By David Norman
Photography by Andy Sams
Many years ago, after returning to college from a year abroad, I came across a copy of Beard on Bread—a small tome on bread-making by James Beard. In an effort to satiate cravings for the multitude of breads I had enjoyed while in Munich, I bought the book (and later a beer-making kit, but that’s another article) and delved into kneading, raising and shaping the loaves he outlined.
After college, I turned that hobby into a job, which soon realized itself as a career—one that has taken me many places. Stints in Minneapolis and Seattle (at Grand Central Bakery) led me to New York City, where I helped open TriBakery, taught at the French Culinary Institute and then became the head baker at Bouley Bakery. I am now happily leading the production of beautiful loaves of a variety of breads at Easy Tiger Bake Shop and Beer Garden (yes, there’s a bit of full circle there) in Austin, where I am also a partner.
Though I certainly had some success with Beard’s recipes, I’ve also picked up some tricks and techniques along the way. First, it’s important to remember that bread is about ratios. In fact, bakers refer to formulas rather than recipes. Understanding how the ingredients work together, and in what basic proportions, is what allows bakers to manipulate the ratios and produce a nearly endless variety of breads from very basic building blocks. It’s also very helpful to have a kitchen scale for bread-making, as all of a baker’s ratios are set by weight. I have included both the weight and the volume measurements here, but consider investing in a digital scale (usually around $25).
I use unbleached, all-purpose flour (King Arthur Flour is my favorite). Bread flour is okay, but tends to be a bit too strong. I also like to use instant yeast—found in one-pound pouches in many grocery stores. It’s a lot of yeast, but it will keep for at least a year in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. However, the yeast sold as “rapid rise” (not “active dry”) in small packets is the same yeast. Just ignore the packet instructions and measure according to my recipe. The salt in the recipe is kosher salt, but any salt can be substituted by equal weight, though you may want to use a little less if using a fine salt and measuring by volume. Filtered or bottled water (not distilled) is best, but if you have clean-tasting, not highly chlorinated tap water, that’s fine.
Step one is measuring out the dry ingredients. If you’re weighing the ingredients, there is no need to sift them. If measuring by volume, use a separate scoop and aerate (fluff it up a bit) the flour, then scoop it into a dry measuring cup and level it off with a knife or scraper. Salt and yeast should be level spoonfuls, too. Combine the flour, salt and instant yeast in a large bowl—stirring it around with your hand.
Next, measure the water. It should be a cool room temperature, so if your kitchen is hot, put a little bit of ice in the water to chill it down. In a very cold room, use a little bit of warmer water. Ideally, the dough should be between 72 and 75 degrees when finished with the kneading. While many home baking recipes instruct you to add more or less flour to adjust the consistency of the dough, the better variable is the water. Since flour absorbs water differently depending on variety, growing conditions, storage and age, it’s best to keep the flour in the correct ratio to the salt and yeast. Measure the water according to the recipe, but then pour four ounces into another cup.
Perhaps where I stray the furthest from what I first learned from the beautiful, hand-drawn illustrations in Beard on Bread is the kneading technique. Now, when I make bread by hand, I use a technique somewhere between Beard’s traditional “push, fold and turn” kneading and the now-popular “no-knead” methods. What I do is an adaptation of a very old method used by bakers making batches that were too large to knead extensively by hand. Once the ingredients are combined, the dough is stretched and folded to start the process, then allowed to rest. A series of three or four folds completes the development of the gluten and produces a dough with good structure. And finally, using a starter dough made the day before will add flavor to the loaf and improve the texture. Once the first batch is made, save and freeze a portion of the dough to use as the starter for the next batch.
Let’s make bread! Click here for David Norman's Bread recipe.