Deconstructing Jeffrey Hamelman’s ‘Bread’ – Part 1

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.

challah winston knot

Celia figured out the instructions for this one, bless her!

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.

Hamelman's Linseed Rye SourdoughLook 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
  • Poolish
  • Biga

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.

  1. 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’.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The best bit…

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!

13 thoughts on “Deconstructing Jeffrey Hamelman’s ‘Bread’ – Part 1

  1. heidi

    I like your deconstruction- it is easier reading than the book.
    I feel like an idiot with the book- and I’ve been baking for many years. I read it and then take the formula as a suggestion and fill in with what I know works for me.
    Not an effective use- but I think he makes it harder to understand than it is to just DO it.
    I’m going to pull it back out from the back of my cookbook purgatory and try again.
    I like to use old dough because it has a stability and strengthens the raise of heavier flours.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks Heidi, I am not sure how far to go with this, but I’m going to write a second part about those three columns and how to approach them next and see if I make things clearer or just more obscure, it’s always possible… ;) And I thought I’d try and do a few paragraphs defining some of the more troublesome terms, but we’ll see.

      I think this is the trouble with a lot of baking books. The authors try to cram everything in that they know and it is very hard to fillet out what you need for you.

      And we are all so different, from you who have been baking professionally for years, to people who are just dipping their toes in the levain. Some of us simply don’t like reading as a learning style, some of us have dyslexia and I think most of us would much rather stand side by side with someone and learn that way. For me the worst is trying to watch someone on a video or a tv show, as there always comes a point where the editor takes out a crucial step or there’s a bit of ‘stage magic’ and I want to shout at the screen, hang on, go back there, how did you get that out of the metal ring thingy….

      I’m very interested to hear what you say about old dough, I didn’t know that it strengthens the rise of heavier flours, (see I’m secretly hoping to learn from everyone else by writing this xx )

  2. Celia @ Fig Jam and Lime Cordial

    Thanks for the link, darling. I have to admit, I find Hamelman’s book daunting, and like Heidi, I tend to pull some ideas from it, and then just incorporate it into what I’m already doing. I’ll pull it back out of cookbook purgatory too – at least I kept this one – I gave the Bourke Street Bakery one away because I was so disappointed with it! Look forward to reading part 2!

    1. Joanna Post author

      See my reply to Heidi above. I thought it was time I addressed this head on. Otherwise the book becomes like the Emperor’s New Clothes, with no one saying that it doesn’t suit everyone.

      I think that is what I am trying to get across. People’s learning styles are very varied and increasingly people are less and less inclined to read and this book is very much about reading and thinking as you go, rather than a list of instructions and pictures.

  3. C

    Yes, it’s not the easiest book to read and I’ll confess to having made a couple of the breads (successfully!) without having read the important stuff. LIke Heidi and Celia, the book is back out and I’ll attempt to read it properly.

    My problem with the breads is that even the home-baker’s column gives enough bread for me for a fortnight with one loaf, so I need to convert to metric and then scale down to a manageable amount, but that’s just me!

    Look forward to seeing what else you have to say on all this!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Scale it down absolutely, I talk about that in the second post which is up now. I too made lots of the breads without reading some of the important bits, and then I realised that after meandering around and making a nuisance of myself on the forums the answers were in the book all the time, only I didn’t know they were.

      You always find what you’re looking for in the last place you look ;)

  4. Pingback: FIVE GRAIN SOURDOUGH BREAD | Bewitching Kitchen

  5. Jeannette

    I am another one who has this book but doesn’t use it much. I was told it was THE book to get and was so disappointed when I received it, for the reasons that others have stated, not a very readable book, more a text book. But I do get it out from time to time, for comparison with other recipes and I look on it as the encyclopedia of baking books, useful to have but not very stimulating I find.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Jeannette this is exactly why I felt I needed to write this post even though I have baked from it so much. I have always felt a bit uncomfortable recommending it and the response I am getting to this post bears this out.

      The trouble is that I have never seen this book in a bookshop in England, so one goes on word of mouth and recommendation and then orders from an online supplier on trust as it were. I was told exactly the same as you. I realised that a lot of people aren’t happy using it, and I hope that comes across in what I have written about it. Thanks for your comment.

  6. James Kanavy

    As a professional baker, the book is freaking awesome, But i came in knowing almost all of his technical shit and am able to use the recipes easily and implement them. Home bakers aren’t going to have to calculate mixer friction or specific water temps because you’re most likely not going to be mixing and shaping 10+ doughs on a daily basis on a time limit. It really is THE BOOK, but only if you’re already an artisan baker

    1. Joanna Post author

      I am not a professional baker as you can see from reading my blog, but I got a lot from working through the book and used it as a learning resource. Jeffrey Hamelman gives formulae for professional and home use in the book. If he hadn’t wanted home bakers to read it he wouldn’t have done that.

  7. SaraBanana

    This is a great book deconstruction! I tried a few Hamelman’s recipes and they all turned out to be excellent. When I first started to be interested in baking, I read and read to learn the vocabulary and avoid wasting precious ingredients from doing classic mistakes, but I have one unsolved measurements mystery. Why do recipes call for let’s say 4.8 ounces and my scale in ounces mode read 4 2/8 (in eights..)? The only solution I found is to translate recipes in grams, which gives me a more accurate result.
    I am not use to the imperial measurement system, but would like to understand why this difference..

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi SaraBanana, thanks for reading and commenting. There is a 2nd updated edition of this book which has recently been published and will be available in the UK by the end of this month. I don’t know where you live so I don’t know if it is out already where you are.

      As to your unsolved measurement mystery… tricky question because my scales are digital and in ounces mode they divide into tenths and hundredths of an ounce. I have never seen a digital scale that does eighths of an ounce. The imperial measurement system is used less and less here in the UK and we are more and more ‘metric’ as each year passes. If you read the second part of this post, you will see that what I do usually is to take the middle column of the recipe numbers and divide it by 10, that way you get a gram version of the Home column without having to convert each number in the Home column.

      Here is a picture of my scales in ounces modes, all best wishes, Joanna

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