After rock #2 I turned to the internet (where else?) and found this amazing site! Farmgirl Fare: Ten Tips for Better Bread Farmgirl Susan lays out techniques that make the type of breads that are only distant cousins to supermarket sandwich loaves. Most of these techniques were a bit too advanced for my amateur skills but I took her advice and ordered the Bread Alone cookbook (or bakebook?). When it arrived I read and re-read the first chapter, which doesn’t even contain recipes. It’s all about flour textures, time, temperature and fermentation. It turns out that jump-starting the yeast with luke-warm water is actually a bad idea. Ideally you should create a long, slow rising period which helps the dough develop more flavor through fermentation, and also prevent your yeast from getting tuckered out too quickly. The science of baking is fascinating – when you knead your dough it’s temperature actually rises due to the friction! Dan Leader (the author) recommends that you calculate your individual “Friction Factor” and use that to balance the temperatures of your flour and water.
Reading about kneading dough I had the ah-ha moment: The 15-17 minute rule is important. If the dough is under-kneaded, the gluten will not be developed enough to allow the dough to rise during fermentation. It turns out that the kneading process changes the very structure of the gluten (wheat protein strands) to be longer and more elastic, which traps the air created by the yeast. SCIENCE!
Just a few days later my friend Emily invited me to take a class on sourdough bread at Brooklyn Kitchen. Though I now had a good handle on the concepts thanks to Bread Alone, the class gave me the opportunity to poke and prod properly kneaded dough at several stages. Thanks to my friend Tom I had a tiny tupperware of his sourdough starter waiting in my fridge. And so that weekend I baked bread – and it rose! (mostly)