Firstly let me say, this is not a how to bake bread post, this is a ‘how to read and use a book’ post. I hope no one is offended or feels patronised and if you are completely comfortable with baking books then please do skip on to something more interesting.
I find myself recommending this book simply because it has a really solid range of recipes and formulae and tons of good advice and information embedded in the text but it is a bit scary when you first open it!
EDIT April 2013 : There is a new and updated edition of this wonderful book now available and I recommend you get hold of that one rather than this older one. It has new recipes and has been considerably updated.
I remember when I first got it I was really excited and then my heart sank as I looked at the dense pages of text, flicked through, came across all those decorative bread projects, rummaged through the formulae, stared at the columns, wondered what on earth the words meant.
I read it from cover to cover, couldn’t take most of it in, forgot most of it and have spent the last couple of years baking recipes from it, occasionally turning over two pages at once, so starting in one recipe and ending up in another, sometimes baking the wrong bread from everyone else in the Mellow Bakers group because lots of the breads have similar names…. so anyway… here is my Guide to ‘Bread’ by Jeffrey Hamelman.
Look at the pictures in the middle of the book – they will either inspire you or cause you to despair slightly, thinking I will never be able to make those, but don’t despair, feel inspired! Choose two or three that you think you would really like to try and then…
Read the first part of the book on ingredients and techniques first.
Take a good look at the Appendix and even if you don’t understand it all, I’m not sure that I do, make a mental note of what is in that section as it contains lots of useful stuff about. Note there is a Glossary of terms too at the very back of the book!
The contents of the Appendix are :-
- preparing a sourdough culture
- how flour is tested when it is milled
- about flour additives
- his rather complicated explanation of bakers’ percentages
- the desired dough temperature
- some useful conversions and equivalencies.
Lots of it may go over your head, but just give it a good read through and remember that this stuff is there for when you feel like tackling it again.
In my edition there is a nice little section called Baking at Home (white text on blue) from pages 88-92 which is also worth close attention. I don’t like white text on dark backgrounds I find it hard to read, but there’s good stuff here, so struggle on with it.
Part 2 contains the Formulas and a huge section on making Decorative Breads.
The Formulas ( I am resisting the urge to call them formulae, the curse of a classical education!) are broken down into five sections which follow his classification of breads into
- 1 Breads made with Yeasted Pre-ferments.
- 2 Levain Breads
- 3 Sourdough Rye Bread
- 4 Straight Doughs
- 5 Miscellaneous Breads
At the beginning of each section he defines what he means by these headings. If you have ever tried to organize your recipe collection you will know just how difficult it is to decide where to put things too.
Lets look at the first section :-
Breads made with Yeasted Pre-ferments fall into three basic types according to Hamelman
- Paté Fermentée
You will find these terms used by other writers and sometimes, they use them in the same way as Hamelman, but sometimes they don’t. Don’t despair, just take it as it comes and if you are confused about how someone uses a word differently, then just ask them to define their ‘biga’ or their ‘poolish’ and carry on.
These three terms come from different baking traditions, paté fermentée is French, Poolish, sounds like it comes from Poland, and Biga is an Italian word. JH explains what he means by them on Pages 94 – 96.
It used to confuse and annoy me terribly that there is no standard definition of terms and while it no longer confuses me, as I have more or less got my head around how to interpret recipes, I am still easily thrown by a term that I think means something other than what the writer intends and I am sure that this is an ongoing problem when reading recipes for most people.
- Paté fermenteé = a dough mixed with flour, water, salt and yeast. Then this, or part of it is used when you mix the final dough. It is also known less romantically simply as ‘old dough’.
- Poolish = a mixture of water and flour in equal proportions and a pinch of yeast. It looks more runny than a paté fermentée and has no salt added.
- Biga = can be a poolish (see how it gets confusing) or it can be stiffer and more solid, but it still has no salt in it.
What they all have in common is that you mix them well before you mix your final dough, the time and the temperature that they should be left at are the two key ingredients. If you change these your bread may not come out as intended.
What’s the point of the pre-ferment? It’s supposed to help you make better bread. There’s lots of science you can read about it and Hamelman gives more detail.
I am not sure that I can always taste the difference between a straight dough, one which is mixed all in one go and a pre-fermented yeasted dough, but I have made both sorts and it is certainly worth trying them. For me the great advantage is that you use far less dried or fresh yeast this way, so it is both more economic and means that the dough is less yeasty in smell both when working with it and on baking. I also think the bread is more digestible when made with a pre-ferment because the flour has been partially broken down by the yeasts.
If you are attempting one of the breads from this section read the introduction and read the Production Notes from page 95 – 100 before launching into one of the recipes.
I frequently go back to these notes sections and re-read. Something that went over my head two years ago often makes more sense when I read it again. Learning about bread making is a relatively slow process and proceeds by fits and starts.
In Part 2 I will look at one of the formulas in this book and describe how I go about working with it : Baguettes with Poolish
Any questions on this part ? I’ll have a go at answering, but please remember I am an amateur home baker and don’t always get it right, there’s more than one way to do almost anything when it comes to baking !
And I’d better include a link to Celia’s Winston Knot Tutorial here in case anyone is wondering what is going on in that braid. If I could manage it, you can. Trust me!