The perfect loaf

I started baking in November of last year. My first loaf was dense as a black hole. If you had dropped it on a toe you’d have been in the emergency room.

I ate it. (The bread, not the toe.)

Subsequent loaves were all over the map. Mostly edible, some inedible, all got eaten. Sourdough, I concluded, ain’t easy. As I baked and ate I really incorporated whole grain sourdough with various seeds not merely into my diet, but into my existence. Most days bread makes up 70% of my calories, or more.

Like anything you do daily, you learn more about it, and the more I baked sourdough the more I learned that I didn’t know, like Socrates.

Mentor

One day I got into a text exchange with a friend who is also a baker, but who really is a baker as opposed to a #faker #dilettante. I was having problems getting out of the Frisbee stage, and the friend asked a bunch of questions. I made some marginal gains.

Then we went over to the friend’s house one day for tea and bread and a tutorial. It was all very depressing because the friend’s bread wasn’t simply better than mine, it was a different thing entirely. It’s like that moment when as a young adult, head filled with bicycle dreams, you finally ride with someone who truly has talent and legs.

You know immediately what is possible, and what isn’t, and my friend’s bread wasn’t possible. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was kind of grim to view and eat perfection.

I went home and struggled with the problem of wet dough, how to knead it without doing all kinds of terrible things to the little gluten babies, etc. The friend texted me some more advice and a YouTube link.

With a few more fails, I came out on the other side, which for me was far from perfection, but was instead a tasty, consistent loaf.

Off to the master

The next month I went to Austria and in Vienna I sampled a couple of world class bakeries that had previously impressed me so. They were horribly inferior to my friend’s bread.

And as I sampled, I realized something else: They were inferior to mine as well.

Not because I had the skill or technique, certainly not the experience, but because my friend had shared with me a secret to baking and many other things, which is that the goal is to make something that YOU like. Back home I cooked loaf after loaf. Each was pretty much the same, and far from the ideal loaf that my friend bakes, seemingly with her eyes shut. But the mix of rye, wheat, organic white, and some seeds, done just the way I like it, was far more than good enough.

Bread, the bike, life … perfection isn’t an abstraction, it’s the thing that’s right for you.

Thank you, friend.

END

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7 thoughts on “The perfect loaf”

  1. That, is perfection right there. I haven’t gone beyond a 60% hydration level yet, as when I tried 70% in the kitchen aide, it just didn’t do any thing, but maybe I should simply try adding water once the kneading gets going.

    Most of my loaves have come out quite decent, as long as I remember to turn the damn oven down to 450 after placing the dutch oven in to start at 500. Aside from that one misstep, the loaves have gotten better each time.

    Here is a question I have not asked anyone yet. Instead of plopping the bread into the dutch oven, can I turn the basket over and onto parchment paper, and simply let that burn off in the oven?

    Anywho, that loaf in this posting is as perfect a loaf as you will ever see anywhere.

    1. Thank you for the high praise, but compared to my friend’s sourdough (you can find on Instagram at sourdough_nouveau, prepare to have your mind blown, and yes, it tastes as good as it looks, actually better), the stuff that comes out of my oven is good enough for me and I’ll leave it at that!

      Turn the basket over onto the parchment paper. The dough should come out rather easily. Then gently lift the parchment paper into the Dutch oven. It is strong and won’t tear. If the dough is sticking to the basket, there’s not enough flour dusted on the outside of the dough after it’s been shaped, or there isn’t enough dusted flour in the basket, or the basket is new and not “seasoned,” or some combination of all three.

      Thanks to sourdough_nouveau’s instruction, I learned that the dough needs little kneading. You handle it gently, by hand, no dough hook, otherwise you destroy the fragile gluten. It’s more a gentle folding over process, ensuring that the dough is thoroughly wet, than kneading. Then while it’s fermenting you crazy gently knead it in the bowl a couple more times max, again, more folding over on itself than applying any pressure. There are some great YouTube videos of “how to knead wet dough” that illustrate it.

      For example, my first knead takes maybe 2-3 minutes and results in basically a rough, ugly lump rather than smoothed, kneaded dough. After an hour it’s noticeably thicker due to the fermentation, and then another minute of gentle folding in the bowl. Do this maybe once or twice more over the 4-hour fermentation process and at the end it is a cohesive, “doughy” teigling, reading for shaping, final leavening, and baking!

  2. Humans have been making bread for 14K years, and making cheese for 9K years. Which means it took 5000 years of bread eating to be able to have it with a slab of cheese. Longer for PB.

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