Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Tale of Two Italian Breads

I love the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge. I really do. It has introduced me to so many new breads. But as a newbie baker, I think I'm missing out a little bit by jumping around so much -- from cinnamon rolls to bagels to corn bread. I wonder if I should stick with a few breads for a while and try to improve on my results.

I most love artisan-style breads like the baguettes I baked at the San Francisco Baking Institute, and I would like to recreate the magic of those lovely breads consistently. But here in my own kitchen, without the carefully orchestrated instructions of my teacher, things are, shall we say, hit and miss.

Exhibits A and B: Two Italian breads, baked two weeks apart.

Bread A Bread B

Bread A has such a lovely, wide open crumb. But Bread B has teeny tiny holes, like a sandwich loaf. Since this blog is (sadly) not equipped with Taste-O-Vision, you can not tell that Bread A also tasted much better.

I was actually surprised that Bread A turned out so well. I dubbed it my Delicious Disaster.

When I began Italian Bread A, I was inspired by Ying, an early finisher of the BBA challenge, who I met during my course at SFBI. She uses very wet doughs, and makes some beautiful breads with lots of large, lovely holes. (If you read Chinese, check out her personal blog. If English is your thing, you can find her on The Fresh Loaf.)

I usually keep my water to a minimum, but I wanted to see whether I could handle a wetter dough. The dough was soft and pliable, and really fun to knead. And I didn't knead it too long before it passed the windowpane test. Instead of the BBA recommended temp of 77-81 degrees, I went with my SFBI instructor's rec of 73-76 degrees.

From there, things became ... uncertain. The rise wasn't too impressive, and I feared I had a tired batch of yeast on my hands. Next, shaping this wet dough was a disaster, thanks to a major miscalculation. I split the dough into two pieces and shaped them into batards. For proofing, I placed one batard on a parchment lined pan. But the other one I foolishly placed on an unlined peel. When the time came to load it into the oven, the dough made it quite clear that it wasn't going anywhere. It just stretched and stretched to comical proportions, and it ended up looking like a dog's leg. So I just sliced it rather violently down the middle with my pastry scraper. Finally, into the oven they went.

Surprisingly, these two mini loaves turned out really well, in spite of all that handling and outright abuse. Their crusts were well browned but not too crisp, and they had a lovely, large crumb.

And the flavor was pretty spectacular too, which I imagine came from the prefermented Biga. It had a light sweetness, which played perfectly well with a large slice of ripe yellow tomato, a drizzle of olive oil, and a shower of salt and pepper.

Prefermented Biga

When I was ready to bake again a few weeks later, I returned to the Italian bread, because I wanted to see if I could recreate the flavor of Bread A, without all the drama.

This time there was less drama, but I was less satisfied with the results. As displayed in the picture, Bread B was neither spectacular in crumb nor sweet in flavor. I am trying to figure out where exactly it all went wrong. I altered so many variables, that it's hard to tell just which was the culprit. Here's a brief rundown of the different approaches I took:

Bread A

Flour: King Arthur All Purpose Flour
Temp: 75
Hydration: Imprecise, but I used all the water that was called for.
Fermentation Time: 2 hours, perhaps slightly less
Proofing Time: 1 1/2 hours
Baking Vessel: Back of a sheet pan lined with parchment

Bread B

Flour: Giusto's All Purpose Flour
Temp: 78
Hydration: I used all the water that was called for, but then added a significant amount of flour to deal with stickiness. I noticed that the dough was much drier than with Bread A.
Fermentation Time: 2 1/2hours. During that time, the dough seemed to triple in size.
Proofing Time: 1 hour
Baking Vessel: Metal french bread pan lined with parchment

My first suspicion is the hydration level. The dough seemed much drier this time around, and I suspect that led to a tighter crumb. Next, I let it ferment for almost 2 1/2 hours. During this time, the dough expanded to at least three times its original size. When I went to shape the dough into batards, it was so overblown that it lost much of its air.

This is what you get when you go out to the farmer's market while your dough is fermenting.

Finally, I wonder what effect the french bread pans had on the whole affair. They made everything so easy because the loaves proofed and baked in the same vessel. And the loaves rose nice and high and baked up very round and pretty. But I wonder if that also led to a tighter crumb.

I love these pans. But do they love my bread?

Finally, I'm not sure why the flavor fell flat on Bread B. Perhaps I prefer King Arthur over Giusto's, but I'm not entirely prepared to pledge allegiance to a single flour just yet.

As I contemplate the fate of Bread B, I'm unsure whether the culprit is one, some or all of the above. In the end, all of the suspects may be guilty, like that Agatha Christie novel (spoiler alert!) where each character had a hand in murdering the victim.

If you have a clue, dear reader, I beg you to share it with me.

Bread B wasn't so bad. Elmo really enjoyed it. And he has very high standards.

1 comment:

misterrios said...


Hydration did have a lot to do with the open crumb of the first bread, but I think the main thing is the way the bread rose.

When the first bread barely rose, it was still building up carbon dioxide inside of it, and even mishandling it with it being stuck to an unlined peel- well, the dough was still on the rise. So, when it hit the oven, it went crazy with the oven rise.

The second bread. If it had tripled in volume, it means that it had no more rise to give. When you shaped it, the yeast had already given up most of what it had to give.

You catch the best holes when the bread is on the rise. The gluten is still strong from forming bubbles, and not already stretched out from a big rise.

Either way, I do wish your blog had Taste-O-Vision because I would love to taste both breads!