In "Home is where the hearth is," I cruelly, but correctly, disparage bread books for promoting misinformation and bad technique. The good news is that there are a few really fine bread books out there, and there's the further good news that excellent, small artisanal bakeries have been making a comeback in the United States, and in France, for quite a while now.
Back when I was having my excellent bakery adventure in Paris, Michel Cousin's was one of the very few good bakeries in Paris; bread had reached a nadir in France and the revival of good bread had just barely begun. Steven Kaplan, a prominent historian whose major academic work centered on bread, grain and France in the 18th century (The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700-1775 and Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade During the Eighteenth Century), has just published an account of this fall and rise (Good Bread is Back). Good cultural historian that he is, he tells a complicated story of the many factors—economic, political, legal and psychological—that went into the fall and into the faltering but hopeful way back. The book features background culled from his earlier histories and much on the changing techniques of professional bread making. Much of the book is devoted to profiling two contemporary Parisian bakers and their distinct approaches to fine bread.
However, this is very much a bread nerd's book. The technical material is under-explained for an audience of non-bakers. Even though Kaplan's earlier books are larded, appropriately, with academic and bakery jargon, they read better, narratively and sentence by sentence, than this one. Part of the problem is that Kaplan wrote it in French and the translation into English seems clumsy. Passive voice and poor word choices abound—often cognates of the original French rather than good colloquial translations. By the fourth chapter the prose improves and the story moves—start there. It is a fascinating story, and Kaplan is the person to tell it.
Part of what happened to bread in France was mechanization and attendant shortcuts. In bakers' parlance, they moved to the "direct method" or straight dough. This is what is familiar to most of us from typical bread recipes. You mix all the ingredients (water, flour, salt, yeast), let rise for a couple of hours (perhaps in a warm place to hurry it along), make loaves, let rise, bake. This procedure, as well as dough additives (ascorbic acid, fava bean flour and worse) to compensate for its deficiencies, is what characterized French bread at its worst.
The version of the direct method that appears in many American bread recipes accentuates its deficiencies by using too much yeast, overworking the dough and using high-gluten flours. Less yeast, less kneading, longer, slower rises, all-purpose (not bread) flour and wetter doughs would improve any of these recipes. Try it.
To recuperate French bread, bakers (in France and, over last decade-plus, here) went back to traditional methods. Broadly speaking, there are two. There is the pre-ferment, in which a tiny amount of yeast is mixed with flour and water and left overnight. That is used to seed a larger amount of flour and water the next day. In Italy this is the biga method; in Paris it is called poolisch.
The other method doesn't use commercial yeast, but rather a continuously propagated culture of wild yeasts and their symbiotic buddies, lactobacilli. In short, a levain. Or, in its misleading English translation, sourdough. With sourdough bread, you take a small amount of culture, build it (with flour and water) in stages and then make a dough that rises slowly over four-plus hours. From starter to bread can take over 24 hours, albeit largely unattended. Note that, despite what many books say, you don't make sourdough starter from baker's yeast. Commercial yeast and the wild yeast of levains are different beasts and live in different niches.
The gain from these techniques is flavor. Fermentation (think wine, beer, sauerkraut, kim chee) is a way of producing complex flavors from simple ingredients. Shortcut the fermentation, use yeast just for its gaseous qualities, and you're missing the point of bread. As a bonus, sourdough fermentation develops the dough; you only have to knead enough to mix the ingredients and the little beasties make the gluten happen. By adding time, the dough goes from sticky to silken.
Here's one more easy but important technique. At some point you'll mix the ferment (whether biga or levain) with flour and water. Mix just enough to blend it all together. No salt yet. Then wait 20 to 30 minutes. This is the autolyse step. Then knead in the salt. Result? Better bread.
Where can you learn to master these methods? Recently, bread books have gotten better and better, as American bakers have gotten better and better. By far, the best of the recent crop is Jeffrey Hamelman's book, Bread. Although the pictures aren't as pretty, I much prefer it to Peter Reinhart's books (Crust & Crumb, The Bread Baker's Apprentice) for its accuracy and clarity. Hamelman has wonderfully clear explanations of both pre-ferment techniques and sourdough, along with helpful drawings accompanying the instructions for forming hearth loaves. The recipes work and, as with any good bread book, the ingredients are given by weight. (Also by volume, for those of you who haven't seen the light or bought the scale.) Start with a few of his simple pre-ferment doughs and you'll be astonished at what technique can accomplish.
My other favorite is Carol Field's The Italian Baker. She doesn't do sourdough, but many of her recipes rely on biga; and unlike Bernard Clayton's book, The Breads of France, her breads actually recreate their Italian models. Those are my two desert island bread books (along with a sack of flour, potable water and salt).
In the "had I but known" category is Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book. I didn't know about it until well after it came out; it is certainly the early exception to the general dearth of technically informed bread books.
Flour, water, salt and yeast makes bread. Flour, water, salt, yeast and technique makes great bread. Really, it's so simple.
This is a pre-ferment recipe from Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman, very simple to make. After mastering it, you can try, for example, a very similar formula that uses a mix of whole wheat, rye and white flours for the final dough.
1 lb. flour
9.6 oz. (1 1/4 cups) water
1/2 tbsp. salt
1/8 tsp. dry yeast
1 lb. flour
12.2 oz. (1 1/2 cups) water
1/2 tbsp. salt
1/2 tsp. dry yeast
Pre-ferment: Disperse yeast in water, add flour and mix until smooth. It will be stiff and dense; add a few drops of water if the pre-ferment seems too stiff to move. Cover the bowl with plastic and let stand for 12 to 16 hours at about 70 degrees F. When ripe, the pre-ferment will be domed and just beginning to recede in the center.
Dough: Add all the ingredients to the mixing bowl except the pre-ferment. Mix on low for 3 minutes. As the dough is coming together, add the pre-ferment in chunks. Finish mixing at low-medium speed for 2 1/2 minutes. The dough should be supple and loose and should now ferment for about 2 1/2 hours. After 50 minutes, fold the dough over on itself (like folding a letter) and turn it over. Do that again after another 50 minutes.
Shaping: Divide the dough in two. Shape lightly into rounds and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Shape into rounds (rotate them between cupped hands, drawing the dough slightly downward). Let rise about 1 1/2 hours in a floured basket lined with linen or just between the folds of some floured linen. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Baking: Bake on a pizza stone (www.bakingstone.com) for 35-45 minutes. Bread is done when tapping its bottom makes a hollow drum-like sound, when the internal temperature reaches 205-212 degrees. Cool completely before cutting; never refrigerate bread.