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Bread - Essay from Newsletter 104

Making dough at home in your spare time

The old days

Much of the food that our grandmothers prepared were items they could make while they were doing other things.

It was a different time and it was mostly women who were generally responsible for keeping the house and raising the children.

They could prep the ingredients for a soup and leave it on the stove to simmer while they went off to perform another task. Now and then they could check back in, adjust the seasoning, give the pot a stir and go off to do something else.

There is a whole class of food items that take a long time to prepare but only need a minute or two of attention now and then.

Bread is one of those items.

We feed our starter or prepare a preferment the night before. First thing in the morning, we mix together all of the ingredients and set a towel over the bowl and let the dough rise. An hour or so later we take a look at our dough and punch it down and leave it to rise until doubled. Another hour or so later we turn on the oven and shape the loaves. An hour after that we put the loaves in the oven and maybe have a cup of coffee and catch up with a friend while the loaves bake.

The Idea

Things are different in our modern times.

Everyone works these days - many of us work more than one job. We’re always in such a rush that we don’t seem to have time to spend more than the time it takes to heat and eat a dinner.


For those of us who work from home and the many who are stuck at home during the pandemic, we are living the perfect life to make these slow food items.

That’s the book I thought of writing three years ago. A book about bread baking for people like me who work from home.

Of course I didn’t write it.

Then the pandemic hit and everyone released their sourdough book.

In one sense I’d missed my opportunity, in another, I was no longer traveling so it was the perfect chance to test bake and re-test bake my recipes.

My goal was to write a short book for people who had never really cooked. The idea was we would start with a simple pancake recipe and end with a whole wheat sourdough loaf. Along the way we would pick up skills and see patterns that would leave the reader with the ability to create their own bread and not just follow a recipe.

“A Bread Baking Kickstart” follows exactly that trajectory but it isn’t a short book. I wanted to add places for readers who knew a little or a lot about bread baking to join in and get something from the book.

The first chapter is introductory and includes a recipe for creating and maintaining a sourdough starter if you like. You don’t need to use a sourdough starter to make the recipes in this book. You can always swap something out for the starter, but it is kind of fun to grow one from scratch and to use it to make bread.

The second chapter starts with pancakes. The whole chapter is about things that we can make without yeast. We use chemical leaveners like baking soda and baking powder to make pancakes, crepes, muffins, quick breads, scones, Irish soda bread, crackers, and some stove top flat breads.

I worry the most about this chapter. These are the items I cook the least and here I am starting the book with them. There are a lot of recipes in this chapter and they’re all good but still these are not the types of bread I live for. I pulled some of the recipes out during my revision. There’s no recipe for zucchini bread, cranberry bread, or a pumpkin bread. I want to make sure you move on to the bread.

The Breads

We start the bread recipes with a foolproof recipe for anyone who has never made bread before: a focaccia. This entire chapter features breads that use yeast and are baked in an oven but we don’t really knead them. These breads are made with fairly wet doughs and we use time to organize the gluten. You’ll see two focaccia recipes, a simple bread recipe, the classic no knead bread, and then one of my favorite techniques in a bread I call Jeffrey’s bread.

In all of the breads in Chapter 3 we mix the ingredients together much as we mixed our pancake batter. For most of them we return to the dough after about a half hour and use a dough scraper to fold the dough and transform it from a shaggy mess into a nice looking dough. For all but the last one, that’s it. We let the dough rest in a warm place overnight and then it’s ready to bake. For Jeffrey’s bread we repeat the dough scraper thing every half hour for three hours then bake the bread. These are great entry level breads.

In Chapter 4 we make a stiffer dough. This requires that we knead the dough after we have mixed the ingredients together. Once we’ve kneaded it and let it rest for a bit we treat it different ways to get pita bread, pizza, bagels, and English muffins. We add some of the ingredients we used in our pancake chapter to get enriched breads such as hamburger buns, sandwich bread, challah, and a Japanese milk bread using a tangzhong method.

By now you’ve come quite a ways and learned quite a bit. I begin Chapter 5 by looking at the techniques we’ve learned and preparing for using preferments to give the dough more character. We talk about mixing and kneading various doughs and focus on that time when we let the dough rest. This bulk ferment stage is really important. In the unkneaded breads we let the dough sit undisturbed overnight. From Chapter 4 on we let the dough sit for two or three hours and every once in a while we fold the dough. You’ll learn a couple of ways of folding the dough and the reasons we do so. (We don’t punch the dough down anymore.) We also look at various ways to shape the loaves and slash them. There’s also a whole section devoted to water.

After those sections we’re ready to add more flavor and complexity to our bread. Unlike the breads in Chapter 3 where we let the entire bread rise overnight, with these breads we let a portion of our dough ferment before we add it to the rest of the dough. This is called a preferment and you’ll learn to use a biga, sponge, poolish, and sourdough starter.

In the final chapter I want to stretch your skills in several directions. We start by using different flours to make a deli rye and several different whole wheat breads. I codify much of what we’ve learned using a framework I call 1 2 3 4 bread. 1, 2, 3, and 4 add up to ten so you decide how much bread you want to make. A two pound loaf is, for example, 900g. So if 900g is ten parts then one part is 90g, two parts is 180g, three parts is 270g, and four parts is 360g. So my bread will be four parts of all purpose flour, three parts of water, two parts of whatever preferment you like, and one part accent flour - maybe rye, spelt, whole wheat, or durham.

The remainder of the book looks at increasing the hydration of the dough to make a ciabatta or a rustic whole wheat bread. We also make breads with caraway seeds, olives, other dried ingredients, or wet ingredients such as pumpkin puree mixed in.

As people point out corrections that need to be made, I’ll make them. This is an eBook so it is easily updated. As people ask for clarifications they’d like to see, I’ll make those as well.

Here’s where you can find “A Bread Baking Kickstart”

Have fun baking and post pictures.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 104. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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