I grew up believing bread needs a warm place to proof. One of my most enduring food memories is of mom baking bread. She’d make a starter with some warm water, flour and potato. This was left to activate and ferment overnight wrapped in a blanket.
Early the next morning, she’d add the rest of the flour, knead the bread and set it aside to proof. After proofing the dough was shaped to fit a loaf pan, proofed in the pan for a second time, brushed with egg wash and baked.
The flavour of mom’s bread came from the pre-ferment, particularly the potato-fed yeast. Back then she did not use the instant yeast that is so popular today. Maybe because instant yeast was not as readily available as it is today, or maybe she was just ignorant, or maybe she believed the bread tasted better her way. I am not sure.
But I do remember the panic on her face if the dough failed to proof in time. More often than not, this happened in winter.
Since then, I have learned a lot about the role temperature in the bread making process, and mom has started to use instant yeast more often.
The world has changed.
Buying bread from convenient stores and supermarkets have become the norm and long-life, vitamin enriched breads are no longer a novelty.
Commercially produced breads are proofed chemically to ensure uniformity and consistency.
In this country at least, most home bakers probably use bleached flour because it is so conveniently available, much more so than unbleached varieties. It is also much cheaper, but sadly, also has much less flavour.
Chemicals such as organic peroxides, nitrogen dioxide, chlorine and chlorine dioxide are used to bleach flour. It produces a much whiter colour and a much finer grain. When baked it produces a lighter loaf. Unbleached flour on the other hand, is produced from naturally aged grain and has an off-white, yellowish colour.
Bakers and foodies are still locked in vigorous debate as to which flour is best, most consistent or more flavourful. Ultimately it also depends on the type of grain used (red or white; winter or summer; hard or soft). Personally, I prefer the unbleached variety.
One element that definitely influences the flavour of the final loaf is the amount of fermentation that is developed during the bread-making process. For all intent, fermentation starts once the yeast has been hydrated (by adding a liquid such as water or milk) and activated in the dough.
Bread makers control the outcome of their baking by manipulating time and temperature, especially during the fermentation stage. All varieties of dough (for different types of bread) have different fermentation requirements. Some require only an hour or two proofing time in a warm place or at room temperature, others take much longer.
Just recently I read about a very interesting technique called Pain à l’ Ancienne in Peter Reinhart’s excellent book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Pain à l’ Ancienne (or Old-fashioned bread) is a technique that contradicts just about everything I was brought up to believe about proofing temperature for breads.
The key to Pain à l’ Ancienne is to delay the fermentation; first by mixing the dough with ice cold water and second by giving it a slow first fermentation in the refrigerator. This, according to Reinhart, delays the activation of the yeast until after the amylase enzymes have started converting starch into sugar.
When the dough is brought to room temperature the yeast starts feeding on sugars that were absent the day before. Because the yeast has had no time to convert all available sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, some sugar remains to give the final product more flavour and a better caramelized crust.
The dough produced by Pain à l’ Ancienne is quite wet and sticky which means it could be difficult to handle. Care should be taken not to deflate the dough when it is handled, as there is no second proofing period. The dough is excellent for a variety of breads including pizza dough, baguettes and focaccia.
Make sure to work with well-floured hands on a well-floured surface when handling wet dough such as this. Use a metal dough scraper to cut the dough into the required shapes and scissors to score the dough just before baking. I do not score mine. Furthermore, dipping your equipment into water helps to get past the stickiness. This is very rustic looking bread, and since no molding and little shaping is done, their shapes can be a little odd. No harm done, just enjoy their flavour.
There is no need to panic when your dough does not live up to your expectations in wintertime. It does develop flavour whilst waiting for the right temperature to activate the yeast. Herein lies the skill of the bread baker – how to extract more flavour from your raw materials. To do that, you sometimes need to head into the opposite direction from what you’ve been taught. It keeps life interesting and above all, adds flavour.