Years ago, there was a PBS reality show called Frontier House, where a few couples and their children were dropped into an 1800’s existence somewhere in middle of nowhere, Wild West. Other than the young man who built a log cabin with his dad, the person who sticks in my mind was the woman who could bake bread from memory. Oh, what’s so hard about it? Flour, yeast, water, salt. You’d be surprised. I stayed away from bread baking for years, assuming it took a level of precision I’m just not built for. Then, I got a copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day(the old one) from the library. And over the last few months, I’ve started to get the hang of the bread baking thing, just from having a big container of dough sitting in the fridge, ready to go whenever the mood the strikes me. Fair disclosure, it’s the mixing that takes 5 minutes, the dough still has to proof for an hour and bake for another 40 minutes.
The master dough recipe simply calls for 3 c. lukewarm water, 1 T. yeast, 1 1/2 T. kosher salt, 6 1/2 c. AP flour. In reality, this is just the baseline. In the Pacific Northwest, where it’s always damp, I always have to add more flour once I shape the loaf and liberally flour the pizza peel for proofing. Even then it still sometimes sticks a bit as the loaf rises. So why not add less water from the get go? You’ll get a tighter crumb.
The first go-round, the dough was super wet, hard to form and a general pain in the butt for an inexperienced baker. It was also so loose, it was hard to score the top with a hashtag. For the easily discouraged, it was a not-so-encouraging start. But while the loaf came out shaped like an alien head, it had big, gorgeous, air pockets, like a good ciabatta.
Subsequent loaves, I experimented with octagonal loaf shapes and three or four slashes across the top. Every time, it’s just a little bit different. And as the days go on, the container may create it’s own condensation leading to even wetter dough. This is where, like the woman on Frontier House, you just have to use your head and add flour until it looks right and can be handled reasonably without totally sticking to the board and your fingers. You can’t throw your hands up and say, this recipe is horrible. It’s on you. Recognize that while there’s chemistry involved, this bread baking is not an exact science.
Not every loaf is perfect. After several good looking loaves and me starting to think, “Hey, I’m really getting the hang of this thing,” I let this one rise too long (more like two hours) and then I was in a rush to get it into the oven and I didn’t score the top. Without any way to let off steam, the top blew up, got too close to the element in my oven and came out like a burnt, deflated football. See, that was all on me! The saving grace was it still tasted good, the bottom half, anyway. Practice makes not-so-perfect(ish).