Friday, February 8, 2013

The fear, fancy and fun of fermentation... My bread addiction and my sauerkraut disaster

   Fermentation is really cool.
   When I first struck out on my own, I vowed to stop buying store bread. "Too expensive," I sniffed, "And way better homemade anyway."
   And you know what? I've never once regretted that decision, even though I made it whilst drunk off the memory of my mother's sweet, soft, chewy potato bread she would pull steaming from her big noisy bread machine during Louisiana's cooler months. I have never once forgotten that particular recipe. I ate it by the inch-thick slice, spread with salty butter and a drizzle of honey, and lord have mercy if I'm not drooling on my keyboard at the memory. Those little bubbles, she told to me, were yeast farts. She showed me the little beige yeast granules and explained that the yeast woke up in warm water, ate the flour and sugar, and farted out all those perfect little airy bubbles. I was hardly a prim child, and this revelation provided us a good laugh and did not deter me from taking another slice. Mmm... Yeast farts.
   So when I moved away from my magical bread-baking mother and her bread machine, naturally the first bread I made was a potato bread. I saw it as a white bread with conscience, although whether or not that's a reasonable way to see it is highly debatable if not downright preposterous. It was not my mother's potato bread, but... It was pretty good! It gave me confidence. It convinced boyfriend that bread need not grace our future grocery lists.
   Next I tried whole wheat bread.
   Not such a hit.
   Whole wheat bread tends to want to be conditioned in some way to soften the dough. It requires patience, longer rise times, more liquid, and sometimes a compromise on the strictness of 100% whole wheat. My first loaf was dense, hard, and undersalted, resulting in a very subtle metallic taste. We ate it anyway because we are stubborn creative like that. We got pretty far through it with sandwiches and toast with jam and then we discovered a park near the house that has ducks. They gave rave reviews.
   I have since gained a good amount of experience making bread and learned quite a few things.

  1. Follow your instincts. If it looks like it hasn't risen enough, it probably hasn't risen enough. The only exception to this I follow is to do with doneness... Try letting your bread get a little browner than you think it should. Better to have a crispy, dark crust than a gooey blob of bluck floating in the middle of your otherwise beautiful loaf.
  2. Let your bread rise for a really long time! Don't go into a bread making project expecting to be cutting into a steaming slice within the hour.
  3. Whole wheat things are good. They have all kinds of nutrients and fiber and good shit that keeps you healthy. You know what else is good? Fat, sugar, and carbs. It's all about balance. Sometimes I put whole wheat flour in my cookies. Stop looking at me like that, it's true! And you know what? It tastes good. Boyfriend doesn't even notice!
  4. One of my favorite bread recipes is a no-knead bread. It's everyone else's favorite too. Slow-fermented and chewy, it stands up to stews and cheese and it's heavenly with fig jam. However... It's no-knead and that kinda makes me sad. I like shedding any jewels below the shoulder and getting wrist-deep in smooth, stretchy, tacky, warm baby-butt bread dough. All I'm saying is, don't be afraid to get a little flour on your face and don't feel pressured to invest in electric mixers and bread machines (ALL THE MONIES). Just poke it a little, squish it around... you'll get used to it.
  5. Bread is not (necesarily) your waistline's (only) worst enemy.
  6. Finally, not all fermentation is scary. 
   I say not all because some fermentation is terrifying. I tried making sauerkraut a few weeks ago. Yeah, salty rotten cabbage. Delicious.
   To be fair, I didn't use the right tools, I didn't know what I was doing, I let it sit too long without tasting it, and I don't actually know what sauerkraut is supposed to taste like.
   Nevertheless, after 4 or 5 days of leaky cabbage juice all over my counter, I gave it a sniff. It smelled like moldy yogurt, gasoline, and failure. Says I, "Maybe that's just what sauerkraut is supposed to smell like!" So I steeled myself and took a taste. It tasted about how it smelled, except replace the moldy yogurt with moldy death and toxic waste. 
   It took some serious willpower to get it all into the dumpster. We only barely had the courage to reuse the jars. 
   I'm sticking with bread for a while before I try that one again.
   So as for homework... Eat some yogurt with live and active cultures in the ingredients list. Pick up some yeast! Give bread a chance.  If bread still scares you, start with a recipe for overnight cinnamon rolls. I made those for boyfriend's last birthday and your efforts will be appreciated. They are so delicious it's hard to be afraid of them! If they flop, make bread pudding and TRY AGAIN! Sometimes your bread won't turn out like you hoped, but experiment and make things anyway. Kneading bread is cheap therapy and warm loaves of bread are so rewarding to hold in your flour-covered hands.

   Here is the aforementioned no-knead bread. I don't know where I got it from, but it's been floating around the internet for a few months and you might have even seen it before. It's best to assemble a few days and up to two weeks ahead of time in a big ol fat tupperware with a lid so you can just shtonk it in the fridge and pull out a hunk when you want some bread. 

No-knead Artisan Bread
makes 3 1-lb loaves
  • 3 cups warm water- you should be able to put your hand in it and think "Ahhh. Nice and warm." but if you leave your hand there you should be confident it will not become uncomfortably hot.
  • 1 1/2 tbsp course salt- Course salt is really nice to have. If you don't have it, don't be sad but do consider aquiring some. In the meantime, use table salt but use a little less of it. Try about 3/4 tbsp.
  • 1 1/2 tbsp yeast- If you are using packets of yeast... maybe you should be sad. Ok, don't be sad, but do get a jar. Unless you are only baking bread this one time which is a little lame. In any case, math is hard, you do it yourself. One packet is equal to 2 1/4 tsp of yeast.
  • 6 1/2 - 7 cups of All Purpose flour- This recipe doesn't want bread flour. All purpose is cheaper at my grocery anyway so it's a win-win. If you want to experiment with bread flour, whole wheat flour, buckwheat flour, amaranth flour, millet flour, flower flour... do it. I'm not standing in your kitchen watching you bake and even if I was I wouldn't be offended. I would be delighted!
  • A li'l bit of cornmeal for dusting your baking stone
  • A baking stone is handy and makes for a good crust. It's also incredibly snazzy if you get it into your head to make a pizza. However, you can use a cookie sheet or pretty much whatever knd of heatproof vessel your li'l heart desires, so long as it holds your dough and doesn't burst into flames in a 450 degree oven. 
  • A pie plate, cake pan, jellyroll, or some form of baking dish that can hold a few cups of water. You also need the few cups of water that go in it.
  • A big ol tupperware... a mixing bowl and some plastic wrap will also do fine.
  • Put your 3 cups of warm water in your big ol tupperware. Sprinkle on your 1 1/2 tbsp yeast. Let it wake up a few minutes.
  • Stir in your 1 1/2 tbsp salt and 6 1/2 cups of your flour.
  • Loosely cover it and stick it in the refrigerator for between 1 and 14 days. Alternately, loosely cover and let it bubble on the counter for 2 hours. Don't do what I did and let it bubble on the counter for 6 hours until most of it crawls onto the glass tabletop and refuses to come off.
  • When you are ready to bake, dust your hands and the dough surface with your remaining flour. Pull off a grapefruit-sized or one-pound chunk, or about 1/3 of your dough. 
  • Adding flour to your hands and the dough, pull the surface taut, tucking the dough under itself. This should create a nice round ball of dough with a stretched, smooth surface. 
  • Flour the counter and let it sit out for about 20 or 30 minutes. It will still look too small. This is OK!
  • Sprinkle a little cornmeal on your baking stone or what have you and place it in the oven. Below it place your dish with a few cups of water in it. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F.
  • When the oven is preheated, you can prepare your cute little dough lump for baking. Sprinkle flour all over it and smooth it out. Next, slice into the top, in any pattern you so choose. Make nice deep 1/4 to 1/2 inch cuts. I usually make a #, some people prefer an X. I see no reason why you couldn't get creative and do a :) or a <3. The smiley face might come out looking creepy.
  • Pick up your super artistic dough lump and slid it onto your baking stone. If you have a peel, props to you, your life is easier than mine. 
  • Bake that sucka for about 30 minutes. Check on it occasionally if that's fun for you. Definitely keep an eye on it after 25 minutes. When it looks done, it's done.
  • It's super tempting, but don't stick a knife in it till it's cooled for 10 or 15 minutes. 
  • Eat it however you want, and/or share it. Bread is actually a superb gift (that's not even a joke).
Happy baking!

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