A Knead to Know Basis for Bakers
“Mix some flour with enough water to form a dough, a touch of salt perhaps; shape it, bake it, the result is bread in its simplest, most fundamental form: coarse, crusty . . . everything else is extra.”
Thus begins Edward Espe Brown’s Zen-minded “Tassajara Bread Book,” first published in 1970 and once a fixture in commune kitchens. In later editions, the introduction has been softened to read, “everything else (in a way) is extra.”
The extras make a difference: yeast to lighten the bread, milk to smooth its texture, sugar or honey for sweetness, oil for moistness, eggs for cake-like qualities.
So do flavorings: bakeries now offer loaves made with everything from anise and figs to Jalapeno Cheddar cheese.
While commercial bakers are reluctant to reveal how they make their bread, they all rely on basic techniques that have served humanity since the ancients first slapped dough on a hot rock.
First take flour, generally made from the western-grown wheat that has a high content of gluten, a plant protein that mixes with water to form an elastic network of cells.
Add yeast, a living organism that feeds on sugars in the dough and produces carbon dioxide that fills the cells and makes the bread rise.
Then comes oil, butter or some other form of fat, although health-conscious bakeries are doing without it these days. According to Bernard Clayton’s “New Complete Book of Breads,” fat gives bread richness, tenderness and flavor, while also lubricating the gluten in the dough.
Milk is an option that will make a loaf soft; bakers often use non-fat dry milk for convenience.
The final ingredient is hard work: elbow grease for most home bakers, electric horsepower for commercial bakeries.
Kneading the bread stretches the gluten and lets the bread expand. Let it rise once, twice or three times before baking.
“Dough comes of age when it rises,” Clayton writes. “Now comes the quiet time when it grows and matures.”