Prompted by the first hard frosts of the year and the end of the beekeeping season, here’s a post that is of only peripheral relevance to beekeeping.
Though since you presumably prefer to eat honey on something, rather than on its own, it’s not completely irrelevant.
Almost two years ago I wrote a post about breadmaking. In the intervening period I’ve baked a lot more bread … probably over 100 loaves. Almost exclusively I’ve been working from an outstanding book by Ken Forkish entitled Flour water salt yeast.
Forkish is an artisan baker from Portland, Oregon. The book, and his YouTube videos that accompany it are an excellent introduction to simple, easy and quick 1 methods for producing truly spectacular homemade bread.
Like this …
Man cannot live by bread alone … well, I’m not so sure.
This bread is really good.
The general principles promoted by Forkish are:
- Use high quality ingredients
- Carefully control temperatures and timings
- Use minimal amounts of mixing
- Use small amounts of yeast and long rise periods
- Bake in a very hot oven in a container to seal in the steam
Forkish earns his living writing and baking, so I’m not going to reproduce his recipes here – buy the book (or look for them online as some people have splurged them all over the internet).
What I will do is qualify some of points in the list above. Hopefully this will encourage you to have a go as well (and to learn from the few mistakes I made by either trying to cut corners or not reading the instructions).
Ingredients and environment
The flour you use has a big influence on the characteristics of the dough. I almost always use Bacheldre organic stoneground flours. These are strong, absorb water well and have a high protein content. They’re available direct from Bacheldre Mill and lots of places online. In my experience, the own-brand ‘strong bread flour’ sold by most of the supermarkets make a much sloppier dough than the Bacheldre flours. The resulting bread isn’t necessarily worse, but the dough is a lot harder to work with as it’s always trying to escape.
I use a thermometer to check the water temperature at the start. This ensures a uniform early development of the dough. I also check the temperature of the place I’m going to allow the dough to develop. If it’s much warmer or cooler than expected you might need to modify timings.
Mix, leave, mix, leave, mix …
One of the attractions of the breadmaking method promoted by Ken Forkish is that it involves very little work. For a standard loaf it probably takes no more than 8 minutes of mixing in total, in four blocks. And that includes rinsing your hands before and after working the dough.
All of the mixing is done in a large container.
A 30lb honey bucket is ideal.
How convenient 🙂
The flour and water are premixed to make an autolyse. This is allowed to sit for 20-30 minutes before adding the yeast and salt. Most of the recipes use very small amounts of yeast (much less than a gram for a 500g loaf) so the small, accurate scales used for weighing your oxalic acid (er, Api-Bioxal) are ideal.
After mixing the dough is allowed to develop with a further 2-3 quick ‘turns’ in the first 90 minutes or so. These ‘turns’ aren’t even really mixing. You just fold the dough over two or three times. It takes as long to write it as it takes to do it.
Then leave it overnight.
Cooking on gas
The following morning you turn the dough out, shape the loaf and allow it a final rise while the oven heats to a ‘serious-risk-of-burning-if-you-touch-anything-without-very-thick-oven-gloves-on’ 240°C 2.
As well as preheating the oven you also preheat the container you’ll cook the bread in. I use a Lodge 3 litre cast iron Combo Cooker (or Dutch Oven for convenience). These are $56 in the USA, or an uncompetitive £90 in the UK.
I was robbed 🙁
However, I then checked out the Le Creuset prices and felt a whole lot better 🙂
Any heat-retaining covered ovenproof container should be suitable. Cast iron is probably best. The goal is to trap the steam inside while the bread cooks to give the crisp crust. As an alternative to the Lodge Dutch Oven I’ve also used a large Pyrex ‘chicken brick’ which work almost as well.
Cooking takes 30 minutes with a further 15 minutes uncovered to crisp up the crust.
You can of course use an electric oven 😉
Quick and easy
From start to finish a loaf takes about 16-18 hours.
However, during that period you’re only actually handling the dough for about 10 minutes. Almost all the time is a long overnight rise period while the yeast works its magic 3.
So … very easy.
The proof of the pudding
The resulting loaf tastes excellent, with a very crispy crust and wonderfully textured crumb. Since the yeast has worked hard overnight the crumb is full of large holes (which conveniently fill with honey or butter or marmalade). Assuming it’s not devoured when still warm it keeps well. If anything, the loaf improves if allowed to cool properly before scoffing 4. Once cold, just wrap it up in a plastic bag and you can use it up to 48 hours later, or perhaps longer as toast … though it never lasts that long in our house.
The book Flour water salt yeast has about a dozen different bread recipes. Almost all use essentially the same steps I’ve outlined above. Some use an overnight starter (a biga or poolish) and these take a little bit more work, and a bit more time. Actually, with the exception of the ingredients, quite a bit of the book is rather repetitive as the mixing and cooking instructions are essentially the same for all the loaves.
The second part of Flour water salt yeast covers the preparation and use of levains or sourdough starters. These also make great bread, but take more work. With travel and other commitments I can’t always keep the sourdough starter in tip-top condition, so all of the comments here (and for at least half the book) are for loaves made with freeze-dried yeast.
For a standard weekend loaf you can’t go far wrong with a standard overnight white loaf, or a 10-30% overnight wholemeal loaf. These can be started on Friday evening, cooked early on Saturday and enjoyed all weekend.
Forkish explains each of the individual steps in the breadmaking process in a series of short YouTube videos. Of the 11 on his breadmaking 5 YouTube channel, the first 8 are relevant to loaves made without a levain, or sourdough starter. Watch them in sequence, ideally with the book to hand, and you’ll appreciate just how simple the process is.
- I’ll qualify that term in a minute.
- You have been warned. Normal oven gloves are only usable for very short periods at this temperature. Take care. It’s also worth checking your oven actually achieves this temperature … many run cooler and need to be wound up to ‘hyperspace’ to achieve the necessary temperature.
- There are recipes in the book for bread that can be made within one day – starting at 9am and cooking it at 4pm. These work well, but I don’t think they’re quite as good as the recipes that rise overnight. The latter also fit into my timetable a bit better.
- Scoff, meaning to eat quickly (the word can also mean to be scornfully derisive, which no-one will be about this bread) which has origins in the Scots scaff which, in turn, is derived from the Dutch/Africaans schoft.
- You can also use the dough to make excellent pizza bases, but that’s a separate story altogether. He has another set of videos on pizza making.
Very excited to try this! And, Portland, OR is only 3.5 hrs from me (in decent traffic, something hard to find these days.). Since the 4 grandkids live there…this sounds like a necessary field trip…
A seven hour round trip for a loaf of bread sounds like dedication (or a recipe for madness … depending upon the traffic). Ken Forkish also runs Ken’s Artisan Pizza so perhaps combine the trip with a pizza evening as well? The dough makes an excellent pizza base and I usually make enough for two loaves, cooking half as a loaf and the remainder as two large pizzas. You can freeze half-cooked pizza bases and convert them into a delicious, quick meal in about 20 minutes.
I am interested in this… I know my oven runs quite hot and can manage 220C. My husband showed some promise with bread making at one point but has lapsed, this book may be a good Christmas present for him!
Good idea, you might even be able to get the book, a bag of flour, some yeast and salt into a honey bucket … Just Add Water 😉
Anything to save a lapsed husband!
The videos show just how easy it is.
With regards baking vessels……I started baking in a Le Creuset (which we already had at home) but soon moved on to one of these:
Which is actually cheaper, and most probably better (although not useful for other types of food), than your recommendation. The fact that it’s domed obviously means the steam is retained much more effectively. Well worth a look if you are a regular baker.
Thanks James … I’ll have a look. The Forge Dutch Oven is incredibly heavy but the lid (which I view as the shallow pan) makes the perfect container to cook thick crust pizzas in. The baking dome you recommend looks a bit like the Pyrex ‘chicken brick’ I’ve also used, though I suspect the latter does less well at holding the steam in.
Thanks for the post, I also make sourdough bread; originally following “Tartine Bread” by San Francisco baker Chad Roberson. I highly recommended the web site http://www.theperfectloaf.com for extra inspiration and superb photos. It’s hard to eat bought bread having made ones own, in fact I now avoid it.
I’ve also got Tartine Bread. It’s a good book. The others I’ve enjoyed and used successfully are two by Richard Bertinet called Dough and Crust. However, of all these, the Forkish book is currently my favourite because of the small amount of input effort and the reproducibly excellent quality of the output.
You’re absolutely right about avoiding shop-bought bread … and worst of all are those spongy-cardboard-like white medium sliced supermarket monstrosities.
I got into beekeeping partly because I like honey so much. I come from a family, and married into another, both of which think that toast is the best food in the world. Beekeeping means you have real honey, and you should have real bread to eat it on.
One of the best reasons to make bread – real bread – is that you control what goes into it. (There can be several dozen ingredients in factory breads many of which you might not be confident about ingesting.) And one of the reasons I like sourdough bread is that I use exactly three ingredients: flour, salt and water. The result is a miracle. One of the things that makes sourdough so good is the long proving time, something you also get with your Ken Forkish recipes which use only 10-15% quantity of yeast that a regular recipe would use.
I agree with you about organic flour, partly so you know what you’re getting. Balchedre, Shipton…
Another reason I still make sourdough bread, and didn’t give up years ago, is that I read Andrew Whitley’s book ‘Do Sourdough; slow bread for busy lives’. And the bit I want to take from that right now is in response to your words: ‘With travel and other commitments I can’t always keep the sourdough starter in tip-top condition…’
Andrew Whitley shows that there’s no need to keep sourdough in tip-top condition; it does that itself in the fridge. ‘Sourdoughs don’t need feeding’, he says. And he adds later: ‘you should certainly give a wide berth to any instructions that tell you to throw away excess starter, an excess caused by entirely unnecessary feeds.’ In a nutshell, keep your starter in the fridge and leave it completely alone until you want to make bread. Then, when you do, take some (50ml) starter and make a ‘production’ sourdough overnight by adding flour and water (125ml of each). Mix your dough the following morning and your loaf will be ready in the evening – depending on the season and how warm your kitchen is. What’s unused goes back into the starter box in the fridge.
People have their own ways of managing bees and dough. What works, works. But I do what I can to spread the good news about sourdough and that there’s no need to feed it. It will wait for you and be ready when you are.
Thanks always for your blog – one of my two favourites on the beekeeping web.
You’re absolutely right about the large number of preservatives and other ingredients in most store-bought bread and I do my very best to avoid it at all costs.
I’ve not read Do Sourdough etc. by Andrew Whitley, I’ll look out for it. The starters I’ve used have always been a bit ‘high maintenance’, requiring regular feeding. Alternatively, those that lurk in the corner of the fridge being ignored usually seem to need a long ‘reactivation’ period when you do want to use them. My work commitments mean neither of these is ideal. I’m recently back from three of the last four weeks away, so need something that can cope with a good deal of neglect. When I do get back – particularly if I’ve been living on hotel and airline food – I want to bake … I don’t want to gently chivvy a somnolent starter back to life over a 2-3 day period before preparing the dough! I’ll read the book and give it a go (watch out for an update in a year or so!).
Delighted you enjoy the blog.
PS I see there’s also a Do Beekeeping book in the same series as Do Sourdough …
It seems somehow wrong to leave a comment on your bread post when I never do on your real beekeeping ones even though bees are my real interest too. But anyway I enjoyed it and can almost smell that delicious bread baking. We wrap our bread (when cooled) in a beeswax-coated cloth (“Beebee wrap” made by a local industry here). Keeps it brilliantly and is way better than plastic.
Thanks for the comment Hilary … which is welcome whatever the subject. I hadn’t heard about BeeBee Wraps so looked them up. An interesting use for used and cleaned beeswax.
Thank you for these very useful tips; I’m enjoying your forays out of the apiary. I tried the ‘dutch oven’ method with a sourdough loaf and it worked really well – best I’ve made in 5 years. I used a cast iron tagine with a ceramic lid, resulting in a loaf both conical and comical, but it cooked really well and tastes very good; I’m a convert.
Having now covered bread and photography, I saw you put in a comment about a canoe on one post. How about a piece next time on the perfect ‘J’ stroke and the importance of secondary stability?! 🙂
I’m pleased the bread was a success. The canoe is for warmer weather 🙂 It’s also difficult to combine canoeing and beekeeping, though I do have an invitation to visit a small island in a sea loch to see the bees there.