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 A heaping helping of food news, science and culture The travel adventures of a nomad on the cheap

## May 19, 2009

### Ratio-based Bread Baking

Amanda's first (edible) homemade loaf of bread.

People have been baking bread for millennia, long before kitchen appliances or even cookbooks came along. I’ve read plenty of books and blog posts advertising “easy homemade bread” recipes, and I want to believe them—but personally, it’s always seemed like an unattainable goal, on par with cartwheels or whistling or being on time for parties.

A few recent developments have inspired me to change my mind, however. One, my impending marriage has brought a bounty of new kitchen toys, including a stand mixer and a dutch oven. Two, I’ve started writing a food blog, as you may have noticed. And three, I received a copy of Michael Ruhlman‘s new book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.

According to Ruhlman, baking bread is as simple as four ingredients (flour, water, salt and yeast) and two numbers: 5 and 3. That’s the ratio of flour to water that will create a basic bread dough. How much yeast and salt you need is less precise, but he suggests at least one teaspoon of each in a batch based on 20 ounces of flour. (Actually, he suggests 1 tsp of salt per 20 ounces of flour on page 6, and then on page 10 offers a recipe with 2 teaspoons of salt and 20 ounces of flour, so I’m a little confused…)

Reading this book made me realize there’s at least one key kitchen gadget I’m still lacking: a scale. I never thought about it before, but apparently, not all cups of flour are created equal. Ruhlman became a self-professed kitchen scale evangelist after discovering that the amount of flour in a standard measuring cup can vary by as much as 50 percent depending on how you scoop or stir it. Still, he offers a grudging approximation in Ratio for those of us who need it—a cup of flour weighs about 5 ounces.

Although his book purports to “unchain you from recipes,” I was relieved to see that it does actually include some, including one for basic bread dough. Ruhlman suggests shaping the dough into a boule and baking it in a dutch oven, something I was eager to try since I’ve heard others rave about how moist and chewy it makes the loaf.

I made my first attempt a few weeks ago, before we had the stand mixer, or any kind of electric mixer. Despite nearly half an hour of fierce kneading, the dough never passed the “windowpane” test that proves the gluten has been successfully developed. And despite hours of hopeful waiting, the dough never rose.

At first, I blamed this on Ruhlman’s note that the yeast would activate just fine if it was dissolved in cold water (my mom always told me yeast needs warm water to activate). It might have been that. Or it might have been the fact that DC puts a lot of chlorine in its tap water at this time of year, and chlorine inhibits yeast growth. Or it might have just been bad yeast. Whatever the problem was, we ended up with an inedibly dense loaf of what tasted like Play-dough. Blech.

On the second attempt, we tried Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread recipe in the dutch oven. Maybe it would have worked great, but half the dough got impossibly stuck to the towel we left it on overnight (and yes, we floured it as the recipe said). We baked what was left, but it could hardly be called a success, especially after my fiance got a nasty burn from touching the dutch oven (those things can really retain heat).

So, last weekend, we crossed our fingers and decided to give it one more shot. This time, we used extra-pure water (filtered, then boiled and left to cool), and proofed the yeast first to test it. We tried the Ratio recipe again, this time letting the mixer do the kneading with its dough hook attachment. We referred to the book over and over, making sure we were doing it exactly as recommended—so much for being unchained from recipes, huh?

The result? A delicious success (though browner on bottom than top, which I blame on my strange little oven — the Inuyaki blogger got much prettier results)! I feel like doing a cartwheel, but, well, one thing at a time…

***

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Posted By: Cooking |

## 11 Comments »

1. Jesse Rhodes says:

You’ve definitely inspired me to give bread making another go. My first attempt resulted in me picking bread dough out of my arm hair for a good hour or so. (I think I added too much water, which made the dough unmanageable and unforgivably sticky.) And congrats on getting a stand mixer–how were you surviving beforehand?

2. ruhlman says:

so glad you tried a third time! the bread recipe is one that numerous strangers have written to say thank you for.

active yeast needs to be disolved in the water (warm water speeds up yeast action) are you using a good yeast, like red star or saf?

i think one more time to try (this time WITHOUT the book). Do 20 oz flour 12 water 1 to 2 teaspoons of yeast, two teaspoons kosher salt and through in some chopped rosemary and some smashed garlic for fun. coat with olive oil and sprinkle with salt before baking in a hot oven, covered part of the time. use 2 tsp of yeast if you’re having trouble with the rise. I used to be afraid of yeast too! not to worry–just buy fresh dry yeast. email me if you have probs. if not, move on to pasta!

3. Marlene says:

When I tested the dutch oven bread for ratio, I also add a T of honey and a T of olive oil. The honey interacts with the yeast, and both give the crumb a tenderness it lacks using the basic recipe.

I also use the paddle attachment on the mixer to bring the ingredients together (much faster) then switch to the dough hook to knead.

4. Michael, thanks for reading and responding, I’m honored! Yes, I used Red Star yeast from a packet, it said “active yeast,” but is the type in a jar fresher? Maybe I’ll go for that next time.

I look forward to trying these flavoring tips from both you and Marlene!

5. Arnold says:

Amanda, thanks for the mention! I was pretty amazed at myself when I saw the bread come out of the oven, too. Next time, I’m going to try Marlene’s honey/olive oil suggestion, but don’t the permutations of this recipe seem much easier and less intimidating now that you’ve made this basic bread?

6. Marlene says:

My pleasure! I’ve got some in the oven right now and will have pics later, on CK. The other thing I’ve found reasonably important with the dutch oven method of this bread is that it needs to sit for at least a couple of hours. The crust will seem crisp when it first comes out, then soften immediately, but will crisp back up as it cools.

And yes! Olive oil and salt on the top before baking really take this bread to the next level.

It also makes excellent toast in the morning. :)

Good luck when you try it again!

7. [...] Amateur Gourmet brought in FaT favorite Michael Ruhlman today for a BlogTalkRadio podcast. Listen in, maybe while baking Ruhlman’s bread. [...]

8. [...] that led me to a post written by Amanda Bensen on Smithsonian.com’s Food & Think blog. Ratio-based Bread Baking details Amanda’s varying degrees of success trying to make the basic bread recipe in Michael [...]

9. John says:

Forget Bittman’s method, proofing the bread on a towel is just too messy. Jacques Pepin’s method of mixing, proofing, and baking in the same pot works better.
Put your ingredients in a pot, stir to mix well. Leave on counter for 2 hours then stir down the dough, put into the fridge overnight. Then take out and bake.

10. David says:

I am also a huge Ruhlman fan after reading Ratio, but I found after much trial and error that to pass the windowpane test I need to use a little more water. I settled on adding a tablespoone of water (one ounce) for every 10 ounces of flour. Most of the other ratios seem to work out fine, and a scale is absolutely required.
What’s missing is how much sweetness (sugar, honey, whatever) or fat (shortening, butter, olive oil) fits into certain ratios. The book has become a foundation for experimentation rather than a working guide.
I proof under plastic wrap, with no problems, and rise in an big oiled ceramic bowl with a towel over it.

11. BZ in BA says:

I have had great luck with the no-knead bread recipe. I like to add spices, and I also find that using a Tablespoon or two of white vinegar adds a nice sour-dough-esque taste to the bread. My one MAJOR change is that I cook it in the Dutch Oven, but I “bake” it on the stove top, using the lowest heat setting (I DON’T USE THE OVEN). It takes about an hour and a half for the bread to reach 200 degrees, at which point it is done. I am going to buy Ruhlman’s book next time I am in the US – it looks like it will be really useful.

Gracias y suerte desde Buenos Aires!

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