Bread has always intrigued me. From the very basic five minutes fix of flatbread (called roti or chapatti) made of flour and water to the complex sourdough bread made with a 45 days old starter and everything in between. This humble food most often gets overlooked. How often does one go for a fancy dinner and rave about how good the bread was?
Making good bread is not just an art, it is an exact science. If we were in an ideal world where we could control all the parameters of bread making then it would have been a straightforward science. Whereby the outcome could be defined by the change in the variables. Fortunately, that is not the case, and there is a whole lot of room for the creativity of a baker to kick in. In the bread making process, one very important question that one needs to answer at every step of the process is “WHEN”. The question may seem innocent, but that is the difference between good bread and an average loaf. All bread recipes are at best only a guide. The real skill is in understanding the nature of the ingredients one is using and the environment one is working in.
Let us look at some of the factors that come into play. The most important factor arguably is the flour. Good quality flour definitely helps in getting good bread. However, a more important factor than good quality flour is the know-how to manipulate the bread making process to achieve the right results and to use the right flour for the right job. For example, if I am working with weak flour then I can improve the quality of the bread by either using a starter dough or by long slow fermentation (cold fermentation).
Yeast or bacteria used for the production of fermented bread is also an important factor in dictating the quality of bread. Ever wondered how the combination of ordinary taste ingredients namely flour, yeast, salt and water produce an explosion of flavours in the finished bread. The answer is fermentation which is induced by yeasts and/or bacteria. These microorganisms feed and multiply on the dough and in the process produce an array of enzymes and acids which are responsible for the creation of flavours. These enzymes and acids not only give flavour but also change the molecular structure of the dough bringing about visible differences in the physical & chemical properties of the bread such as texture, bite, crumb and crust structures, water retention and shelf life. A well-fermented bread is a relation between time and temperature of the fermentation with regards to the quality of raw materials and desired result.
Then again, besides ingredients, there are several different styles of bread-making. The question is not which one is the best, rather which one suits the desired outcome. A few styles of fermented bread are:
1) Straight dough – dump all the ingredients in the recipe, except the fat, and knead. Add the fat next and knead again. The dough is then proofed for the first time, knocked, shaped, proofed the second time and baked. Proofing is the final rise of shaped bread brought about by fermentation of the dough before baking. This style of bread making is popular with commercial bakers as the process is quick with higher turnover and low refrigerated storage cost. This style generally requires a use of additives to the dough to improve the overall quality and shelf life of the bread.
2) Cold fermentation- if the dough is refrigerated for a minimum of 8 hours to 5 days prior to shaping, proofing and baking, it is then called cold fermentation. This may or may not have first proofing prior to refrigeration. As a thumb rule, a bread produced using this method is remarkably better than the straight dough methods. The bread has a higher shelf life, better flavour, higher water retention, stable crumb structure and is easier to digest. Also, the dough can take higher handling, without collapsing in the shaping process. This process is especially suitable for pieces of bread with higher fat content.
3) The next style is the starter dough bread. The process is same as straight dough except that the recipe includes a part of starter dough which has been pre-fermented for variable periods of time from 45 min to up to several days. Some of the starters include biga, polish or sponge.
4) There is yet another style of bread making which is the mother of all breads, “The Sour Dough Bread”. It needs to be treated with a lot of respect and perhaps would be best left for another time.
Next time that you have bread, give a thought to this humble food. For it is something that you pray and work for all of life.