Remember that David Bowie song, “Let’s Dance?” His sultry, purring baritone issuing an invitation you wouldn’t dream of turning down? Call me strange, but that’s the lure that baking has for me. And aren’t weekends just made for baking? Especially now. Winter. Storms. I can practically hear warmth being craved far and wide.
We’re going to start an Italian bread. I returned from Italy last summer on a veritable mission to recreate the light breads we ate every day (several times a day at that). They all had an amazingly crisp yet tender crust. It’s taken a while, but I think I’m finally fairly close.
The first thing we’ll do is mix up a preferment. It’s nothing more than water, yeast, and flour. The job of a preferment is to slowly build a yeast population that will proof (raise) the bread dough that we’ll mix tomorrow. You’ll notice that we’re using a very small amount of yeast, and that the mixture will be shaggy and wet-looking. That’s exactly how it should look. The water is the medium in which the yeast will dissolve and begin feeding on the simple sugars in the flour in order to fuel its reproduction.
So you may be thinking about now, why not just cut to the chase, throw in more yeast and get everything done in one day? Perfectly good question. Think of some of the best breads you’ve ever had: a perfect, authentic baguette; a beautiful sourdough boule; a sandwich (or a burger!) on a wedge of focaccia that is just about to die for. Those are all breads which have begun from a preferment of one sort or another, and then have been “retarded” for periods of time under refrigeration.
When working with a preferment and retarding dough, we’re literally building time into it. These doughs have great character, fabulously subtle layers of flavor. Those qualities are only built over time. Our bread dough will get to the same point of rise as breads made with more yeast and baked on the same day they are prepared. Ours will simply get there more slowly because we are going to grow our yeast population over time, not toss it all in at the beginning.
Are you with me? Okay, let’s bake!
PREFERMENT FOR ITALIAN BOULE
12 ounces warm water (about 90 degrees)
1 teaspoon active dry yeast (or 1/2 teaspoon instant)
2 cups bread flour
1. Pour the water into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the surface, then whisk it in. Add the flour and stir in with a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon.
2. Cover tightly with plastic. Let proof at room temperature until nicely doubled and visibly bubbly. You’ll see condensation forming on the underside of the plastic. That is a very good sign that the yeast is fermenting as it should. The by-products of fermentation are alcohol (that wonderful beery aroma), carbon dioxide (a gas), and heat (CO2 is trapped in tiny pockets of wet flour, and in the presence of heat, expands, causing bread to rise).
3. At that point, refrigerate overnight. You might wonder why not just let it sit out at room temp and really grow a yeast population. The reason you want to cool it down is to put the yeast to sleep, to cause it to slow way, way down its consumption and reproduction. If allowed to continue unchecked, the yeast will grow to such a population that it consumes its entire food source (the simple sugars in the flour). At that point, the only food source left to it is the protein (known as gluten) in the flour. And at that point, you’ve put your dough squarely behind the 8-ball. There will be no structure to your dough/bread because the protein structure has been so compromised. Too, it won’t brown because it can’t. Browning requires the presence of carbohydrates, and your yeast population which is by now equal to approximately the population of Boston, has consumed all the sugars in the flour.
The moral of the story is: allow the preferment to proof only until it doubles, then put it to sleep in the refrigerator. Can you eat while you’re sleeping? Well, neither can your dough.
And tomorrow, we’ll turn it into bread dough. Oh, and before we do, go ahead and take your preferment out of the fridge while you’re waiting for coffee to brew first thing in the morning. It will take it a couple of hours to shake off the cold and get ready to go into your dough.