Every living thing needs time to relax. Worn out culinary students need a week off to recuperate from the bustle of the kitchen (thank you spring break). And artisan bread dough—alive with active yeasts and structural transformations—needs a good amount of downtime before it can behave at its best. Time equals taste. Fermentation equals flavor. Let me explain.
All bread is essentially made from the same ingredients; flour, water, yeast, and salt. Yet depending on how long the dough is fermented (left alone so the yeasts can feed on the sugars and produce carbon dioxide), you can achieve a variety of results. The kind of bread I lust after in places like Clear Flour Bread in Brookline is most likely the result of a multi-day process that gives the dough plenty of time to develop intense flavor and desirable texture.
I learned this today from former restaurant and bakery owner Priscilla Martel who guided us through the basics of bread within the constraints of our 4-hour class. There would be no overnight ferment or retarding in the refrigerator (slow-rise standards), but she assured us we would still get good results. We reviewed 3 methods for mixing dough—by hand, in a stand mixer (add water first), and in a Cuisinart (add flour first). Then the shaggy rounds were kneaded in order to develop the very important gluten structure. After doubling in size, we shaped the puffed-up blubber into neat balls for proofing. This is a critical step that establishes the final shape of the bread, and something I was dying to get right.
I've done a little bit of baking at home, but can never seem to perfect the art of shaping. From watching Priscilla, I learned that the key is to use the friction of the work surface to your advantage. The drag of the dough against the counter helps stretch it and forms a taut skin that allows the bread to hold its shape. At one point when shaping baguettes, I even wet my hands so the dough would have just the right amount of tack. I think I finally got it!
Our shaped dough was proofed (left to rest in a warm place) until it no longer sprang back when touched with one finger. The loaves were slashed and sent to the ovens. Our productivity paid off in a seemingly endless array of bakery goodness. There were chewy NY-style bagels, classic French baguettes, wheat and walnut boules, flats of rosemary focaccia, and sandwich loaves of cinnamon swirl oatmeal bread.
See what a little rest can do?