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A few definitions
Alveole One of the "gluten sacs" in the crumb of a loaf of bread formed when trapped carbon dioxide increases as a loaf rises. The alveoles are what make up the "crumb structuce" or "cell structure" of a loaf. Good artisan bread will have a mixture of small and large holes distributed throughout a slice. Good sliced pan bread will have an even distribution of smaller alveoles.
Artisan Bread Quite simply, bread made by an artisan, one who does skilled work with her or his hands. This has come to refer primarily to hearth-baked, European influenced loaves. Ideally these loaves will be made from dough containing only flour, water, leavening (either yeast or levain), and salt. Supplemental ingredients such as fruit or nuts are sometimes added, but it is the use of a few quality ingredients and the skillful application of time-tested practices that really defines this genre. Fermentation is key.
Autolyse (or dough autolysis) A process in which the flour and water in a formula are mixed together at low speed and allowed to sit for a rest period, usually of 20 minutes. This pre-hydration allows for better links between gluten and starches and results in shorter mix times and improved dough extensibility. Loaves made with autolysed dough will be easier to shape and will have more volume and better crumb structure. Due to the shorter mix time (less oxidation), the dough may retain more of the carotenoid pigment responsible for the creamy-yellow color desired in well-crafted bread.
Baker's Percentage A method of expressing the ratio of ingredients in a formula in which flour is considered to be 100% and everything else expressed as a percentage (by weight) of the flour. A sample formula might call for 100 parts of flour, 2 parts salt, 1 part fresh yeast, and 70 parts water. Using simple arithmetic, one may readily calculate the weight of ingredients to use with any given weight of flour. For example, using the above formula: 20 pounds of flour would require 0.4 pounds salt, 0.2 pounds of fresh yeast, and 14 pounds of water.
Biga A stiff sponge, used primarily in Italian breads. A biga is usually slightly stiffer than an average bread dough and made with flour, water, and yeast.
Floor time The period of time from when a dough is done mixing until it is divided into loaves.
Levain A traditional leavening, maintained in the bakery by regular additions of flour and water. Levain contains no commercial yeast. While the terms "levain" and "sourdough" are virtually interchangeable, the flavor of the bread is not necessarily, or ideally, sour.
Make-up The division and forming of loaves; the period of time in which these processes are performed.
Malted Barley Flour (MBF) Flour milled from sprouted and dried barley, used as an enzyme source to adjust the falling number of a flour to facilitate better fermentation and baking.
Poolish A wet sponge, usually made with equal parts, by weight, of flour and water and fermented with bakers' yeast. Poolish is commonly used in French breads.
Pre-ferment A sponge in which a portion of the flour for a bread dough is mixed with a portion of the water and yeast or levain and allowed to ferment for several hours or overnight. The use of pre-ferments allows the baker to make quality breads with relatively short floor times without sacrificing bread flavor or other quality factors. Some bakers reserve a portion of one day's dough to add to the next, thereby eliminating the need for a separate preferment.
Sourdough The term "sourdough" can refer either to a natural starter (see "levain" above) or the bread made with it. While sourdough bread does not have to have a sour flavor, breads named such often do. The flavor should come from the fermentation, not from added acid ingredients. If an ingredient list includes lactic or acetic acid, the dough may be sour, but it's not sourdough.
Sponge A pre-ferment, usually referring to a stiff dough pre-ferment made with flour, water, and bakers' yeast. Strictly speaking, a sponge can be any pre-ferment made with either levain (sourdough) or commercial yeast and can have either a batter or dough consistency. A sponge will generally be made without salt.
"To make bread you need only a scale, a mixer, a bench, and an oven." -- Susan Nagle
"Often, the best bread contains just flour, water, yeast, and salt. It doesn't need anything else." -- Excerpted from "A Gentle Manifesto on Bread," 1997, Ed Behr, The Art of Eating Quarterly Letter, P.O. Box 242, Peacham VT, 05862 www.artofeating.com
These two statements may, to some, conceal the complexity of making good bread from a few simple ingredients using a few basic tools. It is the very simplicity of material and technology that, in fact, demands that the baker has full command of the skills of his or her chosen profession. A good formula and quality ingredients are important in making good bread; but, even more, it is the baker's knowledge, experience, and resulting judgment that determine the quality of the bread. Key to that judgment is an understanding of fermentation, for it is through nurturing the life of yeasts and bacteria that a baker is able to transform flour and water into the staff of life.
To consistently make good bread, one must accurately scale all ingredients and maintain ideal dough temperature at every step of the process. The dough must be properly mixed, fermented, scaled, shaped, proofed and baked. The ability to do this is the result of proper training and vigilant daily practice.
They have been numerous "artisan" bread books for home bakers published in recent years. A few of these are excellent, but many focus on the authors' preference and styles more than on understanding principles. Perhaps the most useful volume on my kitchen bookshelf is a professional text, The Taste of Bread, by Prof. Raymond Calvel, translated from the French by Ronald Wirtz and James MacGuire. If you aspire to make great French breads, by all means spend some time with this book, available from C.H.I.P.S. at www.chipsbooks.com. Like most books meant for the trade, it's a bit expensive, but well worth it. Also worth perusal is Daniel Wing and Alan Scott's The Bread Builders, published by Chelsea Green (www.chelseagreen.com). This latter book's slant is toward wood-fired masonry ovens and naturally leavened breads, and includes well-researched information on flour, fermentation, and dough.
We'll be adding formulas from our bakery customers and a section on home-baked hearth breads soon.