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25 Oct 2022

Banneton – It has been a busy semester, as I said it was going to be in the last thing I posted here, six weeks ago. I got back last Monday from a conference in Tulsa, had another conference last Friday, and will be leaving for yet another conference in Daegu on Thursday. Talking about how busy I’ve been isn’t very interesting for you to read about or fun for me to do, though, so I thought I would write about something that is (hopefully) a little more fun for both of us. This past Saturday I was finally able to catch my breath, and I decided to something I’ve always enjoyed: baking bread.

“...baking truly is a scientific art...”

Baking is a form of therapy for me; preparing a loaf of bread and then watching it spring to life in the oven is not just guaranteeing nourishment for my body but for my soul as well. Provided I have the time, I generally don’t need much excuse to bake a loaf of bread or make a pizza, but this time around I even had an excuse: a few weeks ago, HJ had come home from her latest outing to IKEA with a rattan banneton. A banneton, for the uninitiated, is a basket in which to proof dough before baking. If you’ve ever been to an artisan bakery and seen a boule with a spiral pattern in flour on it, that loaf was proofed in a banneton. This is the latest piece of baking equipment I have obtained, after a pizza steel I got as a present from my brother M over the summer (which I also put to use in baking this bread).

The process began the night before with the preparation of the banneton. The instructions said to moisten the banneton, sprinkle the inside generously with flour, tap out any excess, and then allow the banneton to dry completely. I did so, using a fine-mesh sieve to sprinkle the flour, and when all was said and done the banneton was coated with quite a bit of flour—perhaps a little too much, I thought. But no matter how hard I whacked the basket, the heavy coat remained, so I just left it, figuring that it was better to err on the side of more flour than less.

While I let the banneton dry, I prepared a poolish—a pre-ferment made of equal parts (by weight, of course) flour and water and a very small amount of yeast. Using a poolish makes your bread softer and tastier, and all it requires is a little advance planning. I simply stirred the flour and yeast into the water in the stand mixer bowl until it formed a thick batter, and then I covered it with cling film and let it sit overnight at room temperature.

My original plan was to get up at seven and immediately start on the dough, but I ended up waking up shortly before five and not falling back asleep until not long before I was planning on getting up. I eventually got out of bed at about a quarter of eight, which means my poolish ended up fermenting for about nine hours rather than the originally planned eight. I dumped the rest of the ingredients—more water, a small amount of wholewheat flour, and the remaining bread flour, plus some salt and a small amount of yeast (the total amount of yeast in this recipe is half of what I would normally use for a non-poolish dough). The hydration for this dough was 75%, inspired by recent experiments with an 85% hydration pizza dough that has produced excellent results. I deliberately lowered the amount of water, though, because a pizza is supposed to be flat and wide, while I wanted this to spring up into a boule (or a ball—that is, a round loaf). I was concerned that too much water would cause the dough to spread out into a flatbread.

I ran the mixer at a low speed until everything came together, at which point I raised the speed to 8 to whip the dough into shape. This is what the pizza dough taught me: More hydration is better, but if you want to have a workable very wet dough, you need to beat it to within an inch of its life to properly gelatinize the starches and form the gluten, leaving you with a dough that still requires flour to work but isn’t nearly as sticky as you would think, especially after a long ferment. After some short kneading sessions at high speed, punctuated by pauses to scrape down of the bowl, the dough eventually came together into an elastic mass. I covered the bowl again with cling film (the same film that I had used to cover the poolish—no sense wasting it!) and let the dough ferment for three hours.

Once the dough had properly fermented, I tipped it out onto a well-floured surface and covered it with a tea towel to rest for a few minutes. Then I made sure my hands were floured and quickly shaped the dough into a rough boule before placing it upside down (that is, seams up) in the banneton. I think I could have done a better job shaping here, but 1) I wanted to handle the dough as little as possible, and 2) I trusted the banneton to do the rest of the shaping for me.

The banneton came with a cloth cover that fits snugly over the rim; you can either push the cover down into the basket to use as a lining or you can pull it up to use as a cover to keep the dough from drying out while proofing. I’m not sure why you would want to use it as a lining—the whole point of a banneton is to get that nice spiral pattern on the finished loaf. At least, that’s a large part of it. If you’re going to use the cover as a lining, you might as well just proof your bread in any old bowl lined with a tea towel.

Anyway, I let the dough proof (or “prove,” if you hail from the UK) for an hour. Then I took off the cover, put my pizza peel and parchment paper over the banneton, and flipped it over. (The parchment paper trick is something I learned from a small but very good pizzeria in Marathon, Texas; it allows the dough to slide off the peel without using a lot of extra flour.) I had read that you might need to tap the banneton to get the dough to release, especially the first few times, but I could tell that the dough had immediately released from the basket as soon as I flipped it over. I lifted the banneton to see the dough sitting on the peel with that characteristic spiral in flour.

During the proof, the oven was preheating to 250 C with the pizza steel on the middle rack. This is very hot for bread, but I wanted the pizza steel to be as hot as possible, allowing for immediate heat transfer to the dough. I slipped the dough, still on the parchment paper, onto the steel, poured some ice into a tray at the bottom of the oven (to create steam), and quickly shut the over door. The oven spring was almost immediate and very dramatic. I had wondered if the dough would spread out rather than rise up, but I needn’t have worried: The dough puffed up like a balloon, demonstrating just how much of a difference a steel or stone makes. After five minutes I lowered the oven temperature to 230 and let the bread bake for fifteen more minutes. At long last, the final product was ready.

You can tell that the loaf is not perfectly round. If you go back and look at the previous two photos, though, you’ll see that these imperfections began with the initial shaping, before the dough even went into the banneton. Lesson learned: The banneton will help the dough keep its shape, but that initial shape is up to me. I wasn’t too distressed by the irregularities in the loaf, though. It’s rustic, after all!

Now, with the loaf done and cooling on the rack, came the hard part: waiting. The bread looked and smelled great, but I wanted to let it cool completely before trying to cut it, and it was meant for dinner anyway. When the time finally came to cut it open, I found that the crumb was soft and fluffy, studded with good-size bubbles here and there.

They say that the proof is in the pudding—but of course “they” have gotten this old saying wrong. The original saying is “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” which makes a lot more sense. The same goes for bread, so I sliced one half of the loaf into thick slices to have with our dinner of steak, peas, and carrots. Here is a slice slathered in butter, sitting next to my steak.

How was it? It was very good! It had a nice flavor and soft, fluffy texture. I asked HJ how she thought it could be improved, and she said that it was good as it was. It was indeed good, but of course there is always room for improvement. Firstly, I wasn’t sure how much dough would fit in the banneton—I didn’t want it to rise up over the top of the bowl—so I went conservative and made a 300-gram dough (meaning that I used 300 grams of flour). This amount of dough was never in danger of overflowing the basket, so I think next time I will up the recipe to 400 grams of flour. I will also increase the percentage of wholewheat flour, as the amount I used (a baker’s percentage of 10%) didn’t make as much of a difference in the final product as I had hoped. 25% should be more like it. Finally, in terms of proportions that I would like to tweak, I think I will make the poolish 50% of the final dough (that is, 50% of the flour will go into the poolish); this should make the poolish flavor even more prominent.

While I’m on the topic of the poolish, I should mention that I did also consider going for a cold ferment next time as opposed to a room-temperature ferment. The conventional wisdom is that the yeast is more active in a room-temperature ferment, while a cold ferment keeps the yeast in check and allows the bacteria (specifically, lactobacillus) to be more active. However, I did some research and found evidence that this is not actually the case. Specifically, I found a very detailed discussion of the topic, complete with numerous references to scientific papers and an email exchange with one of the scientists referenced, that countered the conventional wisdom. If you’re at all interested in the topic, I would recommend giving that first post a read, but be warned that it is very dense reading. If you don’t have the time or the patience, the bottom line is that the conventional wisdom is wrong, and cold fermenting may actually not be as effective as room-temperature fermenting at developing flavors. The one advantage that it does have is that it widens the window you have to use the poolish, so it might be an option if you need more flexibility in your schedule, but I am going to stick with a room-temperature ferment as long as the scheduling works out.

(Tangent time! In addition to changing my mind about the cold ferment, that erudite discussion also got me thinking about the old art/science dichotomy. I’m sure you’ve heard people say that something is “more art than science.” I’ve always thought that baking was very much a science, and that discussion is a good example of the type of science that is involved. But just because something is very scientific, does that mean it can’t also be art? I don’t buy that. In fact, I would go so far as to say that all good art has science behind it. That doesn’t make it less artistic or less “human”—after all, science is one of the most fundamental and important human endeavors. And if you think scientific endeavors can’t be moving in the way that good art is, I would recommend you take a look at some pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope (or some of the newer pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope). So while it may not sound as catchy, I believe that baking truly is a scientific art, or an “art of science,” rather than being one or the other.)

There are a couple of other changes I would like to make. The more important change concerns the crust. In a previous experiment (with the 85% hydration pizza dough), I discovered how much of a difference steam makes to the crispiness of the crust. I intended to use the same technique with this loaf, but I forgot to make sure I had enough ice ready, so I didn’t get quite as much steam as I wanted. As a result, the crust ended up being more chewy than crispy. It wasn’t bad, but a truly crispy crust is a thing of beauty, and I was a little sad that I didn’t get that. Also, although I did get a nice browning on the crust, I think it could stand to be even darker and thicker; I could probably achieve this by lengthening the amount of time I keep the oven at 250.

The final change I will make is more or less an aesthetic one. As you may have noticed, I did not score this loaf, mainly because I wanted to see what would happen. I usually score my loaves to provide room for expansion and spring, and in the past I’ve had loaves “bust a gut” by bursting out the side when my scores weren’t deep enough. Looking back on those instances now, though, I think that was more a function of the crust baking before the loaf had finished springing, resulting in the busted gut, and the steam helps prevent that by keeping the crust moist until the oven spring is finished. So the scores aren’t really necessary, but they do add an aesthetic element to the loaf, and I’d like to try that next time. I’m not sure when that next time will be, but when it happens I will try to post a follow-up.

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