Sunday, January 25, 2009

Not-So-Artisan Bread in More than Five Minutes

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking (AB in 5)is my latest bread project. Baking not only bread, but artisan bread in five minutes a day? Their clocking five minutes of bread making a day is akin to counting the hours of making a baby based on the hours the mother is in labor. The hardest part might be accurate, but there are a few steps left out.

The authors, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoƫ Francois, streamline bread making by skipping some steps and combining or ignoring others: proofing yeast, mixing dry ingredients separately, kneading, an autolyse, and a second rise are not part of their method. But their book's greatest contribution is tweaking their formula to make a long-lasting dough similar to making a sourdough that doesn't need to be fed. With their master formula you apply economy of scale and cut your per loaf time commitment: mixing, clean-up and waiting for the first rise are consolidated. You prepare a week or more of dough all at once in one big batch. The dough is wet, the amount of yeast is high enough to stay alive, but the salt level is sufficient to retard the blob from taking over your fridge.

The Test

I was skeptical, but decided to follow the recipe as rigidly as possible and see. My first loaves were good, but not great. I didn't like the crumb (holes too small), but could chalk it up to inadvertent kneading. The authors emphasize that the dough shouldn't be kneaded, which makes sense if you aren't doing a second rise -- overhandle the dough and you'll destroy the cell development from the first rise. The wetter than usual dough sticks to everything. Flouring hands and the top of the dough as they recommend simplified handling, and my crumb issue improved slightly on subsequent loaves. I monitored the oven temperature carefully and got good oven spring, but still my crumb was closer to standard grocery loaves than artisan.

I've gotten a good crispy crust from using King Arthur bread flour and giving it a boost of protein by adding a tablespoon of garbanzo bean flour and grinding half a tablet of vitamin C (per Cookwise by Shirley Corriher). I skipped these additions with the AB in 5 book, but got a good crust anyway. I'm convinced this was because of their recommendation to put an old broiler pan in the oven while it preheats. When it's time to bake, pour a cup of water to steam the oven. I omitted this step on one loaf and the difference was noticeable. I've sprayed loaves before, but pouring in a pan adds substantially more steam and isn't as frightening as shoving a spray bottle in a hot oven and squirting.

The first batch (5 separate loaves) was good, but not great. Homemade bread is usually good. If "artisan" is in the title, AB in 5 still had to earn its chops on quality. I tried a batch of rye. Once again the crust was fine, the taste was fine, but the crumb was doughy even after adding a few extra minutes in the oven. On the second rye loaf I tried a deviation and kneaded for two or three minutes. Still no dice. Essentially the same results. Out of seven loaves, I hadn't produced one of exceptional flavor or even good crumb. The sourdough-like flavor that I anticipated from days in the fridge didn't materialize.

My argument about timing isn't over active time to get dough from fridge to oven. It's the intervals between steps that makes bread making a bigger time commitment than acknowledged. Here is the way the five minute method is supposed to work: When the dough comes out of the fridge (start the clock) you cut off a hunk, shape the hunk into a boule, but don't knead it. Next, put it on a peel and slide it in the hot oven. Pour water in the old broiler pan as described above (stop the clock). Preheating the oven while the dough reaches room temp doesn't count (20 minutes); original prep time doesn't count (15 minutes); baking time doesn't count (30 minutes). True, much of this time you aren't nursing the loaf along, but you can't go kayaking either. If you're not in the kitchen during those times, you better be able to get there quick.

Marketing is one thing, but . . .

Shortly after trying this book out, I wrote an Amazon review similar to this one in gist, but shorter and in a different style. Later, I discovered the authors shark the Amazon website, tagging comments on negative reviews. I can't imagine that they aren't stuffing the ballot boxes by "voting" on whether or not a review is helpful. It's hard to cut it as an author, but the book has done well enough. Knock it off.

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