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Here's the big thing about bread making for me... [May. 28th, 2011|09:55 pm]
I don't know why, but I decided I had to learn how to make bread. I had to. And that's really kind of strange, because, you know, there are bread machines, and so forth, and, honestly, I'm not at my best when I eat sugars and starches, so bread isn't a good thing for me to have around.

Not only am I not at my best when I eat a lot of starches, I'm also able to keep eating them. I can eat most of a loaf of bread, toasted, with butter, in a single day. Probably could do this in a single sitting. So, talk about your vicious cycles.

But I feel I ought to be able to make bread. And I know I can learn how. So, hey, there it was.

There are wiser times to make this decision than when sciatica can make standing in a particular position painful... but it was still the right decision.

Here's the thing. Bread making isn't hard. It's persnickety, and there's some craft to it. You can't just mix so much flour, sugar, salt, water, and yeast, and end up with bread. It might be a humid day - or, your flour might have dried out some - or, your yeast might not be as active - or, it might be a warm, or cold, day.

But most of all, there's kneading.

You don't have to knead perfectly to get a perfectly acceptable loaf of bread. You can under-knead a bit, and the gluten won't be as developed, and that won't be as good, or you can over-knead a bit, and the bread will be a bit denser or tougher (or so I've heard) but that's not a terrible thing.

But it determines if you've gotten the crafting part down. If your dough is too stiff (not enough water), it won't squish down easily, and you might even find that you end up having cleavage. Okay, those of you who are, stop snickering; cleavage is separation of any two things, and what I mean is, you fold the bread over, and it doesn't become flat lump of dough; it becomes a lump with a fold down the middle. And when you fold it over again, you start imagining things like Damascus steel.

If you can't imagine how frustrating it was for my 8th or 9th loaf of bread to be like this, and me not sure what the hell was going wrong, well, you just don't know me. I didn't know if I was kneading poorly, or if there was too much flour, or what. (The answer was, not enough liquid, BTW..)

And that, more than anything else, was the value of learning to make bread. Learning to live with those frustrations and annoyances and accept that I'd either work past them, or I'd get someone to help me figure out what was going wrong.

The past few weeks, I've been working with a very basic bread dough - the first one in Beard On Bread. And, I think I've gotten to consistency with it. Tomorrow, I'm going to try a grand experiment, and try to expand the recipe - two loaves, with a bit more flour (and hence more water) in both, so I get a slightly taller loaf, without (I hope) losing any of the texture that I like.

Here's what I've learned about kneading. Kneading is both folding, and squishing. This combination is what stretches things out and makes the gluten develop. But for most bread doughs, the squishing should be gentle and easy. There are exceptions - there are much stiffer doughs that will take some actual muscle. But if you're needing to use meaningful amounts of force to do the squishing, on ordinary bread dough, you probably don't have enough liquid in the recipe. That doesn't mean the bread will turn out *badly* - but it'll be different, and won't rise as much.

Here's some other stuff I've found. If the bread dough is sticking to your hands in lumps, you either need more flour, or need to oil your hands (depending on how much flour, and what type of flour, and the type of bread), or, if you're sure you can't add more flour, and are sure that oiling your hands will ruin the bread, you might just have to throw it out. Yes, if you're like me, your mother reminded you of "starving children in India" and how you shouldn't waste food, and maybe you shouldn't - but if battling with a frustrating lump of bread dough is going to ruin your day, consider which you value more - learning the results of your experiment, or a chance to wash your hands of it, literally and figuratively.

The other thing is, bread dough isn't exactly "non-sticky" when it's done. When I have bread ready to rise, it will still need to be peeled off the counter top. That's not "sticky" according to the pros, even though it kinda-sorta "sticks". No, near as I can tell, sticky is when you put your dry hand against it, press down, and the dough leaves clumps on your hand.

I've also noticed that I sometimes have a thin film of flour-paste on my hands when I'm kneading. I can't tell you if that's good or bad, just that I notice it, and it sometimes happens when I can't add more flour for fear of making the dough too stiff. And, since I've been told that it's better for bread dough to be a little too moist, than a little too dry, I've chosen to just live with it. (But I sometimes take a dough scraper to my hands, hoping it'll all mix in. This probably means that dead skin flakes off at the same time, meaning that eating my bread means YOU ARE CONSUMING HUMAN FLESH.

(The same is probably true for anyone who kneads bare-handed, honestly, but why ruin a chance for melodrama?)

This is all from plain white bread flour, by the way. Other flours will have other experiences. I've heard that whole grain flours are always "sticky" when done, even if kneaded perfectly. So, I'm passing that along in case anyone needs to hear it.

But the interesting thing I've noticed is this: so far, I haven't had any actual, honest-to-goodness *failures*. I've had bread that didn't rise very much, that wasn't all that good, that didn't have good texture, and so forth. But in the end, most of what I've made was just fine to use for toast with butter or as sandwich bread (though sometimes the sandwiches were smaller than normal for me). I'm sure there's room for spectacular failures - but so far, my experience is that bread making can be relatively forgiving.

Even through all of that, there have been times it's been intensely frustrating, all because I don't quite know what I'm doing, and don't even know exactly how to fix things when I know they're not right. And I'm still going forward, and trying to learn more, even though it's really, really frustrating and difficult.

And that is the big thing about bread making for me.

(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: karenkay
2011-05-30 01:31 am (UTC)
If the dough is sticking to your hands in lumps, you can add more water by spraying it on. It works better than dribbling it in, IMHO. (And yes, forgiveness is a wonderful thing.)
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[User Picture]From: essaying
2011-05-30 03:57 pm (UTC)
Unless you love the physical experience of kneading, a KitchenAid is a worthwhile purchase. I use mine several times a week, usually for bread (but it's good for other stuff too). Unlike a bread machine, it doesn't take away the creativity of shaping the loaves, experimenting with baking stones and crust techniques, etc. - it just does the kneading for you.
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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2011-05-30 07:21 pm (UTC)
Nod. That's one of the reasons I'm so obsessed over getting kneading *right*. As soon as I know I can do it by hand, I'm perfectly fine with using mechanical assistance. But until I feel really confident that I can knead by hand, I want to learn the feels and textures and stuff.

For example: the one recipe I've been using suggests kneading between risings. So, I've done that and I got a good idea of what feels interesting about properly developed gluten - during the second knead, I can actually feel the air bubbles and the resistance of the dough. If I wanted them to pop, it wouldn't be easiy. And when I knead the first time, I try to get that same kind of feeling to it.

(Here's a side question for you - have you ever used the meat grinder attachment to a Kitchen Aid? I've been considering making my own ground beef for a while.)
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[User Picture]From: essaying
2011-05-30 08:52 pm (UTC)
Yes, I hand-kneaded for many years until I got the KitchenAid, and you're right, it's good to have a sense for the textures and reactions. FWIW, Thr Bread Baker's Apprentice, which is my go-to bread book these days, recommends minimal degassing between risings, and it seems to work well.

I really need to get you down here for a day or two of baking. I can show you all this stuff better than I can explain it to you in words.
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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2011-05-31 01:12 am (UTC)
Nod. I'm not trying to break any of the air bubbles, but I do sometimes feel a bit of bubble-wrap-like texture in the dough, and I realized that this Meant Something. I started to realize that the dough is supposed to hold bubbles, just like that, and so I realized that was a kind of hint about what texture I want.

Chuckle; and I do agree, I'd love to come down and learn some things first hand. I'm almost at the point where I have to - the point where I could be ingraining a bad habit.

Plus, I've just started experimenting with a sourdough starter. Just the starter, mind you - but yeah.

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[User Picture]From: essaying
2011-05-30 08:55 pm (UTC)
Oh yes - I do have the meat grinding attachment. I used it for a while during the scare after that young woman wound up paralyzed for life after eating a homemade hamburger. The down sides: if you want the meat for burgers, meat loaf, etc., you need to add some suet or it'll be impossibly dry; and the attachment is a PITA to clean (it clogs up with bits of tendon and gristle that are hard to get out). These days, I use it when I want to mince cooked meat for, say, ham and corn fritters, or when I need ground meat but all I have on hand is a chunk of meat.
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