Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The Real Bread ovens were quiet this winter, but not completely dormant. Though we took the season off from production baking, we still bake to keep bread on our table, and to keep the sourdough starter lively and happy. Having a nice bubbly bucket of sourdough culture* on the counter made it easy to throw together a dough at a moment's notice; a dough which would then have to proof for twelve hours or so before baking, but never mind.

You hear all the time that tired old line that cooking is art but baking is science. Well, some kinds of baking, maybe; not my kind. Here's my very unscientific method:

First, wake up in the middle of the night. Some time between 2:30 and 3:30 is best. Lie there for a while trying to get back to sleep; now, give up. Get out of bed quietly, careful not to step on the dogs. Tip-toe downstairs in the dark, hoping that the vacuum cleaner hasn't been left at the bottom of the stairs. There will be quite a ruckus if it has.

Assuming we have reached the kitchen without stubbed toe or barked shin and attendant cursing, barking dogs and wife shouting in alarm: There are probably some dinner dishes to finish up, counters to wipe. And then there's that bucket of starter, refreshed the day before, looking perky and inviting, smelling tart and winy. Might as well make some bread.

An eight-quart stainless steel mixing bowl is always handy around here. Slop some starter in, about a cup. Slosh in water, about the same amount. In the pantry we keep whole wheat bread flour and rye flour in plastic bins that hold 25 pounds. I'll add a generous half-cup of whole wheat, maybe half that of rye. Sometimes some cracked wheat, too, or cracked wheat and no rye. If the jar of buckwheat flour catches my eye I might add some of that, and if I do I'm likely also to add a spoon of buckwheat honey to the dough, to extend the theme.

Then back in the kitchen I round it out with unbleached white flour to make a soft dough, and I just stir with the wooden bread paddle until it comes together. I don't bother to knead it at this point. I sprinkle some flour over top of the dough for no particular reason, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and go back to bed. Oh, wait--there's laundry in the washing machine. Hang that on the basement line, then back to sleep.

Then in the real morning, after coffee, scoop the dough out of the bowl and knead it a quick few turns, then weigh it. This is the "scientific" part. If you don't have a scale in your kitchen, well, what on earth are you thinking? You need a scale. Go get one, right now. You can order one on-line. We'll wait for you.... (We use a Salter scale like this one, only ours is white. )

The reason for weighing the dough is to know how much salt to add. I add about one teaspoon sea salt per pound of dough. Actually, now that I know that this method produces about two-and-a-quarter to two-and-a-half pounds of dough, I don't really need to weigh it...but I do.

So flatten out the dough and sprinkle the salt over it, roll it up and knead briefly--I mean, one minute or less--to distribute the salt. Then back in the bowl, cover with plastic, leave it alone to rise while you go about your day. It will be perfectly happy; bread dough likes to be left alone.

And it will be happy to see you when you come back to it in the late afternoon, to massage it again for just a minute to firm things up, and divide it into two plump batards which you place on a wooden peel dusted with cornmeal. The loaves must now proof for a good hour-an-a-half; you turn on the oven to 475 after an hour, and there's a baking stone in there. Ours are made of the miraculous FibraMent-D material, and were purchased at .

Ten minutes before oven time, slash the loaves with a sharp serrated knife or single-edge razor blade (or French baker's lame, if you have one). Oh, put the seeds on, or dust with flour for a pretty, rustic look, before slashing. The seeds: Sesame, poppy, gold and brown flax. Use a pastry brush to wet the surface of the loaf with water, sprinkle seed mix on generously. Then slash the loaves in an appealing pattern; it's totally up to you.

For a really brown and crusty loaf, the baking stone is one key element. Steam is the other. We keep a small (maybe, seven- or eight-inch?) cast iron skillet in the bottom of the oven. It stays there all the time, just as the stone stays in the oven at all times. It's an electric oven. We make sure the skillet isn't touching the element. When we're ready to bake we have four ice cubes at hand, and we open the door to the very hot oven, slide the loaves from the peel onto the stone (always do a trial shoogle to make sure the loaves will slide freely), and deftly, carefully toss the ice cubes into the skillet. Hearing that satisfying sizzle, now close the door--quickly, but don't slam it, that's bad form.

Turn the oven down to 455. Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 430 and bake for another eight minutes or so, until the loaves are deep brown, and emit that "hollow sound" when tapped on the bottom. Let them rest at least a half hour before slicing. Leave one loaf on the bread board, ready for the eating. Freeze the other, if you like. When you bring it out of the freezer, take it out of the plastic bag to thaw, so the crust revives.

Of course, you could start this whole process before you go to bed, but then there'd be less to amuse you when you wake up in the middle of the night.

Here's the "recipe" for the pictured breads. It uses our own maple syrup! We just finished boiling down the last of the sap. The maple flavor is very subtle; the sugar gives the starter a boost.

Maple Cracked Wheat Levain

1 cup well-refreshed starter
1 1/4 cups water, room temp
2/3 cup whole wheat bread flour
1/4 cup cracked wheat
1 1/2 Tbsp real maple syrup
1 cup (or so) unbleached all-purpose flour--stir in a bit at a time until a soft dough is formed
2 1/4 tsp fine sea salt


* Here's a
nice, long-winded recipe for sourdough starter from an old Real Bread missive.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw


Wendy Berrell said...

Great stuff here - thanks. My wife makes a wonderful bread very similar to that discussed in this post. She too uses steam.

You have a super blog going.

mdmnm said...

Lovely description and loaves. That really is "no knead" when you get right down to it.

Kim Ode said...

Thank you, thank you for casting bread as art more than science. That's how I approach it, as well, but get a wary, even dismissive, eye from those bakers who worry over their hydration percentages and protein content and measure down to the gram. Cakes are another matter; such pastries I will grant are more science. But bread is instinct, intuition, experience, feel, taste - well, you know. Beautiful loaves!

kim said...

What a fun blog! I love the food you make and photograph. As someone from Michigan, we're working under some of the same seasonal constraints, but also find our wonderful world of local food among the best reasons to love where we live.

Trout Caviar said...

Hey, Wendy: I've experimented with steam vs. no steam, and found that it really does make a difference, both in the crust and the expansion of the loaf in the oven. (So, I can be a little scientific...!) The ice cubes in the skillet method is easy once you get the hang of it. Thanks for the note.

On yet another scientific note, mdmnm, I've read that acidity in dough strengthens gluten, which may be why long-proofed doughs, especially naturally leavened ones, don't require much kneading. Whatever the reason, the laissez-faire method seems to work well. Cheers (and happy fishing!).

Kim O., you hit it on the head with the combination of experience and intuition (and I know you walk the talk, 'cause I've seen and tasted your excellent bread!). I don't think I'd go so far as to call it art; more like having the sense to let those natural processes happen. I think you watch bread make itself, as much as you make it (getting into mystical territory now!). Thanks so much for writing.

Best to all~ Brett

Trout Caviar said...

Welcome, kim from Michigan! We surely do share a lot in terms of climate and culture. I'm delighted that you're enjoying "Trout Caviar," and hope you'll send more reports of the good life in Michigan. Cheers~ Brett