I decided to try making artisan bread, by hand, with just the 4 ingredients mankind has been baking with for ages: flour, water, yeast and salt.
I found a great website, The Fresh Loaf, which has a vibrant baking community. The guy who runs it has a really helpful post on making Your First Loaf. I whipped up a loaf, and although it was not what I was looking for, it was a big hit and did not survive the night.
One of my first tries.
My next step was to get a book that had been very highly recommended on TFL, The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhardt. It goes into a lot of detail, has great recipes, and is a wonderful course on all things bread.
I made several more loaves, all joyously eaten, but they were still not what I was looking for. I wanted the crackly crust, nice open crumb, and deep flavor I get in loaves from great local bakeries, like Grand Central in this area.
It was not long before I moved on to sourdough.
I think I panicked with my first starter, and threw it out too soon. My next try took, and I am still cooking with its descendant, two years later.
Refreshed starter, read to go
Early naturally yeasted loaves
I don't make a wide variety of bread. I seem to focus on a few recipes, varying the method a bit each time, trying to make them even tastier.
I don't want to try to teach anyone how to bake bread here; there are other on-line resources far more qualified than I.
I will tell a few of the things I have learned that make things easier or more enjoyable for me.
~I now rise my starter and dough in marked vessels. That way I know when it has expanded enough to move on to the next step. A rubber band or piece of tape on a plastic tub, can give me a sense of when the dough has doubled.
Pate Fermente rising in a measuring cup, spray oil on the sides
~Time=Flavor! This is the biggest thing, as all the bread writers say. So I routinely let my dough develop over several days. Most of that time it is in the fridge, with no effort required from me.
~I don't sweat the schedule as much as I used to. I have found that with a little understanding of the process, chucking some dough in the fridge for a while is a fine thing. Before I would have to tell Phoebe I could not do anything for the next several hours because I AM MAKING BREAD! Now, I am looser about things. (That does not mean I am beyond driving around with a tub of dough rising on my passenger seat.)
~Keep a notebook. June got me a nice notebook as a gift. I am pretty good about writing down what I am doing or changing when I bake. There have been many times, when it has been a while since I last baked, that I was able to read back what I did before and be reminded of what I had learned.
~Sourdough does not have to be sour. The preferred term is 'naturally yeasted', because it is not all about sourness. It is about flavor and for me, localness. The yeast in my starter is specific to my house, our little place in the world. The challenge is often getting the dough sour enough. That works fine for Phoebe, who does not like bread as sour as me.
Small sourdough boules
~Stretch and fold is your friend. How did village bakers a few centuries ago make loaf after loaf if each one had to be kneaded for 15 minutes? They didn't. S+F is one of the ways you can develop a really nice, open loaf with minimal effort. (Some No-Knead breads use artisan techniques to make really tasty loaves. Just because it is easy does not mean it won't be yummy. Phoebe has been playing with a no-knead recipe and has made some very nice loaves.)
~Bake in a dutch oven. Professional baker's ovens have a lot of steam in the first part of the baking. There are a variety of methods you can use at home to make steam, but they are rather cumbersome. One of the No-Knead tricks is to bake in a dutch oven. The lid captures the moisture as it evaporates and makes for a great rise and lovely crust.
First attempt in dutch ovens
The first Miche that I made
It is a big loaf, 4.5 pounds
It is half whole wheat, half white. Not quite my ideal loaf, but getting closer all the time.
This time I am going to divide it, and do half in the dutch oven and half on the pizza stone with steam, to see how they compare. I am excited to see what happens.
~Flashing forward 4 days~
The results. The one on the right, from the dutch oven, has a richer color and more caramelized crust.
Looks like tuna sandwiches for dinner tonight. Mmmmm.