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Baking Is A Balancing Act

Based on the emails I get, it seems lots of people have problems with getting their bread done, all the way through, without burning the outside. There are a few things you need to get right to get the bread right.

Start with the dough development. Most doughs should pass the windowpane test when you are done kneading it. This is where you pinch off a ball of dough, and tease it between your hands, stretching it out until you can see light through it without the dough tearing. You aren't trying to read a newspaper through it, just hold it up towards a light bulb and see if you can see light through it. If not, knead another 5 minutes and try again. And, yes, you can develop whole wheat to the point where it passes a windowpane test. However, rye breads and breads with lots of added ingredients like seeds, nuts, raisins and so on won't develop to the point where they can pass a windowpane test. On those, the experience you gained with other doughs will serve you in good stead, as you learn how a developed dough should feel.

Next, let your bread get a full rise. A full rise is essential for full development of flavor. One way people miss the boat here is to overfill the bread pans or rising pans they use. Put another way, don't overcrowd your bread pans. You should fill a bread pan or form somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 full so the bread has room to rise and give you a gently rounded dome that isn't threatening to collapse around the pan. All too often when someone overfills a pan, the bread quickly rises to fill the pan and then the baker bakes the bread too soon.

If you are making free form loaves, it can be hard to tell when the dough has doubled in size. To help you learn what a dough that has doubled in size looks like you might pinch off some dough and put it into a glass measuring cup so you can watch it rise. The dough should at least double before you bake it. Looking at the free form loaf looks like when the dough in the measuring cup has doubled will be instructive.

A sad fact of life is that many oven thermostats are off, and all too often they let the oven temperature fluctuate. So you should invest in an oven thermometer. Oven thermometers are available at most grocery stores for around five dollars. Make sure your oven is at the right temperature when you put the bread in, and until you are familiar with your oven check the temperature often.

I don't care for the "start with a cold oven" techniques. The usual arguments for the cold start technique is that it doesn't use as much energy and it doesn't heat your home as much as using a warm oven start. Being environmentally aware, and having lived in Texas, I am sympathetic to both issues. However, I am more interested in making good bread than being politically correct.

The basic issues I have with the cold start oven technique are that different ovens heat at different rates, so what works in your friend's oven may not work in yours; if you use oven tiles or baking stones they need to be pre-heated to work correctly which cannot happen in a cold start oven; and finally that you can only do it once per day. If you are making multiple bakes of bread, they will come out differently if you bake one batch with a cold start oven and the rest in a pre-heated oven.

I have similar issues with bake schedules that have you change the temperature during the bake. "Start at 450F for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350F for the rest of the bake" read one set of instructions. My oven and the cookbook authors may not cool off at the same rate. Finally, face it, it's an oven not a sports car - it doesn't corner, accelerate or brake very well. When the bake is over, you have to get the oven temperature back to 450 for the next batch, which takes a while and reduces the amount of bread you can bake in a day. So, I try to hold oven temperatures as steady as possible.

Now that we have the basics out of the way, we get to the point hinted at in the title to this web page. Namely, that baking is a balancing act. You want the crust the right color at the same time as the crumb is as done as you want it. I suggest using a chef's thermometer to measure the temperature of the crumb. I have never had any luck tapping the bottom of a loaf and listening for a hollow sound, any more than I have had luck thumping watermelons. A thermometer is more reliable and consistent. Shoot for about 205F as being done at sea level. If you want the bread more, or less, done, shoot for a higher, or lower, temperature.

Now then.. the balancing act. It takes time to bake the crumb because it takes time for heat to penetrate the dough and cook it. If your crumb is underdone, you have to leave it in the oven longer. If your crumb is overdone, you have to bake it less time next time around.

However, the crust is controlled more by the temperature than the time. If you want a darker crust, turn the heat up 25F or so. If you want a lighter crust, turn it down.

The first catch is.. the two are related. If you reduce the heat, you may have to increase the time. Take notes, adjust as needed, and soon you'll bake bread that looks and tastes the way you want it to.

The second catch is that not all breads are the same. Different breads may well respond better to a higher, or lower heat. Again, take notes and soon you'll be consistently baking the bread you want.

As a final comment - Professor Calvel always said you can't burn bread. He wasn't quite right, but most people do under-bake their bread. Most of bread's taste is in the crust, and if it's underdone, the taste doesn't develop. So, try baking the bread 5 minutes longer, or a few degrees more, than you thought you should. Taste it, try it. See if maybe you want to go another 5 minutes or few more degrees next time. A crust can become quite dark without being burned.  Once you go too far, you can back off the next time to make your best bread.  Some people get angry reading this advice and say I'm encouraging them to burn bread.  No, anything but, I'm encouraging them to be brave and get all the flavor they can out of the bread they are working so hard to produce.


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