On Being Flexible

Often through the bread baking process, there are times when words like ‘judgement’ or ‘feel’ can be put to use with the majority of recipes properly noting that, as a result of a number of variables, a set time will not always apply. I am generally guilty of simply following the guidelines laid out in a recipe, ie. bulk ferment for four hours, trying my best to adhere to the author’s conditions to prevent myself from having to apply those seemingly difficult, subjective notions of judgement or feel.

However, on my path to becoming as best a home baker I can, learning to respond to the environment and the bread itself at least partially will be necessary. Following a recipe in a rote fashion certainly makes my life easier, but if I’m honest with myself I am not sure that I’d be baking loaves that require 24+ hours of total time, even if it is not all fully involved, if I was looking for the easy life. I’d probably just drop $6.50 on a loaf of bread from the artisan bakery down the block.

So, at what stages can I look to employ and develop these skills? For one, given what can be a highly variable ambient temperature, I can determine the appropriate water temperature for use in the recipe. Most recipes will provide a suggested temperature, but chances are it’s much colder in my apartment – I live in Canada!

The following equations (filing this one under math) when applied can provide the proper temperature:

Desired Temp. * Contributing Factors = Base Temp.

Base Temp. – Factor 1 Temp. – Factor 2 Temp. – Factor n Temp. … = Water Temp.

First, a couple notes on this. Desired temperature will generally be 74-78°F depending on the recipe, according to the San Francisco Baking Institute, and is also commonly referred to as Final Dough Temperature (FDT). The remaining temperatures are that of ingredients making up your dough such as flour temperature, pre-ferment or levain temperature, and room temperature (okay, technically not an ingredient), as well as friction temperature which I’m not sure is all that relevant given that I mix by hand, but it’s still a factor. The friction adjustment for a standard mixer, again as per the San Francisco Baking Institute,  is 8°F which I may need to adjust for hand mixing (open to suggestions), but it’ll do for this explanation.

To clarify, here’s a quick example using a desired temperature of 78°F. The result is a water temperature of 89°F, which is not all that far off what I’ve typically used in the past.

78 * 4 = 312, Base Temp.

312 – 70 (Room Temp) – 70 (Flour Temp) – 75 (Levain Temp) – 8 = 89, Water Temp

Additionally, most recipes will suggest a more volume-driven bulk fermentation time rather than a … time-driven bulk fermentation. For example, “Allow for bulk fermentation until dough has doubled in volume, or approximately four hours.” Depending on my fermentation vessel, this can be easier said than done so I often just wait the prescribed time. A new one that I’ve recently read about on the perfect loaf is responding to your levain in a similar fashion prior to proceeding with a bake, but in this case responding more to the smells (sweet or slightly alcoholic) rather than volume.

Lastly, the most obvious method that I often forget to do in my early morning haze is the highly technical finger dent test. I’ve mentioned it before, but the test can be used as a means of determining whether a loaf is appropriately proofed. I’ve woken up to completely flat, overproofed loaves before, and likely baked underproofed loaves before as well as I have not stuck my finger in to ‘test the waters’.

My goal for the next few bakes will be to begin to at minimum consider applying some judgement through the process. As a starting point, whether I apply judgement or not, it would be helpful to think about these things as I go.

Have a good week!


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