Ask Chef Emily: Baking Bread

What can you do when the dough for bread doesn’t rise? —Tony in Baldwin

In an effort to be in closer contact with where my food comes from, my most recent task is baking my own bread. Last year, I read Stephen Yafa’s Grain of Truth and I was so inspired! If you haven’t read it and have heard the word “gluten” weaponized in the recent past I highly recommend it, quote liberally from it and lend it to everyone I can.

In the book he gives instructions for making one’s own sourdough, which I embarked on with abandon. I tended my starter like a mum tending baby chicks or an actual baby, both of which I was doing concurrently. Maybe it was that my oxytocin levels were elevated or I just needed one more feather to tend in my nest, but I was all in.

I learned a lot I didn’t know about sourdough, specifically that in addition to the characteristic tang of flavor that I was after, it also provided the bread’s rise and took the place of granular yeast. Of course! My 20/20 mind concurred. All those little bubbles percolating away meant there was exhalation of air and therefore lift.

Here’s my confession: I tended that starter (and another since) and made exactly zero loaves of bread. Not that I didn’t want to cook my pet, heavens no, I raise chickens! But it turns out that it is a very time consuming process. Yes, yes, most of that time is passive in the rising, in the proofing and so on, but you still have to be around for the punctuation points of the process. I found that obligation to conflict with a schedule of dashing from classroom to radio to writing to swim lessons.

I was feeling very much like a failure when I met chef Adam Leonti of Brooklyn Bread Lab. I had asked him to bring me some starter for attempt no. 3 and he dutifully obliged, gave me instructions and well wishes. Then he did something more. He set me free of my sourdough aspirations and said find a yeast bread recipe you like and perfect that.

??!!

For months I’d been throwing out King Arthur flour in four-ounce intervals telling myself that  someday that will be pretzels just not today and Leonti said, “Sister, exhale. Focus on the grains you are using, experiment with shape, size, all of the things available to a home baker and when you want great sourdough, buy it.”

So that’s what I did.

And then in one of my very first batches I killed the yeast. I’ve been relying heavily on King Arthur Flour’s Flourish blog and in one of my first runs with this new found freedom, my proofing water was too hot and the dough didn’t rise at all. Incidentally, I had a whole camera time-lapse capture set up so I could see just how not-rising the dough was. To confirm that the yeast wasn’t bad (which is a step I recommend if you too find yourself with a flat dough), I sprinkled some onto a little bowl of warm water with a pinch of sugar. Ten minutes later I had foam, so I knew I was problem.

My impulse was to toss the dough and start over but wastefulness heartbreak took over and instead, I kneaded in the same amount of yeast called for in the recipe again. I figured the first yeast was dead and this new yeast would work and, viola! I was correct. The bread tasted particularly yeasty, but I liked it and it functioned equally well for morning toast and as a learning tool.

Now, I am making the Vermont Whole Wheat Oatmeal Honey Bread my own, with substitutions and additions here and there and am working on the terroir and texture of “my” bread. So let me pay forward chef Adam’s advice to me: just play with baking bread. Let yourself learn and find the intersection of art, science and letting go.

I spoke to Adam Leonti on #114 and Stephen Yafa on #52 of my podcast, Sharp & Hot on Heritage Radio Network.

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