The Science Behind… My #1 baking mistake of all time

This post is the third installment of my series on the biggest baking mistakes I’ve made over the years.  If you want to check out numbers 10 to 6, go here.  If you want to read numbers 5 to 2, go here.

And finally, my #1 mistake…

1. Following the recipe EXACTLY as written without regard for the way the dough feels and looks.  This mistake is related to my #2 baking mistake, giving up on a recipe after one attempt.  Making a recipe more than once allows you to understand the recipe, but also to see the gaps between what the recipe says and what you experience.

I think the better part of my time spent learning about baking has involved training my hands and eyes to feel and see when a dough is doing what it is supposed to do and when it’s not.

After many years of baking, I can tell with my fingers when a dough’s ingredients are well incorporated.  I can see when gluten strands have created a stretchy, smooth surface on the outside of the dough. I can hear when a dough’s crust crackles as it comes out of the oven.  These aren’t intangibles, exactly, but they aren’t really things you can teach either.

not ready
not ready

Not everyone has years to perfect their baking senses.  For those who don’t, there are ways to move away from relying blindly on recipes and towards developing an eye for what works.

  • First, buy yourself a kitchen scale.  Possibly the most frustrating part of cooking with volume measurements – cups and teaspoons and tablespoons, is that they lack precision   Ingredients like flour can vary widely in how much can be packed into a particular volume- have you ever looked at a recipe that called for 3-4 cups of flour?  How do you know which to choose?  How do you know when it looks right?  

The problem with volume, which I’ll talk more about a little later, is that sometimes you won’t know if you added too much flour until 15 MINUTES LATER when you’ve given your dough time to absorb the water and start forming gluten and it’s definitely way too dry.  Because the gluten’s already mostly formed, it can be hard to add more water to your dough at this point.

At this point, you might be thinking, “well, my grandmother was an excellent baker and she used volume measurements just fine!”  Your grandmother probably dealt with volume measurements just fine because she probably baked her own bread and had been doing so for years, so she knew when a dough felt “right”.  Most people these days don’t bake several loaves of bread a week.  A recipe by weight will tell you exactly how many grams or ounces of flour you need (I’m partial to grams, btw).  By measuring ingredients by weight, you remove some of the guesswork to baking.  And baking is like anything else – see enough “right” doughs, and you’ll know when something’s not right.  With measurements by weight, at least you’ll know if you added too much flour

  • Second, start simple.  The easiest doughs to make include just four ingredients- flour, water, salt and yeast.  Start here.  That way, you can get a better sense what each ingredient brings to the table, and if the dough doesn’t work out, it’s not a heartbreak scenario to throw it out.  Today I made a challah bread with eight egg yolks, plus two whites for the egg wash.  If I had made this recipe ten years ago and it hadn’t turned out, I would’ve been seriously PO’d (who are we kidding, I’d still be pretty angry.  But the chances of it not working out were much higher way back when).  

Start with the simplest doughs to get a hang of the techniques and play around with it.  What if you add more flour?  More water?  Less yeast?  Higher oven temperature?  What does it do when I bake it in a dutch oven vs. bread pans?  These will all help you get a sense of what breads do so when you encounter a recipe you won’t have to follow it to the letter.

  • Third, appreciate the gift of time.  Flour and water WANT to create gluten.  They just do.  If you don’t knead your bread, flour and water will naturally create gluten strands.  Don’t believe me?  Throw roughly equal parts water and flour in a bowl, mix them up, and walk away.  In 15 minutes, come back.  They will have already started forming gluten strands, and you didn’t do anything!  Flour needs time to fully absorb the water, and there’s nothing you can do to speed up that process.  

The reason many recipes call for you to knead the dough is that they direct you to add a ton of yeast, and you need a gluten net to form RIGHT AWAY to capture all the carbon dioxide the yeast gives off.  By letting your dough form and rise slowly (with just a little bit of yeast), you not only save your wrists and hands from the strain of kneading, but in addition to carbon dioxide, the yeast also give off ethyl alcohol in a process called fermentation, improving the flavor naturally.

Another benefit of time is that it allows the gluten strands not only to form, but once formed, to relax.  Relaxed gluten strands are easier to handle and shape.  If your dough is anywhere over 66% hydration and you’re having a hard time handling it, cover it and walk away for ten minutes.  When you return, the dough will be smoother and more pliable because you gave the gluten time to relax.

  • Four, use fresh ingredients.  Leavening ingredients like yeast, baking powder and baking soda must be fresh to work properly.  Other ingredients like spices will have stronger flavor the fresher they are.  Eggs have stronger protein strands the fresher they are.  And so on.  By using fresher ingredients, you will create better bread.
  • Finally, reach for good resources.  Baking books or online resources are great places to go for reference.  I’m partial to Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day or Whole Grain Breads.  He’s a baker and a baking professor at Johnson & Wales culinary school.  Simply put, he knows his stuff.  He has great youtube videos.  And his epoxy method for coaxing tons of flavor out of whole grain breads is nothing short of genius.  He also has an interesting backstory for those who are curious.  I would skip the “bread” section in an otherwise regular cookbook- most chefs and cookbook authors don’t have the time or interest to delve into good bread baking in their books.  They might have one all-purpose loaf and that’s it.  
Artisan Breads Everyday
Whole Grain Breads

Another resource I recommend is The Fresh Loaf website and discussion boards.  There, amateur and professional bakers ask and answer questions and basically try to figure it all out.  When I have a question that starts with “what if…”, someone has usually asked it already on the website.

So that’s it!  My #1 top mistake.  That’s not to say I haven’t made many other mistakes over the years beyond these ten.  I’ve been indebted to the people who have aided my progression and who continue to act as guinea pigs for my various creations.

my bread camp notes

I hope you enjoyed this series as much as I enjoyed writing it.  And as always, if there’s anything I can clarify please let me know in the comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s