Chasing the Dragon: My Quest for the Perfect Loaf

Baking bread is almost an ideal hobby: it’s inexpensive (well, maybe not if you use walnuts and buy over-the-top cookware), satisfying, and almost always rewarding. Making bread for other people is an understated way of showing you care about them.

But there is a dark side. It’s very easy to make a good loaf of bread and easy enough to make a very good one, yet oh so difficult to make a perfect loaf. Many of us become obsessed. I break the crust and inhale the smell of fresh bread like a junkie chases the dragon. I used to be content with a good slice. Yet now, no sooner than I’ve taken my second bite of warm bread, I’m already thinking about my next bake.

For the past year or so I’ve been working on sourdough, which is fussy. It’s very hard to get good loft. It needs a long, slow rise, but if it rises for too long, it becomes unpleasantly sour or spreads out like a pancake while baking.

For the last two years, my go-to (dare I say signature?) bread has been apricot lavender walnut sourdough from The Perfect Loaf.  I’ve had some success making very good bread, yet still, something itches. Mine is a little heavy, and the crumb isn’t as glossy as it could be.

Lately I’ve been greedily consuming one of the best books on baking I’ve found yet, Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast. I’ve made a few recipes, but my favourite is still his walnut levain boule. I would type out the recipe, but I think it would be hard to follow without reading about his method. It’s exacting, almost to the point where you need to keep to his prescribed schedule or skip a night’s sleep. He uses a longer than average autolyse (hydration of the flour before mixing in other ingredients), targeted temperatures at each stage, and an exceptionally long rise, 12-14 hours in the refrigerator.

Like all really good bread books (and I include anything by Peter Reinhart), Forkish explains the reasons for everything and encourages readers to get a feel for bread and think independently. Humidity, ambient temperature and the freshness of the flour complicate everything. Good bakers adapt as they go.

This loaf uses a levain, i.e., a pre-fermented dough. I innovated in a few places. I used Canadian Red Fife flour instead of whole wheat. I used stale home-made bread soaked in water and hard/high protein flour for the levain, which was allowed to bubble for five days on the counter.

Truth be told, my bread is still a little heavier than I’d like it, but I saved some levain, and tomorrow is another day.

Let’s talk in the comments. There is more than one way to do everything. Talking about baking is a lot of fun.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. esauboeck says:

    Well done, David! I’m sharing these tips with George!

  2. Bonnie says:

    Oh yum! Great photos. I’ve so missed proper sourdough bread since going gluten free – so these virtual experiences can actually be (sometimes) a lovely alternative. Thanks David.

  3. esauboeck says:

    You did read the NYker’s recent article on bread making, eh? https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/13/baking-bread-in-lyon

  4. Maggie says:

    I love Ken Forkish’s book! The clearest description of the process I’ve found. And I too am slowly making my way through all his recipes. My loaves may not be perfect, but they’re darn good. 🙂

    1. David says:

      It’s such a good book! Happy baking and thanks for reading!

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