Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Quest For The Perfect Baguette

It's July already and I finally got to open my Christmas present. It was so worth the wait. The gift? A two day workshop at the San Francisco Baking Institute. The mission? Learn to bake the perfect baguette.

Not that I expect to bake the perfect baguette. Ever. Certainly not after our teacher shared this little bit of new age-y wisdom: baking the perfect baguette is a journey, not a destination. I know, it sounds a little like Oprah is handing out advice to novice bakers. But forget Oprah. The baguette is quintessentially French. Those crazy, sadomasochistic French. For them, perfection is an elusive goal, eternally out of touch. But it is what makes them so good, non?

Our class was full of home bakers, but there were also some professional students practicing their technique alongside us, and you could see how they had been infected by the desire for perfection. You could see it as they sliced open their baguettes and sighed at the sight of some slight imperfection that escaped my novice gaze.

It was an intense two days, with each of us mixing, shaping and baking 30 baguettes. We were working with 2 kilos of dough at at time. Ooof, that's like trying to manipulate a Teletubby. We tested out six different formulations, including short mix, poolish, sponge, wheat germ, teff poolish and sunflower seed.

We also spent a lot of time in the classroom, absorbing factoids about flours, yeasts, fermentation and more. When our instructor started throwing around terms like "friction factor," I froze. I realized that the vast volume of things I DON'T know about baking could fill the whole Internet. Two days could hardly cure me of my ignorance. But I did bring home some lessons and shocking revelations that will hopefully lead me down the path to better bread. Dare I hope for the perfect baguette?

1. Get Your Yeast Right: Instant Yeast is essential for baking bread (unless you're talking sourdough, of course). It mixes well with the other ingredients, hydrates easily and gives your dough a lot of oomph. Sadly, I have been using Active Dry Yeast all along (those Fleischmann's packages are so confusing!). It turns out that Active Dry Yeast undergoes a very harsh process, which leaves lots of dead yeast cells in each packet. This is bad for bread. On the bright side, it's good for pizza, as the dead yeast cells act as a natural dough relaxer, so you can stretch your pizza dough more easily. So we have plenty of yeast ready for our next pizza fests. And I am going to buy me some instant yeast.

2. Get Your Flour Right: You'd think that if you're baking bread, you should purchase "Bread Flour." Right? Wrong. This floored me. Let's see if I can explain. Most so-called bread flour is ground from spring wheat, which is higher in protein than winter wheat. This gives it a high mixing tolerance, which helps the dough hold up to industrial, mechanized bread production. So it's good for making things like white bread and hamburger buns. But for artisan breads like baguettes, what you want is winter wheat. Although winter wheat is lower in protein than spring wheat, the protein is of a higher quality. That gives you better fermentation tolerance, which allows for longer fermentation that draws out flavor in artisan breads. Phew. See what I mean about filling up the interwebs? Here is a list of flours that got our teacher's stamp of approval.

King Arthur Unbleached All Purpose
Whole Foods 365 Organic Unbleached All Purpose
Central Milling Flours, Utah
Gold Medal Harvest King by General Mills

One caveat: flour varies by region, based on what kind of wheat is grown in your part of the country, or the world. So, while these flours may be great for West Coast bakers, it's best to experiment with whatever flours you can get your hands on.

3. Don't Score Your Loaves With A Box Cutter: Okay, so I didn't need to go to some fancy pants baking school to realize that this was not the proper tool for the job. But the first time I made baguettes, it was the only thing I had on hand. The proper tool for the job? A lame. That is, a very sharp razor blade, preferably one attached to a long, slender handle. We also learned about the proper technique. When you're scoring the dough, go at it from a sideways angle, rather than straight up and down. Of course, that is all easier said than done. One great tip? Stick the dough in the fridge for 15 minutes before scoring.

4.Get Some Ssssteam Heat: It's not remotely possible to create professional conditions in my home oven. I know that. Just look at this behemoth.

This professional oven is injected with steam as soon as the loaves go in. The result? gorgeous, crackly carmelized crust with a creamy interior full of holes. See?

But there are ways to crank up the heat and the steam at home, and approach professional results. First off, our instructor advised using two baking stones, one below the bread and one above (I have only been using one). He also showed us a crazy concoction for creating steam. I'm not going to describe it here, until I try it for myself. He also suggested that we preheat the oven for a full hour and a half before trying to bake. Eeek! I think my gas bill would go through the roof. We'll see whether I go with that method or not.

5. Stop Staring Through The Windowpane: Every recipe in The Bread Baker's Apprentice advises you to knead the dough until it passes the windowpane test, which indicates that your gluten is fully developed. But with baguettes, you don't want the gluten to be fully developed. That's because gluten gives your dough strength, and if it's too strong you won't have all those lovely holes in the crumb. Of course that leaves me with the question: how do you know when the dough is ready? I guess I'll be doing some experimenting.

I learned so much in two days at SFBI. I can't wait to go back. I'm sure there are bakers out there who would swear up and down that all of these things I learned are patently false, and they will lead to inferior bread. Go ahead, school me. I've got a lot to learn.