This Bread Sucks: Or, The Case Of The Missing Gluten*

Several things went wrong with my first loaf of bread.  In fact, almost nothing went right, it was a bit of a comedy of errors.  I’ll give you the story and some photos of this ill-fated loaf of bread, and then we’ll discuss some theories as to what exactly went wrong.

First, it seemed like the best place to start with this new endeavor of mine would be the very first recipe in my bread book.  So that’s what I did.

Look how easy and fun this recipe looks.  Those pictures in the book look so helpful!  Deceptively, the recipe is entitled “Easiest Home-Baked Bread”.

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I was on my jolly way to becoming a baker.  I followed the steps exactly, even taking this picture to brag to Evan about how careful I was being, weighing all my ingredients to the exact gram.

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I think it was right around here that things started to go wrong.  You see, all the recipes in this book call for a standmixer with a dough hook.  Which I don’t have.  But, in the introduction to the book (which I actually read…that’s how serious I am about this!) it said that in lieu of a standmixer with a dough hook, one could use a food processor with a dough blade.  Lucky me, I live with a great boyfriend who happens to own a food processor, and have a dough blade for it!  Awesome, I’m in business, I thought to myself.  My cookbook cautioned, however, not to overmix when using a food processor.  It only has one speed, so I shouldn’t follow the times given for the mixing on the stand mixer, but to use the food processor, just pay attention until the dough has reached the described consistency.  And avoid over-mixing.  Okay, got it.

So I mixed the dough until it was, in my opinion, “smooth and elastic”, just like the instructions said.  And at this point, things were still looking pretty normal.  Observe my dough, happily resting and rising for the first time.

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The next step was to “let the dough ferment until it starts to puff, about 30 minutes.”  I dutifully set my timer and waited.  And….nothing.  The dough did not puff.  Not one to be dissuaded, I forged ahead with the recipe.  It was slightly difficult to form the dough into a ball, a few steps later, because it just wasn’t holding any structure.  And in the few next steps where it is supposed to puff more, and double in size…also never happened.  My dough remained very liquid, and wouldn’t hold shape, or rise.  This is it ready to go into the oven.  The top photo is the photo from the book, and the bottom is what I achieved.  (caption: nailed it!)

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The flecks are because I added garlic and chopped fresh rosemary to the dough.  Which, I am pretty sure, were the saving grace of this loaf.  Because even though it didn’t turn out quite right, it was still garlicky and rosemary-y, and who doesn’t like that?

And here is my finished product.  Nicely browned, and it was crusty the way that I like, but it came out a lot more like a loaf of focaccia.  Quite flat.  Which it wasn’t supposed to be.  I didn’t take any pictures of slices of it, but it was kind of spongy, with a tight crumb.  (is that the opposite of open crumb? I don’t know what the exact terminology is.  It was the opposite of a nice open crumb, that’s all).

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Warmed up with butter on it, it was still pretty good, mostly because of the garlic and rosemary.  So it wasn’t a complete failure, certainly, but it wasn’t exactly the rousing success that I had wanted for my first bread.  Let’s explore why.

Theories as to why this bread sucks:

1.  My apartment is too damn cold!

It could be possible that my kitchen is too cold for yeast to properly rise. There are two windows right by the table where I left the dough to rise, and those windows are drafty to say the least.  We try to keep the apartment comfortable, but yeast rises best between 70 and 100 degrees, and our kitchen isn’t quite that warm.  This is Buffalo in January, after all.

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2.  This can only be done with a fancy pants stand mixer.

This can’t be true, right?  Sure, all the directions in the book call for a stand mixer, but people have been making bread for a long time, but the kitchen aid stand mixer has only been around in American homes since 1919 (nerd alert: see a fun timeline of the standmixer here).  Not to keep mentioning Little House on the Prairie in each post, but they made bread all the time in those books and Ma didn’t even have measuring spoons! (remember that one story where they had a visitor from out of town, and he wanted the recipe, but Ma wasn’t sure how to write it down, because she never measured anything? Me either…that’s a weirdly specific memory. Whatever. Don’t judge me.)  Anyway.  Evan always says, a poor operator blames his equipment.  I don’t think that this bread failed because I don’t have a standmixer.

3.  My yeast was old and didn’t work anymore.

I entertained this as a possibility.  But then a few days later, I used the same yeast to make Parker House rolls which came out delicious.  Thanks to the help of my friends Nora and Christine, that is.  So that dough rose just fine, and the rolls were perfect.  So I can’t blame my yeast for that.

4.  I spilled a beer on the dough.

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Okay, so this happened.  But the dough was covered in plastic wrap at the time and I honestly don’t think it had any effect on the bread.

5.  A food processor is a perfectly reasonable substitute for a stand-mixer, and I just did it wrong, and under mixed the bread, therefore failing to create enough gluten strands.

I think this is what actually happened.  Gluten is a protein that is essential in helping dough rise and keep its shape.  Yeast creates carbon dioxide, and gluten strands create a framework and trap the gas and the dough expands.  If there aren’t enough gluten strands, the carbon dioxide created by the yeast isn’t trapped, the dough doesn’t rise and there isn’t any structure.  That’s what happened with my dough.  Gluten is created in the kneading and mixing process – in this case, through the mixing of the dough in the food processor.  But in my nervousness to not overmix the dough, I didn’t mix it enough.  I never even gave the poor gluten a chance.

So, where do we go from here?  Onward and upward, friends, that’s where.  I’m going to try this loaf again, mix it a little better and see what happens!

*The title of this blog post came from my creative, ever patient and supportive boyfriend Evan, who helped me learn about the mythical ways of gluten.

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2 Responses to This Bread Sucks: Or, The Case Of The Missing Gluten*

  1. Just Jules says:

    Love it kiddo. You can also turn the dough out on a lightly floured cutting board and kneed with your hands. You will feel the difference once you get it kneaded enough. Keep up the great work, and the fantastic narrative. The “nailed it” had me laughing so hard I had tears.

  2. Chris says:

    I rushed over here at not the first, not the second, but the third time Will started laughing out loud out of nowhere. This is an awesome blog! Well done! And the bread, eh, you can try again later 😀

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