I understand everything.Posted: May 31, 2011
I don’t know if I really understand this topic better than others, but I think that I find it more interesting than some people. I certainly do it more than a lot of people. And really, I understand this particular essay as an opportunity to write about something I’ve often thought about and, yes, have written essays about in my head when I’ve been bored.
This year I probably baked more bread than I bought. Although I was already somewhat experienced in bread-baking, I didn’t really start to love it until this year. I found I did some of my best thinking while kneading a loaf of bread. But the best part by far is the science behind it. I’m more of an artsy Arts and Science student, so my understanding isn’t really that technical; even though I know the basic idea behind what’s happening, it still always seems a little bit like magic.
While the bread rises, the yeast feeds on the sugars in the dough and releases carbon dioxide as waste. By kneading the dough, one develops the glutens; which is to say that the protein structure of the bread is altered. The proteins join together and lengthen the dough, creating an elastic dough which expands to contain the carbon dioxide rather than allowing it escape. Thus bread is made of yeast-burps (or farts, and I can’t believe I was brave enough to ‘publish’ that).
To get to that point, there is some voodoo involved. Rarely do recipes give an exact flour amount, rather they give a range of something like 3-4 cups (for a single-loaf recipe). Cup measurements are often eschewed in the professional baking world, since weight measurements are more consistently the same. Thus three cups may be enough one day, and another day four may be necessary. Temperature and humidity can also affect the amount of flour needed. Other inexact terminology such as ‘lukewarm water’ may be used, but now recipes will often provide a temperature. I think 110 degrees F is appropriate although I don’t know for sure, I usually feel it with my index finger.
Rising time of the dough is less dependent on the baker, and more on the ingredients and atmosphere. Heat and sugar encourage yeast growth, while salt and fat inhibit rising. The more intense bread bakers say that slow-rise breads are superior to quick rise. Slow risen-breads are often made using a colder temperature at rise, and/or a pre-ferment such as a poolish. Depending on your preference, forcing the yeast to work at a slower pace either changes or enhances the flavour of the final product. Think sourdough: a classic pre-ferment which has a distinctly different flavour from other breads. Myself, I like to make slow rise breads for the challenge, but I’m not always patient enough to commit to the multiple-day process.
Earlier this year, I attempted to bake sourdough bread for the second time in my life. The first wasn’t a total failure, nor a complete success. Still, of all the breads that I have made, sourdough is probably the coolest. Essentially a starter of flour and water is used to catch wild yeast in the air. For about a week one feeds the starter more flour and water so the yeast colony grows large enough to be made into bread. It’s like having a pet. It’s also like growing bacteria in petrie dishes. Something my 9-year-old self found very intriguing. The most fascinating thing about this process is that in different regions of the world there are different kinds of wild yeast living in the air. This means that depending on where the starter is made, the taste will vary accordingly. So San Francisco sourdough is really only the true thing if it was made in San Francisco.
I could go on and on about the different types of bread and methods of making it, and the pros and cons of each. But I won’t. I will say (write?) that despite its imprecise ingredient list, bread is not that difficult to make successfully. Certainly, beginners should start simple, such as with this recipe from Betty Crocker, but most new skill sets must be learnt from the bottom up. And in this case, I have to say the reward of fresh, warm bread from the oven really outweighs any hard work or failure along the way.