… or goodbye bread machine. There’s been a growing buzz about this book on the web and I finally managed to get a copy last week. I’ve made one batch of dough so far and while the results are not perfect yet, they are startlingly good for such a low-effort method. They are certainly far better than any bread machine bread I’ve tasted.
Basically you make a large batch of rather sloppy dough using unbleached plain flour (not bread flour), and store it in a bucket in the fridge (no kneading; just mix it all together). When you want some bread, pull off a lump, shape it, and let it rest at room temperature for an hour, before putting it in the oven. Half an hour later, fresh crusty bread!
You can keep the dough for up to two weeks; my first batch lasted five days, and the last loaf I made with it had a pleasant sourdough flavour and improved texture compared to the first one.
The recipe needs tweaking to account for flour (the book is American, so it assumes US flour); my first loaf was rather dense, so I adjusted the water in the second batch. Even with this over-stiff dough, I had better results by shaping the loaf in the evening, letting it rise in the fridge overnight, and baking it in the morning.
The recipe is here, but although it’s simple, you need the background information and notes on techniques to succeed. The authors are a pastry chef and a scientist, and they combined their expertise to arrive at a formula that works if you are using American flour. The critical feature is the protein content of the flour, which affects how much liquid it absorbs; it should be around 10-11%, and French plain flour is only around 9%. I was hesitant about how to adjust for this, so I posted a question on the authors’ website and they responded personally within hours! They have very active discussions going on there, which give another dimension to the book. There are also some handy videos which helped to confirm that my dough was the right consistency.
Here are my notes on what I’ve discovered so far:
- Oven thermometer: the authors insist you should verify the temperature of your oven with a thermometer, so I did. And it was fine, so I haven’t bothered with it since.
- Baking stone: it really does make a difference. I bought a cheap pizza stone, and the crust is fantastic, streets ahead of bread-machine bread. You also put a roasting pan in the bottom of the oven and pour a cupful of water into it just as the bread goes in. This is a technique used by French bakers to produce good crust (except they have steam ovens so they don’t need this low-tech method).
- No need for a pizza peel as specified in the book. I just put the dough on a flat, edgeless non-stick baking sheet sprinkled with polenta, and it slides off fairly easily; I nudge it with a spatula if it doesn’t.
- Measurements: of course all the measurements are in cups (groan). I finally cracked and bought a set of cup measures. As a result I discovered that an American cup is significantly smaller than I thought it was, only about 220 ml. I had thought it was 250 ml, which could explain why my attempts at American cake recipes have been so unsuccessful.
- Flour: this is the main conundrum. French plain flour is quite soft. I started with 3 cups plain flour to 3 1/2 cups bread flour, and the dough was too stiff. For my next batch I kept the amount of water the same, and reduced the bread flour by half a cup. The crumb is still a little dense, so I’ll continue to tweak. It’s better when risen overnight in the fridge.
The results are definitely good enough that I’m encouraged to persevere. You might think living in France guarantees access to good bread, but unfortunately it doesn’t. Real pain au levain is increasingly hard to find, and the plain common-or-garden baguettes from our local boulangerie are pretty dull. So I’m delighted to find a way of making my own bread which is almost effortless and brings back the real taste of bread. Besides, a baguette bought on Monday is only good for breadcrumbs by Tuesday, so we end up throwing quite a lot away. Now I can bake just enough for a day, and even leftovers are fine the next day. I baked a biggish loaf on Tuesday morning, and it is still excellent. The book isn’t just one recipe either, it also includes various other breads and baked goods which I’m itching to try.
Must go, I have to make some brioche!
Edit: I’m now using the following proportions with organic plain flour: by experimentation I have arrived at 74% hydration:
800 g flour
594 g water
12 g salt
1 sachet yeast
This works out to 74% hydration. Usually, I leave a small amountr of dough from the previous batch in the bucket, for extra flavour, cutting the yeast down to one sachet. I also roll the ball of dough in the flour when I’m shaping it, to stop it sticking and pulling, and use baking parchment on the tray when it’s rising.
I also made the wholewheat sandwich bread in the book, and it was delicious; I used pain de campagne flour and it worked really well, despite being abandoned for several hours before going in the oven.