Baking in a Storm

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I was perusing the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion [affiliate link] and I came across a tip about humidity and baking. It started out with the relatively common advice that, in more humid weather, flour will absorb more liquid and will consequently need less added for any given recipe. However, tucked away under that was another hint that I'd never heard before.

One of the common symptoms of rainy weather is lower atmospheric pressure. The thing I'd never considered is that the lower pressure will affect cooking. It'll have a small effect on the temperature needed to bake, which the King Arthur folk didn't mention because it's probably pretty negligible. This is the same thing that happens to high-altitude bakers and the opposite of what happens in a pressure cooker.

The important thing is that your cake/bread/whatever will rise higher because there isn't as much pressure on it. It's obvious when you think about it, and I'm sure bakers who have travelled to different elevations to practice their craft have noticed the difference, but it's news to me.

What I wonder is if there's anyone who would want an oven that could control its pressure. Not necessarily to pressure-cooker levels, but for people living near the edge of the atmosphere (I'm looking at you, Colorado), they could keep it at 1 ATM. For those who just want the tallest souffles ever, they could dial down the pressure just a smidge.

There's a problem that happens with chemically leavened products like muffins and quick breads. If you put too much leavener in, the quick bread will collapse before it's done baking. This happens because there's not enough structure in the confection to hold it up. Specifically, the atmospheric pressure is pushing it down when the tiny amount of gluten isn't ready to hold it up.

With the fancy atmospherically-controlled oven, you might be able to dial back the pressure enough to allow the structure to set before removing the pressure. There will be limits, of course; a soufflé is going to fall eventually, and if you make your structure too delicate, no amount of reduced pressure is going to help unless you're going to somehow eat it in the reduced pressure. Which seems unlikely.

Still, I'd bet someone talented to could work some magic with a system like that. I doubt it would end up being useful, certainly not compared with the work of actually creating such a device, but I wouldn't have really figured out any good uses for the anti-griddle either, so who can say for sure?

Wood Fire Oven

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I'm reading The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens in an attempt to come to grips with whether or not I'm going to be able to swing having a wood fire oven in my back yard. The downside of my back yard is that it is tiny and that most of it is several feet below the back door. I have a wood deck that is conveniently floor-height, but I have some concerns about placing a wood fire oven next to the deck.

Three of the big decisions that you have to make when picking out what sort of oven you're going to have are:

  1. How much are you going to cook at one time?
  2. Is this oven primarily for pizza or for bread?
  3. How often are you going to cook in it?

There's no oven that will easily support all of the range of options posed by the questions above without causing you to either waste a lot of money on wood, waste a lot of time heating the oven, destroy your oven after a few years, and/or give you an inferior product when you're done with it.

The more mass you give an oven, the longer it will take to heat, but the longer that the heat will last. For an oven you're going to use every day, you want a lot of mass, because it will hold much of the heat overnight. This means you have to use less fuel heating it up the next morning.

On the other hand, the same massive oven, used only a few times a week, would be a terrible pain, because it would take a tremendous amount of wood each time to heat it up, and you'll wait around forever for it to happen. Depending on the materials you've chosen, you may cause extra damage to the oven by causing the repeated expansion and contraction of something that was prepared to spend its life mostly expanded.

I can't imagine a better guide through these options than The Bread Builders. It's a fascinating read, and I'm looking forward to learning a lot more about the design and construction of this oven. Who knows, one day I may even build one. Wouldn't that be exciting?

A most impressive addition

Wake_Robin_Bread_Extraction.jpg During my recent trip to Asheville, for which you'll get an overview and a disclaimer soon enough, we took a quick trip to Wake Robin Farm to visit the bread makers and their oven. There is a lot to be said about both, but right now I want to focus on one small part. A brick oven is a relatively ancient technique for making bread. Not the original method, of course, because ovens are a pretty recent invention as far as cooking is concerned. If it wasn't done on an open fire, it's probably not one of the first cooking techniques. Still, centuries ago, a single town or village might have a single wood fire oven that is shared across the community. Generally, the ovens I've seen haven't deviated much from what you might have seen back then, except most of the ovens I've seen are smaller and may have some design differences for aesthetics or because of the skill of the builder. It wasn't until last week that I saw something that is truly modern and, to my mind, vital for anyone building a new wood fire oven. thermocouple_interface.jpg What's shown in the picture above, embedded into the side of the oven, is a series of thermocouple interfaces. Thermocouples are effectively thermometers that can handle a wide range of temperatures, especially at the extreme range of what the typical cook would have to deal with (as opposed to what the typical physicist might have to deal with, which would go significantly higher or lower). These thermocouples are set in the oven so that Steve Bardwell, co-owner of Wake Robin Farm Breads, can plug in a compatible meter and see what the temperature of not only various parts of the interior surface of the oven, but also a few points between the interior surface and the exterior surface. This gives him a tremendous amount of information about how fully the oven is heated and should allow him to predict how long the oven will retain its heat. Were I to build a brick oven, I would steal this idea. Without a doubt. I would then connect the sensors to a computer to allow me to graph the temperatures and keep a record of historical heating curves. Because there's no geeky idea that can't be made just a little better by recording and graphing the results.

Predicting the rise in bread: is it that easy?

Monika Bartyzel on Slashfood did an interesting article recently on altering the amount of yeast that you use for cold-fermenting bread. The idea behind cold-fermentation is that that you keep the dough cold so that the yeast aren't particularly active. This allows the various enzymatic activities with the dough to happen on their own over time, increasing the flavor of the bread. That works especially well with non-enriched breads. There was a post that Monkia refers to that discusses a specific recipe someone is developing for a cinnamon bread that slow rises. In the comments of that post, someone suggests the baker's formula:
Original Amount of Yeast * Original Fermentation Time
New Fermentation Time
Now, the commenter didn't say explicitly that this formula was for cold-fermenting breads. Also, I have to say that I'm a little suspicious of the simplicity of the formula. It could be that everything just works out fine with it, because there are a lot of close-enoughs that make it work out. But yeast don't reproduce in a linear fashion, they reproduce exponentially. Under ideal conditions, yeast will double in size every generation. So instead of starting with 2 yeast, then having 4 the next generation, the 6 the next, then 8, 10, 12, and 14, we start with 2, then 4,8,16,32,64,128,256. After a while, the yeast by-products, alcohol in particular, will kill off the yeast, so they can only go so far before they all die off. However, given their exponential growth beforehand, you can see that the amount of time that passes should eventually have a much greater effect on yeast reproduction than the amount that you reduce the initial batch by. So if I started with 30 yeasts instead of 60 yeasts, according to the formula I would be able to double the amount of time that it takes the bread to rise. But let's assume our target is 6000 yeasts, With the 30 yeasts it would take: 30, 60, 120, 240, 480, 960, 1920, 3840, and over 6000 the next generation, or about 9 generations. With the 60 yeasts, it would take: 60, 120, 240, 480, 960, 1920, 3840, and over 6000 the next generation, or about 8 generations. That's not a huge time difference, and it gets smaller the longer you let it go (to a point). Of course, there are other factors. There's the amount of food available (the sugars and the potential sugars), the temperature of the environment, and if there are any wild yeasts ready to jump on the bandwagon. With the cold-storage method, you control the temperature and the ability for wild yeasts to interfere, so that may help settle things down into what is, for all intents and purposes, a linear scale. So, while I'm not saying that the formula is wrong, I am saying that it looks suspicious. A little too easy. Quiet… too quiet. I've got a bad feeling about this. I do not think it means what you think it means. It's probably a good starting point, but I will do some experimentation in my own kitchen before I decide that I can put this dough in my fridge for almost exactly 16 hours and be ready to have perfect bread in time for my dinner party that night.

Yeast Bread and schedule balancing

Bread was one of those things that my mother refused to make without the aid of a bread machine. But hand making bread was right out. And although I do not fear the bread, I tend to think of it as being harder than it really is. Part of the reason I don't fear bread baking is because I have studied up on the techniques and understand the basics of the physical chemistry of bread. Gluten and I are good friends, and we pal around on the weekends and go on fishing trips together. We invite yeast along*, occasionally with some sugar and butter or similar, and a good time is had by all. Perhaps a bigger part of why I don't fear baking bread is because I have a stand mixer with a dough hook, and consequently don't have to knead by hand. Those of you who are hand-kneaders may scoff at me (I see you back there), but it removes a decent amount of the work and active time to the baking process. I think the reason that I do have a little trepidation for making bread is because I'm never really convinced that rising and proofing are attention-free on my part. There's always a bit of me that has to check up on it from time to time to see if it's achieved the proper amount of lift, and I tend to be on its timetable rather than it being on mine. Some of this is because I'm a project manager, and so am duty-bound to keep an eye on the progress of others. Still, I am making bread. Ideally, I will work it into my daily routine, along with my day job, writing for my various blogs and publications, exercise, housework, and spending time with my lovely wife. Most of that's easy, but the day job makes it trickier, because it's this big 8 or so hour chunk of time in the day where it will take 30 minutes of driving if I want to make adjustments to the bread. The King Arthur Cookbook suggests that I can learn to play with the amount of yeast in my bread recipes, which will fine-tune rising time. Perhaps that will be my secret. Perhaps I will manage something with sponges, or refrigerating dough overnight, or similar. So I ask you, my readers: How do you juggle a full-time job and regular bread baking? *- Yeast, incidentally, constantly makes flatulence jokes and giggles. It's not my thing, but he brings the booze as well, so what can ya do?

Peter Reinhart at TASTE^3 on Whole Grain Bread

I haven't watched all of this, but as I am technically mentioned in his book on whole grain bread, and I categorically recommend everything the man writes or does, you might as well watch it with me. This is Peter Reinhart at the TASTE^3 conference, which I had not heard of before but will research and write about next week, talking about his epoxy method of whole grain breads.

Improving Toast Efficiency by 12%

My twitter friends know this, but I figured you all should know it as well: there is a secret to faster toast. I know, you think, "How long can toast take?" and I say it can take too long, especially when you forget to start cooking them before you put on the eggs, and now the eggs are done and you haven't even buttered the toast. Am I right? I am right. The secret to a lightning-fast toast is to use brioche. That's right, brioche. Because, get this, you don't have to butter it. Brioche is teeming with butter, so you can skip that step and just put on any sweet or savory topping, or just eat it plain. It doesn't matter, because it's already tasty. You are welcome.

Upgrading the Stand Mixer

There are two new items for the World's Most Popular Stand Mixer In The World*. I'm writing of the KitchenAid Stand Mixer, not some other mixer. The first is the BeaterBlade. Available from Amazon, this handly little device is just like the paddle attachment on your stand mixer, except that it has some silicone bits around the edges which scrape the sides of the mixer for you. Simple, effective, and a no-thought upgrade. If you know someone with an appropriate model stand mixer, you have your holiday or birthday present for the year. The second, for the bread enthusiasts, is the Spiral Dough Hook. This one is an official KitchenAid attachment that will work for the Professional 5 Plus and the Professional 600 models (sorry, Artisan folk). As seen in the embedded video, the new dough hook actually kneads the dough along the bottom of the bowl, thus picking up the various bits of flour at the bottom. Also, it prevents the dough from slapping the side of the bowl like a one-armed midwife at a birthing competition**, so it keeps the mixer from trying to walk across the counter to its eventual doom. *–I have no data to back that up. I completely made up the title. It's a pretty popular mixer, though, you'll agree. **–It sounded okay in my head.

Hot cheese bread: grip it and rip it! | King Arthur Flour - Bakers’ Banter

Hot cheese bread: grip it and rip it! | King Arthur Flour - Bakers’ Banter: "40016FE2-BB03-45E9-AE0A-DEF144C94025.jpg If you’re a yeast bread baker, you know that different loaves provoke different visceral responses. There are sandwich loaves, golden brown and perfectly domed, that seem almost too beautiful to cut into. And there’s country sourdough bread, whose occasional lack of beauty is made up for by its enticing aroma. Focaccia begs you to cut it into squares and dip it in seasoned olive oil; a baguette makes you bend down and listen to it ‘singing’ as it cools. But one response all homemade yeast breads invoke in common: they all say RIP INTO ME RIGHT NOW. Hot-from-the-oven bread envelops your house with a yeasty aura of warmth and comfort. But it’s not enough to simply enjoy the aroma of bread, or to admire it as it cools. Though you’re cautioned not to cut into a hot sandwich loaf, lest your precipitous cut turn it gummy (and yes, if you cut oven-hot bread, that does happ"

(Via Slashfood.)

Must…make…bread. Wow.