November 17th is Homemade Bread Day, so in honor of that I thought I’d share a bit about my bread-baking journey and offer some tips for those of you wanting to get started. I love learning new culinary skills, particularly those involving flour — but bread-baking, particularly with sourdough, is the first I consciously decided to take seriously. After being an occasional bread baker for several years, I took the plunge this past summer and made it my goal to be able to consistently turn out decent loaves by winter. I revived my two year old starter that had been hanging out in the fridge, and haven’t looked back since.
Although there have been failures and frustrations, I’ve definitely seen improvement in just a few short months; and bread baking has become something my family and I truly enjoy and make a part of normal daily life.
I’m a harpist and pianist by training and was for several years a private music teacher. In retrospect, I approached learning to bake bread much the same way I’d start a student or myself on a new piece of music.
One of the skills you obtain in music training is how to sit in a room by yourself for hours, concentrating on minute details. No joke, I’d have hour and a half lessons on a single page of music. Nothing can replace consistent and well-informed practice as a musician, and the same is true for any other skill you want to learn. In the context of bread baking, this first meant taking out my starter and feeding it twice daily at room temperature. This forced me to learn how my starter behaved and just the act of discarding and feeding made me more eager and likely to plan bakes. Are there ways of baking with sourdough that include less “wasting”? Sure, but for me the daily interaction was a key element to learning quickly and, I think, worth the price of a little flour.
Then there is also the practice of actually baking. You just have to start doing it. Once a week, twice a week — just do it consistently. You will have failures and bricks and you’ll probably drop a loaf here and there; dust the flour off your pants (and everywhere else in your kitchen) and try again.
Finally, the practice has to be informed. I spent way too much time in music school “massaging the strings” (i.e. aimlessly playing things over and over again hoping it’d get better). Turns out you can get a lot more done in a lot less time if you know what you’re striving for and tackle that problem head-on. Because I only bake once or twice a week as opposed to 40 hours / week of practicing while in school, the practice has to be that much more informed if I want to see improvement between loaves.
One thing I wish I’d started sooner is taking better notes on each bake — how long did I autolyse? How many folds? How long did the bench rest go? What temperature did I bake this at? This may seem a little obsessive, but it’s a lot easier to diagnose problems if you have some hard data and see where things may have gone wrong. It’ll also help others help you if you have that information ready — there are a lot of really generous, talented bakers out there who are more than willing to answer questions and help us newbies out!
Know the terms.
One of the first things I would make my students do was look up all the unfamiliar terms in their music. It’s an easy way to get the gist of how a piece should sound without even putting your fingers on the strings. Same thing with baking — a little technical knowledge helps a ton! Get a couple of good books on bread (I’ve listed a few at the end of this post) and familiarize yourself with the basic terms of bread baking. You’ll be able to understand recipes a lot faster; and again, when you ask people for help you’ll get a lot more out of their advice. I was never great at math or science; so if I can learn baker’s math so can you.
Work within your abilities, but don’t forget to challenge yourself.
One of the fine balancing acts as a music teacher was keeping students motivated and challenged by choosing the right mix of music. If the pieces are too easy, everyone’s yawning through the lesson. If they’re too hard, everyone’s crying.
The fastest way to get frustrated with bread-baking? Start with a difficult recipe and fail hard at the get go. And/or don’t follow the recipe and wonder why your bread didn’t turn out. Choose a good, basic recipe and follow it as closely as possible. Once you’re fairly comfortable with that, then pick something harder and/or start changing the flours around in some tried-and-true formulas to make things your own. Personally I like to alternate between “easy” (breads I’ve successfully made before) and “challenging” bakes (my own creations / new flours / high hydration doughs), which keeps both my stomach and brain pretty happy.
Love and share.
In the end, both music-making and bread-baking have this in common: you have to love it. If you truly enjoy doing either, whether or not your end product is picture-perfect is less important — you’ll have gained something in the process. The process of both can seem boring and slow; to endure at either you need to learn to love the little things: the sound of a brand new string, the smell of fresh flour, the feeling of nailing a tough arpeggio, the sound of crust crackling. It takes five minutes to perform a piece that takes months to learn. That loaf of bread you spent 48 hours making is devoured in three minutes. The journey matters.
Finally, the love is augmented by sharing. The simple act of sharing a piece of music or a loaf of bread can do wonders for a person’s day; and seeing people enjoy my music or food makes mine.
A few recommended sites / resources:
- The Fresh Loaf — A great forum where you can ask questions and learn from some very talented amateur bakers. I’ve started posting some of my loaves there as a bread journal of sorts.
- The Perfect Loaf — Maurizio’s sourdough posts are incredibly detailed and helpful, and he’s great at responding to questions. I’ve tried several of his recipes with good success (though the breads are a little on the more technically difficult side). Definitely recommend reading through his tutorials on sourdough creation / maintenance if you’re new to the game!
- My Daily Sourdough Bread — Natasa’s blog is lovely and practical. She is a very sweet and generous person too!
- Wild Yeast Blog — Not updated anymore, but there’s a lot of good information if you dig around the archives.
- The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, 15th Anniversary Edition: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread — the book that first got me hooked on bread baking several years ago.
- Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes — a classic; lots of interesting technical information.
- Tartine Bread — a modern classic; the photography and storytelling are inspiring. Tartine-style bread is quite popular (though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend starting there…) and this is the original.
- Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More — I recently bought this book and have had good success with the breads. The flavor combinations are unique and I’m looking forward to trying some of the sweet recipes as well!