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What's in a Loaf

Jed here.

So a bread oven is coming to the farm. And with it will come bread. I'd like to give you a sense of just what that bread will be like.

Imagine yourself as a French peasant, working a long day out in the field, but then remembering it's bake day at the bakehouse. Your spouse, or your neighbor, has been busy stoking the fire late last night, getting the oven hot enough, and then early this morning scraped out all the coals and ash. The loaves, which were mixed a day or two ago from locally milled flour, water, perhaps some salt, and a portion of leaven from the communal leavening culture (commonly called sourdough starter), are then put into the oven. The oven is hot enough to bake load after load, all day long. By the time you get back from stacking the hay in the field you're able to sit down for the first time all day. Your brother pours you a mug of cider, and your wife slices up a crusty, hearty loaf of bread. You slice into some cold butter, and a slab of cheese, lay them on top and satisfy your soul.

That's what I'm wanting to bake. And that's what I'm hoping to deliver to you. But what does it take to get that?

To start off, the bread ought to be naturally fermented. There are, generally speaking, two ways to leaven bread with yeast. The most common today is to use commercial yeast, which has been grown and extracted, and then preserved in either fresh or dry form until it is combined with the dough. The other way, which has been tradition for millennia, is to cultivate and maintain a "starter" leaven which has a semi-stable population of both yeast and bacteria. The science on these cultures gets very technical, but the basic nature of it is pretty intuitive. I will be using a starter developed by Maureen Johnson, Megan's mother. The starter is maintained by feeding it regularly with flour and water. The starter is then added to a mix of flour and water and salt to make dough.

The other half of the process is the baking itself, though. To get the same kind of loaf that those French peasants used to eat, the crust ought to be crusty. There should be some crunch, some caramelization of the wheat's sugars. The inner part of the bread, the "crumb", ought to be stretchy just a little, not tough, but with enough structure. Imagine bread you can soak in soup without it falling apart.

To get that perfect loaf I will be heating my bread oven to excess of 6-700º F. When the bread goes in, the air will be around 500º, and the masonry 50-100º hotter than that. The dough will give off some steam as it goes into the oven, which will sit in the air around the loaves, keeping the crust moist long enough to get a nice rise, and then drying out to make a nice crusty crust at the end.

There you have it, a basic overview of what I am aiming for. This bread will not be comparable to Wonder sandwich bread, which is a disgrace to the name of bread. It will instead honor the age-old traditions of wood-fired, slow-fermented hearth-baked bread that is part of our human heritage.



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