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Georgia's State Flags,
Home of Good Eats
and Myself

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Dr. Strangeloaf

Harry's Farmers Market

    Ahh, fresh baked bread. Crusty on the outside, fragrant, yielding yet chewy on the inside. Tangy. Buttery. Earthy. You know, I don't care what those armies of carbo-phobes chant;  bread is the ultimate comfort food—perhaps, the ultimate food, period. Admit it. Right now, you're drooling like one of Pavlov's pooches, aren't you? And why not? Consuming a hand-crafted bread is one of life's great primal pleasures. And if you ask me, so is the act of baking it.
    Now, bread may be pretty simple stuff. But as is usually the case with simple things, every little detail counts. Of course, if you happen to find yourself armed with a few decent tools, some tried and true techniques, and a handful of carefully chosen groceries, you could soon be filling your home with the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked bread, and your tummy with seriously ...

Harry's Farmers Market: Alpharetta, GA - 8:35 am

    Say, have you ever wondered what craft bakers put inside their mouth-watering wares? Let's have a look, shall we?

    On average, we're talking about 50% flour, 30% water, maybe 2% salt and yeast combined, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 15% air.

Flour 50%
Water 30%
Air 15%
Salt & Yeast 2%

    Other ingredients—fat, milk, sugar, nuts, and berries and the like—can come and go at the baker's whim. But if one of these [above ingredients] goes missing, there will be no bread. Now, let's shop, shall we?
    Although I keep all-purpose, whole-wheat, and pastry flour perpetually on hand, today we will concern ourselves exclusively with bread flour. Now what signifies a flour as bread flour? A very high protein content. A protein content that requires the milling of hard, or strong wheat.
    Now, to better understand what this means, let's take a look at a wheat kernel. [holds up a single wheat kernel to a magnifying glass, we can't see much] It's not very visual, is it? [a model space shuttle flies by, he catches it] Now I realize that this isn't actually a wheat kernel. But believe it or not, the basic architecture and proportions are the same as a wheat kernel. The outer skin is the bran coat. We'll say that the fuel tanks are the endosperm. And the shuttle itself? Well, that's the germ of the kernel. That actually holds the DNA and most of the fat. And given the opportunity, this is the thing that sprouts forth. [opens the top of the model, and removes a vine containing leaves] Sort of, kind of, like this, sort of.
    Anyway, whole wheat flours contain a good bit of the bran and almost all of the germ. Since the germ contains fat, that means that whole wheat flours can go rancid unless they're kept refrigerated. Now, all-purpose flours and regular bread flours don't contain much of the germ. They're mostly all about the endosperm which is loaded with fuel in the form of starch. But those flours also have a good bit of protein, especially bread flours a lot of protein. And that protein comes in the form of two different structures. One's called gliadin, the other glutenin. When mixed together in the proper way, they form something called gluten, which is a stretchy kind of substance that makes yeast breads possible. So, it makes sense that the harder or higher protein a wheat kernel is, then the higher protein the flour is going to be and the easier and better the bread-making is going to be. See you later, big guy. [let's the shuttle swing from the strings it was on]

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Yeast Sock Puppets

    Since it makes up about half of the average dough's weight, water deserves careful consideration here. Now, municipal hydro is laced with chlorine which kills microscopic organisms, right? Now that's a good thing, most of the time. But we are going to be baking with microscopic organisms—yeast—and we'd like to keep them alive until we're ready for them not to be alive. Besides chlorine, of course, mineral content, or water hardness, is a factor in bread baking. Generally speaking, harder waters are better for bread than distilled water or water that has been treated with residential softening equipment, which often employ a lot of sodium. My advice? Let your bread-bound aqua percolate through a charcoal-based filtration system. I'm partial to the pitcher style, myself. Or you can use plain old mineral water. Just steer clear of the distilled stuff.

Distilled water has been boiled into steam, then condensed
back into water and collected in a purer form.

    Real bread is always leavened by gases created by unicellular fungi called yeast.

YEAST: [rise up at the bottom of the screen and begin to belch]

    Yeast converts sugar into carbon dioxide, alcohol, acid, and a few dozen other compounds. In fact, that's all yeast do. Besides make little yeast ... asexually.

YEAST: Huh? What? What? [yeast puppets gasp, and turn around, as if surprise]
AB: Sorry.
YEAST: [resume belching]

    These yeast-ly activities are referred to as fermentation, and were discovered by one of the top-ten most important people of all time, Louis Pasteur! ... [opens a mini-shrine to Pasteur, everyone applauds] ... who was also responsible for pasteurization.

AB: But don't worry. That's another show.
YEAST: [resume belching]

    Now, back before baker's yeast became available in the 20th century, bakers had to either buy yeast from brewers or capture and cultivate wild yeast in sourdough starters.

AB: [grabs a yeast puppet, and struggles with it] Well, not exactly like this! [falls to the floor fighting with them]

    Mix together some water and flour in a nice big, clean jar or bowl, and just leave it laying around, preferably on a porch, or by an open window. You'll see, in no time, some wild yeast will come right on by. Here comes some wild yeast now.

YEAST: [sniffing water and flour mixture] Mmmm. That's good.
AB: Hey guys, jump in! The slurry's warm.
YEAST: Okay! [they jump in splashing AB]

    Keep stirring and feeding your starter, and in a few days you'll have yourself a nice colony of healthy yeast, ready and willing to give any bread a lift. But what makes sourdough starters really special, is that wild yeast usually travel in the company of bacteria ...

BACTERIA: [approach the slurry, examine it and jump in, AB is again splashed]

    ... Lactobacillus, to be exact. Different strains of yeast and bacteria live in different parts of the country and they each have their own distinct flavor. So, San Francisco sourdough isn't famous simply because it's got a good marketing plan. It's because Lactobacillus sanfrancisco lives only in the Bay area, and has a very distinct flavor. Other regions, from Italy to Tasmania, have their particular micro fauna and therefore, their own sourdough flavors.
    Now, since wild yeast can live in very acidic environments, and since the bacteria living there keeps other unwelcome bacteria ...

BACTERIA: [tastes the slurry and falls dead]

    I guess he didn't like the taste. See, they keep other ones out. See how that works? Carefully managed starters can last indefinitely, but keeping up with one is a good bit of work. Kind of like having a pet that you raise and feed and take care of, and then bake and eat. [takes off wet glasses] Excuse me.

A bakery in France claims to have been using
the same starter since the time of Napoleon.

The Kitchen

    [holding a flask of liquid, and raising it to his lips] Finally, I'll be as perky as Rachel Ra ... [notices he's back on camera and puts the flask down]
    Baker's yeast comes in several forms. Fresh—or cake yeast—is wide awake, ready to go, and packed away in this nice, big, moist, food block. It's a favorite among professionals. But it's hard to find, and dies very quickly, even in the refrigerator. It's not so popular with me.
    Then there's good old dry, active yeast, which isn't really active at all. In fact, it's mostly dead. Let's just take a look here in the microscope and you'll see these tiny, extruded rods are composed of tightly masked clusters of dead yeast cells each of which entombed in an even smaller cluster of dormant, but living cells. Okay? Now since the dead cells have to be washed away in order for this yeast to do its business, you've got to soak this, or proof it, in warm water before adding it to the rest of the bread recipe. And that could be kind of a pain. And since the living population here is so small, it takes a really, really long time to bring up a loaf of bread, because they've got to replicate. Takes a really long time in the rise.
    To get around this, we can use instant, or "rapid-rise" yeast, which looks almost exactly the same. [looks at the microscopic picture] Yes, it does look exactly the same. But it's dried in a kinder, gentler way, so there are more cells actually alive. This yeast can be added directly to dry ingredients without proofing, and that is a very good thing indeed. The problem here is that these yeast work so quickly that they can rise a loaf before the dough has time to really develop any kind of flavor or texture. But, it doesn't have to be that way.
   Here we have the ingredients that might go into an ordinary, everyday loaf of bread. We have ten ounces of filtered water, one pound of bread flour, one teaspoon of instant yeast, and two teaspoons each kosher salt and honey. Now, if you've done any baking at home, your instinct would probably be to put these all together, into a big bowl, mix them, then knead them, let that rise, punch it down, you let it rise again, and then bake it. This is called the "straight dough" method. Where did you get this idea? Books. Problem is, sometimes, books get in the way.
    What I think is a better way of going is a way we can get a more extraordinary texture and flavor is to split our ingredients into two separate procedures.

    Procedure 1 is called a "pre-ferment" or a sponge, and it will involve all of the water, all ten ounces, five ounces of the bread flour, one-quarter teaspoon of the yeast, and all of the honey. Then later on, we'll come in with another installment that will be the rest of the flour, the rest of the yeast, and all of the salt. Got it?
    Now we combine the water, the flour, the first dose of the yeast, and all of the honey, and whisk to combine.

10 Ounces Water
5 Ounces Bread Flour
1/4 tsp. yeast
2 tsp. Honey

    Now, here's where we deviate even further from the "straight dough" methodology. We stash this in the chill chest for eight to twelve hours. I usually do this overnight. Now since yeast slow way down when the going gets cold, this will retard the fermentation. This is good for flavor and texture because some of the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast will be reabsorbed by the batter, which will make it softer and easier to work with later on. And this way, the yeast don't burn themselves out before we're ready to burn them out ... so to speak. Oh, and during this time, the flour granules are going to hydrate, and that is going to start building the gluten network that is going to make kneading a very, very pleasurable experience.

The Next Day ...

    Now the rest of the flour goes into our mixing bowl, along with the remainder of the yeast. Our pre-ferment will be added. Here we go. Now I like to put this in last, because it'll kind of help to hold the flour down, and bread hook on stir.

11 Ounces Bread Flour
3/4 tsp. Yeast

    Oh, I almost forgot the salt. For some reason, it's very very easy, when baking, to forget the salt, because people usually add it at the very end, so I'll add that now. There we go.

2 tsp. Kosher Salt

    Now, some of you salt-phobes may be thinking, "I'll just leave the salt out. It won't matter. The bread will be more healthy without it." Well don't you do it. For one thing, bread without salt has this terrible, dead, flat, synthetic flavor which is really horrible. And there is another reason for adding salt to dough. It limits, or rather, slows and regulates the fermentation process, and that'll keep the dough from taking over your refrigerator. Believe me, without salt, this much dough would go into the fridge, you'd open it, and there would be Son of Blob.
    There we go. This is what we want to see: a nice, homogenous mass. You can see it took all the flour off the bottom of the bowl. It's very very sticky, very very moist, and there's nothing dry in the bowl. Now we move to the next portion of the program, which is to simply cover this with a kitchen towel for twenty minutes.

This rest, called "autolyse" allows the flour to hydrate and the gluten to relax.

The Kitchen

    Let's see what's happened in the last twenty minutes. Ah, there you go. The dough has kind of swelled up. It's even stickier than it was. And look, when you kind of tear at it, you can see those gluten stands are already started to form. See, just like that. Definitely time to knead. Now I usually do this in my machine: medium speed—[the mixer bumps up and down] make sure you put on the lock—medium speed for five to ten minutes. But here's what's key; if you see the dough start to crawl up and kind of eat the hook, you want to boost the speed for a moment, to fling the dough back out onto the side of the bowl where it can get back to kneading. Centrifugal force: it's a cruel mistress.

Inside the Dough Ball

    Why do we need to knead? Because the second the water and flour were stirred together, two wheat proteins, gliadin and glutenin, began weaving a kind of 3-D molecular web called 'gluten'. Although weak at birth, with proper folding and stretching, this mesh will eventually become strong enough to capture the bubbles blown by the yeast. Thus, it is kneading that makes risen breads possible.




The Kitchen

    Oh, let's take a look. Just grab your dough, pull off just a little bitty ball like that and flatten it into a disk. When you get it flattened out, start kind of wiggling it to stretch it. The goal here is to see how thin of a membrane we can make in the middle. The thinner the membrane, without breaking, the better the gluten structure we have. Now, let's have a look at that. The way you can know is to hold it up to the window or the light and you'll see that membrane. That looks excellent. Good, good gluten structure.
    Now, if we want our dough to rise to the occasion, we're going to have to give it a little bit of help. The first thing I do is put it inside a container that has been lightly, very lightly greased. That'll help. I like using a kind of tall, narrow container like this, because it makes it easier to tell when the dough has doubled in volume, and that's how much of an increase we're looking for. To make sure that I can tell, I use my special custom volume indicator: that's right, a rubber band. [puts a rubber band around the container at its initial volume] You could use a piece of tape if you want, but I find this more convenient. There we go.
    I like to do my rise in the oven because I know I can keep it warm in here, but not the way that you think. I'm going to add water, hot water to this pan. [pours hot water into pan in the bottom of the oven] Just a little. Once I close the door, not only will it keep this vessel nice and warm, it will provide humidity, and that is important, because without humidity, this could get a dry, nasty skin on top of it and that would prevent a full rise; which, by the way, will take one, to maybe two hours depending on barometric pressure, and outside temperature, and the pH of the dough, and yadda, yadda, yadda.
    [time has past and the dough has risen] Ah, as you can see by our patented volume indicator, we have made proper progress. It is now time to "punch down" the dough. Actually, I hate that expression, because violence never solves anything. What we really need to do here, is fold.
    Most beginning bakers think that this process is about knocking bubbles out of the risen dough, but it isn't. It's about redistributing bubbles and redistributing new yeast cells. So just pretend that you're making a tri-fold wallet, okay? Just barely dust your hands with flour, and kind of press the dough out with your knuckles. There. Then fold this side over, and this side over, okay? Then repeat. Just knock it out, and fold over this side, there we go, and over here again. There, we've got a nice little package. Just cover this with a cloth, and let it rest for ten minutes.
    [ten minutes have pasted] And now, it's time to shape. So you can see, our dough is already started to fatten up and rise again. I'm going to flatten it out. And you're going to hear some popping as bubbles give up their gas. There we go. And kind of fold it in on itself, like this. Kind of like you're making a big jellyfish. And turn it over, and just tighten that up so that you get this nice, smooth skin on the outside, okay? There. Now just lay this down flat. And take your hands, and set them on either side of the ball. And don't grab it, but just start rotating, like this. That is going to tighten up the skin on the dough ball. There. Tight as a drum.
    Now this, we'll move to our pizza peel. And if you don't have a pizza peel, you can use a cookie sheet, as long as it doesn't have a lip on it. There we go. A little cornmeal, so it'll slip and slide later. Put our dough ball right in the middle, and then cover this again. Now this time, we're going to let this sit, or actually we're going to let it rise, for one hour, okay. Now when you let a formed piece like this rise, it's called "bench proofing," although I'm not sure what it's going to prove exactly. But I do know that if we put this piece in the oven right now, it would be extremely dense and chewy. This is going to give us a light and fluffy texture. I'll be back.

If your dough doesn't rise on the "bench",
then your yeast has "proven" that it's a goner.

The Kitchen

    Baking on a hot, dense mass will ensure a good rise, and a crisp crust. Now I've never liked the idea of spending forty to fifty bucks on a pizza stone that I'm going to end up breaking. So, I used to line my oven with clay tiles, but they're hard to manage, so I switched to something that's a lot easier to deal with: the dish from a large, unglazed terra cotta pot from Italy at my hardware store. It works just fine, as long as you always remember to put it in the oven cold. Then, set the oven to 400 degrees. It's just another little deviation from the norm. I like those.


    Well, let's see what our final hour of rise hath wrought. Gracious, it's a big thing, isn't it? Now I don't know about you, but I like to have a nice crispy crust on my bread. And to ensure that, I'm going to brush on a glaze composed of one-third of a cup of water and a tablespoon of cornstarch – shaken, not stirred. Now I'm not looking for a thick layer, just a very very thin glazing.

1/3 Cup Water +
1 Tbs. Cornstarch

    Now, time to slice. Cutting the top of a loaf is not about ornament, okay? It's about opening up the structure so that the loaf can rise again in the oven. If you don't do this, the outer skin is just going to keep everything in and you're going to end with a very small, grainy texture. Now I like to use a serrated knife, and I like a box cut. Just kind of set the knife here, and drag across. You don't want to go more than about a half an inch deep.

Although professional bakers often use special razors for
slashing, a serrated bread knife will do just fine.

    Now before the bread goes in, we'll pour a little bit more water into that pan in the bottom. Steam is good during the baking process because it will prevent a crust from forming on the outside of the bread before the oven spring has done its thing. So, moisture good. Now, in we go. Just work the bread right out to the edge of the peel, and ... there we go. A little mess. We'll clean it up later. Let this sit for 50 to 60 minutes. Don't open this door!
    So, it's been 55 minutes. Is it done? Is it safe? How do you know? I mean, what's 50 minutes to a hunk of bread, right? I mean, some people say they can just smell the air in the kitchen and know if it's done. Others say they can tell by the color of the crust. Some are thumpers. I'm not a thumper. No, these are all mystic, voodoos to me. I'm a temperature guy. I'm just going to kind of quickly tip that over onto your gloved hand, and plunge into the bottom. You're looking for 205 to 210 degrees Fahrenheit. And I'm at 207 here. That's good. The reason that we want that temperature—just sub-boiling—is that that means that there is still water in that bread. If the temperature rises above the boiling point, it means that it is going to be too gosh darn dry. This is good.
    Now we come to the toughest part of the baking process, waiting. We have got to let this bread cool for half an hour before cutting into it. I mean, if we ate it now, well, we'd burn our mouths, for one thing,. But we've also got to allow the starch and protein structure to cool and set. If we cut into it now, we'd end up with mush. So we wait. [waits 4 seconds] Okay, 30 minutes up. Let's cut. Mmmm, feels good, smells good.
    Ahh, I know they say that man cannot not live by bread alone, but this is one man who's willing to try. See you next time, on Good Eats.

Transcribed and Proofed by Mike DiRuscio & Michael Roberts

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010