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The taste of time
Time gives to bread what has been described as a "depth of flavor" or "complexity." It is the ingredient that makes ordinary bread great.
Time is an interesting ingredient to work with and the only one I don't weigh. Too little will make for mediocre bread, too much eventually will dissolve its structure. Time allows the enzymes in the dough to turn the starches into sugars, and when the temperature is controlled, allows the naturally occurring bacteria to make your dough sour, which is particularly important for, unsurprisingly, sourdough.
There are several simple techniques that I use for adding time and flavor to bread, and though some are easier for me to incorporate because I bake every day, they aren't difficult, they just take a little more, well, time. These techniques apply to most of your favorite breads, but really are most noticeable and appreciated when applied to simple "lean" breads. If you would like to see for yourself what I mean, I suggest taking a favorite recipe, something simple like a French or Italian loaf with only flour, water, salt, yeast, and maybe some sugar, and baking a batch normally and then bake a batch using one of the techniques described below so you can taste the difference. So, first things first, get your Mise en Place (everything in place) together. Weigh out or measure your ingredients and have your bowls, etc., at hand.
• Sponges: A "sponge" is made by taking some of the water, flour and yeast, mixing it and letting it sit for at least one hour and up to four. You also can refrigerate it overnight. Take all of the water called for and then take an equal amount of flour, by volume, and one-third to one-half of the yeast, and mix. Cover the bowl. Run some errands, catch a movie, practice your fiddle or whatever, and then mix the remaining ingredients and go from there.
• Old dough (commonly known as the French Pâte Fermentée): This is a very simple technique for enhancing the flavor of your bread if you bake regularly. Simply reserve some of the previous day's dough in the refrigerator and add it to the new batch the next day. Just make sure to pull the old dough out at least two hours before mixing.
• Soakers: A soaker is just a name for mixing part of the water and flour and often other ingredients such as seeds together with most or all of the salt and letting it soak for 12-24 hours unrefrigerated or up to three days in the fridge. This is a favorite technique of mine, particularly for whole wheat breads, yielding a sweeter loaf with a greater rise. Because there is no yeast present you don't have to worry about them exhausting the dough. Also, the enzymes don't have any competition for "food" so they are free to go about their work making the dough tastier. For whole wheat breads, soakers have the added benefit of softening the bran in the dough.
On a microscopic level, unsoftened bran bits act like little gluten swords, cutting the strands that maintain the bread's rise, making for a denser loaf. Soaking the flour dulls the edges of the bran-swords, so fewer gluten strands are sliced and the loftiest loft is achieved.
To make a soaker, mix 75 percent to all of the flour with all of the water and the salt. Reserving some of the flour will allow for easier shaping, but you won't get the full flavor. Cover the bowl. Go for a hike, do some laundry, knit a scarf or perhaps a sweater (honestly, I don't know how long knitting takes, but you've got awhile). When you return from your activity of choice, mix the remaining ingredients and follow the rest of the recipe. If you refrigerated the soaker, pull it from the fridge at least two hours before you mix.
• The easiest way of all to mix in some time is to refrigerate the shaped loaves overnight. Follow the recipe and when you are finished loafing, cover the loaf and pan somewhat loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Refrigeration slows down the action of the yeast, letting more flavor develop. Pull the loaf or loaves out in the morning, allow them to complete their rise and bake. This also is an easy way to taste the difference time makes. Refrigerate one loaf and rise and bake the other immediately. You also can use these techniques in tandem, i.e., use a sponge, then refrigerate the loaves.
There are a few other techniques, mostly other versions of "pre-doughs" such as sponges and soakers, but these are a good place to start and I have run out of space and time.
I hope that use of these techniques will lead to better bread for you as they have for me and I encourage you to play around with time in your baking. I also should mention from experience that if in your experiments with space and time you discover any black holes, you're not an accidental physicist, you just baked the bread too long.
Roger Stukey is an owner/operator of Cedar Creek in Sequim.