I've just about had it with bread.
That's not true. I love bread. And I love making it. What I hate is that I can't make the bread do what I want it to do. I lack power over the bread. Wheat, water, yeast, and salt have dominion over me. I feel crushed underneath a loaf of tyranny.
A few night's ago, Mrs. Culinarian and I were at Cafe Deluxe, feeling quite fancy. The waitress brought us the ceremonial basket of bread and butter, and I plucked a pre-cut slice. The bread had the crumb and crust I wanted: large, irregularly shaped holes; crackling and brittle exterior; chewy and pliable interior. I was pissed.
"You see this?" I said, angrily holding the bread up for Mrs. Culinarian's inspection. "This is the bread I want to make. Why can't I make this? It's our oven. It doesn't get hot enough. Our oven sucks. We need a wood-fired oven." She suggested I add more yeast and redirected the conversation.
But I took her advice. I've already shared my standard recipe for French bread, which produces a great loaf. I wanted to improve it. Hopping on the internet, I researched hydration levels and gluten development for about 10 minutes before inevitalby arriving at "screw it, I'll just wing it."
My go-to recipe is five cups flour to two cups water, which makes (I think) a dough with a hydration level of 60 percent, somehow. Going on pure guesswork, I added 1/3 cup more water and 1 1/2 teaspoons additional yeast, which, according to my careful calculations, brought the hydration level to >60. And oh my did it make a difference.
LOOK AT THAT CRUMB.
Those holes are massive and all kinds of irregular. It was pliable and chewy. It was just about exactly what I'd always wanted. GREAT VICTORY!
Except that there was a problem.
The crust... The loaves came out of the oven perfectly solid and crisped. But as they sat on the cooling rack, the texture of the crust slowly changed to something less crackly and more leathery, as the photo to the right of me doing a little loaf prodding makes clear.
Why did this happen? Hell if I know. It's entirely possible I added too much water; the dough was a little tackier than I would have preferred for kneading and shaping purposes. Maybe I used too much water when I humidified the oven. Perhaps the oven wasn't hot enough, per usual.
To figure it out, I'll just have to try it again. And that's what keeps me coming back to the kitchen -- the best way to learn it is just to do it. Did the end product come out all screwy? Good. That's more reason to tweak and dive right back in. A leathery crust isn't the worst thing that could happen to you, but once you figure out how to fix it, you will (in your mind's eye) be a baking demi-god.
You'll have finally conquered the loaf.