Supercharge your oven, and answers to your bread questions

How to get pro-level performance from a home appliance, the secret to crusts, and more answers to your queries

Published August 19, 2010 4:01PM (EDT)

Baking guru Shelby Kibler
Baking guru Shelby Kibler

Corrected: Comments I originally made about spelt having no gluten were wrong. Now they're more right.

The word "amateur" means, literally, "one who loves," and after four days of bread school, I am officially an amateur baker. Such heights I aspire to! But it's funny, looking now at my reports from bread camp, that the recipes I've shared haven't required me to touch on two of the most important lessons I learned there: the importance of wet, sticky, this-can't-be-right-looking doughs and how to get commercial-oven-type results from your home oven. (I also haven't gotten into naturally leavened sourdough breads, which is a major component of most serious bakeries. Unfortunately, those tend to be proprietary recipes, and to get it right, you have to go into greater detail than we have room for here. Great books like "Bread" by Jeffery Hamelman are a great way to get started on those, though.)

Happily, many of your questions touched on these themes, so I'll address them -- to the best of my ability -- below.

Don't flour your board: OK, that's an overstatement. Sometimes it's necessary to lay down a little flour when you're working with dough -- when you're folding it or shaping it, for instance. But resist the strong temptation to flour your board so that the dough doesn't stick while you're kneading it. Wet dough makes good bread -- it keeps the crust crisper and the insides more tender, more chewy, more airy. Adding flour to your board while kneading works that flour into the recipe, and it's a slippery slope -- once you're used to a nice, dry, easy-to-handle dough, you'll only want to keep it that way ... and the bread will suffer for your convenience.

How to knead wet, sticky dough: OK, so you're resisting the urge to flour your board, and what are you rewarded with? A dough that's like glue, sticking and smearing all over the place. Thanks a lot, Lam! But you can get used to kneading this sort of thing. (Of course, you can do it in a mixer, but what's the fun in that?) First, make sure you start with clean hands – if there's dough stuck to them from turning it out from the mixing bowl to your table, it's just going to want to stick to itself. Keep a bench knife or dough scraper in one hand (most people prefer it in their dominant hand). With the base of your tool-free hand, and with a quick motion, push into the dough to stretch it. (Quick, confident motions help keep the dough from sticking to you.) Then, with the scraper, get underneath the dough and fold it on itself before giving it another push. (Also try to do this in quick, confident motions.) Come at it again with the scraper, from another angle, maybe a quarter-turn from where you folded it last. Push into it again. Repeat this combination, varying the angle from which you scrape and fold the dough, and every third or fourth scrape, come all the way around it to make sure you're gathering up all the dough on the table. Eventually, you'll develop enough gluten in the mass to help firm it up, and it won't be quite so blobby.

Now, to the questions:

Supercharging your home oven -- getting better heat and creating steam for better texture and crisper crusts

My friend bakes her bread on a large round stone. What difference would baking bread on a big hunk of stone make? -- Adrienne S.

One thing I really love is CRUSTY bread. Thick, hard, exercise-your-jaw crusty. I will rip out the doughy innards in order to be left with just crust. So my question is, HOW do I do that? -- catnmus

I have been having problems with several tried-and-true bread recipes since I moved into my apartment with a much smaller electric oven. The bread tastes fine, but the crusts are almost impenetrable. Any suggestions are welcome. -- Denise K.

The two main differences between a commercial and home oven are heat and steam, but there are ways to level the playing field on both.

Big bad pro ovens just get hotter and, more important, hold their heat more tenaciously. A home oven can lose as much as 50 degrees when you open the door to take a peek. But a baking stone, when preheated for long enough, will actually hold a good deal of heat and "donate" it back to the oven, keeping the temperature more consistent. And, if you bake directly on the stone, the intense heat will give a richly caramelized bottom crust. More magically, it also gives a better rise. When dough -- all full of yeasts and puffy with the carbon dioxide they produce -- hits a hot oven, the yeasts get excited and start wheezing out more and more CO2. The gas gets more active and tries to push out of the dough, expanding it while the dough is cooking and setting into shape. This "oven spring" makes your bread light and tender and delicious. So a baking stone helps with all that.

As for the crust, there are many reasons why your crust may or may not be fantastic, but one major one goes back to the idea of balancing the relationship between the bread expanding and at the same time wanting to set its shape in the oven. Commercial ovens have the ability to inject steam into the baking chamber during the first 6-10 minutes of the bake; it's in this time that the yeast and gas are most active, and you want to keep the crust from firming up while it's moving. So steam helps to keep the outside of the bread pliable. At the same time, it gelatinizes the starch on the crust, so that it will crisp up later in the cooking process.

There are lots of ways to create steam in a home oven, but one that seems to work best requires a well-heated heavy pan (like cast iron) on the floor of your oven. Position the pan so it sticks out from under the baking stone by a few inches. Spritz the inside of a big metal mixing bowl or a disposable lasagna tray with water. Put your bread on the baking stone and cover the entire loaf with the bowl, hanging it over the stone by a couple inches so that there's a direct line from the hot pan to the bowl. Carefully but confidently pour about ½ cup to a cup of boiling water into the pan and shut the door. The water will create a burst of steam as it hits the hot pan, and the steam will go up around the stone and into the little chamber created by the bowl. (Just be sure to pour the water surely with an outstretched arm so the steam doesn't attack you.) After 6-10 minutes, remove the bowl (careful!) and let it finish baking.

If you have an electric oven, you can actually throw the water right on the floor of the oven, and just open the door 6-10 minutes into the baking time to let the steam escape. (This doesn't work in gas ovens because they have flues.)

Finally, there can be many reasons for crusts that are too thick as well. Adding steam may help, since it retards the crust's setting and browning process. Turning up the heat (or using an oven thermometer to make sure the heat is accurate) may also help, since baking a loaf too slowly will give more time for the outside of the bread to dry out and become thick. Or it may simply be over-baked, or the dough allowed to proof without being covered with plastic or a moist towel, forming a dry skin even before it goes in the oven.

Yeast in the hot, humid summer, and how to check if your dough is properly risen

How sensitive is bread dough to high summer humidity? I live in coastal Mississippi. All my bread comes out a bit "homemade," in that distressingly dense-but-dry way. Do I just throw in extra yeast? -- KZ

If it's really hot and humid, you can actually cut back on the yeast you use, because it will multiply so quickly in those conditions. If you decide to stay true, quantity-wise, to a recipe written for room temperature (and 99.99 percent are), be sure to keep a good eye on your dough as it rises. If it starts to bubble up and lift quickly, and is looking like it might collapse, then move on to the next step of the recipe, or put the dough in the fridge to retard the yeasts' action. An overproofed, collapsed dough will make for dense, dry bread.

Another way to help mediate the temperature is to use cold water for the dough and instant yeast, which doesn't need warm water to activate. Or even go so far as to refrigerate your flour for a bit as well, so the dough doesn't start out hot.

A test you can use to see if a loaf is properly proofed and ready for baking is to poke a finger about a half-inch into the formed and shaped loaf. If it doesn't collapse the dough, you feel a little bit of resistance, and the indentation pops back out maybe 1/3 of the way you pushed it in, you're ready to bake. If it bounces back all the way, you may want to let it continue to proof. Of if it collapses or doesn't come back out at all, the bread might be overproofed.

Some questions on sourdough starters

1) I have always been led to believe that they will die if you don't take them out and feed them every couple of weeks. However, I have neglected my starter (in the fridge) for months at a time without any negative effects. So, what are the limits? I believe that yeast forms spores in times of deprivation, so it seems like it should be essentially impossible to kill a starter with neglect. As I recall, the "wake-up" time (the time it takes after adding flour and water before bubbles start to form) was longer when I hadn't used the starter in a while, but other than that there were no problems.

2) Any info on whole wheat versus "white" flour in starters? I like to give mine whole wheat every now and again, just so it has a bit of variety in its diet (anthropomorphizing one's starter is an indispensable part of owning one).

3) I've also read that metal utensils and bowls are bad for the starter (since it generates acid, which can dissolve some metals). However, most metal bowls for the kitchen are stainless steel, which ought to be nonreactive. Is stainless steel OK?

4) I've noticed that my sourdough rises better (more evenly, not more quickly) at room temperature, whereas when I use commercial yeast it is better to incubate the dough in a warm (90-100º F) spot. My working theory is that since it spends most of its time in the fridge, my starter's yeast population is better adapted for colder conditions whereas commercial yeasts have been optimized for the higher temperatures that most recipes call for. Is this true? -- -Pentiptycene

Wow. OK, here goes:

1) I believe you had a liquid starter, that is, a starter with a much higher percentage of water than a firm or solid starter, which is basically a literal piece of sour dough. I'm not sure of the science behind this, but yes, liquid starters can stay viable for much longer than firm starters and can take all kinds of neglect and abuse, though "months" I would think is pushing it. Two weeks is about as long as you really want to go between feedings, but the thing with more frequent, even daily, feedings (whenever it gets frothy and bubbly) is that they will help to develop a much more mature, complex-tasting starter in a much shorter time. Some say that a liquid starter will never develop as complex a flavor as a firm one, but for an occasional home baker, a liquid starter is a great thing to have for convenience's sake. It has great survival skills, but it will flourish if you take regular care of it.

2) OK, well, you better have a name for your starter then. And whole wheat is fine.

3) Yes, stainless steel is nonreactive and OK. You might want to avoid aluminum, though.

4) Hm. No idea. It must be intelligent design!

Finally, some unsatisfying answers to a few miscellaneous questions

Ask Shelby what he thinks about "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day." I started baking bread last year with this book, but I've read enough online to recognize its limitations. Where do I go to get to the next stage? -- Ryan K.

Well, I asked, and while he's familiar with that book, he hasn't actually read it and so can't comment on it. But one should never limit oneself to one source, and two books he really recommends are "Bread" by Jeffery Hamelman and "Bread Science" by Emily Buehler.

Hope you will find out how different flours affect the finished product, such as whole wheat, soy, oat, buckwheat and spelt. Can you make a buckwheat bread? Anyhow, I have access to all of these flours and would love to experiment once the heat of the summer is behind us. -- Trace element

Well, this is a huge question, and I'm sorry I didn't find any good answers! Whole wheat will certainly add flavor to a dough, but will also absorb more moisture, so the dough and bread may end up drier or a little denser than if made with white flour. It also kneads a bit differently, as the bran and germ will actually inhibit some gluten formation (they will physically cut the gluten strands as they form), giving you a little less rise and less chewiness. But obviously there are incredibly delicious whole wheat breads; you just have to factor in those traits.

Aside from spelt, the other flours you mention don't have any gluten at all (though oat and buckwheat flour are sometimes contaminated with wheat in processing), so they will have a very different texture. A great source to start your research is "Gluten Free Baking" by Richard Coppedge, a certified master baker and an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America. 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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