My bread baking obsession has fallen into roughly three periods or phases. First came the Nancy Silverton years, when I went through her complex and not always successful recipes. Then came a period when I was too busy to bake much, so I turned to no-knead bread, dominated by Chad Robertson’s first cookbook. Results were better but I was still making white bread.
My new bread baking adventure began this weekend when I took a workshop taught by Chico, California baker Dave Miller. His breads are almost all 100% whole wheat. He mills his own flour from carefully sourced heritage grains. Using a levain (a starter), he creates loaves that foreground the flavor of the grain. In short, he shows that bread can have as much flavor diversity as wine.
Miller is a true master craftsman. He’s also a superb teacher: humble, patient and generous. He’s also convinced me to completely change the way I bake bread. Over the next few months I’m going to adapt his techniques to my home kitchen and I hope to share what I discover. In the meantime, here’s what I learned:Miller summarized bread baking as a yin and yang balance between elasticity and extensibility. Our job as bakers, Miller suggests, is to understand what gives bread its form and to shape and bake dough at the best possible moment.
Much of the weekend was spent analyzing what can go wrong and how to fix it–the causes of over-proofing, under-proofing, bad color etc. If you’re scaling ingredients, noting the temperature and controlling variables as best you can, it’s a matter of deduction to correct mistakes. It’s been my experience that after practicing with a particular bread recipe over and over again I can tell by appearance when a loaf is going to succeed or fail. The ideal bread cookbook, which has yet to be written, would have a long troubleshooting section with photos.
One fascinating detail Miller discussed was the yin and yang of levain microbiology. Levains are a symbiotic balance of natural yeasts and lactic acid producing bacteria. Temperature and feeding schedules can alter the balance between the yeast and bacteria. The longer the starter goes between feedings, for instance, the more the bacteria will dominate. Too much bacteria in the levain and you’ll get a bread that is overly sour and over-fermented (a problem I’ve been having lately). Feed the starter more often or shorten the time between the feeding and using it in a loaf, and you’ll boost the yeast and decrease the bacteria.
Some other concepts:
- Ultimately, there is no perfect recipe for bread. Different flours, temperature, humidity, the way you shape a loaf, length of the autolyse (resting period before adding salt), qualities of the levain are just a few of the many factors. You must take notes and learn to recognize the quality of a dough and learn to adjust on the fly.
- Whole wheat flour soaks up a lot of water. The recipes we used called for over 100% hydration.
- Miller bakes in a hot oven to get loaves that are very dark.
With the exception of the rye bread Miller made, the wheat breads had a similar method:
- Starter was added to flour and water to build up a levain. This was allowed to ferment for three hours.
- Miller likes a long autolyse. Flour and water for the final dough were mixed and allowed to sit for at least a half hour before adding salt. This period gets the enzymes working.
- The final dough is mixed in a mixer for 5 minutes at the first speed and 5 minutes at the second speed (if you don’t have a mixer, Millers suggested stretching and folding, not kneading). Of course, flours will behave differently, so at all points, including the mixing, Miller uses his eye to judge when the dough appears to be worked enough.
- The dough sat out for around an hour and then went into a fridge set at 40-47° F overnight.
- The next day the dough comes out of the fridge is divided and preshaped and allowed to rest for around three hours at room temperature.
- The dough is shaped, put in a basket and allowed to proof for another 3 hours (depending, of course, on temperature).
- Once the proofing is done the dough goes into a 500° F oven for 20 minutes. The temperature is reduced to 450 degrees for the final 30 minutes. Steam is important. In a home oven I prefer baking in a cast iron pot.
A LABB member shot video of the workshop that we hope to be able to share. When that video becomes available I’ll make sure to link to it on Root Simple. The shaping method he showed us was straightforward and easy especially considering how wet the dough was.
Practice makes perfect, so I’ve got a lot of baking (and a lot of mistakes) to make in the next few months. If my results are a tenth as healthy and flavorful as Miller’s loaves I’ll be happy.
How is your baking going? What kind of loaves do you like to make?