March 2012

Charlotte Freeman


Cookbookslut Conquers the Baguette

As we all know the question of what cookbooks are for has been nagging at me for a while. And there are a lot of answers -- we love cookbooks for all sorts of different reasons -- for the ways they allow us to dream, for the glimpse into foreign lives and foodways, for the sheer beauty of the photos. This month, I thought I'd turn to my library to try to solve a perennial problem around this house, where to get a good baguette.

I make bread about once a week (except during summer when I can't stand to heat up my house). The bread I make is based on Jim Lahey's No Knead bread. I do mine with one cup each of all-purpose, whole wheat, and bread flour. I use a quarter teaspoon of active dry yeast, one tablespoon of salt, to which I add a cup and a half of sourdough starter, and about a cup of water. There are a couple of drawbacks to this recipe. For one thing, it needs to rise overnight, and there are times when I'm out of bread and want a nice loaf for dinner. It also works best in a boule shape, in part because you bake it in a cast-iron pot. I've experimented with this dough in other shapes, but it just never works out very well. Sometimes a person wants a long skinny loaf, one you can break hunks off for dinner, or make a sandwich out of the next day.

And so I turned to my wall of cookbooks. I had a couple of requirements. On the one hand, I wanted a bread I could make during the afternoon if I needed to, for those times when I've run out of bread, or just want a nice crusty baguette-shaped loaf. The other thing I wanted to find was a bread I could make on a regular basis, something I hoped I could make as instinctively as the no-knead recipe. I work at home, so baking one day a week is not a problem, but I don't want a recipe I have to fuss with. I wanted something I could add to the regular repertoire. 

(A note on bread recipes. If you are at all serious about baking you will want to buy a scale. Most of the recipes I tested relied on weight, not volumetric measurement. Measuring baking ingredients by weight is much more precise, and even as someone who doesn't like having appliances in my kitchen, I find the kitchen scale incredibly useful.)

Part of my investigation into the future of cookbooks led me to the world of cooking apps. I don't have an iPad, but I do have an iPhone, and I was intrigued with the possibilities of apps. In particular, if I was looking for something I didn't have to think about too much, a quick recipe I could look up on the phone seemed like an interesting idea. I started with Michael Ruhlman's Bread Baking App for the iPhone. I've written before about my admiration for Ruhlman's general approach, his belief that by learning technique and some basic ratios, we can free ourselves of recipes. The Bread Baking App begins by asking you to choose your ingredients: white, sourdough, whole wheat, multigrain, rye, and then you choose the shape: baguette, boule, loaf. You can also customize how big a batch you want. I chose white, baguette, one loaf. (Due to the limitations of my baking stone, I had to divide it into two loaves.) This was the most straightforward of all the recipes I tried. There's no sourdough starter and there's no long fermentation, just a basic white bread dough, kneaded in the stand mixer, one rise. Then divide, let rest, shape the baguettes, let them rise again, and bake. What I particularly liked about the app was the step-by-step illustrations of how to shape the loaves. I've never quite figured out how to do this, and hence, all my previous attempts at baguettes or batards resulted in floppy, wide, ciabatta-like loaves. Ruhlman's photos made the process clear, and I wound up with two nicely shaped, brown, crusty baguettes at the end of the evening. The downside is that they didn't have a lot of flavor, which is to be expected in a loaf that has neither sourdough nor a long cool fermentation behind it. But this is now my go-to recipe when I notice at lunchtime that there's no bread in the house, and I want something by dinner. I'm also looking forward to trying some of the other breads, especially the rye bread.

My next stop on the baguette trail was the Tartine Bread cookbook. This is the opposite end of the instructional spectrum from Ruhlman's app; the recipe for Basic Country Bread, from which the baguette recipe is derived is, famously, thirty-nine pages long. This is, of course, because there are a lot of photos, and Robertson explains every stage of the process in depth. The baguette recipe uses both sourdough starter, and a "poolish," a very wet mixture of flour, water, and yeast that starts the fermentation process. Once the poolish and the sourdough starter have gotten to the stage where they're bubbling away, you add the rest of the ingredients. Robertson also doesn't really knead the bread, but rather you turn it a few times during this "bulk fermentation" process. Bulk fermentation takes about three to four hours, longer in a house as cool as mine (who are all these people with rooms heated to 75-80 degrees?). The nice thing about its taking a while, is that you don't really have to do that much to it. It just rises, the gluten molecules stretch, and it does its thing. Eventually, you wind up with a huge batch of dough, which you then divide, shape, and let rise again before baking.

This was my favorite of all the recipes I tried. It takes a long time, and is kind of a pain, but the dough it makes is this sort of wonderful, stretchy, bubbly substance. It feels distinctively alive. And the recipe makes so much dough that when you take into account the limitations of my baking stone, I get at least six loaves out of it. This was a downside the first night I made this recipe, when I wound up baking until the late hours of the evening, but it might become my go-to recipe now that I've taken to freezing the dough. I follow the recipe all the way through to the shaping stage, then I shape all the loaves, set aside one or two to be baked right away, and freeze the rest (generally about four loaves). Again, it takes a while for the frozen loaves to come to temperature and rise in my cool house, but this recipe had the best taste of any of the ones I tried. The dough is wet enough that you get big holes inside, the crumb is really stretchy and has a nice sour tang to it, while the crust gets dark brown and shattery. Even the frozen loaves cook up beautifully.

After Tartine Bread I turned to Nancy Silverton. Her pizza recipe has, as I noted in last month's column, changed my life, and I've had her Breads from the La Brea Bakery on my shelf for several years, but I hadn't really baked out of this cookbook because, frankly, it seemed too fussy. Silverton, even more than Robertson, is obsessed with temperature, and most of the instructions have you bringing the dough up to specific temps. I'm not questioning the methodology, because it makes perfect sense, but it makes much more sense if you're running a commercial bakery. I live in Montana, in a drafty 100-year-old house, and I'm stingy with the heating. I need a recipe that is flexible enough to rise in my cool house, and that doesn't demand too much out of me. So while the Silverton baguette is a pretty straightforward, all-sourdough recipe, it didn't perform for me as reliably as the Robertson recipe, which also includes some commerical yeast. The other big difference with Silverton's method is that while many recipes call for letting the dough rise overnight, in part to allow the yeasts to ferment and add that sour tang to the flavor, Silverton makes her dough in one day, then shapes the loaves and retards the rise by putting them in the refrigerator overnight. I made this recipe twice. The first time, I had to leave the dough overnight for the primary rise, since I started late in the day, and my house is cool. Then I shaped the loaves the next morning, let them rise, and baked them off. They were good. They had a good shattery crust -- it caramelized beautifully -- and the dough was stretchy with nice holes. The second time, I started early enough to shape the loaves and leave them overnight (I put them in my cold mudroom instead of the fridge). I didn't find an appreciable difference in the loaves made using this method, and it was just inconvenient enough that I don't think it's going in the repertoire. The flavor of these loaves was great, with a nice sourdough tang, but I found that working only with sourdough starter made it difficult to predict the timing of this recipe, and I don't really have the space in my fridge to store the shaped loaves overnight. Hence, for me, it lost the advantage of flexibility and ease of use.

When I told my mother about the project, she said, "Well, have you done Julia Child's baguette?" In fact, I'd forgotten all about Julia, who wrote in Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume 2 one of the first baguette recipes I ever tried, way back when I was living in Queens in my early twenties (the proximity of great bakeries put an early death to that breadmaking experiment). I will admit to having resorted to Julia's instructions for making the dough in a stand mixer. My forty-year-old Kitchen Aid is a stalwart beast, and even though I did the Tartine and Silverton doughs by hand, I hate hate hate the first mixing of bread dough, the one where it sticks to your hands and you can't get it off. Kneading, I'm fine with, but the sticky mixing part I'm happy to leave to the ancient yellow machine. Like the Ruhlman, the Julia Child is a very basic white bread dough, and although the loaves baked up beautifully brown, and with nice holes inside, I found that I really missed the sourdough taste of the two more complicated recipes.

In a way, it seems unfair to compare the non-sourdough to sourdough loaves. Both Michael Ruhlman and Julia Child provide clear recipes that result in very fine loaves of bread. And while I found they lacked the depth of flavor of those made with sourdough and a longer fermentation, they were reasonably easy to make, and still produced a better loaf than anything I can find in my local market. If I'm in a bread emergency, I think I'd probably turn to the Ruhlman app over the Julia Child recipe, if only for the convenience of the recipe delivery method. Since that was a key goal of the project, I'm thrilled to have found such an easy solution, and one that lives in my phone, no less.

As for a recipe I can add to my regular repertoire, I think it'll probably be the one from Tartine. It's reasonably simple, although it takes a long time, and freezing extra loaves means we can have bread at the ready in a way we haven't had before around here. However, the difference between the Tartine and Silverton recipes was minimal, and which one you prefer will probably be a matter of personal taste. For me, it comes down as much to liking the consistency of the Tartine dough as anything else (and probably to the fact that I have a full-sized freezer in the basement).

What I did love about this month's experiment was the reminder of just why it pays to keep a small library of cookbooks around. I don't tend to follow recipes religiously, and I hate the way that venues like America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated promote the idea that there is one perfect recipe for something, and if you can only crack the mysterious code, you'll discover the right way to cook it. It's why I can't actually tell you which is the best recipe of these four I played with this month -- because I don't think there is a best recipe. I think if you're looking to learn to bake a baguette, any or all of these four sources offer excellent recipes by which to do that. What I feel more strongly however, is that if you want to learn to cook the baguette that you like best, you should play around with several recipes. What you want in a baguette may not be what I want, or what Chad Robertson wants, or what Nancy Silverton wants. What you will discover by playing around with several recipes though, is what works for you. And what I value about these four sources is the seriousness with which each of them approaches the subject. Each of these authors is serious about bread, has studied in depth the alchemy with which yeast, water, salt, and flour come together, and how to work with the tools and limitations of the home cook. Each of them have great suggestions for getting enough steam into your oven to create good crust, for how to shape a long thin loaf that will hold, and for how to integrate bread baking into a normal life.

One of the things that's becoming clear to me as I review cookbooks is that the ones I value most are the ones that want to teach you how to really cook, not just leave you reliant on their recipes. And each of these four cookbooks do that. The next part, deciding you really want to learn about bread, will probably require that you choose a nice cool time of year, and start baking with enough regularity that you can learn how doughs react to different treatments and temperatures, about how to shape your loaves, about how a baking stone performs in your oven. A month in, I'm beginning to get a sense of how this works, and what I value in the various recipes I've tried. It's like any other new skill; repetition is essential. And this time of year, when it seems the gray skies will never lift, the cheerful smell of break baking is reason alone to take on this experiment.