Bread: Can I beat Jim Lahey?

I previously posted this question as to whether the America’s Test Kitchen variant of Jim Lahey’s famous No-Knead loaf is superior. That triggered my notion to start experimenting with my own variations and today I’ll report a somewhat strange result.

Jim Lahey’s method and book, My Bread, is what got me really going with baking bread. I heard about his method and then talked about it incessantly and one day his book showed up on a gift-giving occasion (to shut me up). So I meticulously followed his approach and was astonished. I’d made bread almost as good as the best I’d ever bought (while back in food paradise of Northern California, here even bakery bread is mush). I was so happy with the result I never questioned it. But America’s Test Kitchen did question it claiming the bread was too bland and so they did a few things to “improve” it.

Since then I’ve done my own experiments. The basic thing America’s Test Kitchen wanted to do was to get some sourdough “tang” into the bread. They use lager (has to be lager, not ale, as somehow bottom fermenting is critical) and they add a little vinegar. Their other innovation, of making on parchment paper in the dutch oven I immediately thought was better and so is now part of my routine.

But the lager and vinegar approach of ATK didn’t really do much to get sourdough flavors. Well, hey, I have my own culture constantly going (originally, but probably not any more, containing the subspecies of bacteria in San Francisco sourdough), so why not use that. Using it as the only yeast source didn’t work out too well, so now I use the cultured yeast as well (still the tiny amount (and long ferment) critical to Lahey method). I worried that the cultured yeast would out-compete the natural yeast in my culture (they probably do, short of having a biolab I can’t find out), but it’s actually the bacteria, not the yeast, that provide the flavor (although there is some notion that which bacteria are active in the dough is improved by low temperature ferments whereas Lahey method is room temp). Anyway, so what, it’s worth a try.

Despite in stupid advocacy by nutrition scolds of “whole” (good) vs “white” (evil) ingredients (look at a wheat berry some day and tell me exactly what portion of “whole” flour is exactly the same as “white” flour – clue, almost all, so “whole” just doesn’t throw away the filler, which real scientific studies have proven to be of no health benefit). Anyway, I care about taste and white flour is bland, even with a nice crust from the high baking temperature. So adding more grain elements is the way to boost flavor (and if it actually happens to be more nutritious, given the lack of evidence, that’s a bonus.)

So I keep trying to put more flavor in my bread. I guess it’s sorta like beer. You probably first drink mass-produced water masquerading as beer and at first it tastes OK. Then someday you get some good (still mass produced) lager and that tastes even better. Then you get some craft beer, and, wow, through the roof – good (and to think early in my life I fell into the Coors cult, undrinkable swill to me, today). Then you have some beer with some color and a new flavor door opens and you’ll never go back to blah beer.

So I’m looking for the IPA of bread, not stout (full whole grain approach from Peter Reinhart, good, but not my ideal) or porter (Reinhart’s “broom bread” or pumpernickel, again, good, but not my ideal). So I use some of my whole grain ingredients I accumulated for Reinhart recipes and toss them into the Lahey recipe.

So today I tried about 40g (10%) oat bran and 40g of whole wheat. That’s about 20% increase in dry ingredients so I needed to kick up my liquid, so that’s where I used my sourdough culture (20% of the water). Now the culture is about 50% so actually my product was a bit under-hydrated (I could tell that a bit since I know the correct feel of the Lahey dough) but I doubt that was the main cause of the difference (will have to try that some day as a different experiment because under-hydrating could cause the difference (less steam produced inside the dutch oven)).

When the bread was done baking it had risen much less than the normal formula. After the hour of resting time cutting into it the crumb was noticeably denser and moister (neither good in my book). Also the crust was very smooth (usually the Lahey bread has a nice cracked top); perhaps I should have slashed the dough (might have allowed more rise, plus nicer look). The taste was good, definitely a little tangier than normal, plus there was a bit of heartiness and flavor that the whole grain ingredients can provide.

So, in short, probably a fail (in hindsight I can think of a couple of things to try to improve it). So I’m still searching for my improvement which I know I’ll find someday.

Now of the various ideas that might explain the failure, one is intriguing. Various sources suggest that one problem with whole grains is that at a micro scale the particles have sharp edges and thus “cut” the gluten strands. Now gluten formation is low in Lahey method anyway (no kneeding, even though I do one sequence of stretch-and-fold). So potentially, even though mixing would be a challenge, perhaps the Reinhart soaker (oh, maybe even mash) approach for the whole grain component would help.

So just writing this up I now have at least five different ideas to try. That’s what I love about bread baking, so simple, yet so subtle and hard to get really good results. I wish I had both the time and budget so to try five different variations at the exactly same time and then just keep incrementally refining into I finally did get a better result. Of course countless generations of bakers have done just that (although many just mindlessly repeat what they were taught and don’t experiment). But even if I can’t treat baking as multiple lab experiments it’s still fun to try.

And, I’ve generally found, that even my “fails” are better than what I can buy in stores, so the “fails” do get eaten (as a big problem for my other obsession in life, weight loss).


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About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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