With a degree in biochemistry, one might think that I understand the chemistry of food. Actually, I know what most parts of cells do and what nutrients they need to function, but I really don’t know what happens when those cells are cooked. I’ve been interested in baking bread most of my life, but I haven’t been very adventuresome. My recent attempts at interesting loaves of bread have had mediocre success. Although I can follow a recipe when necessary, and I usually do follow recipes for baking, I don’t have a good sense of what is important in bread recipes and what is trivial. Reading a dozen different recipes doesn’t solve that problem. However, reading four books about bread might solve it.
The first book I’m reading is The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking by the French Culinary Institute. I’m mostly done reading the introductory chapters, and I’m going to give a couple loaves a try in the next couple weeks. The book focuses on artisan bread making, primarily French styles and types. I’m not sure how artisan I want to go, since my kitchen is not well-stocked with some necessary ingredients. Also, some of the starter takes 9 days to get going, and the book is due back to the library before I’ll get to the actual recipes. Anyway, there is some very useful general knowledge about baking. Some of this is completely new to me, and some is just more thorough. Here’s some of the more generally applicable knowledge you might find helpful in your baking.
Protein in flour makes gluten. Gluten actually is a protein, so this isn’t a crazy idea. There are two main proteins in wheat flour that, when combined with water, form gluten. Mixing and working the dough speeds this process. In general, gluten is desirable in products containing yeast, so such items are intentionally worked (kneaded) to create the gluten. Typically, gluten is not desired in baked goods that don’t contain yeast, like cake. The chemical reason to mix cake batter as little as possible is to avoid creating gluten, which would make the cake tough and give it those little tunnels.
Different types of flour contain different amounts of protein. Bread flour contains more protein, which allows bread dough to form more gluten. Pastry flour contains less protein, so it won’t form gluten as easily. All-purpose flour has a medium level of protein. The more ingredients in a baked good, the less the type of flour matters. Bread with lots of eggs, butter, and fruit is so busy the amount of gluten won’t be as noticeable as a simple French loaf.
That’s it for today’s baking lesson. Stay tuned for other gems I find along the way to great bread. I’ll try to actually make a loaf before my next lesson here.