A more breadifying experience
February 19, 2008 11:05 AM   Subscribe

What is the secret to bread texture?

I've been baking bread for a few years now. My loaves are generally tasty, but nowhere as good as a nice loaf of artisan bread from a bakery. It all boils down to texture. Loaves I make tend to have a somewhat crackly crust (or soft if I use milk on top) and a uniform crumbly texture inside. Compare that to what I buy at a bakery, where a crust can be flaky or have a kind of hard chewiness to it (my favorite), and the insides have air bubbles and a certain sponginess to it.

What do I need to do take my loaves to the next level? Building a brick oven is out, but I'm amenable to purchasing stones or other gadgets if they really help.
posted by rouftop to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
If you're using all-purpose flour, you may be able to improve by switching to bakers flour (I think I'm getting the name right). All-purpose is a compromise mix of two flours and doesn't have the right amount of gluten for bread.
posted by zippy at 11:09 AM on February 19, 2008

The famous No-Knead Bread is supposed to have great texture, but I haven't tried it yet myself. Recipe.
posted by maudlin at 11:10 AM on February 19, 2008

Ooh -- a picture of the crust and crumb!
posted by maudlin at 11:11 AM on February 19, 2008

For a harder crust, I do two things. One, I put a cast-iron skillet filled with water in the bottom of the oven. About five minutes prior to putting the loaves in, I spritz extra water in to increase the humidity. Shirley O. Corriher has an incredible book called "Cookwise" and the first chapter is dedicated to baking bread. The techniques and variables that she presents will help you experiment and understand the reactions so that you can vary your recipes to taste.
posted by txsebastien at 11:12 AM on February 19, 2008

Use a pizza stone or line the rack with a few unglazed quarry tiles from Home Depot. The tiles are much cheaper than pizza stones and work just as well. Learn to use a pizza peel to get the bread in and out of the oven. The stone/tile will create a nice thermal mass which will help keep the oven heated when you open and close the door.

Preheat the stone for 45 minutes.

As soon as you put the bread on the stone give it 5-6 sprays of water from a spray bottle. The bottle should be set to spray a mist. Spray it all around the inside of the oven with a couple sprays right above the loaf. Close the door. Spray again in 30 seconds. Close the door. Spray once more in 30 seconds. Only open the door enough to spray inside.

If you want a nice chewy crust, steam is your friend.
posted by bondcliff at 11:18 AM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Flour. Wicked hard flour is what you want. More gluten equals a chewier, less crumbly loaf. Especially in the US where most flour is "designed" for use in cakes. I use this but you can probably find something similar where you are. I think King Arthur has a hard bread flour.
posted by GuyZero at 11:26 AM on February 19, 2008

Cook's Illustrated recently published an improved version of the NYT's no-knead recipe. I just made it this weekend, it rocked hard. (Great crust and even better interior.)
posted by oddman at 11:27 AM on February 19, 2008

For a chewy style of bread add a tablespoon of gluten to your normal bread recipe. Knead the bread well and let it slowly rise covered in the refrigerator overnight. Your local health food store probably sells gluten in bulk and it should be cheap. Using your steam iron to steam the bread instead of a spray bottle helps keep your oven temperature higher and results in a nice crispy crust.
posted by calumet43 at 11:29 AM on February 19, 2008

I've been using this recipe from Cook's Illustrated to bake bread, and it's been turning out amazingly well, with that crisp crust and very chewy interior (mmm). I don't have the magazine in front of me, which laid out how varying different parameters affects the texture of the bread, but as I recall the chewiness versus more crumbly interior is a result of the moisture content. Bread doughs with more moisture make artisan-like bread, while those with less moisture make something better used for sandwich bread.

Using the recipe I linked to, you end up with a dough that is so sticky and wet I was convinced that I had screwed up the recipe somehow when I first made it. But no--it turned out beautifully, all chewy and wonderful. I've since discovered that how I measure out the flour affects the texture as well--sticking the cup measure into the bag (and getting a packed cup of flour) leads to much less chewy bread than shaking the flour into the cup in the sink (not packed flour). Apologies if that's obvious, but it wasn't obvious to me before, so that's another thing you could try if your bread is coming out too dry.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:31 AM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've made the no-knead dutch oven bread referenced above, and it is awesome.

But for traditional kneaded bread, here's a trick I learned from my wife: Once the first rise is complete, stretch the ball of dough out and fold it in on itself, sort of like an old Mad Magazine fold-in. Then turn it over, and do the same thing again. This folding will trap big air bubbles inside, and they'll stay there even when you break apart the ball and make loaves out of it. Makes for a fluffier texture.

Also, seconding the Home Despot saltillo tiles as bread stones. We put a pan of water in the bottom of the stove for similar steam effect.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 11:32 AM on February 19, 2008

What many people here are saying is in essence you need more protean in your flour. Using bread flour instead of all purpose will help this, as well as the gluten suggestion.

I make sourdough regularly and the flour makes a huge difference on how it turns out. water in a pan on a lower rack helps the crust (doesn't have to be a cast iron container anything over safe will surfice)
posted by edgeways at 11:39 AM on February 19, 2008

Crumb texture is vastly improved by a slow rise. A slow proof can also help, but a slow rise is really key to good crumb texture. Using a sour dough as a leaven also helps a lot. You can quasi-combine the two by making a sponge the night before mixing your final loaf. Even if you use commercial yeast in the sponge, the crumb (and taste) will be better in your final loaf.

While the folks urging a higher-gluten flour are not wrong (properly chewy bagels, for instance, require a high gluten flour), it isn't necessary for making a good chewy loaf of bread. French flours have notoriously low protein content but French bread is plenty chewy.

For a truly great loaf, and a very much more gratifying baking experience, I really think sourdough is the way to go. A true sourdough is a fascinating beast, and learning to bake bread leavened by wild yeasts and lactobacilli is well worth it. There are several good books, including The Village Baker (ouch, just saw that this is OP and $50 from Amazon), which has recipes for yeast, sponge and sourdough raised breads, and Breads for the Labrea Bakery, which has some mumbo-jumbo, but well-tested recipes that do a good job teaching you about the mechanics of sourdough baking.
posted by OmieWise at 11:49 AM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nth'ing the recommendation for the no-knead bread recipe, and the CI version specifically. For the past four months, I, who hitherto never baked anything more complex than brownies, have been cranking out loaf after loaf of wonderfully crusty and chewy bread. I've probably baked close to 60 loaves, and have had exactly one failure, and that was completely due to user error.
posted by mojohand at 12:02 PM on February 19, 2008

I find that the higher-gluten flours are useful in that they help the bubble walls stretch a little better creating a better texture. Cell wall strength sort of thing. Nthing the sourdough and slow rise and titles. We eat a lot of pizza so we actually leave the tiles in all the time. It does increase the pre-heat time on the oven but if you use it often, it's worth it.

Which high-gluten flour is actually a bit controversial as some (those with bromate) are thought to have a cancer risk. At least that was found in rats, and many countries (not the US) have banned its use. But the bromate is only in the flour and shouldn't be in a properly prepared and cooked bread. Thus bromated flour probably should not be used in recipes that do not use yeast of some sort to process it out. Other companies like King Arthur do offer non-bromated high gluten flours, if you're concerned.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:17 PM on February 19, 2008

Best answer: You should really, really check out The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. If you can't afford to buy it, check it out at the library. It not only has great recipes for no-knead, overnight-refrigerator-rising, lean, crusty breads (the pain à l'ancienne recipe is fabulous) -- it also has an incredibly clear explanation of bread texture and the techniques that help you achieve it in the home kitchen. Seriously, you should read this book.
posted by ourobouros at 12:22 PM on February 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

Swept up by the brouhaha about no-knead I made the Cook's Illustrated improved recipe, and the finished loaf looked gorgeous on the outside, but inside the texture was too even--not really any large air bubbles, and not chewy enough. And the crust was dry/tough but not crunchy/chewy, and the flavor was just ok, kinda bland. I was really disappointed, and wonder if I'm just bread-spoiled living in Berkeley, home of Acme, Semifreddi etc.

I guess what I'm saying is even the no-knead recipe isn't fool-proof. I'm not an experienced baker, so I'm going to keep at it and try bread flour next time and find a warmer spot for the dough to rise. Maybe tonight. Great bread is tricky.
posted by tula at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2008

Try this recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.
posted by donpardo at 1:11 PM on February 19, 2008

No Knead bread is fantastic. I have been making a loaf every couple of weeks since I found the recipe in early January. I have used cornmeal for the outside coating. From having made this recipe a few times now, here are my thoughts: If you let the dough sit for 12 hours exactly the bread is softer and chewy. If you let the dough sit for up to 17 hours, the crust that forms after baking is about 2 mm thicker than the dough that had sat for 12 hours. It can be tough on the teeth, but is great for onion soup floats. The bread actually crackles when it cools which I haven't experienced before.

I have also found that the key is to handle the dough minimally. The bubbles are essential to a good loaf. The more you handle the dough the more likely you are to squeeze them out.

Baguettes, require water misting and a steam bowl in the oven while baking. I have found this method provides excellent crusty bread. The time needed is what kills me. You have to knead the dough every couple of hours for about 6 hours --then-- split the dough into loaves --then-- let them rise again for about 45 minutes. By the time they are ready you should be hungry. If anyone has a simple recipe for baguette I would be in your debt.
posted by zerobyproxy at 1:22 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I go through 200+ pounds of bread flour a year, plus 50 or so of AP flour, and some cake flour. This is in a two ironman househould, so we eat a lot, a lot of bread, and a lot of carbs. Those are my breadmaking credentials. :)

1) Bread flour makes a difference: Use bread flour for bread.

2) Developing the long chain glutens makes a difference: knead more than you think, then continue kneading. "With a heavy duty KitchenAid mixer it's almost impossible to overknead before the motor overheats and switches off." -The Breadmaker's Apprentice cookbook.

3) For artisanal loaves, one of the big differences is the longer amount of time a smaller amount of yeast spends working: Try a teaspoon of yeast and rise the dough in a cool environment and see if you don't think so. My absolute favoritest bread recipe creates what is nearly a sponge (very very wet mix) with 6C flour, 1t yeast and immediately put it in a refrigerator overnight. Yes, really.

4)For artisanal crust, the closest you're going to get is by doing everything you can to keep the outside of the loaf damp/humid until it sets (in about 3-5minutes). A good approximation of a real baking oven can be created by preheating to 500 degrees fahrenheit or higher, then pouring 1C boiling water in a pan on the bottom of the oven quickly as you first put in the bread. The water should basically flash to steam. Every thirty seconds, spray water on the walls of your oven to keep it supersaturated while the loaf gets as much rise from "oven spring" as it can. Do this three times. (You'll notice the steam diminishing after 30 secs each time.) Lower the oven temperature to the correct baking temperature after the third water spraying (the temp will have sagged to 400 degrees by then, anyhow.)

CAUTION: Putting boiling water or water spray in a superheated oven is dangerous: You WILL burn yourself or explode the oven's lightbulb, thermometer, stone, or window. Don't lean forward while putting the dough in. Don't forget to protect your hands and arms.

The Julia Child bread book is 2nd best.
"The Breadmaker's Apprentice" is genius.
posted by lothar at 1:32 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think the no-knead recipe is overrated. However, there are some things in it that are useful - a wet dough will give you that irregular crust you want. You should also use a preferment of some kind, whether you call it a sponge, biga or poolish. Again, I'm not sure what kind of recipes or techniques you're already using, so I might be telling you things you already know. Slow cool rising is a great way to get better taste and texture too. I've used both bread flour and regular flour and not noticed significant differences between them, to be honest.

A heavy stone is great. I don't bother with spraying the oven - it's a huge hassle. However, I do throw in a cast iron pan to preheat with the oven and stone and then add near-boiling water to it (a cup) when the bread goes in. Watch out for the steam when you do that. Another technique is to brush the dough with water right before going into the oven.

I have tried the Five Minutes a Day recipe, which I thought worked well. And I agree that The Bread Baker's Apprentice is fantastic. Here's a great website for you too. This recipe is probably close to what you're looking for.
posted by O9scar at 1:36 PM on February 19, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, way more responses than I expected. This is fantastic.

I do use bread flour, from the bulk bins at our local market. I'll try buying King Arthur.

What can I do to improve whole wheat breads? We've been trying to ease up on our white flour consumption.
posted by rouftop at 2:44 PM on February 19, 2008

Best answer: Just want to second the Bread Baker's Apprentice by Rienhart...his pain à l'ancienne recipe is my go-to bread for nearly everything, including pizza. Just phenomenal, and so simple.
posted by griffey at 3:06 PM on February 19, 2008

I'm putting in my vote for the NYT no-knead recipe. It makes an amazing loaf, despite any variations in room temperature, flour type, rise time, dough wetness, etc. And the texture is out of this world. Having realized that I can make a loaf at home that would cost five bucks at the store, I've made almost all my own bread the last 10 months.

And there's a lump of dough sitting on my kitchen counter right now, waiting to be baked in an hour or so!

I would be obliged if someone could post a link to, or a copy of, the Cook's Illustrated recipe.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:09 PM on February 19, 2008

The quest for baking really great bread goes beyond one tip or one recipe. It involves techniques such as those presented in Amy's Bread by the New York artisanal baker Amy Scherber, who studied under master bakers in Europe to learn them. Her recipes take your bread baking in new directions, but mostly they aren't quick or easy — for example, how would you feel about starting two days (or more) in advance?
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:12 PM on February 19, 2008

Best answer: Nthing the Bread Baker's Apprentice. Got it for Christmas (what a beautiful, glorious, sexy book), and am slowly savoring my way through it. Totally revolutionized the way I approach bread.
posted by spinturtle at 7:47 PM on February 19, 2008

I got a Zojirushi breadmaker last month.

1/4 cup water
1/2 cup milk
1 egg
2 1/4 cups bread flour
2 tbsp all purpose flour
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 1/3 tbsp butter
1 tsp yeast.

Push button
Wait 3 hours

Crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside
posted by panamax at 12:56 AM on February 20, 2008

I've tried the NYT Bittman bread with the Rose Levy Berenbaum modifications. I've used the Cook's Illustrated sourdough recipe. I've baked the Peter Reinhart bread, one or two from Amy Scherber, Maggie Glezer, Joe Ortiz, Julia Child, Eric Treuille, and that's just off the top of my head. Most of these are okay, once, but my all-time best success for crisp crust and developed flavor is from Peter Berley's French country sourdough white bread. Sourdough starter, barley malt syrup, unbleached white bread flour, whole wheat flour, and sea salt. It rises amazingly. It takes two or more days. Makes two loaves. Wherever I go I eat bread and only two places in the US and one in the Sahara desert have made better bread than I can make in my ordinary home kitchen. Please take a look at Peter Berley, Modern vegetarian kitchen, pages 328-9. Complicated, time-consuming, but extremely satisfying and delicious.
posted by sevenstars at 4:36 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Everyone who said "Buy the Bread Baker's Apprentice" gets a "Best Answer." My wife bought this for me as a birthday present and last night I finally gave the Pain a l'Ancienne a go.

It is astounding.

I had no idea that I could bake bread that tasted so good!

I made tons of mistakes along the way. The biggest is that I didn't do my mise en place at all, so of course I got the proportions all screwed up. But somehow I managed to fix it based on the descriptions. The dough was so wet it I could barely handle it. The oven set to 500 degrees? Unheard of! Yet it all worked out in the end.

Here's a link to my blog entry with some pictures of the final result.

Thanks everybody!
posted by rouftop at 12:52 PM on March 16, 2008

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