Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Partial "How To Bake a Loaf of Hearth Bread" at Home Tutorial

I was going to post about my reaction to Paul Deen's announcement that she has Type-2 diabetes, but instead opted to do something positive and antithetical to the dangerous style of cooking that has made her rich and, very possibly, sick.

The bread in the video is a variation of something that I've been making weekly since about 1999. It "starts" with wet starter that I keep in the refrigerator until I'm ready to bake. I don't keep close track of the age of my starters, but I think this one is about two years old. The starter is usually a mixture of whole rye and wheat flour, wheat berries, flax seeds and, of course, well water. Sometimes I rebuild it with more of all of the solid components. Other times, I'll use just one or something completely different like durum wheat flour. This week I rebuilt it with rye flour and wheat berries.

After an initial feeding, I let the starter ferment for about 8 hours before feeding it again, and then letting it go until the yeast and bacteria start making a ruckus. This later stage can take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours depending on a host of variables too numerous to mention.

Once the starter is cranking, I'll mix in the flour and water that will form the bulk of the finished bread, let it "autolyse" (absorb the water) for 30 minutes or so before adding the salt. I usually knead it with the dough hook in my mixer then let it proof for anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. I stop the proofing when I think the "nose" or smell is where I want it to be and, of course, when I think the yeast and bacteria have produced sufficient gas to give the dough a good rise in the oven (oven spring).

Here is a "crumb" shot of the finished bread. Notice the whorl in the lower portion of the loaf? That is a clear indication that the crust hardened before the dough had finished rising in the oven. I'm not sure why this happened but I suspect it was caused by one or more of the following factors.

  1. The water that I added to the oven dried evaporated before the bottom of the bread finished expanding 
  2. The dough was too cold before I put it in the oven
  3. The oven was not hot enough
Water is added to the oven, in part, to keep the crust soft while the dough expands. If the water gives out too soon, the crust hardens inhibiting further expansion of the interior.
If the second instance the nethermost interior of dough that is too cold will not heat before the crust hardens. So any expansion of gases that occurs, happens too late to cause much inflation of the gluten cells.
Finally, if the oven is not hot enough (especially the floor of the oven) the crust will harden before the interior is heated sufficiently to cause expansion of the gluten cells.
Of course, this loaf is perfectly edible and I'm only mildly chagrined that it did not leaven perfectly. Hell, you can't nail a recipe every time you make it. Especially when you ware only doing it once a week with nonprofessional equipment and kids and dogs and other agents of chaos. 


JB said...

For a hobby baker with a gas oven, can you please talk about how you keep the oven nice and humid during baking? Bake in a dutch oven, ice cubes, cover the vents? What do you recommend?


Bob delGrosso said...

Great question. I've been baking at home for about 30 years and over the course of that time have tried and abandoned the following methods for creating humidity during the initial phase of baking hearth bread
1) spraying with a water
2) soaking the baking stone/ bricks
3) Placing a tray of water on the oven floor
4) putting wet rags in a tray
5) ice cubes in a tray
Nowadays I put a sheet pan on the top rack and let it heat up with the stone to 550 deg F. Then, after I slide the bread onto the stone I pour 12 ounces of hot tap water onto the pan and shut the door. After the water is gone (about 12-15 minutes), oven spring is done and the starch in the crust is gelled, I back the oven down to 350 to finish baking.

It's not perfect, but it gives the best results of any of the other methods I've tried. BTW, the WORST method is spraying the water because it causes the oven walls to warp.