Thursday, January 13, 2011

Adventures of a Stupid Baker

Burnt BottomsYesterday's bread baking session was not particularly successful: I burnt the bottom of the loaf I was baking again (actual loaf not pictured but picture is indicative of level of charring) and I didn't get the hydration level of the dough high enough, leading to a closer crumb (i.e. no big holes) than I find ideal (the flavor was great though). The burnt bottoms is a problem I've had for ages with boules (not my baguettes however), and clearly evidence of my inability to deviate from recipes even when outcome after outcome shows that something is clearly wrong with my approach. I've known since my first no-knead loaf (also a failure) that my oven runs hot and that the direct heat emitted from its heating element is so intense, that putting a baking stone or dutch oven very close to it is asking for trouble... especially during the long baking times required for a large loaf...  but I've kept doing it anyway. Why? Because BBA says to put the stone on the bottom of the oven and so that's what I do...  apparently hoping it's going to go right one of these times... and that's pretty much the definition of stupidity, right? Doing the same things but expecting different outcomes.

But besides my inability to learn from my mistakes, as I was searching the intertoobs looking for solutions... it occurred to me how much harder baking is than regular cooking (for me at least). Part of that is clearly the aforementioned lack of adaptation to my oven, but I also think that the variables in bread baking just seem to have a much more profound effect on the outcome than in something like, say, a braise. Cooks will often point out that while nice pans and fancy ranges are great, you can produce just as wonderful dishes in a beat up aluminum pan on a portable propane burner as you can in an All-Clad skillet on a Viking range. My limited experience suggests this is largely true, but much less so for baking. Ovens can just be so weird...  with hotspots in unexpected places and temperatures off from the dial as much as 70 degrees... that it seems people can be aces on their home oven and train wrecks in an unfamiliar one. In addition, the differences in dough hydration...  even with careful weighing...  that can occur on dry vs. humid days means that you really have to know what a 65% dough should feel like...  something that can pretty much only come from experience. The same thing can be said for other types of cooking I suppose, but it seems that as long as you use an instant read thermometer for the doneness of any meat and are following a decent recipe... you'll be in pretty good shape.

Anyway...  next time I move the baking stone up to a higher oven rack and maybe put a pan underneath the stone to shield it from direct heat a bit... and maybe I'll finally have some loafs worth crowing about.