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Formulas: Bakers generally don’t use recipes for their breads. Over the years, bakers developed what are known as “bakers formulas” to create more accurate breakdowns of ingredients – simply multiplying a recipe by two or four or seven will minutely throw off ingredient ratios, and even small changes can have big results in the final loaf. Bakers now express everything as a percentage of the largest ingredient, usually the flour. For example, here is a basic French dough recipe, with in “baker’s percentages” as well as ingredient weights:

Organic flour   100.00%   59.15 LBS
Water   67.50%   39.95 LBS
Salt   2.00%   1.18 LBS
Active dry yeast   0.36%   0.22 LBS

    169.86%   100.50 LBS

Formulas allow bakers to express changes in ingredients by describing percentages (“I like to give my sourdough character by adding 10 percent rye chops!”), which is much easier than describing weights (“I like to give my sourdough character by adding 10 pounds of rye chops to a 180 pound mix that contains 100 pounds of flour!”). It’s become an industry standard

Yeasted Preferments/Starters: Simply put, a yeasted preferment is a portion of the flour, water, and yeast that is mixed hours before the rest of the recipe. Bakers have known for years that the best breads benefit from long, slow rises – this is due to the organic acids that are produced over that period of time, whose benefits range from increased dough strength to better flavor to longer shelf life. There are multiple types of preferments, most of them denoted by the water percentage: For example, Poolish, a wet preferment, has 100% water, and a Biga, a drier preferment, as roughly 60% water.

Sourdough Starters, in all of their forms, are cultures of wild yeasts and bacteria (good bacteria) that have been captured, cultivated, and maintained by bakers. These have all the benefits of preferments and more: they allow the baker to leaven the bread in a completely natural way, without the use of commercial yeast, and they add distinctive flavors of their own.

Scaling/Mixing: Do not talk to the baker when he or she is scaling, or weighing out ingredients. There isn’t a baker among us who hasn’t forgotten some integral ingredient because of chatting while trying to remember the salt.

Mixing is an incredibly personal task, from the choice of mixer (spiral, fork, planetary, hand, etc) to the length of the mixing time. It can be a solitary experience, but it is at the mixing bowl where you witness the birth of what will be your bread and all the work, joy, and sweat that comes with it. Mixing a dough is also an act of precision, as the baker must pay careful attention to mixing times, temperatures, weights, at the same time tending to any other bakery tasks that happen to pop up.

Choices abound at the mixing bowl. The dough looks a tad dry – should I add some water? This flour was a little “green” (harvested, milled and not allowed to age, resulting in retained moisture) – should I mix it longer to develop the dough a bit more? It’s cold out today – should I mix a couple of degrees warmer to make up for that?

Generally speaking, shorter mixing times produce breads that are slightly weaker and need more attention, but retain better flavor and color. Longer mixing times produce doughs that are more “developed” – stronger, tighter, and many times easier to work with – but increased mixing whips oxygen into the dough, which reduces bread quality. Again, it’s a choice.

Bulk Fermentation/Folding: After mixing, the dough is allowed to rise, or “ferment,” because that is precisely what is happening. Depending on the dough and the mixing time, along the way in this process it must be folded. Bakers used to simply punch out the excess gas from the dough, but actually folding the dough over itself is more beneficial. Weaker – or less developed – doughs are allowed to build strength (think of folding a newspaper a bunch of times and trying to rip it), excess gas is pushed out, and it allows for lengthier bulk fermentation – when most of the flavor is developed.

Dividing/Pre-shaping: After the bulk fermentation has finished, the baker divides the dough into the weights of the final loaves. This is traditionally done by hand, using a bench knife, a wooden table, and a “bakers scale.” These days, some bakers prefer to use mechanical dough dividers, which have been developed to treat the dough gently as well as save the baker’s back.

The pieces are then gently pre-shaped; that is, rounded or rolled into the basic shape of the final loaf. A piece of dough that will become a baguette might be lightly rolled up into an oblong shape; a sourdough boule will be rounded into a sphere. This prepares the dough for the final shaping, as well as serves to build a bit of strength into the dough if need be. The pre-shaped loaves are then rested from anywhere from ten minutes to an hour to overnight, if placed in a cooler.

Final Shaping/Proofing: Like mixing, what shapes the baker chooses to form the dough into is a very personal choice. There are some no-brainers: baguettes are long and slender, boules are round. But for many bakers that like to experiment, the sky is the limit. The final shaping is also the last chance to build strength into a loaf. If the dough came out of the mixer weak or wet, a tighter shape might be necessary. A strong dough will need less of an aggressive shape.

Accurately gauging the final rise, or the “proofing,” of the shaped loaves is arguably the most important step in the baking process. At this point, the baker can use his or her training to save a dough that has had some problems along the way, or conversely, mess up a bread that has been perfectly mixed, fermented, and shaped. It’s all about touch, and only experience can give a baker a sense of the perfect time to turn all of those proofing pieces of shaped dough into bread. The baker gently pokes and prods, wiggles the proofing basket, and squeezes.

All of this hemming and hawing is not for show. Proofing times will vary depending on factors ranging from the daily relative humidity outside the bakery to the month in which the dough’s wheat flour was harvested.

Baking: After the correct proof has been determined, it’s into the oven. The beautiful “bursts” one sees on many artisan breads are due to careful slashing of the loaf’s surface with a razor, called a “lame” (pronounced “lahm”). The slashes are decorative, but serve the purpose of allowing the dough – which experiences a very rapid final rise in the oven, called “oven spring” – to expand into a pre-determined shape. If the dough wasn’t slashed, the expanding gasses would find weak points in the surface and create a torn, lumpish, unattractive bread.

Bakers will use steam to control the oven spring, as well. Many fine ovens have a “steam injection” system, which coats the loaves in a fine mist as they enter the baking chamber. The steam allows for an even rise by delaying crust formation, contributes to properly proofed bread’s beautiful color, and gives a nice sheen to the final product.

Bread color is the baker’s choice. Most artisan bakers prefer a darker crust, which many first-time eaters mistake for being “burnt” (ask a baker to show you the difference between a burnt loaf and a properly baked loaf – you’ll soon see the difference). An aggressive bake is beautiful thing; a darker crust brings out many hidden flavors and complements a creamy, open crumb. It’s similar to a good crème brulee: the dark, caramelized sugar is the perfect foil to the smooth custard underneath.

Cooling: As Jeffrey Hamelman, one of the country’s most accomplished bakers and bread educators, pointed out: Bad bread should be eaten warm. Cooling is an integral step in the baking process. Crusts finish forming, the warm starches that make up the crumb finish solidifying, and flavors that heat masks present themselves. Don’t get us wrong, from time to time we love to dig into a cooling Ciabatta. But these breads can be eaten all day, so take your time.