The Way You Do the Things You Do
On "right" and "wrong" in bread baking
Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the reasons behind certain choices in bread recipes, especially now that I am working on a book. It’s one thing to publish a recipe online that can be revised and updated over time, it’s another when that recipe gets put into print, forever preserved in amber. Knowing that the choices I make will live for a long time in the pages of a book means I want to make the right ones, and to understand what makes them right.
The thing is, “right” is something of a moving target, at least when it comes to formula and process. Results are easier to pin down: Yes, taste is subjective, to each his own, yada yada, but a bad product is a bad product. (Such assessment begins right at home—I’m usually the most severe critic of my own breads, and there’s no using “taste” as an excuse when you yourself don’t approve of the thing in question.)
But when it comes to how you get there, what is right and wrong is harder to discern, especially since there are often many ways to achieve identical or near-identical results. Why choose one route and not another if both get you to a similar place? What I wanted to explore a little today are the many different (usually valid) reasons one might choose one method over another.
First and foremost, there’s efficiency—the straightest line is the fastest way to get from pain A to pain B. And whether you are a home baker with limited time on one’s hands or a pro with many bakes to get through in a day, doing things efficiently, quickly, and with a minimum of effort is often essential.
Still, there are times one might reasonably choose a less efficient path. Some practices might require more work and effort but also provide tactile feedback, giving the baker a better minute-by-minute sense of what is going on in the dough. A machine-kneaded dough might produce a near-similar result, but a baker might feel more comfortable instead using folds to develop gluten, since it would allow them to track the progress of development and fermentation in real time, making adjustments as needed along the way.
Or a baker might choose to do certain things simply because they offer joy. Once again, folding dough is a good example—whether or not it is the best way to develop gluten, there is something thrilling about feeling the dough grow stronger and more voluminous under your hands. Yes, you are helping to nudge it forward, but there’s also the pure sensual pleasure you can experience when doing so, something that doesn’t directly result in a better loaf. Fun is a perfectly valid reason for doing things, especially when you are able to discern the difference between something done because it is fun vs. something that is essential that also happens to be fun to do. (The former can be skipped if there isn’t time enough for fun, the latter not so much.)
The Received Wisdom Fallacy?
And then there are the things we do because we learned them from someone else, maybe a boss, a mentor, a cookbook author, a newsletter writer, etc. As I develop recipes for my own book, I’ve been taking a closer look at recipes from other bakers. (I have always done this, but now I am casting a wider net and comparing formulas to one another more systematically than ever before.) While there are always differences between how one baker and another chooses to do something, there are also underlying consistencies shared across recipes. This makes sense, because most bakers learned their craft from being trained by, working with, or observing other bakers. But I find myself wondering whether at least some of these choices are actually essential to the process or are simply practices that were passed down as received wisdom from teacher to pupil.
Take those Bavarian pretzels pictured above, for example (a recipe for which will appear both in the book and at Serious Eats later this year). I worked a long time to get a pretzel that was a) delicious, with the right crisp-chewy-tender texture, b) the right shape, with fat “shoulders” and thin crossed “arms,” and c) a dough that was easy to stretch (an attribute that is essential to achieving that shape). For the longest time all of the recipes I tested or compared used a straightforward/standard approach to dough development and fermentation: mix, knead to full development, bulk proof at room temperature, shape, proof again (cold proofing if desired), then dip and bake. But try as I might, I could never get this to give me what I wanted: a dough that didn’t spring back during proofing and a pretzel that did not puff up excessively in the oven.
Eventually, I tried three things that I didn’t see in any recipes. One, I added a poolish, a yeasted preferment known for (among other things) making doughs more extensible. Two, I jettisoned any step that might develop gluten: instead, I switched to a hand-mixed dough with no autolyse step and skipped all but one fold (which I needed to ensure the dough had an even texture). (This no-kneading trick is one I stumbled upon for my King Arthur kouign amann recipe and have used a bunch of times since.) Three: I dialed the yeast way down, finally landing on a number that was 30% of what even the next-lowest recipe used. And four, I eliminated the final proof entirely—once the pretzels are shaped, they get chilled to firm them up and baked.
All of these moves are unorthodox, but it was the poolish approach I finally landed on that was the most out in left field. In order to get the dough as relaxed as I needed, I ended up using 50% poolish relative to flour overall (or 25% prefermented flour), which is higher than I’ve seen in any bread recipe anywhere. I worried a little that the large amount might make the pretzels overly sour or ruin their structure, but the opposite was true: they have a delicate fermented flavor and just the right balance of chew and tenderness. (This is not just my opinion, BTW. I happen to have a Bavarian neighbor, and the final recipe has his seal of approval.)
I’ve never worked in bakeries, so everything I know about bread comes from workshops with pros, cookbooks, and hands-on experience with my own breads. While I too have resistances to doing things that are not “traditional," I do wonder if my lack of professional experience gives me a little more flexibility when it comes to trying seemingly wacky approaches. I’ve noticed a tendency among professional bakers to be dismissive of techniques and ideas that don’t adhere to tradition, at least initially. This isn’t universal, mind you, and it’s just a casual observation, but I do wonder how often we all let received wisdom cloud our ability to consider alternative approaches to doing things.
It’s something I’m trying to keep in mind as I work on my book; I’d like it to represent tradition in bread baking, while still being open to novel approaches to doing things if they are easier or better than the old ways.