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30 Jun 2017

The long process – It’s been way too long since I’ve last posted. We are in New York now, at my parents’ house, and I’ve been busier than I thought I would be helping them fix up the place. This week, for example, I spent the entire week working on a new deck with my dad. We finished yesterday, which is a good thing, because my body was about to fall apart. I’ve also not had quite as much free time in the evenings, as I’ve elected to spend time with the family instead of doing other things—like writing Liminality entries. I also decided early on that I was going to forego my reading reviews over the summer. I did in fact read two books last month (which was a busy travel month), but I’m not sure they are actually worth reviewing, so not much is lost.

“I never really had any way of knowing if these techniques really made my bread better enough to be worth the extra time and effort.”

Today, though, I’m finally breaking my long silence to write about a recent experiment I conducted in bread baking. I had often heard that preferments (that is a pre-ferment, not a prefer-ment) and long fermentation times made for better bread, and I have in fact used a preferment in my baking in the past. But I never really had any way of knowing if these techniques really made my bread that much better—better enough, that is, to be worth the extra time and effort. So I decided to conduct an experiment. I would make two (nearly) identical batches of dough using the same processes, with two exceptions: one batch would be made using a preferment and then fermented overnight at a low temperature, while the other would be made without a preferment and then fermented for an hour at room temperature. (If you’re not familiar with preferments in bread baking, King Arthur Flour has a very thorough and informative primer on the subject.)

The recipe I used is a favorite of mine, a honey wheat bread with one hundred percent whole wheat flour (technically, it is only 96% whole wheat, because 4% of the flour content is wheat gluten, but I don’t use any white flour). I split the recipe in half and started what I came to call the “long process” (“LP” from here on) bread the day before baking, after lunch. The LP begins with the preferment; I decided to use a poolish. For this I mixed 125 grams of water and 125 grams of flour with one-eighth of a teaspoon of instant yeast—this creates something that feels more like a very thick pancake batter than a dough. I let this ferment for about seven hours (I was going to go for eight, but I started the process a little later than I had planned), after which it was a yeasty, bubbly mass.

The next step in the process is to add the remaining ingredients—in my case, the remaining flour and water, plus butter, salt, honey, and yeast. Above I said that the batches of dough were nearly identical, and the difference was in the amount of yeast that I used. The recipe normally calls for 1 tsp of yeast total, which would have meant adding 7/8 teaspoons to the poolish. However, I decided to reduce the amount of post-poolish yeast to only a half teaspoon, almost halving the total amount of yeast. I did this mainly because I was planning a long, overnight ferment, and I figured that I wouldn’t need as much yeast as I would normally use for an hour-long ferment.

Once I had combined the ingredients and kneaded the dough as usual, I put it in a bowl, sealed it, and stuck it in the refrigerator. I got up the next morning and began working on the “short process” (SP) dough, following my usual recipe and process: simply combining all the ingredients and then kneading the dough. When I finished this I covered the dough for its one-hour ferment. I then immediately took the LP dough out of the refrigerator to warm up before shaping, and I was pleased to see that it had risen considerably in the ten hours it had spent in the low-temperature environment.

After a half-hour had elapsed in the SP ferment, I took the LP dough out of its bowl and shaped it into a boule (a simple round loaf). I did this because I had decided to introduce another variable to the experiment: a ninety (instead of sixty) minute final proof before baking. Of course, this had the added benefit of staggering the shaping so that I wasn’t trying to do too many things at once. When the one-hour ferment for the SP dough was complete, I shaped that as well and added it to the baking tray. I preheated the oven to 375 degrees F (about 190 degrees C) and then baked the loaves for 25 minutes.

I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to tell the loaves apart, so when I put them on the baking tray I marked the parchment paper with an “L” near the LP batch and an “S” near the SP batch. When I took the loaves out of the oven, though, I was immediately struck by how different they looked. Here is what the SP loaf looked like:

And here is what the LP loaf looked like:

As you can see, the LP loaf is significantly darker than the SP loaf. The LP loaf is also significantly larger (although it’s hard to tell that from the pics—in retrospect I should have taken a pic of the loaves together), because it 1) rose more during the proof and 2) got more “oven spring.” I suspected that I might see a difference in size, but I was not expecting the different color. In addition to looking more earthy and wheaty, the LP also smelled much better. If I hadn’t made the loaves myself, I wouldn’t have believed that they were made from the same recipe.

Of course, while the visual and olfactory aspects are important, the real test is in the taste. After letting the loaves cool for a few hours, I cut slices from both. Here are close-up shots of the crumb, again with the SP bread first:

...followed by the LP bread:

Color aside, you can see that the LP bread has a much lighter, more varied crumb. The SP bread—as has always been typical of this recipe—is much more dense. This of course translated to a difference in the texture of each loaf, with the SP bread being dense and chewy and the LP bread being more light and springy. In fact, I could apply pressure to the LP bread and it would spring back to its original shape, while the SP bread failed to regain its shape.

Last but not least was the taste difference. It will probably come as no surprise by now, but the LP bread was markedly better tasting than the SP bread. This has always been a favorite recipe of mine, but after tasting the LP version, I could only look at the SP bread with chagrin and disappointment. HJ and my parents helped out with the taste testing, and they all agreed that the LP version was much, much better. In the end, LP beat out SP in every category: color, rise, aroma, texture, and taste. I had expected the LP version to be better, but I had not expected it to be so markedly better.

I said toward the beginning of today’s entry that the purpose of the experiment was to see if the LP was worth the extra time and effort. I think the answer to that question is an unequivocal “yes.” It doesn’t hurt that the effort part of the equation is actually minimal. It was indeed a pain in the neck trying to time two separate loaves using two different processes so that they could bake at the same time, but if I’m just doing the LP loaf it is really just a matter of time. The only extra effort required is the effort of putting together the poolish, and that is just mixing together flour, water, and yeast and letting it sit. It’s really more about planning ahead—all the extra “work” is being done by the dough while you do other stuff.

Since conducting this initial experiment, I have baked another loaf of bread using the LP, this time trying a rustic “country bread” (pain de campagne), another favorite recipe of mine. As I was taking the dough out of the bowl after the long ferment, a huge bubble formed on the surface. This bubble grew until it developed a hole and began to deflate. I peeked through the tiny hole and saw something I’d never had the chance to see before: the structure of the dough completely intact. It was a dense forest of elastic strands, no doubt made more complex by the preferment and long, cool fermentation. Needless to say, the LP version of my country bread was a significant improvement over the SP version.

I will still probably make SP bread from time to time, when I’m in a hurry or otherwise have not had a chance to plan ahead. But if at all possible, I will be going the LP route from now on; the benefits far outweigh the extra time and minimal extra effort required.

Send me your thoughts.

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