Viewer Mail: Dense Bread - Part 1 of 2

An occassional series here at the weber_cam is when we answer the mail in the form of a post because of its general significance. This is directed to the baking community. This person will remain anonymous but let's just say the mail is from our north; the place with cheap prescription drugs - but that's all I'm saying. It's just a Q&A regarding what I believe to be one of the best beginning books for making artisan loaves, Dan Leader's, his poolish recipe for "Country Homestyle-Hearth Loaf".

Her initial message (I lost, unfortunately) said her first attempt came out kind of dense. She needed some pointers. Here's the exchange:

First I gave some general comments (that I believe to be useful):

1. Baking even as much as once a day, you and I could never get the reproducibility that a baker gets who bakes hundreds to thousands of loaves a day. I say that only before saying something as painful as "just try it again".

2. Generally, let's go quickly through the steps and I'll make some pointers to keep an eye on:
  • The flour. Dan Leader uses a flour composed of 80:20 white:wheat. I use a smaller fraction of wheat and it's often mixed with rye. I don't like most wheat flours but wheat and rye make for very healthy fermentations. Your loaves made from a poolish should always include at least a little wheat and/or rye. The other flour recommendation I have is I absolutely HATE King Arthur unbleached white. I tried for years to like it and still don't. It just has bad flavor. Don't know what to say. ANY other unbleached white should be fine.
  • Poolish. The observations and procedure in the book are spot-on. Your observations at the point of the poolish should be the same.
  • My difference from Leader is I simply use a larger fraction of poolish in the final dough. Leader uses around 120 grams poolish, 300 grams water and 500 grams flour - I use 300 grams poolish, 300 grams water and 500 grams flour. I think this is actually a small variation.
  • The first rise. The poolish is done, toss in the rest of the ingredients and let it rise. If you let one rise go long, it's this one. Four hours isn't too much. It may appear to be nearly unrisen too. Its appearance at this stage is deceptive.
  • The second rise. This doesn't have to be more than 30 minutes but is pretty flexible on time.
  • The final rise - called the proof. This is the most critical part of the entire proccess. You form it into a loaf and let it rise. When it's risen ENOUGH, it's docked (slashed on top) and tossed into the oven. If it rises too much, when it hits the oven it will get no "oven spring", deflate and the result will be a tad dense - sometimes cakelike. If you bake it too early, it will get better oven spring, it won't deflate in the oven, but will come out a tad dense - again, cake-like and tight crumb.
  • During the first rise, I mentioned it may look like a slack limp lump. When you punch it for the second rise (the more brief one) you SHOULD notice it rise significantly more in that 30 minutes than it did in the previous several hour period. IF YOU OBSERVE THIS, things are going well. If this is indeed the case and until you become more comfortable with the final rise - do the final proof for 30-40 minutes. Slightly underproofing is a far better mistake to make than over proofing.
3. Addressing your specific concerns:
"I just bought the book and tried to make the Country Homestyle-Hearth Loaf, but it didn't quite turn out as I'd hoped. It was delicious, but it didn't rise much."
See above general comments.
"I prefer my bread light and airy"
I do too. That is always what I aspire for - even artisan wheats should be light rather than the earthy crunchy and dense. Those are vile.
"Did I not knead it enough, or did I overknead it?"
I can say with confidence you DID NOT overknead. My machine kneads a loaf for a full 30 minutes. I don't think so much is necessary and you don't need a machine - it's just something I find handy.
"Should I have added more yeast, since I'm just starting out at the bread making thang and probably don't have enough wild yeast cells in my kitchen?"
A little extra (1/4 t) can never hurt. But for the poolish, stick to the recommended 1/4 teaspoon. For the final dough boost to a teaspoon. Could help quite a bit.
"One other thing - Dan's straight-dough method. In Chapter 7 he says that all of the recipes in Chapter 6 can be made the straight-dough way without the poolish, and says to just mix them all together. Does that mean you are only supposed to use the "final dough" amounts in the Chapter 6 recipes, or should you also add the amounts (yeast, water, and flour) given for the originally intended poolish?"
He means add the poolish ingredients and dough ingredients. A note of caution though. Straight doughs that are unenriched (little/no fat or sweetener) are exceptionally challenging. The baguette recipe linked on my sidebar is something I've worked on for about 10 years and it's absolutely awesome but can fail - and the lack of reproducibility kills me. I'll work on it till I die. I think the easiest and most reliable loaf I make "American Style Wheat" also linked on my sidebar.
"Thanks alot if you get the time to respond to this."
I LOVE talking bread. I will never be too busy to respond to questions, just give good detail and we'll take it from there. I may take a while to get back but I'll definitely get back when I get a chance.

Good luck and be persistent.