Bread-Crafting Basics

"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.

Other valuable books on bread have been published since we posted the above paragraph.  If I had to limit my bread books to but one, it would be Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread: a Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes, published by John Wiley and Sons.  Luckily I don't have a one-book limit. I have added another professional/education volume, Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michel Suas of the San Francisco Baking Institute.   Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread, from Chronicle Books, is the most recent addition.