The past few months I’ve been baking various breads and enjoying the results. The taste has always been good (side note: when doesn’t bread taste good), but I hadn’t actually improved my skills in months.

I’m mostly keen to improve the neatness of my loafs. To do this, there are two things I think I need to improve.

  • The height and ‘spring’ of my bread when cooked
  • The scoring of the bread.

My reading materials in the past have been The Perfect Loaf, Dan Larn’s Site, Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish and various other online tutorials.

This week, I picked up three new things that got me really excited to bake more; three things that have already helped me bake what I think are the best breads I’ve ever made.

The first is an ambient thermometer to give me a better understanding of the climate of my kitchen. I often find recipes recommending things like “if your kitchen is cooler (18-20°c) then use slightly warmer water” and I always think “how can 18-20 possibly be cool?!”. I always ended up sticking to the warmer waters, knowing that my flat is an ice box. However, I always just winged it with the warmer water and called it day.

Now, by being able to monitor the temperature right next to my dough at all times, I’m feeling much more confident in adjusting recipes to suit my needs. I actually created a microclimate in my oven to simulate warmer temperatures by leaving a small bowl of water at the bottom of it and closing the door with my dough and starter inside. This worked perfectly and allowed me to bulk rise my dough in 3 hours at 26°C - something I imagine would have taken closer to 5 or 6 hours with the 15° ambient temperature I now know my kitchen rests at during this time of the year.

The second thing I bought is a batard banneton. Before this, I only had boule bannetons and consequently baked round loaves. I think my favourite bread aesthetically is a well scored batard, I’ve always wanted to try and create a strong ‘ear’ using some good scoring. This new banneton will hopefully give me a shot at this. And, it’s not all about the looks - I think a banneton is the better shape for most situations. With a banneton you get more equally sized slices for the full length of the dough - as opposed to a boule where you have smaller pieces at the end and overly large pieces in the middle.

The final thing I purchased - and what I consider to be one of the best purchases I’ve ever made - is the Tartine Bread book by Chad Robertson. I had considered picking up a copy of this for the last year or so but didn’t bite the bullet until I noticed that it’s available as a digital copy for only £3.79. As soon as I realised this I made the purchase and read it virtual cover to cover in one evening.

In this book, Chad explains the perfect amount that you want to know about the classic country loaf of bread. He explains why how each period of rest works and how the product should look, smell and feel at each stage in a way that is scientific, yet approachable.

The highlight for me was reading about how to correctly shape dough prior to proofing. Since I started baking bread almost a year ago I have had issues with the dough sticking to the proofing baskets. This was happening no matter how much flour I was using and how much tension I built in the dough. Through reading the descriptions in Tartine Bread, this is no longer an issue for me. I realised that I’ve been shaping my bread and then placing is seam side down into the baskets. This side has next to no tension no matter how much you create with nice folding. Now, I definitely could - and probably should - have noticed this through the other books and sites I’ve read, but the entire folding process makes so much more sense to me after reading Tartine. I have far fewer issues dealing with sticky dough, which often lead to me over flour-ing the worktop; I now let the dough rest and know that it’ll be easier to work with because of this rest; and I know where to put the flour and when, whilst keeping it to a minimum. Before, I would just ‘use as little as possible’ as most other recipes say, until I inevitably added more flour at some point once some horrible sticking started).

It was great the learn how they bake a country loaf at Tartine, but another strength of the book is that it promotes baking ‘off piste’. Far too often when reading about sourdough and good breads, the author will say something to the effect of “adapt this as you like”. But they never explain what you could possibly adapt. The prescribe measurements to the 10th of a gram, warn you of a 15 minute window that you have to make and demand a preciseness of temperatures at all stages that expels all thoughts you had for ‘adapting the recipe to your needs’. Tartine on the other hand embraces adaptability and encourages experimentation to suit your needs. There is a whole section of the book dedicated to friends of the author who have each made their own adaptions to the original recipe in order to suit their schedule and their needs. In the past I had never baked a sourdough loaf during a work week as I thought my starter would not have time to mature and that I could never get a good enough rise in the short hours I have before bed. However, the day after I read Tartine, I mixed two loaves impromptu after work and baked them the next morning before heading to the office. They were the best loaves I had ever made.

Prework bake

Over the next few weeks I plan to bake a bunch more. I’m going to try a keep a short log of ambient temperatures and times that I used for each bake in order to find a method that works best for me.