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Don’t Loaf Around This Weekend…Make Your Own Bread!

When I was a kid, they called me Yeasty Baby, because I loved bread. Now they call me Masonry Momma, because I learned how to make it myself, in one weekend flat.

There are still millions of people in the world who haven’t gone gluten-free. Bread, besides being the body of Christ and whatnot, is still the staple food in the average diet, and probably always will be. But it’s expensive to buy the good loaves, and most affordable store-bought varieties are high in processed sugar and bleach. So it’s worth it—both economically and yummily—to learn how to make your own, and it’s not hard.

Dan Wing and Alan Scott are experts in baking bread and building masonry ovens. Wing, for example, travels around in a gypsy bread wagon of his own construction, baking bread at parties. They’re brilliant, and their advice will give you the skills to bake the perfect loaf of bread—down to a science. If you already know how to make bread, perhaps you need a new oven? They’ll show you how to do that, too.

Below is an excerpt from The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott.

 

I have baked bread for thirty years. Not professionally, but regularly: I made a lot of bread in all those years. Most of the bread I baked was not as good as the best bread I have ever eaten, though. It was better than any bread I could buy, but only because few bakeries in this country were making bread that was better, none of them were nearby, and bread is perishable.

Don’t get me wrong: I had fun baking, and everyone liked my bread. But when my bread was only okay I could still see and taste in my mind the bread I wanted to bake—a hearth loaf with an open crumb and a resilient crust, full of flavor. Bread that would stay fresh for days without added sugar, milk, or fat. For years I just couldn’t seem to make bread like that. Now I do, almost every time I bake. My success surprises me a little, even though I know it is my own bread coming out of my own oven, and of course I know exactly what I did to make it. Each time I open the oven door and I see and smell the loaves, my heart jumps and swells a little.

Learning to bake that way didn’t come without a lot of flailing around, because I was walking in the dark at first. The steps I eventually took to learn to make the kind of bread I like are ones that you can take more easily with the help of this book. Although a first-time baker will get plenty from this book, he or she may not realize the value of the information I have collected. People who have baked before—but never really understood what they were doing—are going to get the most out of it. That is especially true for people who want to make wonderful rustic loaves, and haven’t been able to.

To do that, you must first learn to ferment your dough naturally (using what most Americans call a sourdough starter) and you have to understand fermentation well enough so you control it, not the other way around. That is how you make a full-flavored loaf that honors the remarkable grain it’s made from, that delights the eye, and holds whatever degree of sourness you seek—a little or a lot. In this book you will learn how and why rye flour, or whole wheat flour, or machine kneading, or a hot day, or many other factors will change the dough you make and the bread you bake. Controlling natural fermentation is the first big step on the path to creating great bread.

The second big step is to bake your bread in hot masonry. The reasons for this will become clear as you read the book, but take it as a given for now. “Hot masonry” means you can bake many loaves at a time in a masonry oven or you can bake one loaf at a time in a ceramic cloche in a conventional oven. (Bread from a cloche is not actually the same as bread from a masonry oven, but is so close that you almost need the two loaves in front of you to tell the difference.) Only by baking in masonry can the home or small commercial baker get a loaf that looks, chews, and tastes right. That is true even if the dough is perfectly made before it is baked.

If the secrets of good bread baking are so simple (fermentation, hearth baking), why do so many people have trouble making good bread? There are four reasons for our failures: The first is that most of us have tried to learn the process from books, and there haven’t been books in English that adequately explained fermentation or discussed masonry ovens. The second reason is simple confusion— the best described sourdough baking technique in this country (using a sour starter to react with baking soda to raise flapjacks and quick breads) is not similar to the process for making good “European” naturally leavened bread. Americans tend to maintain sourdough starters in a way that does not produce consistent results when baking bread, but would be fine for pancakes. The third reason is that for more than seventy-five years bakers have been taught to equate successful baking with fast baking—witness the profusion of instant yeast brands—while the opposite is true. The impetus for speeding up the process of making bread was first reflected in advertising that yeast companies directed to commercial bakeries (the familiar “time equals money” equation). Faster baking was then presented as a lifestyle improvement to home bakers who did not realize what speeding up baking would do to their bread. Although the amount of time spent mixing, kneading, slashing, and baking is only marginally longer for good bread than poor bread, the number of hours over which the steps occur is much longer for good bread, regardless of whether the dough is raised with small doses of commercial yeast or from a natural leaven. The fourth reason? The ovens—most people are trying to bake hearth breads in kitchen ovens.

You can gauge the extent of the confusion about natural fermentation by reading the questions posted to Internet Usenet newsgroups such as rec.food.sourdough and rec.food.baking. Many of the people who post questions to these groups are experienced (often professional) bakers who encounter difficulty changing from speed-baking with store-bought yeast to baking with a natural leaven. These otherwise able people don’t understand the principles of natural fermentation because those principles have not been laid out—the lessons of research in cereal chemistry, dough microbiology, and so forth have not been explored to any extent in popular books on baking, while specialized seminars and videos about sourdough are expensive, costing hundreds of dollars. Baking books give elaborate and intimidating descriptions of how to start and maintain a leaven when it would be more enlightening to describe in detail what is happening in the sourdough process and to consider the properties of sourdough ingredients—water, flour, salt, wild yeast, and bacteria. Methods and rules are not as useful as understanding. A baker who understands the process is liberated— free to create new recipes and to manipulate the determinants of bread quality in pursuit of his or her perfect loaf. This book is short on recipes (on purpose, as there are many excellent sources of recipes) but long on the background information you need to make the kind of bread you want, either by adapting an existing recipe you like, or making up a new one.

“Fermentation.” “Cereal chemistry.” “Nutrition.” All of this sounds intimidating to the non-scientist. To be truthful, it is even intimidating to a scientist—but you don’t need to be a scientist to understand it. You just have to want to learn. Since I knew little of the “science” of fermentation or cereal grains when I set out, the information I found was new to me, and I hope that it seems fresh as I relay it to you. Although most of it has been published somewhere, no source I could find includes it all, or digests it for consumption by the committed layperson. I hope that the “bread” half of this book will teach you the characteristics of sourdough hearth bread and the factors (that you can control) that determine those characteristics.

The other half of this book is about building and using masonry ovens. Simple retained-heat ovens (in which a fire is built in the same chamber where the bread will be baked after the fire is removed) are what I actually started out to write about. Masonry ovens have great historical appeal because they are the way bread was baked for millennia, but they are being built now out of more than a purely historical interest. They are built for the unique way they bake: masonry ovens “shock” dough with a massive transfer of heat when the bread is first put in, and they preserve the dough’s moisture when the crust is first forming and the loaf is expanding.


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