Baguettes, And Another Bread Thing I’ve Been Thinking About

-A.J.

I think I’m learning more baking baguettes than I am most other things right now, and I think that’s because they’re encouraging me to look holistically at how I’m approaching bread baking —   I feel like I can make a focaccia or a No Knead and they’re relatively forgiving. Baguettes require more attention to… everything really. One decision leads to the next which leads to the next.. From start to finish, if I make a serious error somewhere along the line it’s harder to recover from and still have something…  Let me put it this way, I’ve turned baguettes into crostini before anyone else ever saw them because I hated the way the breads were shaped coming out of the oven. I’ll usually serve ugly stuff anyway and call it “rustic”. Not that time.

But getting back to the “holistic” thing:  I’ve been reading a lot of different authors and a lot of bread recipes. Some have lots of kneading in the mixer, some have none, some use refrigerator preferments, some use room temperature, then there’s high hydration, or two hydrations, and on and on and on.

Cell phone picture.

Cell phone picture.

It seems to me that at a fundamental level they come to the same point:  While the dough is in the “bulk rise” stage there will be at least one stretch and fold. This happens before or during the stage that used to be referred to “punching down”. It doesn’t seem to matter how much kneading has happened previously, stretch and folds organize the gluten and gives a much better crumb structure and loft.

As an example – Peter Reinhardt will give a lecture where he’ll start by loosely combining a wet dough in a bowl and during the talk he’ll stretch and fold the dough about every 15-20 minutes. The dough will go from a shaggy wet mass to being fairly orderly and neat in a little over an hour. (In a related note: I’ve heard him say that four stretch and folds is the optimum number, but I’ve never heard him describe why that is.)

Another cell phone picture

Another cell phone picture

2nd example – Jeffrey Hamelman will often recommend not fully developing the dough in the mixer, then giving the dough some number of stretch and folds on the counter.

3rd example – Jim Lahey’s No Knead Bread involves no kneading at all, but it does have a stretch and fold at the end of the bulk rise.

I’d heard someone on Youtube, and I wish I’d given it closer attention, but he basically said that given time, gluten will develop, and that kneading isn’t really developing gluten, it’s just organizing the gluten that’s there. I don’t know how true that is literally, but it got me thinking just allowing lots of time with minimal kneading and a few stretch and folds along the way is an excellent way to go about doing things.

I think this one might have used a real camera.

I think this one might have used a real camera.

I’d been heading that way for a while. For the ill-fated Sounders championship game viewing party I made baguettes to be used as part of meatball sliders.  I used some AP flour and a lower temperature bake because I didn’t want a super snappy crust that would have meatballs shooting out when someone took a bite.  The recipe included a 300g/300g AP flour/water mix that spent two days in the refrigerator. It also included a 200g/200g AP flour/water mixture that spent about 18 hours on the counter. I finished it with 1.5 TBP instant yeast, 18 grams salt, 70g of water, and 400g of bread flour.  The total formula:  900g flour, 570g water (63%) hydration, 2% salt. This made 6 smallish baguettes.

What the recipe didn’t include was the KitchenAid. I kneaded the components by hand until it came together, then did a few stretch and folds until I was happy with it.

I don’t know if it’s a breakthrough or a revelation, but I feel like the baguettes have been getting better on average over the last year or so, and the stretch and fold technique likely has something to do with it.

Happy Holidays everyone. And happy baking season.

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