Thursday, October 20, 2005

Tips to better tasting bread

The aroma of homemade fresh-baked bread wafts through the house and pulls everyone away from what they are doing — some stretch to the tips of their toes to reach high enough into the air to suck in all of its delightful delicious vapors.

Stomachs almost ache at the thought of what a warm soft morsel cut from a fresh golden loaf will taste like. Even the sound of the serated bread knife piercing the crust, the hollowness of the bread changing pitch as the blade makes its way down the loaf, and then the hard knock of the knife against the bread board freeing the first piece, all heightens anticipation.

The sharp edges of the crust push into the fingers’ flesh. Steam rolls from the billowy-soft core as the first piece warms the lips and begins to melt on the tongue before it is ever chewed.

There’s nothing that can compare to the experience of bread from the oven if the flavor matches the sensual anticipation of the smell. But if the bread lacks the flavor that all your senses signal, that first taste begins to diminish the excitement. So how can you get full-flavored bread and make the experience all it can be?

No one answer can guarantee perfect bread every time. But in my 30 years of bread making I’ve discovered some things that will help increase your odds.

Optimum flavor develops overnight. Start what is called a sponge the night before. Place one cup of water, one cup of flour, yeast and a tablespoon of sugar or honey in a bowl. Cover it and put it aside until morning. Some like to put this in the refrigerator. I’ve done it both ways and the flavor ends up rich by either method.

Many recipes call for the dough to have two rises — one in a bowl and the other in loaf form or in a pan. Look for the recipes that call for three rises, two in a bowl and one in loaf form. These tend to give more flavor as the yeast multiplies and spreads throughout the dough.

And don’t go by the time the recipe calls for the dough to rise; make sure it doubles in size. That’s the only true measure. Put the dough in a straight-sided container and put a rubber band around the container at the point where the dough must rise to be doubled. Then at a glance you can tell if the rise is complete.

If it doubles in less than an hour, the temperature was too high and the flavor will be weakened. I’ve found I can put it in the oven and turn on the oven lamp on, and that gives me an hour and a half to two hours for each rise.

Lastly, when I started using a thermometer, I started getting perfectly moist bread every time. The thumping method to check for hollowness just isn’t reliable. If the interior temperature of the bread reaches 212 degrees or more, all the moisture boils out of the bread. With a thermometer you can pull the bread from the oven at 205 degrees and retain the moisture you and your family love. I’m going to save kneading for a later column. Kneading is an art in itself.

Doing what little I’ve suggested here will put you one step closer to that ultimate experience, getting the taste to match, the feel and aroma of the hot steaming bread fresh from the oven.


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