Bread Science, Volume 1: Comparative Recipe Edition

You know that moment when you smell something burning? And you’re not sure if you are just dramatically imagining it because you recently hit your arm against your 500 degree oven,  and you think its the smell of your own singed flesh, or if it’s actually the smell of burning dough and of you potentially ruining your boyfriends favorite/best/only cast iron Dutch oven.  This moment of Maggie in the Kitchen has been brought to you this week by our most recent foray into Bread Science, Volume 1: Comparative Recipe Edition.  BIG DISCLAIMER: there are way too many variables at play here for this to actually be considered anything near science.  I’m going to continue calling it science anyway.  Moving on.

Scorecard totals for this week:

  • Recipes: 2
  • Types of bread: 3
  • Loaves of bread, total: 4
  • Burned loaves of bread: 1.5
  • Burns on Maggie’s arms: 3
  • Kitchens covered in flour: 1
  • Sink drains clogged with pure gluten: 1 (out of 2 possible, which is pretty good)
  • Decent loaves successfully delivered to happy parents: 2

The recipes this week are two different takes on no-knead, slow rise bread.  Recipe 1, referred to as bread 1 from here on, is Alton Brown’s Knead Not Sourdough Recipe.  Recipe 2, referred to as loaf 2A and 2B, respectively (keep reading for even more explanation as to how we ended up with A & B) came from an adapted version of this classic NYTimes Recipe.  No kidding, it really is a classic, look it up.  We used the adapted directions from Breadtopia.  In the interest of keeping this post relatively brief, I’ll let you peruse the links and recipes on your own.

The Great Bread Experiment of January 2013:

First, I am very pleased to introduce this week, for the first time….


Now we all know how to say parchment paper in Spanish! Learning things all the time, that’s what this blog is about.  Just kidding, it’s about bread.


I don’t have any photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it that this parchment paper did not light on fire in the oven, or start to smoke.  It turns brown and gets super fragile, so be careful not to touch it too much or you’ll have a mess on your hands.  Just carefully throw it out.  Pro tip.

So, as I previously mentioned, we have two different recipes, Recipe 1 and 2.  Which produced loaves 1 and 2A and 2B.  2 A & B came about because we used slightly different amounts of water in each.  2A has more water than 2B.  This is a key difference between the two loaves that had pretty interesting results.  I’ll point out the differences between the loaves as we go.

The first steps in this great experiment are Buffalo-specific.  You see, we had gone out and bought more flour, and then the bag of flour had to sit in the car for a few hours before we got home and started baking.  So, observe step one: Warming Up Flour and Checking The Temperature:


How cold is it in Buffalo? It’s so cold you have to microwave a bowl and put flour in it and stir it around on top of the stove while the oven is on to heat it up! har-har-har.  This is only because the flour was in the car.  Our apartment isn’t actually that cold.

Also heating up the water to the correct temperature:


We take accurate temperatures pretty seriously around here.  This photo also features another cameo of my floral pot and our lovely kitchen ’tile’.

Okay. So now our flour and water are at a reasonable temperature.  The actual steps to mixing the doughs were basically the same, the only real difference was that Loaf 1 (which was actually two loaves, not to confuse anyone or anything) has more flour.  So, again, to review: Loaf 1, more flour than Loaves 2 A & B.  All loaves were supposed to have the same amount of water, but instead Loaf B has less water.  They all had generally the same rising time, as well, but with some slight differences.  Maybe a comparison of actual numbers will help:

  • Loaf 1: 17 ounces of flour, 12 ounces of water.  Let rise 19 hours.  Punch down dough, turn dough, let rest 15 minutes, shape into a ball and let rise for another 3 hours.
  • Loaf 2A: 15.5 ounces of flour, 12 ounces of water.  Let rise 12 – 18 hours.  Punch down dough, turn dough, let rest 15 minutes, shape into a ball and let rise for 1.5 more hours.
  • Loaf 2B: 15.5 ounces of flour, slightly less than 12 ounces of water.  Same directions as loaf 2A.

We didn’t let any of the loaves rise for the full amount of time.  We set them on a heating pad set on low overnight, so they wouldn’t get too cold, and the next morning, which was probably only about 10 hours later, the dough had more than doubled, so there wasn’t any need to keep waiting.

Check it out:




So after I took the dough out of the bowls, and turned each loaf, here are what they all looked like:

Loaf 1:


Bench scraper cameo!  This was a double batch, so this photo shows it split into two.

Loaf 2A: Notice how much wetter it is:


2A after a rest, and somewhat shaped into a loaf:


Loaf 2B: It’s a lot dryer and more cohesive as a dough.


After a rest, it definitely shaped into the most loaf-like shape:


Then I started baking them.  When I say baking, I mean burning the loaves and myself.  I got pretty upset about half way through the baking process – 4 loaves on your own is a lot!  The first loaf had burned on the bottom – see photos below.  I had pre-heated the dutch oven in the stove, but I hadn’t lined it with parchment paper first.  I just dumped the dough in, and as soon as I did, it started to stick to the hot cast iron and burn on the bottom and sides.  But there was no going back from it!  Evan had to come home and use a giant spoon as a crowbar to get the loaf out.  It was a little traumatizing.

Here’s the end result of that first loaf, loaf 2A:

The top looks pretty good.


The bottom looks burnt to shit.


After getting that first loaf stuck in the dutch oven, Evan suggested that I put the doughs on parchment paper, and then drop them into the oven that way.  Which was easier and safer.  He also suggested placing the dutch oven itself on a heavy pan, to create a little bit of a buffer between the heat source at the bottom of the oven and the actual bread.  I’m pretty sure I actually told him that he is the smartest person I’ve ever met.  Because those little things really helped!

Loaf 2B, after making those adjustments – much better!  It’s slightly smaller than the other loaf, but it’s also taller.  Because it was a dryer dough, it rose slightly more and had a little more structure.


I would definitely call this bottom less burned than the one before.  Progress!


Loaves 2 A & B comparison shot:


2A is on the left, it’s a little wider, 2B is on the right, it’s smaller. But again, it was a taller loaf.  It’s really interesting the difference that just a little bit of water can make! #science

And now Loaves 1:

The first one baked up perfectly!  Look how great it looks!



The second loaf 1, however, was a victim to my carelessness.

By the time I got to this final loaf, several things had happened.  First, I was feeling pretty cocky.  I’d gotten over the trauma of the first loaf, and I was feeling pretty good about the previous two loaves.  Look at me, I thought, I’m a super home baker.  Second, it was getting later in the afternoon and I was supposed to be getting ready for work.  So I was running around, getting myself ready, and packing up food to bring to work for dinner as well.  Third, I forgot that sometimes our kitchen timer doesn’t always work.  Sometimes when you press start, and walk away and…nothing happens.  It doesn’t start timing at all.  And you don’t realize it until after a while when you’re doing something else and you’ve completely forgotten and then you smell something burning and think to yourself, “huh. seems like the timer should have gone off by now…OH SHIT.”  All of these things happened.

Here is the result.  I almost cried.


Sitting next to the previous loaf 1:


In defense of this loaf, however, it was pretty tasty, because we obviously ate it anyway.  Sure, the crust was a little burned, but the rest of it was okay!

Let’s talk crumb.

We cut into the two burned loaves.  The whole real reason that we baked 4 loaves was for science, first and foremost, and to create and add knowledge to the literature, as well as make important methodological advances.  Or, wait..,is that the reason for my dissertation? Yeah.  Actually, we made 4 loaves of bread because we wanted to bring 2 to my parents when we visited, but we didn’t want to sacrifice having bread of our own.  So that’s why we made 4 loaves.  So, because we wanted to give the best ones to my parents, we cut into and ate the burned ones.  So the photos demonstrating crumb are loaf 2A, with the burned bottom, and the final loaf 1, with the burned top.  Both were delicious, burns be damned.



A pretty decent crumb.  This was the loaf with slightly more water, and wetter doughs are supposed to have a more open crumb, which this one definitely did.  Nice.

The second loaf 1:


One big fun open pocket, and a pretty well distributed open crumb otherwise.  And, this photo shows, the burned top was pretty thin and really didn’t affect the rest of the loaf.  Win!

Lessons learned this week: 

I learned a lot of important lessons this week.  First, I learned that my oven doesn’t quite reach 500 degrees unless I turn the dial past it, and put it almost on broil.  When it’s set at 500, it’s really only at about 450.  Which, however, is still remarkably hot.  Turning the oven up that high helps make a nice crisp crust, with a golden brown color.  This is a good sales pitch for oven thermometers.  Also it’s a bit of an attack on ovens.  I’m not saying that your oven is lying to you, necessarily…just that mine is lying to me and maybe ovens can’t be trusted.  Second, I learned that baking 4 loaves of bread in one day is a serious undertaking.  It takes a lot of time and patience, and I can’t wander away and start doing something else in the middle of it all, as I’m wont to do.  It’s also going to make a big mess.  Third, I learned that our kitchen timer is a little sensitive and that I really need to double check it to make sure that when I press start, it actually starts timing.  Four, I learned that a wetter dough is significantly stickier.  However, this is a good thing, because more hydrated dough gives a nice open crumb, which is my favorite thing.  Five, I learned that it’s good to ask for help when baking.  Sometimes other people will have really good ideas what will help you to not burn your bread.  I appreciate that help any way I can get it!  And finally, I learned that even a loaf of bread that looks terribly burned might not be that bad, and it’s still delicious with some butter on it, or with soup.  Yum.

I’ll conclude this post with some glamour shots of this weeks loaves, courtesy of Evan, the unofficial photographer of this blog.  Enjoy!




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