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The (Big) Holey Grail

We've all seen the beautiful pictures of breads with big holes in them. Italian bread. French bread. And you, like me, might want to make them. My own preferences lean towards whole wheat and rye breads, but making those breads is a real challenge. A challenge I just can't leave alone.

Every baking book has a fool proof recipe that guarantees you'll achieve what I'm calling "The (Big) Holey Grail". And yet... I'm not quite there yet. This page will chronicle my experiments and results.

The bulk of the work on this project is being done with the revised Three Stage French Bread Recipe. Among other things, I have been changing the recipe to increase the hydration levels. To do this, look the Downloads page and download the Three Stage Converter Spreadsheet. Most recently, I made the bread with the first two stages at 100% hydration, the next at 80% hydration and the last at 70% hydration. This was done with Sam's Club "Bakers and Chef's Bread Flour". How much hydration your flour can stand will determine how far to go down this road. When I tried 75 and 80% hydration for the final stage, I found the dough too fragile to put in the oven and too liquid to work. Other flours will work differently. For more information about this, look at our Flour Test.

At this writing, I feel the key elements are the flour, the hydration, using a baking stone, and allowing a full rise. However, each of these topics is filled with misinformation, old husband tales and superstition. In the paragraphs below, I'll discuss what I've read, what I've observed, and what I've experimented with. This page will be changing in days and weeks to come!

Flour - without flour, we don't have bread, and baker's spend more time obsessing about flour than any other ingredient of their breads. My strong feeling is that any flour can make good bread. All the flours I've tested are of high quality, but some are more suited to some purposes than others. The big debate at this point is between people who prefer all-purpose and high gluten/bread flours. This is, I think, what British baker's would refer to as common or strong bread flours.

It is worth noting that the flours in Italy and France have around 9% protein. This compares favorably with all-purpose flour. As a result, it does not seem necessary to use flours with 14 to 18% protein. My own tests, documented in the Flour Test section indicates that bread flours produce breads with less flavor than lower protein flours. When the sack says, "Better for Bread", it's worth asking "what kind of bread?" My tentative answer here is, "breads like you find in the grocery store, the kind of breads you are trying to NOT make at home." So... try a good all-purpose flour. We have been very happy with Gold Medal All-Purpose flour and Peter Pan All-Purpose Flour. (Other brands will be added here as they are tested. If a brand is not listed here, it does not mean the brand is inferior to those listed. It means that either we haven't tested it and can't comment on it, or that we feel the flour is best suited for other breads.)

Hydration - many baking books point out that dough is happier when it is somewhat too wet than when it is somewhat too dry. A wet dough can rise better than a too dry one. Of course, you can go too far down the "wetter is better" road. At some point the dough won't have enough flour in it to have the elasticity needed to trap the gases that will cause the bread to rise. Baker's measure hydration in terms of percentages.

All measurements are based on the flour being 100%. The water, and any other ingredients, are measured as a percentage of the flour. For best repeatability, all measurements are made by weight. For ease of calculation, I suggest using the metric system. (70% of a kilogram is 700 grams. 70% of a pound is 11.2 ounces. Either can be weighed accurately. But grams are easier to get right.)

It is worth noting that when you change flours, whether it's from one brand to another, or even from one batch to another, how the flour handles may change, and you may have to adjust your recipe. Professional bakers buy as large a quantity of flour as they can manage to keep to a minimum the number of times they have to re-calibrate their recipes. Once you have a recipe working correctly, pay close attention to how the dough feels, how it handles. Is it stretchy? Does it snap back? Is it glossy? Is it sticky? How sticky? Does it stick to anything it touches? Does it take a few seconds to stick? Does it peel away from a surface cleanly? Can you easily seal a seam? None of these questions have right or wrong answers - they are observations you need to make of your dough so you can make a dough like that again.

Using a baking stone - helps you transfer heat to your loaf quickly. Classic wood fired ovens had heavy hearths. The hearths were heated, and the hearth heated the oven. When bread was put in the oven it was baked by radiation - heat from the walls of the oven, by convection - moving air currents in the oven, and by conduction - heat from the heart conducted to the bread by the contact of the dough on the hearth. Today's modern home ovens don't have enough mass to heat by conduction, and this is one reason breads don't develop the crust that breads used to have, and that breads baked in professional hearth ovens still have.

There are a number of options here. One is to purchase a HearthKit. This is a fairly expensive ceramic insert that fits into a conventional oven and helps it act like a hearth oven. All the people I know who have used them, love them. However, they are pricey. The next option is the FibraMent oven stone. This is another professional grade tool. It's considerably less pricey than the Hearth Kit. If you become interested in either of these products, shop around. Some companies price these products at lower, or higher, prices than others.

For the budget impaired, there are two more options. One is to buy a "pizza stone" at a nearby cookware store, hardware store, department store, or even grocery store. However, these really don't use oven space efficiently, they tend to be fragile, and at around $15.00 each, they are much more expensive than the next option.

Unglazed quarry tiles are widely available, and they are cheap. Every time these tiles are mentioned in news groups someone asks about lead. All the research I have done suggests that lead is in many ceramic glazes, and that it is not in the clay itself. As a result, an unglazed tile is safe. To double check this, I bought a lead test kit, and my unglazed quarry tiles tested as having no lead in them. Measure your oven, find out what size tiles are available, and then buy enough tiles to cover all the racks in your oven. I comment on this at some length on the baking stones page.

Allowing a full rise - seems to be the final phase of the quest for the (big) holey grail. I usually let my bread rise in bannetons. I like the texture that they give my bread. I'd been putting about a kilogram of dough into the banneton. When the banneton was full, the dough had just about doubled. And the bread was always heavy. Never big holey. So, I did an experiment using the 70% hydration three stage French bread and Sam's Club "Bakers and Chef's Bread flour".

I put the usual kilogram of dough into one banneton, 500 grams into another, and 250 grams of dough in a third. I let the kilogram loaf rise as usual, and let the 500 and 250 gram loaves rise until they seemed to be risen all the way. I repeated this experiment with circular and oval (baguette shaped) bannetons. The pictures are below.

Rise Test Pictures

The family portraits.... Circular loaves  rise test Baguette shaped loaves rise test (the right loaf fell prey to self appointed quality control testers) The three round and three baguette shaped loaves were made with 1000 grams, 500 grams, and 250 grams of dough. The 1,000 gram loaves pretty much doubled in volume, while the 500 and 250 gram loaves approximately tripled in size. The large baguette loaf fell prey to some self appointed quality control inspectors. They reported the loaf was delightful, and have been banished from the kitchen. This was the first time I used the baguette shaped bannetons, so these loaves have somewhat more flour on them than usual.

The sides of the loaves that weren't in contact with the bannetons linen liner were sprayed with olive oil so they wouldn't dry out in the bannetons. This helped produce a relatively unrestricted rise.

The 1,000 gram loaves were very The 1,000 gram round loaf rise test The 1,000 gram baguette loaf  rise test typical of the three stage French loaves I've made in the past, tasty, but rather heavy. The loaves were baked when the dough had risen to fill the bannetons, about a 2x rise. The loaves have a tight and somewhat irregular crumb, with a nice taste, without much there to suggest these are sourdough loaves.

The 500 gram loaves 500 gram circular loaf rise test 500 gr Baguette loaf rise test had a feeling of "lightness" to them, and they had a much more open and irregular crumb. Also, the tastes of sourdough have come through much more than with the 1,000 gram loaf. This is because the bread had another 2 hours to rise compared to the 1,000 gram loaves.

The 250 gram loaves 250 gram round loaf rise test 250 gram baguette loaf rise test were allowed to rise about another hour after the 500 gram loaves were baked in hopes that they'd rise a bit more. The round loaf was a little larger than a large Schlotzky's bun, though it was much better risen. The 250 gram baguette loaf was considerably harder to shape than the 500 or 1,000 gram loaves. The taste had some, but not much, more sourdough taste than 500 gram loaves. The crumb was somewhat more open, somewhat more of the (big) holey grail.

This experiment suggests that, up until now, I've been over-crowding my pans and bannetons, and cheating myself out of the full rise the bread was capable of. Which also explains why I saw so little benefit from other changes in technique I'd tried.