing. We’ve taken classes through Discover U and other like organizations and they are always fun. The Rustic Bread Making class was presented by the owner & chief baker at the Essential Baking Co., George DiPasquale.

He basically discounted all the traditional methods we probably have learned from our grandmothers and mothers regarding bread making. Sure, there are as many bread making methods as there are bread eaters and many mothers and grandmothers would argue to the grave over some of the methods employed by contemporary professional bakers versus their own. But this guy makes damn good bread. He wants the product to be the best and he believes these methods make the best product. He wasn’t directly dissing the traditional methods, but he is a firm believer in the methods he employs. I was all ears and eyes. I took copious notes. I’ll try all the methods and see for myself. If these ideas make better bread, why not use them? On the other hand, the homemade breads and bread products I grew up eating were delicious. Perhaps it all boils down to a matter of taste.

Because baking is far more scientific than regular cooking, there is the dreaded math involved. I cook by feel and I rarely bake. When I do bake it has to be simple. Even if the math simply means measuring ingredients I get itchy. I dread math and I dislike measuring but I like to make bread so I put up with it. Breads are easy but they are very time consuming. And the introduction of “baker's percentage” into my cooking world isn’t encouraging but I am going to do my best to understand it. Once I do, I think things will be easier and I will enjoy the process of using these formulas more than I dread the prospect of using them.

So I have to start thinking of recipes as formulas and measuring ingredients in terms of weight rather than volume. I need to think of the ingredients as percentages in relation to the main ingredient – flour. The baker's percentage is not a true percent because the total ingredients do not necessarily add up to 100%. In the baker's percentage the 100% is the weight of the flour in the formula. The remaining ingredients are calculated in proportion to the weight of flour. Here comes the math: Weight of ingredient divided by weight of total flour times 100 = ingredient %.

There is a very good discussion of baker’s percentage (baker’s math or baker’s formulas) with examples on
this flour company’s site and on this cooking site.

How does one accomplish all this weight measuring at home? With a sensitive scale. Perhaps a birthday present idea, huh? If you do not have a sensitive scale at home, I found this
conversion chart.

Another good birthday present idea might be a Kitchen Aid. Although he admits that kneading bread by hand results in better dough and a better bread, he realizes that the 1,000 strokes it takes to properly knead dough is a killer on the arms. Buy the best one you can afford. That expense will have to wait a while. Besides, I have no place to store it or use it. I’ll consider future bread making as part of my exercise routine.

I also learned about the biga. Biga (BEE-gah) is an Italian “starter” or “pre-ferment.” A biga adds extra flavor and complexity to bread. Unlike sour dough starters, the biga is made fresh each time it’s used. It’s the biga that makes ciabatta a ciabatta. Many Italian artisan breads use biga and that is why they taste so damn good. Flavor, textrure, moisture. Biga should ferment at least 4-6 hours, ideally 8-12 hours and not more than 24 hours.

He also discouraged us from using caked yeasts. I’ve never used them so that’s not a problem. He advised that they are unstable and are difficult to keep fresh, even in a professional baking environment - let alone a grocery store or home refrigerator. Active dry yeast needs to be hydrated by adding water. Essentially, the hydration acts to wash off the dead yeast cells from the live yeast cells. But, unlike what you usually read in a recipe, active dry yeast doesn’t need sugar and doesn’t need to proof. He recommends using instant yeast (rapid rise, quick rise) that comes in the 3-packet variety you find in the grocery store. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated unless it has been opened. Instant yeast is what most professional bakers use, including his company.You can use less of it and it mixes right into the dry ingredients. I’ll have to look into buying instant yeast in bigger quantities. That 3-pack can get expensive for its size.

To convert fresh yeast amounts into active dry yeast amounts, multiply the fresh yeast amount by .4 (so use about a ¼ of the fresh amount). To convert fresh yeast to instant dry, multiply the fresh yeast by .33 (so use about a 1/3 of the fresh amount). To convert instant into active dry, use ¼ less. Whew.

He spoke about the whole process of letting dough ferment, or proof (rise). He indicated that these recipes in which you are instructed to let the dough double in size, punch it down and let it double again is overkill. You’re over-fermenting the dough and will wind up with yeasty tasting bread. He suggests a ¾ proof 1 ½ times. As for punching down bread, never do this. You’re busting up all the hard work you’ve put into developing the gluten strands. Formulas that have utilized a pre-ferment (such as a biga) do not need to be “punched down.” Formulas that do not utlize a pre-ferment can simply be left to ¾ proof and then “knocked back” before continuing the proofing process. Press out the dough a bit, not too much, then fold in at each edge. Flip it over seam-side down and let it continue to proof.

I also learned how to score bread so as not to compromise the shape and cause too much of the crumb to be exposed to the heat of the oven. I learned to make a damn fine braid too. I wasn’t going to take home any of my played-with dough. Then I figured that my dough really hadn’t been handled by anyone but me anyway. I wanted to see the braid after it was baked. This loaf had a few walnuts thrown in from our practice with adding inclusions. Inclusions, by the way, are always added last, once the dough has been mixed and autolysed (rested). Inclusions being your added fats, like nuts, oils, herbs, olives, meats, chesses, etc. So I baked the loaf when I got home and it tastes fine.

I’ve got more notes on the topic. Plus the hand-outs we received on tools of the trade and some recipes. There were plenty of samples of four different breads and wine too. It was money well spent, especially if I can re-create the results at home. He said there is no reason why we can’t make those rustic, artisan loaves at home. Better get a spray bottle and a peel.

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