I successfully made bread from the popular book ‘Flour Water Salt Yeast’
If this guy can write a book to teach me to bake epic bread, he can teach a dog to make eggs benedict.
The book has some complicated recipes for those of you who are expert bakers that need a little bit more for the skill set.
Last year everyone started baking, including me. I had previously depleted my stock of ingredients, so once everyone bought out the entire store, it took a while for me to find the proper ingredients once the craze died down. I had a little bit in the cabinet--not knowing or caring, due to the shortage, about the difference between all-purpose and bread flour. I used 'flour' everything that 'somewhat' fit the recipes. My bread didn't rise; it burned on the bottom; the center was doughy; I'd even almost started a fire at one point (oven mitts are flammable if left near a burner running at full tilt).
Alas, my grief only worsened when I saw a good friend post a picture online of his gorgeous bread--in the middle of the pandemic-baking craze! How did he make such a perfect loaf? This guy isn't a baker--although he is a great cook. Cooking and baking are NOT the same things. Most food you cook can be saved by a 'little bit of this and a little of that.' Cooking has more 'happy accidents,' if you will-- the type to make Bob Ross proud. Baking, on the other hand, is science. Weights, temperature, times, and ingredients matter (emphasis on MATTER). My cooking skills, when applied to baking, caused many unhappy accidents.
Inquiring further about my buddy's loaf of bread, he turned me onto the book 'Flour Water Salt Yeast.' He learned how to cook a loaf like that from a book?! In no time flat?! I was intrigued. Could a book turn my loaves from zeros into heroes?! I would have to wait nearly a year to find out (too many hobbies, too little time). It wasn't until my birthday this year--don't ask how old, age is merely a number; I have the mentality of a nine-year-old--when I received the book, I was able to have to opportunity to try. The book had been buried on my wishlist for the last year!
Look at that detail. It makes me hungry looking at it.
'Flour Water Salt Yeast' is worth a read
This book is not just a cookbook (bakingbook?), it is the science of the art and a well-written one at that. The author, Ken Forkish, starts off with an introduction and a backstory, and after 79-pages (?!!!) you reach the first recipe--now he is clear about this several times and tells you to skip forward if the skills he writes about are familiar to you. Ken's lengthy history, definitions, and skills explainers were exactly what I needed. This book goes over it all: reading recipes, weight vs. percentages, autolyse, mixing, folding, dividing, proofing, and finally baking. It might sound stupid to read about 'how to fold the dough,' but to someone like me (a shill of a man who drags his knuckles in the kitchen) it is necessary. If there is something to read to improve my skills and knowledge, I'll do it.
Conveniently--since the baking craze ended--I was able to replenish my stocks. I checked the cabinet after cracking open the book and found everything I needed (white flour, fine sea salt, and instant dried yeast). It's really is that easy. The title of the book is all the ingredients you need to make your first loaf of artisanal bread. I'm not even kidding, buy the book and turn to page 81 (1000g white flour, 720g 90F/32C water, 21g fine sea salt, 4g instant yeast). You will, however, need a few pieces of kit to make the bread per recipe.
I'll be perfectly honest, I don't own--and still don't own--a proofing basket. The loaf is required to be held in a dutch oven while baking (30 minutes with the lid on, 20 minutes with it off), but who the heck owns a proofing basket?! I got about 3/4 of the way through the recipe before I had to research the 'proofing basket.' Apparently, my reading for content skills are getting a bit shaky; I should have caught the required equipment list in the first 78 pages.
The bottom crust doesn't look weird, it's just too hard for me.
Where it went right (and wrong)
Another requirement is a kitchen scale. I, luckily, had bought one a few months ago, and not because I needed it for cooking--our new Australian Sheperd puppy needed raw food weighed for her for the first few months of ownership. After I located this 'dog food scale' I was in business to tare the scale with my bowl and add flour. The 1000g was almost everything I had in the bag. Seeing all the flour, I immediately thought, 'This is a shart-load of flour.' It's about 7-3/4 cups of flour! (That's in cups for all my burger-eating brethren.) Next up was the water. Again, I tared the scale with my measuring cup. I threw a thermometer into the water and got the temperature to a lovely 90F (32C). I eyeballed the level at what I thought was about the right amount. Somehow--and this will never happen again--it was EXACTLY 720g of water; not even an exporter of Columbian BamBam could weigh something so perfectly by hand (on accident, mind you).
You mix the flour and water by hand. Ken talks about how your hand is a tool and one we've always had historically when we made bread. If you'd asked me what autolyse was before this book, I'd have stood there with a dumb expression and then commented in a cliche of 'I don't know the answer, but by god, I'll find it.' I know now that autolyse is just a resting period for the flour and water to completely incorporate--easy right?! Once this period has passed (20-30 minutes) it's time to add the salt and yeast. To incorporate them properly, you use his folding and pincer methods as described in the book.
Folding dough sounds easy--and it is--but when do you fold the bread... and how many times? Quite simply, this bread takes two folds within the first 1-1/2 hours after mixing. Then you pour a glass of whiskey (no, don't do that, you should be doing this at 11 am), kick up your feet, and watch the 'Lord of the Rings: Extended Version' from beginning to end because you've got five hours to wait while this lump of deliciousness rises.
Once you've seen Aragorn go from a hobo-transient living in the woods to a King who fights the great evil, it's time to divide the loaf into two, shape it into loaves, and place them into a proofing basket. I refused to stop at this point because I don't have a proofing basket. Apparently, these are wicker baskets that look similar to something I made in grade school while learning about Native Americans. I used two bowls of similar size for proofing my loaves.
And this is where it all went wrong. I 'might' have skimped a bit on the rising time, which then lead to the loaves being a bit too squishy when they came out of their proofing bowls. They didn't hold their shape very well. When I plopped the first loaf into the scalding hot, pre-heated dutch oven (475F/245C), it collapsed a bit. The second loaf collapsed even more! Although both look like a loaf of bread, they're on their way to becoming massive cookies instead of a tall stately looking mound of bread.
The second loaf had a large ear... and enough flour to be confused for a sugar cookie.
The final product
My loaf came out looking like something out of a baking fairytale for me. I have had some epic failures while baking in the kitchen and this wasn't one of them! Success! I. Made. This. I actually made a loaf of bread that looks like a professional made it. But it wasn't a complete success because the bottom was a bit tough; the product of the dutch oven becoming a bit too hot I'd guess. I threw in an oven thermometer, as Ken suggested, and found my gas oven cooked the loaf anywhere between 400-490F. I chalked this up to gas ovens suck and I should toss it for an electric one instead. (Does anyone want to buy a relatively new Kitchen Aid gas range and oven?!)
The taste of the bread was a solidly simple and consistently chewy, doughy, and warm loaf of white bread. Fresh out of the oven, after a good rest, it was the perfect bread for oil and vinegar. It made good for sandwiches the following day. It was a durable product for toasting and adding butter and parmesan cheese too. The issue with the bottom being a bit tough was mitigated a bit as the second loaf went directly into a sealed plastic bag and softened up a bit the next day.
In summary, I am not a baker. I won't ever be an expert baker, mainly because I don't have the patience for it. I am firmly in the Bob Ross camp of artists--I mess up and try to cover up all my 'happy accidents' with more or fewer ingredients. Baking is not a skill for me to master, but I'd be happy to try and perfect this particular recipe because it's a solid one. Ken hits a homerun when he teaches you how to make his bread.