Several times each week, we see questions along the lines of “How can I increase the size of the holes in my bread?”
As bakers, we’re all interested in producing bread which is attractive, tasty, and above all, with a texture that suits its purpose. There is no single right answer to the question “how big should the holes be?”
I recall that as a home baker, I was disappointed when my loaves inevitably came out of the oven with a dense crumb. Always tasty, great for toasting, but heavy for general family use. I could never find a reliable solution which gave me some control over the crumb texture. I wanted an open crumb, but not so open I couldn’t add butter. It seems this is the holy grail of all amateur bakers.
I was lucky. I live in a small rural village, and we had a new baker who had quickly established a reputation for excellent artisan breads. I asked him where he thought I may be going wrong, and he smiled, but didn’t give an answer. Instead, he invited me to spend some time in his kitchen. What I expected might be an hour or so, turned out to be a full week, by the end of which, I’d prepared dough, shaped loaves, learned about proofing techniques, and baked hundreds of baguettes. They all had a beautiful open texture.
I hadn’t been told the answer, but I’d discovered it for myself.
Yes, hydration has an effect. But not as much as some might believe. Flour is undoubtedly key. A good quality, high protein flour will always produce better bread than a plain/all-purpose flour. Proofing is important. But the key is working the dough. A lot.
Bread is essentially wheat flour, salt, and water. Those three ingredients, together with your starter must be mixed thoroughly. They must also be worked. Either stretching and folding, or kneading works the dough (see article on this topic) and strengthens the gluten bonds which eventually give the bread its texture. Even with the big professional machines in the bakery, I realised that there are no short cuts. Stretching and folding seems to be a preferred process for many, but whether you knead or stretch and fold your dough, it is important to recognise when the dough has developed.
I learned to see how the mixture developed into a dough, how it made a different sound as it slapped the sides of the bowl.
If you’re using a home mixer, you’ll see the same effect. You’ll see the ball of dough detach from the bowl as it turns, it will appear to roll around the dough hook. It is at this point that the gluten is properly developed and you can safely proof your bread. It will appear smooth, and hold it’s shape on the work surface or in the bowl. Take a small pinch of dough between your thumb and index finger. Stretch it, and if you get a wafer-thin film, then it’s ready.
I proof for 24 hours in the fridge, and then let the dough relax at room temperature before shaping with a minimum of manipulation. Another half-hour or so at room temperature, and it’s ready to bake.