Among my many diverse interests: trail and ultra running, gardening, homebrewing beer and wine, playing musical instruments, flyfishing and so on- I am also an avid cook and baker. I love to eat and so I love to cook.
Why spend the time cooking something mediocre when it doesn’t take any more time to create something great?
Running is a complementary activity to cooking- if one doesn’t want to gain weight there is dieting and there is exercising. I love to eat and I must do something with the calories I consume instead of storing them. Most folks must manage their weight with a combination of approaches- as you well know, I lean toward the latter.
I bake one or two loaves of bread every week. I prefer the complexity of sourdough and have a great starter so that is what I usually bake.
Every Friday my son Nathaniel asks me: “Dad, are you going to bake bread this weekend?” Most weekends my answer is “Yes! Of course I will!”
I’m now at the point of being a “jazz baker.” I no longer follow recipes unless there is something specific I’m trying to create or I’d like to get ideas for a loaf I’ve never made before.
How does one get to the point of being a jazz baker and baking bread without using a recipe? The key is to know the ratios and understand the science behind making bread.
Before I begin, I think about what kind of bread I would like to make and ask myself a few questions:
Whole grain or white? If whole grain then what kind of whole grain? Wheat, rye, oats, barley, spelt, sorghum or any of the other countless grains available?
Would I like a heavy dense loaf or one that is light and airy?
A soft crust or hard and crispy?
Do I want a sourdough which is tangy and sour or one which is milder and subtle?
All of these factors will affect the ingredients I choose, how I allow the bread to rise and what techniques I will use in the oven. To start with, I have a basic recipe in mind which I modify depending on what results I am seeking. I never make the exact same loaf twice.
6 cups of flour (this can be white or whole grain or any mix of the two)
Zero to 2 tablespoons of oil (olive, canola, butter- you decide)
Zero to 2 tablespoons of sugar (white, brown, molasses, honey, sorghum syrup, barley malt etc)
Liquid (water, milk, beer, or eggs- I do not give the amount because how much depends on many factors)
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt
Zero to 2 teaspoons bread yeast (if using an active sourdough culture, you could bake without added yeast but it will take much much longer to rise)
Other “stuff” (this can include nuts, seeds such as sunflower, flax, millet, teff, and/or quinoa, rye or other grain berries, oatmeal, dried fruits, herbs such as rosemary, garlic, and/or caraway seeds, etc, caramelized onions, wheat germ and anything else depending on what you are trying to create and how complex of a loaf you desire etc.)
Once you have an idea of what kind of bread you would like to make, then you can modify the above recipe to suit your needs. You do need to understand a few things, however, about the science and art of baking and how various ingredients work together.
One key to success with “jazz baking” is always keeping your ratios in mind. Some semi-pro bakers prefer weight based ratios- I have not moved up to that level as volume-based baking continues to work for me.
Flour obviously creates the body, flavor and sturcture of bread. It is the food that the yeast feeds upon. I use bread flour instead of all purpose because the higher protein content allows for a better more predictable rise. One could use only white bread flour for a white bread- or one could use some whole grain flour- it all depends on what you are in the mood for.
One could make a loaf out of 100% whole grain flour but it would be very dense and not rise very well. Thus, I usually do not go over 1/3 to 1/2 of the total 6 cup volume as whole grain flour. Rye flour is notorious for being sticky and hard to work with. If I am using a lot of whole grain flour, I will substitute up to 1/4 cup of the regular white bread flour as high gluten flour to encourage a better rise. Gluten is what enables wheat bread to rise- whole grain flours are deficient in this. Adding a little bit of high gluten flour is one secret for a fluffier lighter whole grain bread.
When I use sourdough starter (which I almost always do), I use one cup per loaf and consider it as one of the 6 cups of flour in the above 6 cup recipe. More about the care and feeding of sourdough starters later.
Oil can be olive oil, canola oil or butter. A small amount of heavy cream also counts as a oil. Oil makes the crust softer but allows the bread to stay fresh for a day or two. One could use no oil at all- as when baking a traditional french-style bread. The crust will be hard and extra-crispy. However, the down-side is that a loaf made without oil will be fresh for that day and no longer. I love the crispness and flavor of breads made without oil but because I bake usually only on weekends, I add some oil so the bread will stay fresh into mid-week.
Salt is necessary for the proper leavening and rise of the bread. It also adds flavor. Too much, however, can suppress the growth of the yeast. How much should you use? Experiment using anywhere from between 1 tsp to 2 tsp for a 6 cup loaf to see what works best for you.
Sugar adds flavor and also food for the yeast. Some sugars such as molasses or sorghum syrup are essential for the final flavor of some ryes and pumpernickels. Sugar is not absolutely necessary, yeast will eat the starches in flour alone. Using sugar can make for a faster, more dramatic rise. Some breads such as traditional french sourdough are made with nothing more than flour, salt, water and yeast.
What kind of sugar should you use? Look at a few recipes for general ideas then when you feel brave try some experimenting and see what turns out. Bread making should not be as difficult as some try to make it. There are some “tricks” but no secrets. Remember…. humans have been making bread for thousands of years, long before we had any knowledge or understanding of the science behind it. If our ancestors could do it, so can we.
If you are using an active sourdough starter, you could bake your bread without any added yeast. Myself, I always add some bread yeast. This is because I’m impatient and also because it guarantees my bread will rise. If using solely the wild yeasts in sourdough culture, it could take as long as 18 to 24 hours for one to get sufficient CO2 formation for enough of a rise. I’m usually too impatient for that. However, a longer rise will result in more tartness and more traditional sourdough.
Other “stuff” includes nuts, seeds, grains, and or herbs. These are all optional and depend on your desires for that day. I usually do not add more than a 1/2 to 3/4 cup total of other “stuff” to my 6 cup loaves. Too much could interfere with the rise and final crumb structure of the bread.
The final addition is liquid. Usually this is water but sometimes I use beer or milk if I’m feeling adventurous. As you will see, I did not and will not provide any measurements as to how much liquid to use. How much you end up using depends on many factors. For example, if using a sourdough culture, there will be some water in that and one would use less added liquid than if one was making bread entire from dry flour and no starter. This is one reason why I eschew recipes that define how much liquid should be used: there are too many factors such as the dryness and type of flour or even the humidity of where you live. There can be no way for you to know beforehand exactly how much liquid you’ll use- you’ll find out as you begin mixing the ingredients.
I add small amounts of liquid as I am mixing the ingredients until I get the dough consistency I am aiming for. This is where the art of bread making comes into play. You want a dough that is smooth but not too sticky- nor do you want one that is too hard and firm.
How do you know how much?
By the feel and look of the dough, you’ll know. With experience you’ll get better at it until it becomes second nature. Someday you’ll be like me and other jazz bakers; when someone asks you how much liquid did you use, you’ll reply, “I have no idea- I used just as much as I needed to…”
Enough on the background and science of baking… let’s make some bread!!!!
Whole Grain Sourdough
For my example recipe, I decided to make a whole grain bread (Nathan requested whole grain this weekend- so I obliged). I modified the above 6 cup recipe… here’s a list of what I used:
1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 cup sorghum flour
1/2 cup high gluten flour
2 1/2 cups white bread flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons molasses
2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp bread yeast
- 1/2 cup total of rye berries, spelt berries, millet and quinoa
- Water- just as much as I needed and no more :)