The Ten Steps of Baking (Totally Not a Listicle)

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

After last weeks post about the basic science of bread, I figured it might be a good idea to keep going on this rudimentary road trip through the land of yeasted loaves and carbs. For this post, and most of the posts coming up, I pulled out one of my old culinary school textbooks as a reference, and the memories came flooding back.

Namely, “Holy f*** this stupid thing is heavy.” 

41YOWNAPFuL._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIt’s still an excellent resource, though. The book is “Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach by Michael Suas, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to do a deeper dive on the science and craft of baking bread.

 

 

 

As for today, we’re gonna keep it light and- literally- go by the numbers as we cover The 10 Steps of Baking!

Stand by for tasty science!

Yzma and Kronk from The Emperors New Groove screaming "It's dinner time." in lab coats.

from The Emperors New Groove

Trust the Process

The 10 Steps of Baking is, simply put, the procedural steps needed to ensure that any kind of a yeasted bread comes out well. While not too many bakers consciously keep track of these steps (I don’t think they sell any posters that aren’t meant for schools,) it’s because at a certain point this procedure is just… how you make bread happen. You don’t exactly need a step-by-step guide for driving your car, either. Or at least, you don’t after you’ve had a drivers license for a bit.

Regardless of how conscious we are of following these steps, each step must be handled appropriately for the bread being made, or something is going to go wrong- and given the fact that each step builds upon the previous ones, screwing it up early means every step will be screwed up.

So like I say to my trainees at the shop, slow down and take your time. It’s better to go slow and learn it all right than to hurry and get it all wrong as fast as possible.

Let’s begin where all good things begin- something fluffy and weird in a tub in the corner.

 

Preferment

Pain-poolish1.jpeg

While not all breads require a preferment to turn out well, any bread that you want to have a slightly sour, tangy flavor (like baguette, ciabatta, or sourdough) absolutely need one- ideally one that has been going for a good long while.

A preferment is exactly what it sounds like- a mixture of flour, water, and occasionally a bit of yeast that was mixed up earlier and allowed to pre-ferment. 

The ins and outs of fermentation will get covered in a future blog post, but here are the basics- as the flour and water ferment, a small amount of acid is created along with the alcohol and carbon dioxide. This adds nuance to the flavor of the final bread and also encourages better fermentation later on. In the case of sourdough, the preferment also encourages a colony of friendly bacteria, particularly lactobacillus. The taste of these funky little critters gives sourdough its unique tang.

In baking, a preferment (also called a “mother dough,” “starter”, “levain,” or “poolish”) can be maintained indefinitely by “feeding” it- removing some of the starter and replacing it with an equal weight of fresh flour and water that gets mixed in. In this way, preferments have been passed down through families, and the Boudin Bakery in San Francisco has been able to use the same starter dough for the last 150 YEARS.

If that’s the way you want to bake, just remember- FEED THE BEAST.

 

 

Animated GIF of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors saying "Feed me."

You might have an issue there… from Little Shop of Horrors

 

 

Mixing

Animated GIF from The Powerpuff Girls of Professor Utonium mixing.

from The Powerpuff Girls

Mixing is, well… kinda obvious really. It’s bringing everything together. Of course, there are right ways and wrong ways-  it’s not a matter of “dump all the things in a bowl.”
For starters, bread bakers have to be mindful of the temperature of their ingredients. Using ingredients that are too cold will chill and slow down the yeast from doing its job. Too hot, and the bread might proof uncontrollably- or the yeast might actually be killed.

The specifics of that will also include knowing the temperature of the bakeshop, the “friction coefficient” of your mixer (essentially, how hot will your dough get just from the act of being mixed), and even the ambient humidity. Not too mentioned the duration- you don’t want your bread to be tough and chewy from overmixing. All of that is beyond the scope of this post, but at the base level, my advice is putting the water in the bowl first. This prevents bits of dry flour not being incorporated.

Once the dough is mixed up into a single, glorious, uniform mass, it’s time to cover it carefully and let the next step handle itself.

1rst Fermentation

Also called “floor time” or “bulk fermentation”, this is when the yeast gets down to business and starts to party. While the yeast will continue to do its job right up until oven time, fermenting in bulk actually creates the best conditions for proofing. Simply by having a large amount of material and space for a larger amount of yeast to do its work in, fermenting in this way leads to better dough strength and flavor. Bakers call this phenomenon… “mass effect.”

Animated GIF from Mass Effect 3

Yes, really.

Once the dough has proofed as much as you need it to, it’s time to cut it down to size.

Dividing

Unless you intend on baking one gargantuan loaf of bread, you’re gonna need to trim that sucker down. It’s not simply a matter of going to town with a bench cutter though.

Now that the dough is proofed, it’s going to be very fragile. You want to handle it carefully and as little as possible to avoid messing with the gluten structure more than necessary. The dough will get portioned by weight, accounting for the loss of moisture in the baking process to get the desired final weight of each loaf. Ideally, you want to try and get these weights right the first time around- cutting little bits off or trying to stick them on won’t always work, and overtaxes your dough. Figure out the weight you want, and try to one-shot it every time.

A dough portioning machine

You probably don’t have one of these in action. Sorry.

Preshaping

Now that you’ve got your dough portioned, it’s time to get it into the basic shape you’ll need. Normally this will be little balls (called “boules”) for things like rolls and loaves, or rectangles for things that’ll need to be rolled out or laminated. This is another opportunity for overhandling, so try not to work your dough too hard. Also, you always want to finish with a nice, smooth surface. Every step influences the final product, and a nice smooth ball will proof like a balloon. A scrappy, rough little ball will not.

Take your time, respect your work, and don’t be a Speedy Shmuck. At the same time… show a little hustle.

giphy-6

Two handing it for the win!

Resting Time

5e3.gifSecond verse, same as the first. No “mass effect” this time, but after all the cutting and shaping, we let the gluten rest and recover itself so we can work with it some more later on.

During any resting time, you want to keep the dough covered well so it doesn’t dry out. At school, a piece of plastic sheeting was sufficient to keep the dough from drying in the open air. If you’re dough dries, it’ll crack and split- making hard bits in your bread and an ugly crust. There aren’t too many ways to repair the damage, so keep it simple- if your hands are off the dough, cover it up!

Shaping

BACK IN ACTION! Time to give your bread loaves their final shape. Here’s where those slabs will become puff dough and those boules oval-shaped batard, or baguette, ficelle, or any of several interesting shapes. Again, don’t overwork your dough, and keep anything your hands aren’t on right then covered.

Still of Frieza from Dragonball Z with the caption "This isn't even my final form!"

All bread post will have a Frieza gif in them, somehow.

Final Proofing

Yes… yes… rise, my children… Having been given an idea of what they will finally be, your loaves undergo their final proof. This will happen in a covered or protected space- like under plastic sheeting or in a proofing cabinet, where humidity controls will prevent your little loaves from drying out.

Alternatively, this is also the point where, if you intend to bake them off the next day, you can stick them in a cold space- like the fridge- to slow down their proofing. They will continue to proof, but considerably more slowly, giving you more control of when you want to bake your bread, and how fresh you want it to be.

Baking

The time has come! Using a peel, or carefully laying them in by hand, load your little loaves into the oven. You might use a razor to score your loaves first or mist them with water to encourage a stiff crust. To encourage color, you might even egg-wash them the give them a shiny brown look, such as for brioche or croissants.

Remember to space your bread carefully! Overcrowding your oven means that hot air will have less space to move around your bread, creating an uneven bake.

As the bread bakes, the Maillard reactions start, and the oven spring takes place.

But when the bread is done… it’s not quite done.

giphy-downsized-19

Cooling

When your bread is done, place it on racks that allow for good airflow, and leave it alone to cool.

This can seem either like a no-brainer (“Eating something straight from the oven is stupid.”) or a travesty (“But… but… straight from the oven though!”)

The fact is that bread goes through a few more processes as it cools. The crust will solidify and crackle, making the bread “sing.” The gluten structure will slightly retract, firming up as it loses the last bit of moisture it was holding on to.

Finally, once the bread is cool enough to handle… you may enjoy!

A talking loaf of bread. Aaaaaand I'm done.

Oh boy, I needed more nightmares.

 

That’s It!

There’s the 10 Steps of Baking, folks! What do you think? Anything you want more details on? Next time I think I’ll discuss yeasts and fermentation, but what do YOU want to hear about?

Drop it in the comments and let me know!

Stay Classy,

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Loafing About- A Hot Take On Bread Science

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

A few years back, Emily and I were checking out a candle shop in Collingswood, NJ. The place (predicatably) smelled almost overpowering. Besides candles there was a lot of incense, Wicca, natural- healing, and- what I have been told is an accepted term- “woo-woo stuff.”

The proprietress was behind the counter, and she asked what we did as she rang up our purchases. I told her I was a baker, and the following exchange happened:

“Oh good! I’ve always wanted to ask a baker this! Okay, so what’s the difference between wheat, yeast, and gluten? Like I’m trying to go gluten free because it’ll help my chakras align, but I’m also vegan and I REALLY like nutritional yeast, so like, is there gluten free yeast? Isn’t yeast alive, so isn’t it actually not vegan? And I was also wondering bzzzzzzzzzzz…..”

Me:

Animated gif of an extremely baffled llama

“….”

To avoid anyone from having to deal with this shenanigans again, and to answer a couple questions that have been pitched to me by other non-baking pros, here’s a Crash Course on Bread.

Let’s get started.

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The Role of Discomfort in Development

 

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I get to work these days before dawn. As I walk in, the first order of business is checking the oven to make sure the settings are right.

Next, the days first load of croissants- waiting patiently in the proof box since the night before. They need to be in the oven in 30 minutes.

They aren’t ready. Small and sticky still. Crap… that’s not right.

A quick look at the control panel on the box confirms my fears. They’re gonna be late.

Right- time for Plan B. The cookies have time to go in.

Wait… that doesn’t look right. Why is the oven temperature tanking? Ugh… ok. Back on track, make up the time later.

The new wholesale management system is messed up. No one to call to check numbers for retail. Dammit… ok, just fudge the numbers. Wholesale is accounted for, I can bake more for the store later if needed.

The piping tip I need is missing. Use a similar one and change technique to compensate.

Not enough sheet pans- the other stores haven’t been sending them back. Rummage around and condense. There’s gotta be stuff to layer.

It’s cool. I’ll figure it out. It’s fine.

Animated GIF of the cartoon

“Totally fine… I’ve got this. I’ve got this…”

At least I’m learning some interesting tricks…”

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The Eye For Detail

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

There are reasons I call myself a “baker,” and not a “pastry chef.”

Beyond the respect and station that I think comes with the “chef” title that I personally don’t think I’ve earned just yet, or the argument that “a chef is a cook who leads other cooks” and I haven’t had any cooks under my command for longer than a couple hours, there’s the fact that… well… I don’t think I’m quite crazy enough yet.

Let me explain- when I say “not crazy enough,” I mean that I still stand in rapt awe, wonder, and a little fear, of people who possess the meticulous attention to detail necessary to do certain things. Not just do them once or twice, but REPETITIVELY, and CONSISTENTLY. No cutting corners, no shrugging things off as “rustic” or “it’s meant to be like that”- if whatever these people do isn’t looking pristine, it’s unacceptable.
While I’m not exactly envious of the perfectionism these individuals have (my grandfather’s saying “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good’” comes to mind- and he was a brain surgeon) I am constantly in wonder of the level of PERCEPTION involved in noticing minuscule details.

Like many things in this world, an ideal case study for it comes from a certain mouse.

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