“Give a person a fish, feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish, feed them for a lifetime.”
A classic piece of advice, but I don’t really know anything about fishing. I do however know about baking bread. (See poorly-lit pictures of my bakes on my instagram account with slightly nicer photos here.) And instead of only giving you a recipe, I’m going to add another meta level and talk about my process for learning how to make bread. Replicating that will give you a much better lifetime of bread than a single bread recipe.
My process, and the path I suggest you follow, is to treat bread baking as a series of experiments, controlling for different variables until you reach both a loaf you’re happy to eat and a process to get you there that fits your life.
- Get a scale. This is probably my most important baking tip. Using volumetric measurements introduces too many variables between bakes, especially with flour. A gram scale leads to consistency of ingredients. Baking the same quality loaf needs consistency.
- Keep a notebook. Experimentation is the process of iteration, changing as few things as possible and examining the result. Writing everything down let me recreate my successes and diganose my failures. It’s important to take notes on each loaf you bake. What were the quantities of the ingredients? What was the mixing procedure? How long did it bulk ferment? At what temperature? What shape and scoring pattern did you use? What temperature did you bake at? For how long? And finally, are you happy with the loaf and what will you do differently next time? (Some thoughts on notebook usage. I stuck with a physical notebook because it had the lowest friction of use for me. But that does mean I need an index to quickly find my “master recipes” and particularly important notes — I can’t grep dead trees. It gets a bit cluttered having reference (recipes), actions (modifications for next time) and someday/maybe (recipes to try in the future) in the same place. Similarly, when using a shorthand for recipes, be sure to include enough to fully recreate it. More than once I’ve had the formula but missed recording exactly the steps (rest times, proofing, etc) and the next batch was less successful. Here are some actual sample entries from my notebook: “Reduce rye percentage next time. Dough was too sticky”, “No significant difference for 25–15 autolyse/knead vs 20–10–10 autolyse-fold-knead schedule”, “Don’t flour workbench for bagels; they just slide around”, and “85g too small for hamburger buns but ok for dinner rolls”.) There are lots resources on keeping journals, but don’t go overboard. Your goal is baking bread, not bullet journalling or moleskine geekery.
- Perfect one single recipe. Your flour type, your environment, your climate, your life. This is so that your learnings are directly applicable to your next bake. If you’re constantly switching up the kind of loaf you’re baking, from an experimental point of view it will be harder to know if you’re improving. I recommend a French-style lean dough with only flour, water, salt and yeast, possibly with a small portion (10%-30%) of the flour being whole-wheat. Don’t worry about fancy flours when you’re first learning. They’re expensive and you’ll feel guilty about throwing out your mistakes / bricks. Secondly, they’re more likely to behave differently from the recipes you find online.
- Learn Bakers Percentage. This step is optional but highly recommended. Maybe it’s just my math degree talking, but having bread formulas laid out like this makes it easier to look at a recipe and understand what to expect from it, and also to scale them up or down to make the amount of dough you need for what you want to bake. Recipes in BP% list all ingredient amounts as a percentage of the flour weight, so adding more or less flour will skew the ratios. If you’re trying a new recipe, you can hold back BP 2% of the water and adjust from there. This also means that unlike most home recipes where a range of flour quanity is provided (most will say to add more or less flour until the dough is the right consistency), recipes in BP% will instead adjust the amount of water to control the dough consistency.
- Use resources from professional bakers instead of home bakers. This is a follow-on from the previous tip. (Be particularly aware of recipes from American home bakers: they tend to use way too much yeast and way too much sugar/fats for “regular” breads.) People have been baking bread for thousands of years and have accumulated lots of folk wisdom around it. Luckily, modern bakeries have studied bread making in pursuit of commercial optimization, so much of this folk wisdom has either been disproven and discarded, or analyzed, distilled and improved. There is a lot of science involved in bread baking, and many people have written tomes about it. You don’t need to know all the science to make good bread, but it helps to figure out why things turned out the way they did and what direction to move in until you find a recipe you’re happy with.
- Learn to knead and shape high hydration dough. You will end up with it accidentally anyway, either during your own experiments or when testing a new recipe. Just switch kneading methods, note it in your journal, and keep baking. Different flours absorb different amounts, and so a recipe that says 80% hydration but uses organic, stone-ground whole wheat flour will be a very different dough if made with regular supermarket all-purpose flour. In general, you want to put in as much water as you’re comfortable with for a nice tender open crumb, but high hydration loaves have their own issues. They’re tricker to knead and trickier to shape. (When you start playing with bagels and pretzels, then you’ll get experience with low-hydration doughs.) Some videos on working with wet doughs: How to Mix Wet Dough (Trevor Wilson), Shaping High Hydration Dough (FoodGeek) .
- Play with different bread shapes. Shaping is a fun way to have a lot of variety with the same dough. You can bake your dough as a boule, or in a loaf pan, or flattened out as a focaccia or fougasse, divided small and shaped into buns (of which there are a zillion variations), rolled thinly into breadsticks or flattened and baked as pitas. These are all worth experimenting with to vary your bakes from the same-old loaf.
- Don’t lust after the Instagram-perfect loaf. This is one specific type of bread. These tend to be high-hydration sourdough loaves which are tricky to work with and take a while to get right. A simple yeasted straight-dough will be a much quicker win. Also, ask yourself how useful a loaf with huge open holes in the crumb is for spreading jam or peanut butter on. While they may look pretty, they make lousy sandwiches for my kids’ lunch boxes.
- Relax. Bread is very forgiving and people have been baking it for a very long time without any of the tools I’m recommending here. In my 18 months of baking multiple loaves per week, only once have I ended up with an actually inedible loaf: a failed sourdough attempt. The loaves may not be beautiful, but they’ll all be edible and most will be delicious.
- Understanding your one bread recipe will let you move around the bread “map” with more confidence. When you’re comfortable with a basic bread dough, other items like brioche, bagels, foccacia, pretzels, English muffins, and cinnamon buns are a much smaller step.
Consider the universal bread recipe:
Flour: different flours (whole wheat, rye, kamut, …), different mixes (all white vs 50% whole wheat, …)
Pre-ferment: none, poolish, biga, old-dough
Water: bagels are low hydration (50%), ciabatta is much higher (85%)
Salt: 2% of flour weight is pretty standard
Yeast: 0.6% of flour weight for a 90m-2h rise, less for longer proof times and higher for enriched doughs. None at all for flat breads like tortillas and roti.
Fats: Butter, oil, milk. Generally under 5%, but higher for grissini (Italian bread sticks) and brioche.
Add-ins: seeds, nuts, fruit, cheese, chocolate, …
Fillings/Toppings: cinnamon/sugar, apple cinnamon, meats, cheeses, …
As with the shaping, small variations in the ingredients can lead to a huge variety of breads. Your local bakery probably makes most of their loves with the same large batch of dough but different add-ins, shapes, and mark-ups.
Once you can bake your single perfect loaf, bread becomes a delicious Choose-Your-Own-Adventure(tm).
I also recommend avoiding sourdough at the start. Since learning to bake bread is a series of experiments, you want your iterations to be as fast as possible. Waiting 3 days to see if a change has had the desired affect is a huge slowdown compared to 4–5 hours for testing buns or a regular yeasted bread and will affect how quickly you can learn and improve.
And since many people have been asking me for book recommendations, my favourite is “Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes” by Jeffrey Hamelman. I’ve found there are three categories of baking resources: thoose aimed at the home baker who just wants to make bread, those aimed at people attempting to recreate “artisan-style” bread at home, and those aimed at the professional baker working in industry. Jeffrey Hamelman’s book is definitely the third category but is totally accessible for the home baker.
The next post in this series is be the recipe and process I currently use to bake our regular 30% whole wheat bread, along with the little tips and tricks I’ve added to the process.
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