Grandma could never stress the following 4 things enough when baking bread.
It really helps to know and understand the following:
The quality of your ingredients
The proportions of your ingredients
Making time work for you, not against you
And from all the above all, understand your oven
1. Quality of Ingredients
When she spoke about the quality of ingredients, she didn’t just mean the flour, although obviously the quality of flour was paramount in her books. Flour had to come from a reputable source. She was also just as concerned about the quality of the yeast. Old yeast was no good, and natural levain/sourdough had to be nurtured properly.
Dry yeast has a tolerable shelf life, but if it’s been sitting in your cupboard for a number of years, I suggest you toss it and get some new. As for natural levain, yes, I have learned the hard way. If you feed your starter once in a blue moon, its power to raise the tide on the dough is negligible. A heavy brick of a bread is usually the result. Natural levain is totally dependant on regular refreshment and nurturing. I actually had a really interesting discussion about this with Steve Scott at Babette’s Artisan Bakery in Denver last year when I went to visit my sister there, which I wrote about in Bread Magazine “It’s All About the Ferment” (issue 20 – if you are reading this before January 31, 2017 send me an email via my contact page to get discount code for the purchase of issue 20). Mastering the quality of your ferment is key to the success of the bread you bake.
It goes without saying that clean water is a must. I’m not saying that tap water is a no no. The litmus test is: “if you can’t drink the water, then you shouldn’t use it in your baking either”.
Last but not least, salt should be as they say kosher. The purpose of salt is not just to flavour the bread, it also helps control yeast activity. Meaning, what is also important in this instance is “when” you put the salt into your dough mixture. Grandma’s method was was to add the salt last. She must have been learned this instinctively over many years of baking. I have also noted that many old fashioned sourdough recipes always add salt in the end, meaning autolyse and all such stuff which is much discussed today was often understood but not specifically articulated as it is now. I now know that salt has the ability to retard yeast activity. So if you put the salt too early into your dough mix, you are preventing the yeast cells from doing their work as efficiently as they could. By putting the salt in at a later stage the flour has a better opportunity of absorbing the water and activating the yeast cells to do the job they are supposed to do. The retarding capacity of salt becomes good at a later stage because good flavour is developed with time and not speed. One of the reasons why commercially leavened breads are pretty tasteless is because they are done at great speeds to reap better profits for the commercial bakers’ purse at, dare I say, the cost of your/our digestive system and taste palate.
2. Proportions of your ingredients
Grandma wasn’t familiar with the bakers’ percentage formula, which I love to use these days, but she sure as heck was adamant about using a particular cup and no other when measuring ingredients for baking. Her measures may have been volumetric
(which I don’t like to use since the day I discovered the bakers’ percentage formula and started to to weigh everything properly – bakers’ percentage is explained in the first issue of Bread Magazine and is available to download for free if you are interested, alternatively you can book a BreadCoaching workshop with me via my contact page and I will help you discover how you can make any bread and not even worry about having a recipe once you grasp the concept behind it)
but because she was savvy enough to realise that not all cups were created equal she always stuck to the same cup. No-one would dare challenge her fury if that cup went missing. I on the other hand challenge anyone to substitute one cup of whole wheat flour to one cup of plain flour and expect the quantity to be the same when weighed! Or a teaspoonful of sea salt to be the same as a teaspoonful of flaked salt, get my point? Different ingredients have different weights plus different individuals will pack the same product into the same cup in a different way, meaning that there is no uniformity to the end result and why some people end up baking better than others. Whereas, if you become consistent, then the element of getting it wrong is reduced. My element of failure is sometimes tested by forgetting to do something like leaving the yeast out – ooh yes I’m thoroughly guilty of that when distracted!
The success of Grandma’s breads relied on the use of consistent proportions.
If you are interested in getting my Bakers’ Percentage Cheat Sheet, click here and I will share my PDF template with you for free.
3. Make Time work for you, not against you
It was Grandma’s favourite thing to say: “Make time work for you, not against you”.
By this she meant that with a little forward planning, she could leave her bread dough to do its magic by itself, whilst she attended to other chores around the place. Admittedly she did do a little bit of kneading in the beginning but that was about it. She would knock back the dough in between, but the old fashioned term “to knock back the dough” is a bit misleading because this is actually quite violent, she never punched back the dough out of all its air. You don’t knock back all that beautiful volume of gas the dough has managed to build into itself because that is what actually is the architectural structure of the bread. When the bread has risen to a desired height, at best you just gently degas this in order to shape it for the final proof.
Grandma used to start the breads in the morning and bake them later in the day after she’d finished her other chores, she certainly had no time to hover over the dough! My favourite way of making time work for me and not against me is to simply sleep on it! I like to prep my breads early evening and once they’ve had their structural architectural folds I leave the dough to ferment overnight in a covered plastic box, here down under definitely in the fridge when the summer heat is hitting and pushing the mercury to its hilt. This way, whilst I sleep the dough is left to work its own magic, then I do the shaping and baking the next day. While my oven warms up, the dough is doing its final proof.
4. The Oven
Seriously, you don’t need any fancy equipment (except good scales, they are worth an investment and digital ones are very affordable these days) all the above so far can be done in inexpensive plastic tubs with lids and your own hands – you definitely do not need machines with dough hooks to make basic bread, as I’ve shown in my BreadCoaching workshops to date. Same goes for the oven. Any domestic oven will do, the key is to understand the heating capacity of your oven and to employ some other tricks which Grandma had up her sleeve. Preheating is important, in order to allow the heat to build up in the oven – and most baking recipes start with the words: “pre-heat your oven to x” don’t they?
Grandma used to preheat the oven with her heavy cast iron pot inside it, usually before she started to shape the bread for its final proof. When the oven and pot was hot enough, the bread would be sufficiently proofed, she had this timing down to an art form (over proofed bread…. well that’s another story for another time). She would take the pot out, remove the lid, gently tip the bread loaf from its basket into the pot, seam side up. Place the lid back on and return the pot back into the oven for 20 mins.
What this technique effectively does is to create a humid and moist environment for the bread dough to bake in. It helps the dough to spring up – this is called ‘oven spring’ – without the crust becoming too burnt or too thick.
After 20 mins she would remove the lid from the pot, drop the oven temperature slightly and leave the bread to bake another 20 mins. How much one needs to drop the oven temperature will depend on individual ovens, which is why it is important to understand your oven’s idiosyncracies. By using this method the bread would get baked nice and even and have a beautiful golden brown caramelised crust.
Grandma’s method of using a cast iron pot with a lid to bake her bread is referred to baking in a cloche by the French, there is nothing novel about it, what is more important is being aware of this technique which can be used now as it was then. Basic good bread is totally achievable once you know what is at stake:
- using good quality ingredients (preferably sustainable)
- not messing with your measures but being consistent
- making time work for you, not against you
- knowing & understanding your oven
If you have any further Grandma crumbs of wisdom to add here, do share in the comments!