Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Time, the baker's best friend/enemy....

Time is among the most important elements in baking. Too much or too little can ruin the simplest recipe (ask my sister about burning water.) There is a basic time rhythm to my bread baking, which is tweaked a bit for specific recipes. Your average loaf of bread won't self destruct in a matter of minutes, but 10 minutes can make the difference both during a proof and certainly during baking.

My typical bread baking goes something like this.
Make a preferment the day before baking.
When starting a loaf, step 1 is to fill the tea kettle and turn it on. I'll need the hot water in about 10 minutes.
Put all dry ingredients in the mixing bowl, add preferment/wet ingredients and turn on the dough hook.
Just bring the dough together, cover with a towel and set the timer for 20 minutes. This lets the flour hydrate, more important with whole wheat flour from what I've read. I skip this with some breads like challah which don't require much kneading or hydrating.
When the timer goes off, remove the towel and start the dough hook back up.
While the bread is mixing/kneading, put a large bowl in the oven and fill with hot water from the kettle. In a few minutes it will create a warm, moist environment that the yeast thrives in.
Take another bowl and spritzed with nonstick spray.
Put kneaded dough into nonstick sprayed bowl, put in the oven with hot water. Set timer for 2 hours.
When the timer goes off, set tea kettle on for a new batch of hot water. The water in the oven may still be warm, but I prefer to keep it going hot for max rise.
Pull out the dough and prep your work surface for shaping. I have a big cutting board that I prefer for this, it makes cleanup easier than using the counter.
Prep your baking dish, whether it's a loaf pan spritzed with nonstick spray or sheet pan with a silicon mat or parchment paper.
Shape your loaf in whatever style rocks your boat.
Place in the pan, put back in the oven.
Dump the old water and replace the hot water in the bowl.
Set time for 1 hour. This can vary a little bit, since some doughs proof faster or slower, but usually an hour is a good time to at least check.
When the timer goes off, if the dough is about ready pull it out and preheat the oven. Learn how long it takes for your oven to preheat and set your timer for a minute or two past that, so you get the loaf in the oven immediately after preheat finishes.
Don't forget to remove the hot water bowl. My hot water bowl is oven safe, just in case I forget.
Glaze the loaf if you are using an egg wash or other crust treatment. This helps keep the loaf from drying out during preheating. If you aren't using a glaze, find a bowl or plastic container big enough to cover the dough so it doesn't crust. I've never had luck with plastic wrap, and I prefer to have something around that I reuse.
When the timer goes off and the oven is preheated, put the loaf in the oven and set your time for the recommended baking time. This is usually between 25-45 minutes, depending on the size and shape of the loaf. A typical loaf pan with 1 1/2 pounds of dough takes about 35 minutes, a French loaf takes closer to 25. Wetter doughs can also take longer than dryer ones.
When the timer goes off, check your loaf with a temp probe, knock on it, or just go on good faith that it's done. Put the pan on a trivet and let it cool for at least 15 minutes before trying to dump out the loaf.
Don't forget to turn off your oven.
Put the loaf on a cooling rack for at least an hour before attempting to cut. Warm loaves aren't done baking, the gluten inside is still solidifying.
Keep the loaf in a plastic bag or sealed bin to keep it fresh. Most bread is only good for a day or two before it gets stale.
Overall, it takes probably 4 hours on average to make a loaf of bread. You can do many things while waiting for it to proof and bake, but always be nearby so you can do the next step in a timely manner.