November 3, 2012

Soak It To Me

There's a new technique sweeping the nation, and I'm surprised that it took us this long to talk about it on our blog. And no, I'm not talking about No-Knead Bread.

The technique I'm referring to involves the use of "soakers" (and their cousins the "mashes") as part of bread doughs, to dramatically improve flavour. We have used soakers in some of the formulas on this blog, but we never really explained what they are. Very simply put, the method consists in soaking part of a formula's flour in water "over-night" (or more generally put, for 12 to 24 hours) before mixing the dough. The percentage of flour to be soaked can vary quite significantly, but for reasons of maintaining some dough strength, I personally never soak more than 30% of my flour.

When we mix our dough, and all "components" come together and all the dry ingredients get hydrated, there are a few processes that start taking place concurrently. The two most important of these are:
  1. The yeast organisms are awakened and start looking for food. Their food of choice are simple sugars (or monosacharrides), mainly fructose and glucose. Initially, the amount of simple sugars in the developing dough are quite small (assuming sugar is not one of the ingredients).
  2. The enzymes present (mostly) in the flour, start working their magic on the carbohydrates (mostly starches) that make up the largest part of the flour. These carbohydrates are very large molecules of complex sugars, and through their action, the enzymes start to break them down into much simpler molecules (or simple sugars). The resulting simple sugars will end up serving as food for the yeast; will contribute to flavour; and will help give the crust it's characteristic golden-brown colour (through caramelization that occurs during baking).
By pre-soaking some of the flour, we give the enzymes a head start, allowing them to initiate the production of simple sugars well in advance of the actual dough preparation. This ensures that there will be plenty of simple sugars to go around as food for the yeast, as flavour producers, and for caramelization.

Similarly, by using boiling water to scold grains or whole grain flours, one ends up with "mashes" that have very high enzyme activity, and thus contribute a lot of natural sweetness to the dough. The process, of course, is a little more elaborate than that, and I'm not going to go into all the details, but it is covered and very well explained in a book by Peter Reinhart called Whole Grain Breads.

There is a little experiment that we would encourage everyone to do. Next time you will bake your favourite/staple/classic loaf, try soaking some of your flour beforehand and observe how that changes the results. Not only should it improve the flavour, but you might also notice differences in the way the dough handles, in the volume of your loaf, in the colour of your crust, etc.

But let us change gears here for a moment and get into how it all came about.

If this seems like an overly long and rambling post: You ain't seen nothing yet. But bear with us, the story is going to get better.

The credit for bringing the soaking method into the mainstream of artisan baking goes to Peter Reinhart, who has encountered the use of a similar technique in France, and then spent a couple of years trying to understand and to explain (in a very well written book) the science involved in this process.

The story of how he ran into this technique (as told by Reinhart in his ground-braking The Bread Baker's Apprentice) is quite interesting. Reinhart had won the James Beard National Bread Competition in 1995, and the first prize was supposed to consist in a five-day stage with the Parisian baker of his choice. In 1996 when he went to France to collect on his prize, he decided instead to try to spend a day each with five different bakers; clearly a much better proposition. Luckily, it all worked out. And that is how he got to meet Philippe Gosselin (among other titans) and learned how to make pain à l'ancienne. According to Reinhart, learning that technique (in fact, a delayed-fermentation method) was the single most important bread thing that happened to him on that trip.

Reinhart was fascinated by this method and by the superior flavour it produced when applied to any formula, but in particular to whole grain breads. He dedicated a lot of time and effort to studying it, and decided to write a new book to popularize both whole grain based baking and the new techniques he was so fascinated with. By the late summer of 2005 he had a manuscript that was pretty much ready to be sent to the publishers.

And here is where I entered the stage ...

Yes, that's true: Here is where I entered the stage. But, alas, I was not a protagonist in this story, only a mere observer. But what a show it was!

In early September of 2005 the first Camp Bread took place in San Francisco, at the headquarters of the San Francisco Baking Institute (or SFBI, as we, the people in the know, like to call it). It was an event the likes of which we hadn't seen before. It was organized by the Bread Bakers Guild of America (BBGA), it took a tremendous effort to piece together, but it was spectacular in every respect and ran smoother than everybody could have imagined. Camp Bread had been envisioned as a three-day event where artisan bakers from all over America would gather to meet, commune, party, and learn from each other.

We all descended on San Francisco on September 10. All two hundred and sixteen of us. I was one of only six Canadians present at this event. The first evening we assembled at Boudin's Bakery Museum for a grand tour, drinks, food, and a good time. The atmosphere was electric: we got to meet old friends, new people, and got a glimpse of some of the legendary figures we knew only from photographs and videos, or who's books adorn every serious baker's shelves. As for myself, I got to have a little chat with Peter Reinhart on the subject of Orthodox Christianity! After the party, we all went to our sleeping quarters, eager for an early morning start to what was already shaping up to be an unforgettable event.

There were a tremendous number of classes and workshops for everybody; so many in fact, that they were overlapping, and people had a hard time choosing which ones to take.Would you take Didier Rosada's Techniques in Sourdough Production or Jeffrey Hamelman's Techniques in Rye and German Bread Production? And if you were going for Rosada, you were sure to also miss out on Peter Reinhart's Cold Fermentation class. We are talking tough choices here. I opted for the power duo: Hamelman (with Jory Downer as a TA!) and Reinhart.

So, to get back to our original story, here we were, a bunch of wide-eyed kids listening to the master's every word. Reinhart was explaining the technique of cold fermentation and how the dough is mixed the night before using very cold water (ice water really) and then right away refrigerated, to ensure enzyme activity, on one hand, but no yeast activity, on the other. Then, the next morning, the dough comes out of the cooler and, when it reaches room temperature, the yeast comes back to life and the whole baking process is set in motion.

At that point, one of the attendees, one Allen Cohn, who I later came to appreciate as an extremely knowledgeable and passionate home baker, and a very active guild member, put up his hand to ask the question that would change baking forever. He was wondering, why we needed to add the yeast, if we were only looking for enzyme activity, but not leavening. Why not just add the yeast to the dough the next morning, remix, and continue from there. In fact, he added, why even bother with refrigeration; does refrigeration benefit enzyme activity in any way? Other than Peter Reinhart himself, I don't think anyone in the room realized the enormous impact these questions would have on Reinhart's understanding of the method and on bread baking in general. He ended up having to revise and, in effect, to rewrite the entire manuscript upon his return from Camp Bread, a process that pushed back the publishing of his book by almost two years.

As for me, I had tons of fun in San Francisco: I took some pretty awesome classes and workshops, I made some new friends, and even got to know a little bit of San Francisco, a city that is one of my favourites. Camp Bread came and went; we all had a blast and we took home some good stories, new knowledge (to be tested in our bakeries ASAP), and fond memories. There were some very inspiring moments (Jeffrey Hamelman's "We are lucky to be bakers" speech as he accepted the 2005 Golden Baguette Award comes to mind) and some sad ones as well (as when we all took a moment to remember Professor Raymond Calvel, who had just passed away a couple of days before in Paris). In the end, the one thing that will always stay with me after all this is: "Boy, are we lucky to be bakers."

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