Everything you need to know to bake a quality loaf of bread at home, revealed

Ken Forkish, the James Beard Award-winning author of “Flour Water Salt Yeast,” gives a crash course in bread making

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published April 11, 2020 6:12PM (EDT)

Credit: Alan Weiner
Credit: Alan Weiner

Like the rest of us, James Beard award-winning cookbook author Ken Forkish has found himself suddenly at home. The author of "Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza" has been forced to close his trio of restaurants in the Portland area. But Forkish knows one thing for sure: Ken's Artisan Bakery, Ken's Artisan Pizza, and Checkerboard Pizza will be back.

Part of waiting for that return involves making bread at home for the time being. Unlike Forkish, who first opened the doors of his artisan bakery in 2001, many Americans are currently learning how to make bread at home for the first time. So we reached out to this expert of the trade to learn the ingredients and tools we need in order to bake an excellent loaf of bread in a home kitchen.

Forkish's book takes its title from the only four ingredients in all of his recipes for bread and pizza crusts. In addition, you will need a Dutch oven, a food scale, a digital probe thermometer, and a large container to make mixing easy. (You achieve a more precise loaf when you measure your ingredients by weight.) Other than that, all that you need is your hands — no fancy stand mixer or digital bread maker required. 

When Forkish recently appeared on "Salon Talks," he gave us a crash course in at-home baking. As he says, the two most important things for getting started at home are good instruction and a belief in yourself. You can watch my full interview with Ken Forkish here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Before we get into the food and cooking at home and all of that stuff. I just wanted to ask you about your story, which I find so inspiring and I think a lot of our readers will too. You used to have a corporate job and you left that, moved out to the West coast, started your own bakery. Can you tell us about that?

I had a 19-year career in tech. I worked in the Bay Area for many years, also back on the East coast. And it was evident to me pretty early on in my career that I wanted my own gig. I didn't want to keep working the corporate thing. You try to keep your mind open for what's that going to be? I didn't have a natural passion when I was in my 20s that I wanted to go pro with. And then in the mid-'90s I started going to France a lot. I had a girlfriend who lived in Paris, she was French, and started visiting bakeries there and boulangeries. It's hard to describe, but I just wanted to stare in the windows and watch for hours on end. Anyway, it touched me deeply, and I felt like that was what I wanted to do. And so at the end of the day, I quit my last career, took a couple of years off. I didn't get wealthy, I just had barely enough money to educate myself. So I went to a lot of different culinary schools, just a week here, two weeks there. And essentially instead of deciding I wanted to hire a team to do the baking, I wanted it to be mine. So I basically trained to be a baker and then just went for it.

Now that we've all found ourselves suddenly at home, we're all cooking at home. That's taken us back to the basics, and one of those things is bread making. Has your phone been ringing?

A lot of people are at home baking right now, and it's a great antidote to being in front of your screen all day long. You're doing something tangible, and you're able to transform it yourself. So to go from a bag of flour and a bucket of water to a beautiful loaf of bread coming out of your oven, it's really cool when you know that you did that yourself. That's what my book, "Flour Water Salt Yeast" was supposed to do, and I feel like it's doing a pretty good job of that.

And I feel like it's really calming, too. When I walk into my kitchen — no matter how short of a time or how long of a time it is — I have to focus on the ingredients in front of me and truly be present. So it can pull you away from everything else maddening that's going on in the world right now. Baking, especially, is a great stress-reliever.

I think it's healthy. One of the things that my book is — it's not intended really as a book to receive it on delivery then just open up straight to a recipe and start baking. Because the book is entirely about method and technique, and then it tells you what the recipes are to execute that. But if you take the time to read the book and the introductory chapters, you've learned a new skill that you're going to remember. And you'll have this new skill for the rest of your life. You learn specific things like measuring the water temperature before you introduce water into your dough mix. Use your hands — don't use the stand mixer — and then you get a feel for the dough. And then two or three times of doing it, you'll understand when you're mixing if the dough is right.

It's may not be that hard, but it is sort of a lost art form. Do you think this time will give us a resurgence in essential life skills like cooking and bread making? A lot of people are learning on the fly right now.

I hope they're doing well with it. Will it be a resurgence? Who knows how things will be, but I think some. There's likely to be a number of people who find out they like doing it, and they've gone through the learning process now. And that takes more time. Once you've learned it, you don't really have to take much effort to make the bread. You might just look at the recipe to consult. You forgot how much salt goes in the dough. It takes a lot of time to make good bread, but it's a lot of elapsed time. The amount of active time is really very small. It's the same with making pizza dough at home. Time is a critical ingredient. You can't make a great pizza in a short period of time, but the amount of active time is very little. You just need to maybe plan a day ahead.

And speaking of ingredients, there are four ingredients that go into all of your breads and those are come from the title of your book. There's flour, water, salt and yeast, which are things you're likely to already have on hand in your pantry. Is it really that simple?

Sometimes. Right now I understand that it's difficult to find flour at the store or some stores have flour but no yeast, so work with what you got.

I was actually going to ask you about that. I was at the store last night, and the first thing that I couldn't find was toilet paper. That's back, but now all of the yeast has disappeared from shelves. Can you can take baking soda and add an acid like buttermilk or lemon to create a yeast at home? 

There's essentially two kinds of leavening. There's chemical leavening, which is baking soda or baking powder. And what you're talking about is kind of creating that, and that's used to make biscuits, pancakes, kinds of short breads. But yeasted leavening requires yeast.

So no work-around?

No work-around unless you want to make your own sourdough culture at home. So I've been getting a lot of questions about that this past week. "OK, I can't buy yeast. I'm going to do it. I'll make sourdough culture." And then they're telling me, "But your book requires a lot of flour to make it." Yes, but it works. On the other hand, you could use less flour. I went with a lot of flour, especially in my first book, "Flour Water Salt Yeast." I have used about almost a pound of flour a day, and you don't need that much. At the time, it made sense to me. But you could cut that recipe in half, and it'll work just fine. You'll still get very active culture.

In the grocery stores, you find these tiny little packets of yeast, which just make me laugh because they're just like hardly any f**king yeast in there. In both of my books in the ingredients chapters, I recommend these. Can I show you one? I'll be right back. Hi this, it's a one pound package of Saf yeast. And you can store it in the refrigerator or the freezer and it will last you over a year. And the value of that is, once you have it, you're set. You don't need to worry about what are you going to use next time you want to bake bread. And it will hold for a long time and it's available online. So I found it on Amazon. I think you can find it in like a local, there's some local stores in the Portland area that sell to restaurants that have basically kitchenware items, whatever. It's out there if you want to order it. So get one of these and you're set for a long time.

That's a great tip, because that's what I was doing yesterday — fishing for those little bitty packets.

Yes, those things are bulls**t.

A new cookbook that I am reading was written by the pastry chef Dominique Ansel, who talks about how some people have a fear of baking. But I think some people specifically have a fear of bread making. It seems like a daunting task when many are so used to just buying a loaf at the store. What would you say to people who might be a little timid about baking bread at home? What do you need to know to do it for the first time?

Well, it sounds self-serving, but if you have good instructions, you can make good bread. And it's not very hard. There's a few equipment items you might want to have at home. My methods use a Dutch oven for baking, which is pretty critical. But that's the most important thing: having good instruction and believing in yourself.

You said Dutch oven. I was going to ask you about what tools you need. I read of a 650% increase in sales of bread makers, and they're selling out. But you don't need one of those fancy machines to do it yourself at home?

I really don't like the bread making machines. They're good for some people. They make fast rising breads with a lot of yeast. It's not the kind of bread I want to eat. If people like it, that's fine. I'm not judgmental about it, but my techniques are not bread machine. The idea of the breads in my book are to give you bread that's of the quality of a really good craft bakery that you make yourself at home.

One thing about bread making is you don't need a lot of tools. We do want the Dutch oven and a scale, correct? Other than that, we're mixing by hand?

Mixing by hand. I recommend you need a pretty good-sized container to make mixing easy. If you use a container that's too small, you just find your hands working in a space that's not big enough. So I recommend a 12-quart dough tub with a lid. They're not very expensive. I also like to have a digital probe thermometer so when I ask you to use water at 85 or 90 degrees, you can get pretty close to that. But no, it doesn't take much. The wicker baskets are great if you can get one for proofing your bread. But if you don't have one, you can use a big salad bowl. There's other options out there.

Speaking to that, can you talk about how both time and temperature impact what you're doing when you're making bread in the kitchen?

Instead of just including that information in the body of text in the book, I called it out as an essential ingredient in doing these breads well. Time is a critical ingredient. You need a lot of it. You can't bake good bread in a short amount of time and or a small amount of time if you're thinking ingredient wise. In temperature, the same way, and there's sort of this balance where the warmer temperatures and bread doughs increases. I mean, it sounds technical, but it increases the metabolic rate of the flora that's in the dough. That means the yeast will reproduce faster. And if you can control the temperature of your dough, which I asked you to do, it's not hard. Just follow my instructions, then you can have a reliable timeline for getting the right results.

So if I ask you to have a dough that takes five hours to ferment, those five hours are only going to work if the dough's at the right temperature. If the dough's too cold, then you're not going to get as much development in that five hour period. Likewise, let's say you live in the South. Let's say you live in Charleston, where it's warm and humid, things are going to happen faster.

I'm from Alabama.

You get it. These are critical ingredients, and I tried to put enough information about that so you know how to manage it.

You encourage a really brown crust on the bread when it comes out. You write that when you first opened your bakery, there were a few complaints here and there about the color brown. Why do we want that brown crust?

I want it for both flavor and texture, and I don't want a thick crust. For me, the ideal crust on these kinds of rustic levain breads is going to be that it's got that kind of color to it, but it's not thick or really chewy. I really want it to be crisp but pliable. Same with a baguette. I want a thin, crisp crust that crackles when you cut into it or squish it. But we don't need that dark color in a baguette to get there. In the levain breads, I go for this almost mahogany color in the crust. First off, it looks cool. Secondly, to me, it tastes better. The flavor of that dark crust will permeate into the dough itself. It will permeate into the crumb.

I was talking to a coworker earlier who was saying one of the things he misses the most right now about his local bakery is those baguettes. He's tried to make some baguettes at home, but they tend to turn out dry. I see you're shaking your head.

Making baguettes in the home oven is a real challenge. I'm not good at it. I intentionally did not put baguette recipes in my books, because I didn't want to. Baguettes are the kind of bread that you should hopefully find at a good bakery close by. The reason I do the Dutch oven baking for all the breads in "Flour Water Salt Yeast" is that steam is also a necessary component of baking these sort of hearth breads. If it's a pan bread, not that big a deal. But if you're making hearth breads, you need a lot of steam in the oven. But home ovens are actually designed to vent the steam. 

I remember as a child watching "I Love Lucy." I don't know if you've ever seen that episode where they make the loaf of bread that just keeps coming out of the oven. I feel like there's a lot of emphasis given on kneading bread: "You have to knead, and knead and knead the bread." But you caution against that. Obviously, we don't need to overwork the dough.

It's not necessary. In my technique, I had you mix the bread dough with your hands. I use a pincer method, which I learned from Michel Suas at the San Francisco Baking Institute. Again, credit where it's due. But it doesn't really need that kind of kneading that people think bread dough needs. One of the things that happens in kneading in a mechanical mixer like we use at my bakery, is it does develop the gluten. The gluten will develop naturally in the ferment, but I need the dough to have a little bit more strength because my doughs are really slack.

So I introduced this process of putting folds into the dough where, four or five times during the bulk ferment, the first stage. You just go to your dough tub, you stretch and fold, and stretch and fold and stretch and fold. And you do that a few times during bulk ferment, and that gives more strength to the dough. And then one of the results is you get more volume in your loaf, you'll get a lighter crumb when you do that.

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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