Baking Bread: Lessons and Experiments.
~mike gradziel.

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November 2013: I claim success! After dabbling for ten years, I now know how to make black bread. The art is overlooked today as commercial bakers and home cooks alike reach for the dark molasses, caramel color, and coffee grounds to turn out dark brown loaves in just five or six hours. These have come to satisfy us; however the luxurious depths of flavor can only be known if one eats long-bake black bread warm from the oven, slathered with butter or cheese or - my favorite - lightly sweetened plain whipped cream. It's like eating cake! Entrust your dough to 18 hours of fermentation plus 24 hours of cascading reactions as sugars and grains are transormed with heat. Science calls this the Maillard Reaction, though science struggles to even begin to understand what's going on as countless flavor compounds are recombined again and again through the long slow process. White dough will turn chocolate brown, decadent and savory, while a steam bath keeps the bread from drying out. It's so simple! Maillard reactions are commonly known to be high-temperature processes acting on browned meat and bread crusts, but in the slower, lower-temperature methods the reactions operate as well. Boston Brown Bread starts down this path but the commonly used short steaming doesn't develop full flavor. Pumpernickel and nordic dark ryes traditionally make full use of 20-plus hour bakes, but these days it seems all recipes call for shorter bakes. I'm sure there will be many improvements to my formula as I try to make it rise more; however for your benefit here is what I have going right now:
(200 g water, 200 g white flour, 0.3 g instant yeast) pre-ferment 8-12 hours; (100 g rolled oats, 300 g water) cook till thick and cool; (180 g whole rye berries, 100 g whole wheat berries) freshly ground medium texture; 60 g white sugar - remember it gets chemically converted to other compounds, so the bread isn't overly sweet - 10 g salt, 2.5 g yeast, 75 g white flour.

October 2013: Baby has arrived and has us up every 3 hours at night, so I've taken advantage of this to make more long-bake bread which needs tending every 4-6 hours. In pursuit of what I imagine to be the authentic northern European black peasant bread baked a thousand years ago from salt, rye, and water, I was only able to produce dense dark loaves that are basically a hardened porridge, not leavened much and not very tasty by today's standards. The bread is easy to make (no oven is required, and there is no need to control temperature aside from boiling water to steam the loaf) and it would have been satisfactory for soaking in a stew at meal time. The flavors brought about by the long duration cooking are superior to those of boiled grain or short-cooked bread and for these reasons I see how it became a staple food. It keeps a very long time, too.

Taking a lesson from the Icelandic rugbrod or geyser bread by adding a significant amount of plain white sugar, I obtained a more tasty molasses-and-ginger flavored cake-like loaf without any such flavorings added but it was still dense and dried out soon after cooling. Sugar was a luxury item a thousand years ago, so despite having re-created the breads I enjoyed in Iceland I was not satisfied. If luxury items would be allowed in my dough formula, I wanted more quality. I wanted fluffy moist bread with the same flavor, and that meant using some wheat. Rye can be grown in harsh climates where wheat is unproductive, but it is difficult to make rye bread with a fluffy crumb.

My next test was to compare the rye/white sugar formula to a white flour/white sugar formula. Wow! The white dough turned chocolate colored, darker than I expected, with a nice flavor. It was not as rich as the rye bread but it had a much lighter crumb. These loaves rose for 18 hours first in the refrigerator and then in a sunny window before baking 24 hours in a steam bath. Paired with a savory borscht, soaked with melted butter or topped with cheese, they were fantastic. I'm onto something: next, I plan to do a wheat-rye blend with some oatmeal.
borscht and black bread
Borscht and Black Bread
rye loaf 24 hr bake
Rye Flour Only
white flour loaf 24 hour bake
All Purpose White Flour Only
steamer setup goes into oven rye on left, white wheat on right, before baking rye on left, white wheat on right, after 24 hr baking

May 2013: One of my long-time ambitions has been to make amazing black bread, flavorful and wholesome, whole-grain, and entirely without colorings or additives, and I had a breakthrough in pursuit of this during our trip to Iceland in March 2013.

First, let me explain some history: Black bread the color of chocolate cake is sold around the world in bakeries, but it almost always has caramel color and other additives. However it gives evidence of a history of black bread: the modern colors and flavors are being used to mimic something else. I recall a passage I read in Hakluyt's Voyages - a collection of first-hand accounts from the seagoing explorers of the 1400s and 1500s, written in England at that time - in which tribes from the far north of Russia greeted an English expedition with a great loaf of black bread. I don't believe these peasants had caramel color, and quite likely they did not even have much of any sugar substance resembling molasses. Somehow they still created the bread I was seeking. Despite all my research, the methods eluded me.

Then at a grocery in Iceland I bought a dense little loaf of black bread that looked tasty, and discovered that on the label there were just a handful of ingredients, with no colorings or flavorings. It was excellent, sweet and sticky and dense, tasting like a gingerbread cake despite the absence of spices. More investigation revealed that Icelanders bake such breads in geothermal steam vents leaving the loaf pans for an entire day. All they use in the dough is rye, sugar, yeast, water or milk, and salt. I knew I was onto something: the long low-temperature high-humidity bake was the key to it all.
Icelandic black bread with whipped cream black bread, smoked trout, smoked lamb, berry sauce, cheese Icelandic landscape at Myvatn
When we were done viewing northern lights and petting furry Icelandic horses, back at home I formulated a dough with freshly ground rye grains and the other ingredients. I added a spoonful of molasses thinking this was important for flavor. After mixing at slow speed for ten minutes, I packed the sticky dough into a loaf pan, sealed the top with aluminum foil, and put it in a roasting pan on a wire tray over boiling water. With the oven set at 215 degrees F, I let it sit for a full 24 hours refilling the water twice. Despite my expectations it was still a surprise when I pulled back the foil: the loaf was completely black, inside and out!

It was incredibly dense, filling, and tasted intensely of molasses. It wasn't perfect, but my interest was hooked. There was far more coloring than the molasses could have caused, and I deduced that the process responsible for making cane juice dark with the aroma of molasses when it is boiled for a long time must also be at work in the cocktail of grains and water in my bread.

I devised an experiment to test three variables: the amount of white sugar, the type of grain, and baking time. This time I used no molasses. In a muffin pan I arranged eleven carefully prepared pieces of dough and removed them at intervals over a full day and night of baking (yes, I woke at 2:30am to tend the experiment!). When all were finished, I sectioned the muffin- sized loaves, tasted them, and photographed them. I've provided a full report below, but in short: more time makes darker, more sugar makes darker, and both of these make the bread taste better. All my loaves were black and had the characteristic taste of molasses, but more complex and less sweet. Next I will try to make the crumb lighter.
grinding rye grinding rye grinding wheat
mixing rye dough mixing wheat dough dough ready for baking
cover with wax paper, then foil place on wire rack over water in roasting pan maintain at 212 F for 24 hours, refilling water
effect of baking time effect of baking time effect of sugar content
The bread formula I used was a fraction of this:
  • 1000 g rye or wheat
  • 20 g salt
  • 6 g instant yeast
  • 200 g white sugar
  • 600 g warm water

  • Addition of white sugar to dough, rye dough in particular, makes the dough more moist and sticky while working it. More sugar = more wet and sticky. Without sugar, the dough is rather like clay.
  • Without sugar, the bread was extremeley bland and unappealing. A good deal more salt might help, but it seems that the complexity of flavor, richness, and moisture of the crumb requires that sugar be added to the dough.
  • The full amount of sugar yielded the best bread. Half the sugar was ok too, but 1/4 the sugar was not very good. I would guess that bread with more than the full amount of sugar would be too sweet.
  • Both wheat and rye acquired similar color and flavor, but the rye dough had a nicer texture and was pleasantly more sour and complex which counters the seetness from the sugar.
  • If aluminum foil is allowed to touch the dough it will corrode and be eaten away. Put wax paper under the foil to prevent this.
  • The bread is best eaten soon after baking, while still warm. At this stage it is almost cake-like and very sticky. Later it becomes quite dry but then it persists in that state unchanged for two weeks or more without molding or drying if it is kept in a container at room temperature.
  • The full 24 hour bake yields best results. 16 hours is not quite enough for best flavor, though 20 or 22 hours might be ok too. Beyond 24 hours there may not be significant improvement because the bread has become very dark at this point. At 4 and 8 hours the flavor is not well developed at all.
  • The bread I ate in Iceland was also very sticky and dense, but not so dense as this, and it stayed softer and moist for multiple days. I plan to continue developing my formula towards that goal.

March 2012: I was baking often up until December 2009 when we bought the house, and then I mostly did home improvement on the weekends. After two years I decided I had better get back to baking because the house will never really be finished. Also, I harvested a small crop of wheat, bought a grain mill, and acquired a stand mixer. The mixer lets me be even more scientific about baking, since I can repeat exactly the same kneading process. Between that, a stopwatch, and my milligram and gram scales I can develop formulas with more precision than is really necessary. Another discovery I made is that an enameled roasting pan inverted over my sandstone paver baking stone produces beautiful bread when a spoonful of water is splashed in just after the dough hits the stone and the lid is closed over it. The pan must be pre-heated like the stone, otherwise the steam will condense on the pan more than on the dough. It turns out that baking under a roasting pan has been known to people for as long as there have been roasting pans, but I felt inventive having come up with it myself.

Some words about the KitchenAid Professional 600 series mixer I bought: I wanted the most solid construction in the product line, and the power to match, but the bowl is really huge. They do make a smaller bowl but that's another $60 and then you need different beaters too. However the mixer does just fine with a one kilo mix of dough. I start out with the flat beater to combine the ingredients and then switch to the dough hook when the dough is sticky enough to ball up on the beater. I wish it was quieter - there's a micro mixer about this size from TMB Baking that is whisper-quiet, whereas the KichenAid 600 is not, but there is a significant cost difference. Plus, the KitchenAid is more versatile. I bought a citrus juicer attachment too which works great (once the bushing is lubed up with vegetable shortening, and the dysfunctional integral strainer is taken out. Just juice into a big bowl and pour it through a screen afterward). It takes some strength to brace the mixer with one hand and press the fruit against the juicer with the other, but it is fast and not especially messy.

September 2009: The kitchen gets too hot some weeks in summer so I don't bake as much now, but when the weather is cool and I'm going to be home all day I bake baguettes and freeze them for making sandwiches all week. They lose the crispy crust but still taste better than anything from the store. To bake better bread in my gas range, I use a baking stone and have been trying various methods to get steam to condense on the dough right after the dough enters the oven.
fresh baguettes on the peel fresh baguettes on the peel fresh baguettes on the peel
Bread needs to be baked on a thick stone surface as hot as the rest of the oven. Ideally, the bread would be surrounded by such surfaces on all sides, but I'm starting with a stone base first. At a local stone yard I bought a piece of Connecticut Bluestone 18 x 12 x 1 inches. Oven stones need to be seasoned before their first use to slowly remove water, or they may crack; I cleaned mine with a stiff brush and running water, then put it in a 200 degree oven for a couple hours, and then gradually turned up the heat to dry it thoroughly. Quick washing is ok later as long as the stone doesn't soak long and is promptly dried out again.

connecticut bluestone 12x18 inch paver stone the bluestone paver is 1 inch thick, perfect for baking

This stone fits in my oven with 2 or 3 inches between the sides of the stone and the oven walls. The stone is sawn smooth on one side and split on the other side (which is normally the exposed, natural-looking side). I bake on the smooth side so it's easier to slide a peel under the bread. Bluestone is a type of tough dense sandstone popular for patio pavers, and considering its density (I measured it), its capacity to store heat should be right in line with traditional masonry oven materials.

baguettes on a couche my newly-made oven peel

For best results, the bread must be cool in the warm steamy oven the instant the oven door is closed. This means the scoring has to be done outside the oven, and an oven peel must be used to deliver the bread to the oven without disturbing it. I made a 19" wide peel sized specifically for baking bread in my oven, using 3/32" thick birch plywood and a piece of oak for the handle.

bread cooling on a rack

March 2009: I've occasionally made bread for perhaps fifteen years without knowing what good dough feels like. To correct this, in December 2008 I enrolled in a week-long Artisan Bread course at the San Francisco Baking Institute. Atop a hill in south San Francisco, this spacious baking laboratory awaits your trials at mixing and shaping dough under the guidance of skilled instructors who know how to operate the giant industrial ovens and dough mixers which speed along the preparation of forty-kilogram batches of dough. They teach the lessons of master baker Michel Suas, a man with an impressive resume known in bakeries around the world.

I baked a lot of bread - dozens of loaves, each batch a little different in its mixing intensity or fermentation time or flour type. Next came weeks of experimentation at home where I tried to re-create what seemed so easy in class with electric mixers and expert bakers. I tried different flours, bought scales to measure ingredients accurately to fractions of a gram, and modified my oven to bake better bread. See my results farther down on the page.

It's the middle of March, three months after my class, and I can finally say I'm almost ready to move on from the baguette to a new recipe. This means I'm finally producing baguettes at home the way they're meant to be: light, puffy, thin-crusted, crackling and bubbly and golden; fluffy and cream colored inside with irregular loose structure, all mixed by hand using an overnight pre-fermentation for the best possible flavor. My loaves have to be loaded crosswise because my kitchen is small, so they get a little crooked coming off the peel. Oh well.
puffy hand-mixed baguette with a poolish pre-ferment puffy hand-mixed baguette with a poolish pre-ferment puffy hand-mixed baguette with a poolish pre-ferment
My formula: 68 percent water, 1.6 percent salt, 0.33 percent instant dry yeast; and of course 100% white bread flour, all by mass. Pre-ferment overnight at room temperature 34% of the flour with an equal part water and 10% of the total amount of yeast. Mix by hand - I mean with your hands - until the dough is mixed and starts to gain strength, about 3 minutes. Fold several times over the next 3-3.5 hours keeping the dough 75-80 degrees F. Each fold involves folding over both edges, one after the other (like closing a book) left to right then right to left, rotating 90 degrees, and folding over both edges again, then inverting back into the oiled lidded rectangular plastic tub to rest in a warm place. Actually I never take it out of the tub, folding in place. When it does come out for pre-shaping I handle it as little as possible, folding each piece over a couple times to add more strength to the loaf. After it rests and is finally shaped with another fold, it rises for an hour while the oven heats up with its stone. I run steam into the oven, load the peel, slash the loaves with a sharp knife, load the oven and immediately introduce about 3/4 cup of boiling water, mostly by sloshing the hot water into a pan in the bottom of the oven (close the door quickly) but also via my copper feeder tube running in through the oven vent. I keep the steam kettle going for three or four minutes. It's essential to have a massive amount of steam when the dough first goes into the oven - this is when moisture beads up on the cool dough and keeps it pliable while the loaf puffs up.

Here are some photos from the class:
class discussion with instructor Frank Sally baguettes made with an industrial-style intensive mix Frank explains how to slash the baguettes before baking
san francisco baking institute artisan bread lab students work in small groups to weigh ingredients and shape dough baker Kate unloads baguettes using a manual oven loader
instructor Frank Sally critiques our bread results of three different dough mixing styles left to right: very little mixing, intermediate mixing, and heavy mixing whole wheat loaves going into the oven

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