Few activities apart from mushroom picking, wood chopping and train spotting are as close to our origins as bread baking. It is therefore sad that many people have a superstitious fear of yeast and sourdough. Bread-baking cookbooks usually do not make the matter easier in their frantic efforts to justify their existence with an abundance of superfluous folklore recipes. Bread results from flour, one or another kind of yeast, salt, water and some experience – everything else is luxury. The idea of a fixed and repeatable recipe for bread, based on notions such as that the absorbing properties of equal quantities of flour from different sources are comparable, or that a given amount of yeast will behave largely in the same way whether it is mid-winter or August, is ridiculous. Recover your mud-pie-baking mindset and experiment until you’ve got it.
A few things to know and to consider:
Baking bread at home is a matter of an average oven temperature of 200 degrees Celsius. On the recommendation of a book, I start baking above that temperature, and re-regulate to 190 degrees after ten minutes approximately. Naturally, the baking time varies, depending on the loaf’s shape and size. It is usually one to 1 1/2 hours. I am planning to get a baking stone, which probably will force me to revise this section.
Yeast is traditionally not fond of a direct contact with fat, oil and salt, but it loves sugar. The amount of yeast in the dough increases during the rising process. Using an excess of yeast from the start results in a bubbly, yeasty-tasting bread. Most recipes use too much yeast, I don’t know why. I take half a tablespoon of fresh yeast for a kilo of whole grain flour, perhaps a little more in the middle of the winter. One has to wait until the dough rises anyway, so there is no reason to overdo it from the start. The yeast will grow. I own one French cookbook with nifty chemical kitchen lessons that, without an explanation, recommends to mix the yeast with salt and water at the beginning of the kneading process. Perhaps modern yeast has been taught to overcome its salt aversion, but still, I don’t trust this advice at all. My experimental salt-cure yeast developed a smell reminiscent of latex-paint, something that my yeast doesn’t do if I mix it with lukewarm honey-water (my normal way). Apart from the smell it did, in fact, behave well.
Sourdough starter is made by mixing wholemeal rye flour and water in a bowl, after which one covers the bowl and forgets about it for a few days. As soon it starts smelling like regurgitated muesli and develops bubbles on the surface, it is ready for use. The sourness of sourdough has the function of making the rye flour stick sufficiently for rising and baking – otherwise normal yeast would have been sufficient. Wheat needs no sour dough for it is sticky by itself. For starter-preservation, I take off a few tablespoons of each sourdough-bread-dough, keep it in the fridge in a closed jar covered with water, and see: the smell gradually improves between turns, and I always have a jar full of impatiently waiting starter. Add starter and water to rye flour, mix, put a bit of dough back into the jar, set the rest of the dough aside for half a day or so, shape loaves, let rise, bake bread, that’s all.
Rising is equivalent to a growing amount of bubbles in the dough – the yeast makes these while simultaneously producing small quantities of alcohol (I guess that the several-day-rising-cycle for Bocuse’s Gugelhupf has the same function as if one added rum to the dough – but I haven’t asked him). No recipe’s time indication will ever tell you when the dough is ready for the second kneading. “It should rise until it has doubled its volume” is also problematic: who would be able to judge this ‘doubling of volume’ by eye? Knead the dough again, when it appears to have risen substantially but wait not too long after it begins to sag when barely pinched. Shape the loaves or, if the dough is soft, put it into breaded and buttered forms and let it rise again. When this process (The Second Rising) is well under way, start up the oven and when the temperature is high enough, bake the bread. If you want to have the bread out of the oven before midnight, you might have to start at any time between, 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. depending on conditions. And: Bread stuck to the sides of the form normally falls out by itself after approximately ten minutes.
Kneading, of wheat bread, is absolutely necessary to get the dough nice and sticky – the more the better. The old recipes always say that you have to beat, knead (etc.) a yeast dough until it starts pulling off the side of the bowl. This is an indicator that something in the flour’s structure is changing, and this is indeed the effect you’ll need: external dough stickiness is quite suddenly replaced by an increased internal stickiness and cohesion of the lump of dough. Kneading takes some time; some say fifteen minutes of continuous folding and rolling. A good food processor is a great help, but I have made all my bread by hand for a long while.
Flour. Back in Holland I bought organic wholemeal flour at the health store. Sweden has a strong tradition of home baking, and many kinds of flour are available in all the food stores; however, until recently the organic varieties were scarce. My solution is to buy whole organic grain and grind it noisily at home in my food processor. I mix freely and experiment with different additions and grains all the time. Most often I make mixed wholemeal sourdough-rye and yeast-wheat bread. I have had only one failure in the past five years, when a 100% rye sourdough bread failed to rise properly. After too much waiting, I tried to help it up by adding commercial yeast, but it had already gotten too sour to be really good to eat. The risk of disaster in bread baking is low, in other words. Go try.