Two years ago, I checked out a book from the library, and it was a watershed moment for me. I have enjoyed bread making for years, but making artisan breads with really wet dough was nothing but endless frustration for me. My ciabatta recipe was the closest I came to having success in this arena, but it was "easy," because you beat the gluten practically to oblivion and the loaves are not exactly known for their lovely shape. I watched bread making tutorials and read book after book on artisan bread making, and never did it quite come together. Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice and follow-up Artisan Breads Everyday are good books and I learned a lot, but even they did not get me over the last hurdle: How the heck do you handle and shape such wet dough?
Enter Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish. For the first time, I found a book that specifically addressed the issues with which I was struggling. While I haven't ended up using many of the specific recipes, I have read and re-read chapters 2 and 4 until I almost have them memorized. Not only does he discuss how to handle the wet dough, but he has great pictures, too! I was so excited to find that once I had this new information, my high-hydration bread making became really fun and successful.
I've been working on a few different recipes since then, and I finally feel like I've got this thing "mastered". I wanted to share my success with you! It's been a while since I had a video as part of a post, but - in this case - I thought it was essential. I've included two videos below that cover the two most challenging dough handling parts for a wet dough.
Today, I'd like to start off with sharing one of Ken Forkish's recipes that I've adapted. It only has 10% whole wheat flour, but it has added germ and bran which give it a lovely hearty, almost nutty edge. The biggest change I've made to the recipe is that I reduced the amount of salt. While a certain amount of salt is helpful in bread baking, I think many recipes call for way more than is needed. Coming from a family that has always been mindful of sodium intake, I always try to reduce the salt to the minimum necessary for flavor and function. The second change was a scaling change. His recipes are for two 500 gram loaves. I rarely need to bake two loaves at time. Additionally, I like the size of a 600 gram loaf better, so I easily scaled the recipe using baker's math.
The first step in making the loaf is to prepare a preferment. That simply means that you mix some of the flour and water and a tiny bit of the yeast together and let them ferment over night. This is a critical flavor building step. When you mix the preferment, it will simply look like a shaggy dough ball, but just 12 hours later, it has developed a life of its own! It's bubbly, fragrant, and moist. I use a 12 quart lidded plastic food service tub to mix and proof my dough. It means I only need to use and dirty one container. (It's also easy to clean: after you empty the tub, let it sit on the counter to dry and all those super sticky, gummy pieces of dough left in there will simply fall off and can be dumped in the trash).
The next morning, use a scale to add the remaining ingredients. I'm not usually a huge proponent of the scale, but I have to admit, it sure makes measuring easy for this type of recipe.
Then, dampen your hand and start mixing. Use a pincer motion to help distribute the new ingredients into the already moist preferment. Dampen your hand as necessary to keep the dough from sticking to you too badly. When the dough is fully mixed, it will be very sticky and not have much elasticity to it. Have no fear. Put the lid on, walk away for 15 minutes or so and prepare to be amazed.
This is where things get interesting. Because the dough has not been kneaded at all, it certainly needs something to help develop that gluten. The special technique here is called folding. It's not really like kneading at all. In fact, when I first started trying it, I was shocked to find that something so simple and easy could change the dough so drastically.
So, to recap the video, after the dough sits for a few minutes, you'll perform your first fold. To do so, dampen your hand and then pull some of the dough away from the edge of the container. Pull on that part until it won't easily pull any more and then fold it back on itself. Dampen your hand again, and turn the tub a bit, and do that motion again. Continue that motion all the way around the tub and you'll see that the dough starts to sit up on its own. Put the lid back on, let it sit another fifteen minutes, and perform this process again. For this recipe, I do this process a third time, but each recipe is different, so you'll want to be sure to note how many times it tells you to perform the fold. Once the folds are all complete, be sure to tightly cover the dough again and let it finish rising, in this case 2-3 hours. This dough should almost triple in size before you move on to the next step.
Once the dough has tripled in volume, you're ready to shape. Be sure to have a piece of parchment laying out on the counter ready to go. This recipe uses a cast iron Dutch oven for baking, and the parchment is used to move the dough from the proofing container (I use a 5 1/2 quart regular Dutch oven) to the preheated cast iron Dutch oven. You'll need flour for the counter and a bowl of water so that you can keep the dough from sticking to you too much.
The only comment I would make, technique wise, about the video, is that I may have had a little more flour than was ideal on the counter when I moved into the actual shaping phase. Notice that it ended up working out OK, but you do want some friction between the dough ball and the counter and too much flour impedes that. My only other comment about the video is... well... a little embarrassing. After making the video, I downloaded it to watch and was horrified to hear myself saying "taunt" instead of "taut" multiple times. Isn't it weird how you can know a word, know its meaning, and know how to say it and still blow it... more than once? I'd like to be able to claim its an artifact of the video, but I don't think it is. Anyway, I just wanted to admit to this blunder and hope you won't laugh too hard. :-)
Once you fold and shape the dough into a boule, place it on the parchment and gently lower it into your proofing container. Put a lid on it and let it rise for about an hour, depending on temperature. The poke test is probably your best bet for knowing when to bake it. Dampen your finger and gently poke the dough, pushing in about half and inch. Remove your finger. If the dough springs back quickly, it needs more time. If the indent sticks around for a bit, then you're ready to bake!
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F with the cast iron Dutch oven in the oven. Once the oven is ready, pull the loaf out of the proofing container and lay it gently on the counter. Dampen a long serrated blade and with a single, firm stroke, score the loaf about half an inch deep. Cutting with the knife at an angle gives you more of a chance of an "ear" developing (those are the flaps that end up curling up and browning so nicely). If you'd rather have a more smooth top to your loaf, cut with your knife completely vertical. Score once more at 90 degrees to the first cut. Then gently lower the parchment held loaf into the preheated cast iron Dutch oven. Put the lid on and reduce the oven temperature to 450. Set the timer for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, remove the lid. After 15 more minutes, remove the Dutch oven from the oven and carefully remove the loaf from the parchment. Set the loaf onto the bare oven rack to finish baking. How long you take it is a bit of personal preference. Ken Forkish likes his loaves dark. I have learned that - to a certain extent - darker is truly better. I usually leave mine in another 10-15 minutes. Be sure to cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting into the loaf!!
After enjoying the loaf the first day, I usually like to pre-slice it and then freeze or refrigerate it. I mostly use it for toast after day one, so refrigerating it extends its life immensely. I've learned that pre-slicing the rest of the loaf is easiest on the second day and that an electric knife is the only tool to use. If you want nice, even slices, this is the only way to go!!
Adapted from Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish
Yield: one large boule
300 grams white AP flour
300 grams warm water
0.5 grams instant yeast (about 1/8 tsp)
Mix the preferment in the evening. Cover and let sit at room temperature until morning.
all the preferment
240 grams white AP flour
60 grams whole wheat flour
168 grams warm water
6 grams table salt
1.5 grams instant yeast
30 grams wheat germ
12 grams wheat bran
Mix the new ingredients together with the preferment. Mix by hand, dampening the hand to keep the dough from sticking. Use a pincer-like motion to evenly mix the ingredients. Cover and let sit 15 minutes. Complete one full fold (see video) and cover. Wait 15 minutes and repeat. Wait 15 more minutes and repeat one more time. Let rise, covered 2-3 hours until dough is almost tripled in size.
Fold and shape the dough into a boule (see video). Place on ungreased parchment. Gently place in a large bowl or Dutch oven to rise, covered. Let rise about an hour, until doubled. Use the poke test to confirm it is fully proofed (see above). Preheat the oven and a cast iron Dutch oven to 475 degrees F. When the oven is ready, score the loaf in an "x" using a dampened serrated blade. Place the loaf into the preheated Dutch oven using the parchment paper. Reduce heat to 450. Bake covered for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and bake another 15 minutes. Remove loaf from Dutch oven, pull it from the parchment, and place the loaf directly onto the oven rack to bake until dark brown, usually another 10-15 minutes. Let cool at least 30 minutes before cutting.
Here is the baker's formula for this bread:
White flour 90
Wheat flour 10
Wheat germ 5
Wheat bran 2
Poolish is 50% of the white flour, 50% of the water, and 1/4 of the total yeast.