Many bakers and students spend years perfecting their bread-baking techniques. There are entire schools devoted to bread baking and large cookbooks focused solely on the craft. The more I bake bread at home, the more I'm interested in getting better at it and figuring out how to evaluate as well as enjoy it. Here are 5 tips to help you know if you've baked a great loaf of bread:
I can't think of anything much more comforting in the kitchen than kneading and baking your own loaf of bread, and then slathering it with butter or jam when still warm. A few weeks ago, I had the great opportunity to attend the Kneading Conference West here in Washington State. This conference draws a dynamic crowd of farmers, miller and bakers — all interested in whole grains. I met farmers who grow different single-varietal wheats and who are encouraging bakers to start baking breads and crackers using each. I also made my own homemade soba noodles, and learned a great deal about sourdough starters and navigating tricky wood-fired ovens.
But one of the highlights was a bread-baking class with George DePasquale, founder of Seattle-based Essential Baking Co. In the class, we learned different kneading techniques and insider secrets, but my favorite part was when we took our loaf out of the oven and analyzed it together, discussing what makes a truly "great" loaf of bread.
In class, we made a pretty traditional sourdough loaf, so do know that these considerations are geared towards that style of bread in particular. And of course, they are just touching on the surface, which is actually one of the things I loved about the conference in general: we got to touch upon the surface of a number of new traditions, recipes, and practices —just enough to grow curious enough to explore on our own at home.
How To Determine If You've Baked a Good Loaf Of Bread
Wait! Before you even cut into your loaf of bread to begin analyzing and enjoying it, it should be 90 degrees Fahrenheit (or cooler). If you cut it while it's too hot, you're releasing important steam and you'll ultimately affect the structure of the crumb.
1. Outside Color: The outside color of your loaf of bread should be relatively dark. While you obviously want to avoid a burned loaf of bread, a nice mahogany exterior is ideal — the more color, the more flavor.
2. Glow: DePasquale described a certain reddish glow and shine that a good loaf of bread will have on the exterior crust; this is when you know that the fermentation process is complete.
3. Crumb: The crumb is a term that bakers use to talk about the inside of a loaf of bread. It's often described as tender, and depending on the type of baker or type of bread you're baking, there are certain considerations you're looking for (size of holes, structure, color). Regardless of bread type, the best way to evaluate the crumb is to first slice the loaf straight down the middle. Then look at the interior. If the crumb is too tight (looking more like a commercial sandwich bread), it's likely you may have used too much yeast (or honey, if you used honey as a sweetener). Or perhaps you were too vigorous when shaping the loaf.
4. Balanced Inclusions: If you added anything to your loaf of bread like herbs or nuts, you ideally want them to be balanced throughout the loaf, and not all gathered on one side or towards the bottom of the slice of bread.
5. Write it Down: DePasquale encourages everyone to take notes on your bread. While we think we'll all remember our observations for the next time we find ourselves in the kitchen, it's just not the case (for me, anyway). Jotting down notes on what worked and what needs improvement next time will likely guarantee a bit of informed progress.
Do you have any tips for telling when you've really hit on a great loaf of bread?
(Image: Chris Perez)