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Artisanal bread 101

A s a bread baker, I am always looking for new and seasonal ways to make the perfect loaf. But before we discuss what to add to our bread, let’s talk about the four fundamental building blocks of bread making. Flour, water, yeast and salt are all that are needed to make a spectacular loaf.

Flour

The artisan bread bakers’ pick for flour is known as Hard Red Winter Wheat. Hard wheat is used to mill flour that is designed for making bread. It has the protein content necessary to shape and hold together a loaf of bread, whereas soft wheat is appropriate for making cakes and pastries.

Red is the color of the wheat berry. Winter refers to the planting season of the wheat; winter wheat is planted now, in the fall. It sprouts before the frost sets in and then goes dormant during the winter months. Winter wheat comes back to life in the spring, continues to grow and is finally harvested in late spring. The harsh winters of the northern United States make it difficult to grow this type of wheat, so it is traditionally grown in the mid-U.S., where the winters are more moderate. Spring wheat has a much shorter growing season, which means it must be heavily fertilized in order to move the wheat to maturation before winter arrives.

Winter wheat is the gold standard for artisan bread bakers because of the way it is grown. Its long, slow, natural growing cycle produces a flour that has a lower protein, or gluten, content. It sounds contradictory. You would think that bread baking requires a lot of strength from the gluten. But too much strength translates into a tough, dense, overly chewy loaf of bread. While that may be great for a bagel, most breads require a lower protein content to make a light, delicate loaf. Also, winter wheat has a better flavor. As with any crop, the more natural the growing conditions, the better the flavor, and wheat is no different.

Bread bakers have accepted that buying local wheat may not be a choice for them. But think of it like buying coffee or tea. You can’t go to the farmers’ market and find locally grown coffee. You can, however, buy organic and fair trade coffee that is roasted locally. You buy the best that is available to you.

Water

Believe it or not, most tap water is great for bread baking.

I’ve heard the question over and over again, “Wouldn’t bottled water be better for bread?” The simple truth is, no, it’s not better. Once the minerals are filtered out of the water it makes it difficult to make bread. Moderately hard water is better for the yeast, as these minerals have a strengthening effect on it. Water that has been softened with a salt system can also cause problems with the yeast. Salt naturally controls the rate of fermentation in the yeast cells, and so too much salt will slow the yeast down. Not accounting for the salt that is added to softened water can have a big impact on the outcome of your bread.

Yeast

Here we go again: you’re not going to find local yeast at the farmers’ market. But you can make your own yeast with a sourdough culture. It’s easy to start and only takes a few minutes a day to maintain. Then you can leaven your bread with the yeast contained in your sourdough culture. Bread that is naturally leavened with only a sourdough culture will take longer to ferment than those made with commercial yeast. But the flavor is well worth the wait.

Salt

The best salt for bread is any that does not contain iodine, as yeast is slowed down by it. You can use kosher or sea salts, which don’t contain iodine and have a better flavor than table salt. You do need to pay attention to the size of the salt crystals; large ones need to be dissolved in the water from the formula before mixing.

Starting a sourdough culture

You will need to start this 10 days to two weeks before it is ready to use. Or, become friends with your local bread baker and ask for a little bit of their sourdough culture to start feeding as your own.

Appearance of a developing sourdough culture over five days.

Day 1: By hand, combine the following, cover and leave at room temperature.
    3 ounces bread flour
    1 ounce whole wheat flour
    4 ounces water, 85°F

Day 2: Simply stir the mixture well, cover and leave at room temperature.

Day 3: By hand, combine the following, cover and leave at room temperature.
    3 ounces bread flour
    1 ounce whole wheat flour
    4 ounces of sourdough starter/mixture from yesterday
    4 ounces water, 85°F

Day 4: By hand, combine the following, cover and leave at room temperature.
    3 ounces bread flour
    6 ounces sourdough starter
    3 ounces water, 80°F

Day 5: By hand, combine the following, cover and leave at room temperature.
    9 ounces bread flour
    3 ounces sourdough starter
    6 ounces water, 75°F

Days 6–11: By hand, combine the following, cover and leave at room temperature.
    9 ounces bread flour
    3 ounces sourdough starter
    6 ounces water, 60–65°F

You may now use the sourdough culture in your bread.

To feed your sourdough culture from here, just follow the Day 6–11 feeding. It is important to feed your sourdough at the same time each and every day. If you are only going to use your sourdough culture sporadically, you will need to store it so that it can survive and be useful later.

For short-term storage—no longer than a week—you can place the sourdough starter into the refrigerator right after feeding. Then bring the sourdough out to room temperature the day before you intend to bake with it, feed it, and allow it to ferment for 18–24 hours. If you want to store it for a longer period, I recommend dehydrating the culture and freezing it. It’s easier than it sounds; just do the Day 6 feed but do not add the water.

You will create something that looks like crumbs. Pack this into an airtight plastic bag and freeze it. A day or two before you are going to bake, take the frozen culture out of the freezer, and add the water amount from the Day 6 feed. The water should be very warm—120°F—for this feeding only. The warm water will help bring the culture back up to room temperature. Continue to feed the culture daily or put it away until you need it again.

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