Don’t sweat the setbacks when you embark on ‘the great bread-making adventure’, the French baker and food writer tells Spear’s. Here are his top ten pointers
Eric Kayser has recently published The Larousse Book of Bread and to celebrate this he has compiled his top ten baking tips for us here at Spear’s.
1. It is possible to make excellent bread with all types of flours, provided the raw materials are of good quality. If you love bread and enjoy making it, you will be tempted to try out different kinds of flour. To familiarise yourself with the experience of bread making, I advise you to begin with all-purpose (plain) flour.
2. There was a time when I preferred to use organic flours, but the prohibitive costs were putting customers off. Rational and controlled agriculture has the advantages of organic cultivation without the inconveniences. It is called ‘rational’ because it ensures the use of good quality raw materials as well as methods of production which respect the environment. In the end, it’s a question of judgment: of avoiding the most harmful insecticides and pesticides, without eliminating them altogether, and of accepting a lower yield per acre. This method is less rigid and, in a way, more realistic.
3. Read the label carefully before buying: the presence of enzymes to facilitate better fermentation is acceptable, but nothing else. The advantage of using a rationally-farmed flour is that you get precise information and genuine traceability. You know what ingredients you are mixing, and what you will eat as a result.
4. I recommend using an unrefined salt, like Fleur de Sel de Gu’rande or another artisan sea salt equivalent – preferably with high iodine content. ‘Unrefined’ means it comes in flakes or crystals and still contains all its minerals, such as magnesium. My scientifically unproven conviction is that this type of salt helps bread to keep longer.
5. In my bakery we use softeners to purify tap water. In an ideal world it would be best to use spring water, but think about how it reaches you: in plastic bottles! I do believe it’s a good start to neutralize impurities and limestone in the water as much as possible, and to achieve this easily, you can use a water filter pitcher or attach a filter to the tap.
6. Kneading by hand is an invaluable experience that I heartily recommend. I strongly believe that energy is transmitted through the hands during the kneading process. All comparative studies I have made throughout my baking life convince me that dough works better if mixed by hand rather than by a machine. ‘Hands-on’ kneading is a required experience for anyone who wants to learn how to make bread, because the hands receive the essential information on the progress of the dough’s development.
7. Base temperature is an essential baking principle. The temperature of dough after kneading (generally 24-25’C), depends on a base temperature that is calculated by adding together the room temperature, that of the flour, and that of the water. Knowing and respecting this principle produces bread of consistent quality. Ideally, the base temperature is 54-56’C for white bread and 58-65’C for dark bread.
Obviously you also need to take into account the temperature of your kitchen, and to readily understand that a difference of 10’C can have a significant impact. Before you start kneading, quickly check these three temperatures (flour, water, ambient) to see if you have achieved the average.
8. During the baking, the carbon dioxide that has been created during fermentation, and which is held in place by the network of gluten strands, turns into steam and will try to escape. To control the direction in which the dough expands, it is important to manage the ‘openings’ in the last stage of proofing. This is done by scoring, or finely slashing, the dough. The dough is usually scored with a sharp blade (a dough cutter or special razor-sharp baker’s ‘lame’) mounted on a handle. The depth of the incisions depends on the level of the fermentation: the more the dough has risen, the shallower the cuts.
9. You will get the best results with a convection oven, especially for breads that require a long baking time. The most important thing is to preheat the oven to the instructed temperature; otherwise, the scoring will not develop.
10. Bread should be baked in a steam-filled oven. The steam slows the drying of the dough but encourages the development of a good, well-coloured crust and a moist, well-flavoured crumb. The best way to create steam is to preheat a baking pan in the bottom of the oven and add 50 g (scant quarter cup) of water just before putting the bread in to bake. Failing that, you could also brush or spray the dough lightly.
Eric has some parting words: ‘You may experience a few setbacks when you embark on the great bread-making adventure. Remember that it is less a question of following recipes than of listening to your instincts and observing how the dough evolves. The potential for error will be different every time you bake, since the dough itself is never exactly the same.’ So, if at first you don’t succeed…