An Introduction to Bread Making

Bread Worth Getting to Know / Love / Eat

Leaven, which some deem the soul of bread, the spiritus which fills its cellular tissue, which is religiously preserved like the vestal fire — some precious bottleful, I suppose, first brought over in the Mayflower, did the business for America, and its influence is still rising, swelling, spreading, in cerealian billows over the land — Henry David Thoreau

Bread has many faces and likewise many, varied appraisals. In the contemporary west, where we find breads lining the shelves of long shopping aisles, packaged, soft, rife with additives, and more glutenous than a human intestine can shake a stick at, bread is deemed an unhealthy (and kind of boring,) facet of modern diets. In this incarnation, rightly so. If you’re counting calories or trying to eat consciously, you’ll find it’s near impossible to justify a serving of typical, store bought bread when the sugars and added ingredients of these soft, rectangular varieties are often through the roof. Conversely, recent writings examining the world’s healthiest regions can scarcely avoid mentioning bread. It’s inarguably a dietary staple of many European and notably Mediterranean regions that infamously live enviously long and healthy lives peppered with joie de vivre

The heart of this potentially tasty, toasty story is this: When you think of bread, if you picture the soft, mono-toned, fluffy stuff sliced up in bags, you’re doing yourself a disservice.These commercial breads are made to rise as quickly as possible, skimping out on many of the best flavors and textures that come with proper time to ferment. They’re also typically extremely glutenous due to highly processed and genetically modified wheat, which has likely contributed to the rise of gluten intolerance in recent years. They’re highly caloric, difficult to digest, and almost always made with sugar. If, instead, when you think of bread, you picture rich, crusty, lightly sour loaves with lots of personality, crisp on the outside and spongey, airy and full of complexity on the inside, you’re leveling up your life-satisfaction rating, scooping up some of that cherished and oh-so-healthy joie de vivre, and scoring yourself a slice of something nutritious.

Though rather oblivious in my early days, living in France for several years inevitably lead to bread’s slow but deliberate (much like my current husband’s,) move into my life. At first it was there one or twice a week, then it was there nearly every day, then before I’d realized what was happening he’d moved out of his apartment and into mine.

Crusty, artisanal bread was as much a part of my life as morning tea. When Alban and I moved to mainland USA together from Dijon, the lack of artisanal and traditional style breads was a difficult schism to hurdle, one that was particularly painful for my French husband.

While old world, rustic breads are affordable and easy to find abroad, here in the US they’re elusive, (even at local bakeries you’re more likely to find breads made with commercial yeasts,) and off-the-charts expensive. ($10.00+ a loaf, you gotta be kidding!)

A common misconception about bread is that it has a lot of ingredients and is complicated to make. This is an easy mistake to make considering the labels of the packaged breads at the grocery store are lengthly paragraphs of additives, enriched flour, sugar, and who the heck knows what. Bread, in reality, only has 4 ingredients: Flour, water, salt and time. When a bread is given ample time to ferment, populate with wild yeast, rise, and develop its flavors slowly, you create a natural and personality-rich food that is vastly easier to digest, much more nutritious, and with a lower glycemic index than its highly processed, alien derivative of the modern world. Perhaps coolest of all: every bread you make is effected by the season, the flora of your house, the time of day, the temperature of your kitchen, (probably even more subtle things like your mood, body temperature, etc.) making every loaf totally unique to you and the time and place it was baked. Your bread has a terroir and a vintage! -Plus the kudos you get when you a bring a loaf to a dinner party are sky high. 

Here I’ve outlined the basic process of making a native yeast bread. The recipe used is from Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, which can give you a much more in depth look into this world as well as many other recipes for whole wheats, walnut breads, pizza doughs, etc. 

To jump in right here you’ll need to already have a live levain either active in your kitchen or stored in your fridge. If you don’t have your own levain yet but want to embark on wild yeast bread making, you can use a sour dough starter and/or google the process for lots of help on making your own levain! It’s like a little yeast buddy who lives in your fridge that you break out whenever you’re ready to bake. 

First stock up on your necessary tools and ingredients:

What you’ll need:

Day 1: Reviving your levain

Our levain is lovingly named Hal (after I once dreamt he’d become sentient and we needed to secretly conspire to destroy him,) and he’s been the heart and soul of our household’s bread for almost two years now. Knowing that he carries a little bit of every loaf we’ve ever made, even our very first, and has changed with seasons, weather, places we’ve moved, and even the flora of our kitchen, gives the bread we make a spirit and complexity that only certain, soulful and properly ripened foods have: think wine, cheese, charcuterie, etc. 

Starting your first, wild and native yeast levain takes some time and work, but if you’re ready to give it a try, I’ll be posting the step by step process soon and linking it here. 

Plan Ahead: Patience and time are the essential ingredients of good bread, so consider them a part of recipe. When you first take your levain out of the fridge, know you’ll be doing so 2 days before the day you actually bake the loaves. You’ll need to wait 24 hours before its next feeding, so keep that in mind so you can plan for the time of day you’ll be available the following day. After its second feeding, you’ll mix the dough for your bread 7-9 hours later.

An example schedule for baking could be:

  • Reviving your levain at 9am on Friday
  • Feeding it at 9am on Saturday
  • Mixing the dough around 7pm Saturday night
  • Folding the loaves around 7-9am Sunday morning
  • Baking about 4 hours later, Sunday afternoon

Weigh and write down the weight of your empty, 6 qt mixing tub. You’ll need to know this number when you you feed the levain tomorrow, so make sure you keep this info someplace you can find it! If you’ve forgotten, our Cambro 6 qt tub weighs 421g.

Pour off any liquid that will have settled over the levain. If it’s hungry and needs to be fed, the liquid may have turned grayish or even almost black. Don’t worry, this is normal, but take it as a sign you should either feed the levain or bake soon. Mix the levain briefly with a spoon, as you’ll notice what’s at the bottom of the jar will be thicker and more glutenous than what’s at the top, and then spoon 100 grams into your smaller mixing bin. Allow 30 minutes to an hour for it to come to room temperature before mixing.

Now add 50 grams of whole wheat flour, 200 grams of white flour, and 200 grams of 95°F water. Wet your hand and mix until just incorporated. Here’s a trick: wet your opposite hand and use it to carefully scrape off the dough that will be stuck to each of your fingers – you’ll want to keep as much of the dough in the bin as possible! 

Now cover loosely (so that air and gas can escape,) and set your happily fed levain in a warmish area, (around 70°F,) and do your best to forget about it until the following day, when you’ll feed it around the same time.

Day 2 pt 1: Feeding your levain

The day before you plan to bake, you’ll need to feed your levain 7-9 hours before you mix the dough for its overnight fermentation. If you have a sentimental attachment to your levain, (it’s pretty much inevitable,) there’s a small heartbreak involved in this step, so be prepared!

Your levain this morning should be in full bloom: tripled in size and smelling fruity, leathery, with just a bit of alcohol. Taste a little! Acidic, rich, and ripe like the sourest sour of the best sourdough. I love this flavor. I think I was once a little shy or even squeamish about tasting it, but now that I know what to expect and I love tasting our levain. Its changed every time based on season, temperature, how long he’s been hibernating, and what kinds of yeasts may have been in our kitchen and on our hands when we first revived it. This unique personality is what makes our bread ours, and your bread yours!

The first step is to remove and discard (heart break, I told you!) all but 50-85g of your beautiful levain. Yup, just toss the grand majority of it into the trash. This is why you’ll need to know the weight of your empty bin, so you can place it on the scale and scoop out the levain until you’ve reached the empty bin’s weight + 50-85g. In the winter when it’s colder and if you plan to mix your dough in about 7 hours, you can get away with leaving a little more in the tub so that the levain metabolizes faster. In the summer and if your kitchen is warm, or if you plan to mix closer to 9 hours from now, leave less so that it metabolizes more slowly.

About 55g remaining in the tub

Now feed the remaining levain in your tub (it won’t look like much!) with another 50g of whole wheat flour, 200g of white flour, and 200g of 85-90° water. Mix by hand until incorporated. You’ll notice the dough this time is extra sticky, and half of it will be clinging to your hand instead of resting in the tub. Wet your opposite hand and squeeze the mixture off each finger, keeping as much in the tub where it belongs.

Once again, cover the mixture loosely with a dish towel or with the lid (so that air can enter and gas can escape,) and set the levain in a warmish area until you’re ready to mix. 

Day 2 pt 2: Mixing the dough and making the bread

If all has gone well, 7-9 hours after the second feeding, your levain should be back to its glorious self again, full of bubbles and metabolizing heartily. Amazing! It’s time now to dig and make some actual bread. Do this in the evening, timing it so that you’ll be available to shape loaves roughly 12 – 14 hours later and be home to bake another 4 hours after that. 

This basic recipe is for a blonde, traditional, crusty country loaf. It’s a good starting recipe to learn with and a reliable crowd pleaser, so a recipe we turn to again and again. Your ratio of whole wheat, white, and rye flour all depends on you, your particular craving this time around, and your recipe. Your flour proportions change how much water you need: Higher proportions of whole wheat tend to need more water than white, and can effect the correct amount of levain to mix in.

Crusty Country Loaf:

  • 800g of white flour
  • 50g of rye flour
  • 25g of whole wheat flour
  • 680g of water
  • 15-17g of salt

Autolease: Now working with your large, 12 qt tub, combine the white, whole wheat, and rye flours, and mix by hand until combined. Then, carefully and using your scale, add your 680g of ~90°F water and combine with a free hand using a mixing, scraping, and squishing motion. Wet your opposite hand and scrap the dough of your fingers. Cover the tub lightly and set aside to autolease for 30 minutes. This allows the flour to soak up the moisture and get ready for work.

Add your salt and active levain: After the auto lease, fill a small bowl with a finger depth of warm water and place it on your scale, zeroing it out. Scoop out some of your active levain and plop 200g into the water. The amount of levain you’ll need can be lower in a hot kitchen and higher in a cold kitchen again, which effects how quickly your dough will ferment. You’ll learn the best numbers for you, your house, and your levain after a few tries. Once weighed, carefully lift the 200g, taking as little water with you as possible, and drop it into your 12 qt mixing tub with the dough.

Sprinkle the 15-17g of salt over the dough and then, using a wet hand, fold the dough: pulling one edge of the blob up and away and then folding it over itself, rolling it over, and repeating multiple times until you can feel that the mixture is completely combined. 

Dough folding is not dough pounding or kneading. You actually want to be fairly gentle with the gasses rising in the dough, (preserve those bubbles!) and to not tear the gluten strands unnecessarily. Allow it to hold together and harbor gas while using folding, (literally grabbing a hand full, pulling it up and away from the main blob until you feel some resistance, and then folding it down on top of itself,) which retains a better structure for your finished bread.

Folding: You can find youtube videos of this, so I highly recommend taking a look before giving it a try! Your dough should be folded 3 or 4 times before you let is ferment over night. I like to set my kitchen timer for 20 minute increments and get through all 4, usually undergoing the whole process after way too much procrastination and finishing the last fold just as I get ready for bed, but with a little luck you’ll find yourself a better time budgeter than I!

Relaxed dough before a fold

For each fold, you’ll find that the dough has relaxed and spread out in its tub. Wet your working hand and holding the edge of the tub with your opposite. Reach in and grab a handful, pull it away from the main blob until you feel light resistance, (don’t tear it!) then fold what you have over on top of the remaining dough. Turn the bin and do it from another angle. Work around the dough this way for about 30 seconds and you’ll notice the dough has tightened up. When you’ve finished, you should have a ball in the bottom of your bin instead of a soft pancake. It will begin relaxing immediately, which is normal. Repeat the process 3-4 times in the first hour of fermentation, then cover, say a prayer to the wild yeast in the room, and go to bed! 

Tightened dough immediately after folding

Day 3: Shaping the loaves

Lo and behold, this morning the dough in your bin should have grown substantially! When it’s tippled in size and looks full of gas, about 12-14 hours since you first added your levain, it’s ready to be shaped into loaves. Time to don your apron and flour a large working surface and two proofing baskets.

Gently tip the tub and, using a floured hand, coax the dough out and onto the floured surface. You want to do as little tearing of the gluten strands as possible and keep those bubbles in there, so gently scrape and dust the edge that’s pulling away from the bottom of the tub with flour until you’ve at last persuaded the (delicious smelling) glob out before you. Shape it lightly into a somewhat symmetrical form so that you can calculate the center and where to cut. Flour what you decide is the center line, then use the dough cutter to slice the mass into two, roughly equal portions.

Shaping the loaves

The goal is to shape each loaf into a tight ball, full of air like a balloon, and smooth on the top like a baby’s bottom. To do this, start first by folding the dough several times like you do in the tub, tightening it up. Grab a piece and pull it up and away, then fold it over. Turn the ball, and repeat. Once the loaf is tightened, roll it over so it’s sitting on the side with all the folds, plop it about 12 inches away from you on the cutting board, and gently drag it towards you. Try this a few times and observe what happens! The goal here is to tighten the ball, smoothing out the surface of the dough. Dragging it towards you across the flour surface or cutting board should help roll the ball tightly and pull the outer layer of dough to the underside, making a smooth little nugget. This is of course best explained visually, so check out some youtube videos of shaping your loaves.

Proofing: 

Once tight and smooth, (you should feel like you have a little round air balloon,) gently lift the ball and drop it in its proofing basket. Follow suit with your second loaf. Cover each basket with a clean dish towel and place them side by side in a warmish area. Proofing should take about 4 hours, so about 3 hours and 15 minutes in, it’s a good idea to begin preheating your oven (and dutch oven, placed on the middle rack,) to 475° F.

To test if your loaves are ready to bake, lightly flour a spot on the loaf and poke it with your finger. If it springs back right away, the loaves aren’t ready yet. If it doesn’t spring back at all, alas, you’ve over proofed! (You can still bake and they’ll taste great, they’ll be more sour and flatter loaves.) If it springs back about half way, you’re right on the money.

Carefully (meaning with some thick oven mitts, this thing is hot!) remove your dutch oven and have it open and ready for a loaf. Gently flip a proofing basket upside-down on your floured cutting board so the loaf plops out, gather it up in your hands, guarding as much of the gas in it as possible, and drop it into the dutch oven. Cover, and return to the oven. Now bake for 30 minutes at 475°. Store your second loaf (unless you have two dutch ovens, in which case you can bake both at the same time,) in the fridge so it doesn’t over proof while it waits for its turn.

When the timer buzzes, open the dutch oven lid and bake for about 8-15 minutes longer until you have rich, dark, umber color to your crust.

Using your oven mitts, carefully remove the dutch oven and turn it over over your cutting board, letting the finished loaf drop out. Prop it up against something, (I use the proofing baskets,) to allow it to cool on its side. This is important! Leaving the bread flat will steam the bottom of the bread, setting it up to collapse, (leaving you with a flat loaf,) and a potentially chewy or soggy bottom.

And voila! If you’ve persevered these three days, in other words, had the courage to press on even when you think surely you’ve done something wrong, you will have baked your first loaf. Repeat the process with your second loaf waiting patiently for you in the refrigerator. Allow the bread to have fully cooled, propped up on its side, before cutting the first slice. Enjoy with olive oil, salt, your favorite cheese and/or your favorite people.

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