Originally Posted by KYHeirloomer
Oddly enough, Siduri, I just had that conversation with a friend, and took the very position you express. He doesn't bake bread because it's too complicated. Or so he thinks. As I told him, bread does not have to be complicated. Heck, for thousands of years folks have mixed ground grains, water, salt, and yeast and baked it just by laying on a hot rock.
I provided the internal temperature because somebody asked. Can't remember the last time I used a thermometer to check if a loaf of bread was done. Nor do I have to be poking at the bread with sticks. The thump test does me just fine, and I haven't had an undercooked loaf since learning how to do it. I have to wonder, too, with your non-relience on special equipment, how you determine the heat of the oven. Do you stick your hand in it, for a count of so many seconds? Or to you turn a dial and let the built-in thermostat do its thing? Maybe you don't totally eschew special equipment after all.
Actually, KY, I had to make do with a broken oven for many years before we could afford another as big as i wanted. It was american and the thermostat broke. The repairman said there were no thermostats like that in italy and at best he could put an on off switch. (It was gas). I said ok, and used it for many years. I found, with experience, that i could put a ball of foil in the door and leave it more or less slightly ajar and pretty much regulate the heat! and by covering the bread or cake lightly with foil, or putting a pan underneath,. i could bake pretty much everything. I do lots of baking and was doing breads two or more times a week - have done for about 25 years. So while i do appreciate a thermostat, it is not necessary. My daughter is now in the same position, her oven is not workng except on or off, and has to turn it off and on during baking. It's a rented place in london, the landlord is unlikely to come and fix it any time soon.
Something to understand, too, is that bread makers fall roughly into two groups. There are the folks like Rob (and, from all you've said, yourself) who are merely looking to produce an acceptible loaf of bread; better than they can buy, perhaps, and something they are proud to serve. But bread making, per se, isn't important to them. I had this discussion with someone once, on another forum, and he kept equating the aspiration to make better and better bread with precise measurement. I am not like that, but i do aspire to make better and better bread, and keep working towards it, but i use other means. You might call it intuitive, or whatever. In neurology, we might say I prefer to rely on implicit or procedural functions rather than explicit or declarative functions. The scientist may seem to use the explicit - measurements, numbers, words - and leave the "intuitive" (implicit ) to others - but the big scientific discoveries (or small ones) are often sudden and come in weird times, like during the night. "Eureka!" can be said coming out of the bath and discovering the displacement of liquids as a way of measuring volume, or can be said discovering a plate of old boiled potatoes molding in the back of a desk and finding the green molds have killed all the other colored molds around them (just to refer to archimedes or fleming). NOrmally, i do have to make do, because i work full time, get home at 8, have a million other things to do, and yet want home made bread - so i have to be willing to accept less perfection and be satisfied with a good reasonable baseline quality most of the time. But when i go all out, i want the perfect bread. I read cookbooks all the time, and gather what i can from them. Breadmaking IS important to me, which is why i think of it as a metaphor for raising kids - what could be more important than that? More sublime or sacred? -
The second group look upon producing bread almost as something sacred. An acceptible loaf isn't good enough. They relentlessly seek to produce that elusive (mythical?) perfect loaf. For them, bread making, and understanding the magic that converts four mundane ingredients into the staff of life, is a goal in itself. And for them, all of the sophisticated techniques and special tools are important because they help them achieve that goal. That's only because that kind of knowledge today is not passed from person to person but through books. Books can't convey the touch and feel of things, the smell and sound. So today, perfection is sought through scales and tools, but it can equally be sought through touch and feel. I was surprised to find a surgeon's manual in the doctor's office where i have my practice, and it mostly showed the hands pulling out organs, fixing things. I asked him. He said the surgeon's most important tool is his hand, it is the one that can really tell him what he needs to know, the feel, the sense, through years of experience.
One group is neither better nor worse than the other. Just different orientations; different goals. For either of them to get on a soapbox and declare that their's is the one true word of God is snobbery of the highest order.
I happen to belong to the second group. Have been baking bread seriously for about three years. And I figure in about another ten years I might be able to call myself a baker. Like most of us in that group, we assume that when somebody asks a question because they're having a problem they want the best answer we can provide. Simple is often the best answer. But not always. As a matter of fact, it don't come much simpler than no-knead bread. And yet, Rob is having a problem with it. So perhaps some of the more sophisticated techniques, some of the special equipment really is his solution?
Maybe the fact that it;s been 3 years since you started baking bread, KY, that you rely more on the tools. When i began baking, in 1965 more or less, there were no tools. And after having read and practiced over all these years, I found that the simple tools are the ones you can most rely on.
Is no-knead bread the most simple? if you do it like the recipes, yes. But it requires lots of hand and eye. I immediately discarded the original technique, which put cornmeal into the cneter of the bread, which was extremely messy and seemed at all cost to want to eliminate kneading, almost as a precise goal, rather than because it was not necessary. I adapted it, made it less messy, took out the stupid cornmeal and folding, knead it in the bowl, watch the texture, feel for it, etc. We are all apparently trying to duplicate the breads of old, and yet, back when bread was bread, there were none of these fancy tools. And it came better. Simple is not simplistic.
Now for cakes, there is a different problem. Cakes are a sophistication and require more precision, can't be as easily done by eye, etc. Yet even there, i think it's a mistake to extrapolate a need for precise measurement to the milligram from the need to be more precise. You can use a cup, it will come out good. We're dealing with organic components - one batch of flour will be different from another, may hold more moisture than another, one butter may be different from another, one egg may have more lift than another, etc etc. So precision to the metric scale is not necessary, only some reasonable understanding that some adherence to stable quantities is required. Cakes are the product of a more sophisticated society than bread - the ingredients themselves are sophistications, like sugar. Bread was made for millenia. But scales were only begun to be used more recently.
I think the difference is in mental structure rather than in desire for perfection. I think my mind will never deal with numbers and decimals, but goes with halves and quarters (which i can see by eye, by hand) and others' minds are more verbal and more numeric. But you can aspire to perfection with either method.
Sorry, i hope i don;t come off as a smart a$$, but really do passionately believe in the return to the hand.