- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When it comes to baking bread, there are many ways to do a given task, whether it’s hydrating the flour or spreading out the yeast. So how do you choose the best method for the loaf you’re about to bake? To answer that, it helps to know what you’re trying to accomplish with a given step in the baking process.

Here are some bread-making techniques, with explanations of what they accomplish.

Kneading

Kneading allows proteins (glutenin and gliadin) in a wet dough to grab water and each other to form elastic sheets of gluten. The more the flour/water mixture is pushed about (kneaded), the more proteins and water touch each other and the more cross-links are formed.

Many years ago, Carl Hosney, one of the world’s pre-eminent starch chemists, explained that you don’t really need to knead bread doughs — that rising accomplishes this. Yeast cells exude a liquid, which releases carbon dioxide and alcohol when it touches an air bubble in the dough. It is like blowing up these bubbles with tiny puffs. The dough moves. Proteins touch other proteins and cross-link. With every tiny rise of the dough, molecule-by-molecule the dough “kneads” itself. This is the basis for the currently popular “no-knead” doughs.

When you knead, by hand or by machine, you incorporate oxygen from the air. This oxygen feeds yeast, but it also oxidizes flavorful carotenoid compounds in unbleached hard, red winter wheat (many artisan bakers’ wheat of choice) and reduces the flavor of the final loaf.

To save these precious flavor components, master baker Didier Rosada kneads just long enough to combine ingredients well — about 3 minutes.

Autolysis

Autolysis is the technique of soaking the flour in water for only about 30 minutes before the other ingredients are added. This can make a huge difference in the flavor of the final loaf of bread. (See recipe for autolysis below to adapt to your bread recipe.) It allows the flour (both proteins and starch) to fully hydrate. Since the flour proteins have already grabbed water, that part of kneading has already been accomplished. This improves the extensibility (stretchability) of the dough, reduces final kneading time, and reduces dough oxidation by about 15 percent.

Fold or punch?

Yeast cells reproduce by dividing — one cell divides into two, then these divide, and so on. Soon you have a clump of yeast. The yeast in the center of these clumps can’t get the oxygen and food that it needs. If you move the dough around after it has risen you break up these clumps and spread out the yeast, giving it a fresh supply of food and oxygen. So, folding the dough instead of “punching down” does an excellent job of spreading the yeast while developing the gluten and retaining some of the leavening bubbles.

To fold, dump the dough onto a lightly oiled counter. Then, one side at a time, lift about 1/3 of the dough up (on the left, on the right, on the top, and on the bottom) and fold it across the dough.

Rounding

Rounding or preshaping, tucking the dough pieces into smooth rounds, covering with oiled plastic wrap, and allowing them to stand about 15 minutes, permits the dough to relax and makes final shaping much easier. This process of tucking into smooth rounds also creates a covering that holds gases better and aids in aligning gluten.

Slashing

When the dough goes into the hot oven, the alcohol the yeast has exuded during rising evaporates all at once, producing a sudden great rise of the dough, called “oven-spring.” The surface of the dough typically can’t stretch fast enough to take advantage of this sudden rise and holds the dough down. But if you have made cuts on the surface, the dough can burst open and rise fully.

With rounds, or large loaves, you can make deeper cuts and arrange them attractively. With long, narrow baguettes, however, you need shallower and more frequent slashes (a single edge razor or an X-ACTO knife works well). You want to slash only a thin layer of dough.

Although baguette slashes end up looking as if they are across the dough, they begin as cuts down the center. Imagine a line right down the center of the baguette. Each slash should begin less than 1/4-inch to the right of this center line and end up less than a 1/4-inch to the left of this line. Slashes should be 4 to 5 inches long and should begin so that each one overlaps the slash before it by about 1/4 its length.

Baking stone

Once the bread is in the oven, a constant challenge is to make sure the batter or dough heats enough to rise well before the heat from the top of the oven forms a crust. A baking stone comes in handy here. It provides even heat and prevents burning on the bottom, allowing you to bake breads in the lower part of the oven away from the hot top.

Steam

Steam needs to fill the oven before the bread is put in. For better bread volume, you want the steam to condense on the cool surface of the dough to keep it moist longer and to allow it to rise longer. Also, this moisture on the surface dissolves sugar; when the moisture evaporates, a little sugar is left, which will produce a browner, crisper crust.

Ideally, you need the steam-producing water to run out about 15 minutes before the end of the baking time so that the crust can dry well. If you use stones in your pan, this usually takes about 1 cup water. (See directions for a good home steamer below.)

Recipe for autolysis

Stir all but 2 tablespoons of the liquid called for in your bread recipe (cool, about 70 degrees) into all of the flour. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to stand 30 minutes. Stir the yeast into 2 tablespoons warm water (about 110 degrees), allow to stand about 30 seconds, then stir into the dough. Stir in the other ingredients (salt, etc.) and knead the bread briefly (about 3 minutes). Continue with your recipe after the first rise.

Godd home steamer

Peter Nyberg, an outstanding sourdough baker, taught me how to make a great steam bath. Take a heavy pan and put about 5 stones in it. I got 2- to 3-inch smooth stones from a landscaping store. Hot stones hold the heat longer and produce steam longer than just a hot pan alone.

Place the pan with the stones on the floor of the oven near the oven door and allow them to heat up. Meanwhile, place a saucepan with a little over 1 cup of water on the stove and bring to a boil. When the water has boiled, pour it onto the hot stones. You must be very careful to have oven mitts on your hands and keep your head and arms out of the way when you pour the water onto the stones. There is a great rush of steam that can burn your face and arm badly. Be careful to hold your arms and face to the side.

Bake bread as directed by your recipe.

Food scientist Shirley O. Corriher is author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow).

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