L is for … lames (pronounced like lamb or la-muh) *
One of the most common questions that people ask when they make their own bread is how to get those lovely patterns on the top of the loaves and whether a special lame (blade) will magically transform their loaf into an artisanal artefact.
However, having been down that route myself, trying different lames, knives, blades, holders and so on for a few years now I can safely say that, the knife in itself won’t work the magic. The three magic words are, practice, steam and a sharp blade; and the key one is practice.
A professional baker will slash dozens of loaves a day, she/he will learn how the dough feels, the rhythm and speed of the cuts, the pattern and the angle of the blade, and can practice over and over, and eventually it will feel like second nature. You don’t expect to be able to drive a car the first time you get in one and this is no different.
The home baker makes a handful of loaves – if that – in one go, so remembering from bake to bake what you did the time before can be tricky. That’s when taking photos really comes in handy and is one of the main reasons why I take bread photos. In the flurry and the stress of dealing with hot ovens and collapsing dough it’s all too easy to rush at this part. While you do have to be fairly quick, rushing doesn’t get you anywhere.
In my humble amateurish view it’s all about practice; find a lame or a knife that suits you and that you have confidence in. You can read all the advice there is out there, (and there is lots) and watch videos on YouTube, but really the best thing to do would be to find someone who is relaxed and confident and can show you how they do it, and then go home make a big batch of some easy dough that proves quite quickly, a plain yeasted white dough or something like that; make some shapes and play away.
An easy dough to slash would be something like.
- 300 g water
- 500 g flour
- a sachet of yeast
- 10 g salt
For practice purposes,slightly under-proved dough with a hydration of 55 – 60 % is best, the dough will spring more and the slashes will open up more than a fully proved loaf. The wetter doughs beloved of modern artisanal bakers can be tricky to slash beautifully. The dough often drags on the lame or the slash simply closes up as you make it. You could also experiment with shaping the dough and then chilling it for a couple of hours or more and then seeing whether it is easier to slash. Try baking from cold and see whether you like the results. I think they can be pretty good.
The best slashes in the world need the magic of a steamy oven to do their thing as well as they can and open up into those coveted ears. Don’t get hung up about it, but do think about the angles and lines if you are trying your hand at baguette slashes.
[Edit: and I meant to say I am left handed and if you are right handed you might want to do these slashes in the other direction].
Have a look at these two sketches of mine and draw them out on a piece of paper and see if you can see the difference. Remember the oven spring curves and it is the curving of the dough that pulls the lines of the cuts across the dough. If you cut across the dough to start with they won’t open up in the same way. In this post I was trying to emulate Nils’s experimental technique of repeatedly spraying or painting water in the slashes in the very early part of the bake. Maybe try and figure out a way to create a cover over the baguettes while they are in the oven. Lots of things to try…. [I have added an old photo at the top of the post of some very early baguettes I made, as you can see the slashes are too long and not the way I have drawn them in the sketch. I was quite proud of them at the time though they are not right at all.]
These are the lames I have, including a lovely one sent to me by the Weekend Bakery in Holland; they have all done a good job. Some people swear by razor blades, some people use a big solid bread knife, some people use tomato knives. The key thing is to have a sharp blade and somewhere safe to put it down. You always need to know where your blades are! Have a small bowl to chuck it in after you have used it, preferably on a shelf away from your working area, the last thing you want to do is to pick up a razor blade in your next batch of dough! I must admit I like the Mure & Peyrot ones which is why I suggested Bakery Bits stock them, I like the way they have bright handles and covers for the blades. Safety first!
Edit : If you want a curved blade which is useful for those baguettes you can take a chance and do it like this.
I made this one up the other day just to see if it works, but I didn’t have a chance to slash any bread with it yet. It’s quite anxiety making putting it together and you need to rig a cover to protect it. Brian uses wide velcro to protect his scalpels.
And if none of this interests you in the least here is a lovely video that Celia has offered for the Alphabet in August : L is for La la la – that reminds me…. where have I hidden my stash of Danish Liquorice ?
Oh yes and …
* Click here and navigate to the L page to hear the word ‘lame’ being pronounced.