2011-03-02

Words of Encouragement for New Bread Bakers

To date, we Chicago Amateur Bread Bakers number 28 93 home/hobby bakers, passionate about making yeasted, artisanal breads. We get together in-person twice a month, to share our experiences and learn from one another.

We welcome newbies, old hands, and everything in between. We define a newbie as one who has tried baking bread at home at least two or three times.

Recently I have received some interesting questions from Chicagoans who would like to begin baking yeasted bread at home. A number want us to teach them. Other simply are wondering where to begin.

An early attempt by husband at hamburger buns.

We encourage all of them to attempt bread baking at home two or three times, on their own. And then ask themselves, how does it taste? What do you like about the bread? What have your learned? Did anything frustrate you? What would you like to try doing differently next time? What questions do you have for more experienced bakers? Your first bread is likely to "fail," that is, it may be as dense as a doorstop. You may make a royal mess in your kitchen. All of this is encouraged: these "failures" are often the best teachers.

An early attempt by husband at bagels (top and right), compared with a bagel from New York' City's famous (but sadly defunct) H&H Bagels (pumpernickel, bottom left). We kept an old H&H bagel around the kitchen for months and used it as a benchmark.

We ask that each new baker take these first steps on his/her own. Why? Because afterwards, that same person will come to one of meetings full of questions, brimming with curiosity. This helps each and every one of our members get the most out of our meetings. To boot, it is consistent with our mission of striving to support and inspire those actively baking bread at home.

An early attempt at foccacia (left: before baking, middle: after baking, right: bottom crust).

But how do I get started?, one curious cook asked.

One good way is to buy a bag of King Arthur bread flour at your local supermarket, and follow the simple bread recipe on the back.

Wrote another, What do you mean by "yeasted" breads? How much yeast should I be using? What about "quick breads?"

This will require a longer answer.

There are a number of ways of making bread rise. For example:

  1. By adding commercial yeast, such as the "active dry yeast" you can find in your local supermarket.
  2. By using the yeast naturally present in the flour. This often leads to a type of bread known as sourdough. This is a more advanced topic, and something you may learn about later.
  3. By adding chemical agents such as baking powder. Breads made using this method are the ones generally referred to as quick breads.

All three methods, above, generate carbon dioxide (CO2) gas bubbles in the dough. As the gas bubbles multiply and increase in size, we observe the dough rising. In methods 1 and 2, we are working with living yeast, which ferments the sugars in the dough.

The Chicago Amateur Bread Bakers focus solely on methods 1 and 2, above. Why are yeasted breads of special interest to us? Because of the complex and subtle flavors and textures it is possible to create with four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. And because of the technical challenges the bread poses: we learn to juggle fermentation time, temperature of the dough, humidity of the air in our kitchens, and many other factors which affect the outcome of the bread. One could spend a lifetime learning and improving one's loaves. As one of our members, J.H., writes, bread baking is "both creative and technical - there's always a puzzle to solve, but you have to use intuition and play too."

As you learn more about bread making, you will also learn that the less yeast there is in the dough, the more flavorful the bread may be. This is because there is a relationship between fermentation time and the amount of yeast in the dough: The more yeast there is in the dough, the faster fermentation progresses. When there is less yeast, fermentation progresses more slowly, and the dough develops more flavor. The most skilled and experienced bakers attempt to use the smallest amount of yeast possible, to achieve the flavorful results they desire.

If you are of a technical bent, I recommend picking up up Emily Buehler's book, Bread Science. Of all of our bread books (many of which are peppered with floury fingerprints), I treasure this book as the one that started me baking. Jeffrey Hamelman's classic Bread is the text that's most often referenced in our house. Chef Hamelman has a gift for gentle prose that I can read again and again.


I encourage all aspiring home/hobby bakers out there to get your hands in some yeasted dough, and keep asking questions. And if you're in Chicago, we look forward to meeting you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...