Header image
logo
 

TIPS FOR GREAT ARTISAN BREADS

1. Use King Arthur flour. It is blended to be consistently high in the proteins that make up gluten. Their All-Purpose flour at 11.7% has more protein than other brands’ bread flours. Their Bread Flour is made from hard spring wheat and runs 12.7% protein, truly high-test flour. The main benefit of using KA flours is their consistency bag-to-bag, season-to-season. No other flours come close. Once you perfect your bread making skills you can experiment with other flours, but until then this will eliminate one variable from the equation. I did such an experiment, and you can read about it!

Shopping Tip: Get KA A/P, Bread, and Whole Wheat flours at (some) Walmarts. Can't affort KA flour? Try the store brand flours at Whole Foods and Trader Joes.

Note: Do NOT use bread flour for sweet breads, quick breads, biscuits, muffins, pancakes, etc. or they will be tough! I use cheap, store brand, unbleached all-purpose flour for these products. Also, avoid bleached flours, even commercial / professional ones.

2. Use instant yeast as follows. Start with water at 110˚F in your measuring cup. Measure it into your work bowl. Add an equal amount of flour by volume. Stir to make a batter. Check the temperature. If the batter is under 100˚F stir in the instant yeast. If you have time, let it sit for 15~30 minutes "autolyse" while the sponge develops. Then mix in salt. Finally mix in a second equal amount of flour.

Here’s how it works: Although you start with 110˚F water, the cold work bowl will cool it a few degrees and the cold flour (from an unheated pantry or unheated cabinet) should cool it some more... hopefully to between 95~100˚F. Letting it sit for an hour gives the yeast a head-start on growing and developing flavors. When you add the salt, the yeast growth will be cut in half, but at this point is should be growing like crazy. Adding the second dose of flour will drop the temperature further to just about right for the initial rise.

3. Use Diamond Crystal kosher salt. This is approximately half as dense as table salt. ALL my recipes are geared for it. If you substitute table salt cut the amount in half. I also recommend this brand because their crystals are essentially hollow and dissolve faster than other brands.

Use the same salt all the time for consistency. Sea salt, for example, varies in salinity depending on where it came from. Israeli salt from the Dead Sea is different from Mediterranean sea salt which is different from Californian sea salt. As nice as sea salts are (and they are the rage these days), take the advice of Chef Michael Ruhlman and stick with kosher salt. As a bread topping, however, you can and should use coarse sea salt so the crytals won't dissolve.

4. Leave yourself reminders so you don’t forget anything or add something twice. Measure yeast and salt out into ramekins on your work surface to remind you to add them. You’ve seen celebrity chefs on TV do this, and it’s for a reason. Later, if they’re empty you’ll know “it’s in there.” When you shape your dough and it is going through the final rise, leave your lame or serrated knife in front of the loaves as a reminder to slash them before they go into the oven. Similarly, put your spray bottle near the oven door as a reminder to spritz.

5. Don’t over-flour. As soon as you go past 2x the volume of water by volume, be very careful to add as little flour as possible. For example, to make a small 2-loaf batch of demis, start with 2 C of water and be very careful once you go past 4 C of flour... using just enough on the outside to permit handling but keeping the inside as wet as possible.

For those of you with a digital scale, use the "bakers percentage" method and weight your ingredients. You want your water between 68~70%. Remember, bakers percentage is not of the total, but of the flour's weight.

6. You can start your dough in a mixer, but finish it by hand. You can add twice as much flour as water by volume (see above) using the paddle on your mixer. After that, turn the dough out and finish it by hand, adding as little additional flour as possible.

7. Don't use a mixer’s dough hook to knead. If you can use the hook without it sticking, you’ve already added too much flour.

8. Never punch your artisan dough down. You can stretch it out and fold it in thirds after each rise. This is called ‘taking a turn on the dough.”

9. Take time. You can hurry things along using a little extra yeast and rising in a warm oven when absolutely necessary, like in class when we have only 2.5 hours, but any other time you should slow things down. This will allow more flavor to develop.

 

 

10. Bake in a hot oven: 450˚F would be a good place to start; I bake artisan breads at 500˚F. If you have a good convection oven you should go 25~50 degrees lower.

11. Bake on a stone. This does several things for you. You don’t even have to put the bread right on the stone to benefit. If you do your final rise on a sheet pan, you can place the pan on top of the stone. The heat from the stone will pass right through the pan into the bread. One of the main benefits from the thermal mass the stone adds to your oven is the ability to open the oven door several times for misting without loosing too much heat. Be sure to pre-heat your stone for a minimum of 45 minutes at temp or for an hour if starting with a cold stone in a cold oven.

I have a #4467 by Old Stone Oven. It is 14x16” and cost around $35 locally. Amazon has them for $42 with free shipping. I keep it in the bottom of my oven when I’m baking breads.

Be careful lining your oven with products that are not food-grade. You don’t want something in your oven that’s out-gassing vapors from a heavy metal like lead or mercury!

12. Use semolina or flour to prevent sticking. Cornmeal burns at too low a temperature to be useful with artisan baking and should be avoided. I use semolina under my dough whether I’m baking on parchment, a baking sheet, in a cast iron skillet, or directly on the stone. Flour works, but I don't like a coating on the bottom of my loaves and semolina is easier to brush off.

13. Always slash your bread just before it goes into the oven. This gives it a place to expand in the oven (called “oven spring”) without cracking somewhere else where it would be less attractive. Use a sharp serrated knife for slashing if you don’t have a “lame, “ and do it with very fast strokes to prevent the knife from sticking to the dough and pulling it instead of cutting. Slashes don't need to be deep; a quarter inch is fine.

14. Spray your loaves several times: right before they go into the oven, and 2 or 3 more times at 2~3 minute intervals. This prevents a crust from forming and allows the “oven spring” to max out before the yeast is killed by the rising temperature in the dough. If you want to turn the pan to spray the far side be sure to do so gently until the dough has set.

I usually preheat a cast iron skillet on a rack near the top of the oven and boil water in a kettle on the stove just before baking. When the bread goes into the oven, the hot water goes into the skillet. This provides several minutes of intense steam and eliminates the need to open the door to spray. For even more and longer lasting steam, fill your skillet with clean lava rocks. You can get these at Walmart for about $4 for a 6# bag (enough to share with a couple of friends). Be VERY CAREFUL when performing this step, and wear long oven mits.

15. Allow your breads to cool before cutting into them. The cooking process does not end when your breads come out of the oven. The steam trapped by the crust will continue cooking your dough for some time, and if you cut into the hot dough the steam will escape and that cooking process will be terminated prematurely.

16. Once you’ve mastered the above, experiment with pre-ferments. I typically mix water and flour in equal amounts by volume for a loose pre-ferment called a Poolish. I mix in a very small amount of yeast to this, like a quarter teaspoon. The poolish sits on the counter at room temperature overnight and becomes the basis for the next day’s bread. This technique was developed by Polish bakers who taught the French how to make bread ... not that they’d ever admit it! They still call their pre-ferment a poolish, and you can guess where that came from! The only difference between my French and Italian pre-ferment is that I usually add a small amount of rye when I’m making rustic Italian bread to give it a little more flavor.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

© 2011 D. K. Dickey - All Rights Reserved