Bread: Can America’s Test Kitchens beat Jim Lahey?

Nice looking loaf! (Too bad iPhone takes such bad pictures, but too lazy to get out good camera).


For a couple of months I’ve been fascinated by the “science of cooking” as embodied by a variety of books and as it turns out a TV show. As FoodTV has become more and more entertainment this has opened the door for the Create channel to return to the more traditional how-to cooking shows. I discovered Create channel surfing one day and tuned in to watch Lidia Bastianich and my interest has now spread to other shows.

But mainly I used my xmas gift money for some books, in particular The Science of Good Cooking by America’s Test Kitchens which is part of a collection of brands that also includes Cook’s Country TV show on Create (and Cook’s Illustrated magazine). Both the book and the show are persuasive that this group has really researched (with careful experiments) how to improve traditional or even exotic recipes, but I’ve only tried a few of their ideas and so haven’t yet proven whether it’s just hype or if it’s real.

And Jim Lahey is hard to beat with his approach to bread. Even though I moved on to Peter Reinhart’s somewhat harder methods I still go back to the basic from My Bread and get great results. Interestingly, though, not every loaf turns out the same since I now know the recipe by heart and so am casual about the amount of ferment time and baking time, which means, I’m randomly doing “experiments” with some loaves coming out better than others, which clearly implies improvement is possible. The best, however, easily match any store-bought I can find here. But America’s Test Kitchen thinks they can improve the recipe.

Jim Lahey is a baker and America’s Test Kitchens does a bit of everything so who do I really think can do this best. In the explanation “Why This Recipe Works” of their Almost No-Knead Bread, they say (about Lahey) “misshapen loaves, and it lacked flavor”. Then they set about to improve it, both in process and ingredients.

Now I admit I largely started bread baking with the Lahey approach and found it fantastic. With considerably more practice now, of course, I find that almost any home-made bread is fantastic (but not all, have had some fails) in comparison to store-bought, even from Whole Foods or Panera (the best I can get here). So since started with Lahey I’ve gotten a bit more refined notion about the subtle differences that define good bread.

America’s Test kitchen makes several changes to the Lahey formula:

  1. a little lower hydration (hardly noticeable in the dough feel)
  2. a little shorter room temperature ferment
  3. substitution of some lager beer for water (they make a big deal how it must be lager, not top fermented beverage)
  4. addition of a little vinegar (to fake sourdough)
  5. a little lower baking temperature
  6. all purpose instead of bread flour (although, unusually for them, they don’t explain why they did that switch)
  7. some amount of kneading (looking at the entire cookbook there is a bit of ambiguity whether they want stretch-and-fold, as they want in other breads (and allude to having used with this recipe), but they never explicitly say, so I largely did do stretch-and-fold since that seems to be a common “new” thing in various bread books
  8. using parchment paper as support for the proof and to put into the Dutch over (vs the cornmeal and “plop” used by Lahey, which scares me since the Dutch oven is 500F and I don’t want to touch it)

So what were the results:

  1. the shape is definitely superior; instead of spreading out to sides of the Dutch oven the loaf stayed the domed boule shape
  2. the oven spring was less than pure Lahey (no idea why, maybe the slightly lower temperature, maybe the acid)
  3. the crumb was a bit finer with fewer of the large irregular holes
  4. the crust was different (crunchier, which I like) but on both recipes I don’t bake as long and go as dark as they do
  5. the taste, well?, without side-by-side I don’t think a big difference, perhaps a hint more sour and actually maybe a bit less taste, overall, than conventional Lahey (btw: I used Sam Adams Boston Lager so that should certainly add flavor but it wasn’t that noticeable)
  6. it’s possible the taste was a bit better a day later (bread preserved well over 24 hours), just a bit more tang

Given this whole idea of really experimenting and pushing flavors there are a couple of things I want to try:

  1. exactly America’s Test Kitchen recipe, but with bread flour (to see if that improves crumb a bit)
  2. exactly America’s Test Kitchen recipe, but with longer ferment (I probably did around 11 hours, let’s let it go to 14 (don’t trust going to 18))
  3. add a bit of my own poolish approach (may take several tries) where a couple of hours before stirring up the dough I use some of my seed culture and add some whole wheat flour (not much, just enough to simulate the European approach to “white” flour where a little bran gets in due to using the flour after just one sifting at the mill)

I realized my seed culture is not poolish (doesn’t look like it, much closer to batter) since I use equal volumes of flour and water, not weights. So let’s do a little work here (you can check my math):

  • 1 cup water = 237g
  • 1 cup flour = 120g

so my hydration ratio is 198%, right?

Now the test kitchen recipe is about 300 (water, beer, vinegar)/390 (they don’t supply weights, as they should, so I had to do some conversions), so 77%.

So to get my seed culture to 77% (for my poolish) I’d need 307g of flour total, so 237 / (120 + 187).

I only plan to use 1/2c of poolish, so I need to add 94g of whole wheat) which would mean the formula is now about 19% whole wheat, which sounds like a reasonable start (gets a kind of “rustic” formula).

Now two more adjustments:

  1. normally whole wheat takes more hydration so let’s bump the beer by 1Tbsp (now 105g total)
  2. let’s pre-ferment, at room temp, the poolish for about 2-6 hours before adding to dough (multiple times, start with 4 hours)

So given the two hour proof, which I’d like to start no later than 2pm, that translates to noon to start the forming, so backwards 14 hours is 10pm to mix dough which means I mix the poolish at 6pm.

The first two experiments are simpler so I’ll focus on the 3rd (sourdough + whole wheat), but I wonder about doing two loaves (mix the other one at midnight, so proof at 4pm and bake at 6pm, well after other loaf is done). No, this doesn’t quite work since there is also two hour reset.

So let’s do two loaves, but start at 4pm to mix poolish, 8pm to mix first dough, 10pm to mix second dough, form at noon and two, bake at two and four, all done by 7pm for side-by-side tasting.



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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4 Responses to Bread: Can America’s Test Kitchens beat Jim Lahey?

  1. dmill96 says:

    I’m trying a new experiment (variation) on this theme: 1) I created a biga from 80g of whole wheat flour and a lot of my sourdough culture (measured 40g, way not enough, so didn’t get accurate measure, but it’s definitely biga and not poolish), and, 2) will bake in my baker (thus long loaf) instead of the Dutch oven for round loaf. I think I’ll have to use mixer to combine biga with all the water and the beer in order to then mix (manually?) with the flour. I suppose no one would mind if I use mixer but skip as much kneading as possible so I have the natural gluten development. I need to remember to do the fold-and-turn mini-knead as part of the production, esp. as long loaf doesn’t have the two hour second rise time.

    Will report how this turns out (I’m looking for even more flavor and definitely more “rustic”, so the whole wheat provides both and the sourdough culture should provide some extra flavor.

  2. Pingback: Bread: Can I beat Jim Lahey? | dailydouq

  3. Pingback: Bread: Can I beat Jim Lahey? | Cookbooks: Experiments in Cooking

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