Everything I Know About Flour

I've been worried about flour more than programming (outside work, anyway). Here's everything I've discovered.

Bread

This has been my interest lately.

The fundamental thing to know is that you're after a certain ratio of about 5:3 flour to liquid. Beyond that you need some salt (about 1/2 tsp per cup, or more) and some yeast. The amount of yeast is mostly a function of when you want to bake; if you can let it rise for a day, you can use 1/4 or 1/2 tsp. I have been doing 1/2 tsp and baking in 18-24 hours.

You decide whether you want a uniform crumb or a bunch of big old air pockets. For a baguette or a nice boule, you probably want air pockets; if that's the case, don't add fat (oil or butter) because it will interfere with that, and also plan on letting it rise more in the final proof. If you want a uniform crumb, adding fat is fine and do a better job squeezing out the air between proofs.

When you first get started, you tend to conflate the recipe with the shape and the baking method. These things are fairly independent; you can follow Jim Lahey's important recipe and then make baguettes with it following this Food Wishes recipe. In fact, if you read both, you'll probably notice that the difference between the two recipes is pretty minute.

I made a great loaf of white bread following a Breaducation's recipe, but I didn't take the documentation all that seriously, or the temperatures, or the mixing steps… in fact, apart from the actual recipe, the only thing I really took was his kneading method, which is superb. And I screwed up and added too much honey.

By the way, it's pretty hard to make a sweet yeast bread. Yeast wants to eat sugar, so if you give it a sugar-rich environment, it will basically eat all the sugar. So the fact that I screwed up and added double the amount of honey the recipe called for really had no perceptible effect on the outcome.

That's the funny thing about bread. You can actually hose it pretty badly and it will still be OK. Get the ratio of flour and water mostly right, and bake it long enough, and it will be basically alright.

Spritz it with water on the way into the oven. I haven't noticed a huge difference using the cup-o-water method and a good dampening with the spray bottle.

Another great recipe is this Real Irish Soda Bread recipe from Serious Eats. It's trivial and you have amazing bread when it comes out. It's not sweet, really; it's actually fairly salty, but it takes butter and jam better than anything. The internet will tell you that you can't use baking soda at high elevation to leaven this bread, but it works fine here at 4500 feet.

I have grown to favor King Arthur flour, especially bread flour, although the soda bread you should really use all-purpose for. In general, if it's a yeast bread I want to use bread flour; if it's a flatbread or a quick bread, all-purpose. I don't know if this rule is perfect but it's the one I've noticed and been following.

By the way, if you just try following some of these recipes, you'll make some really amazing bread, on the first try. It's not that hard.

Biscuits and Scones

The trick with biscuits and scones is: keep the butter cold, cut it up, and cut it into the flour. You want the dough to be lumpy with bits of butter. Don't overmix. You really aren't after doughiness in these recipes. If it seems like it might fall apart if you look at it funny, it's probably perfect.

Scones and good biscuits are similar. If you want to make one of those bizarre American oversweet triangle cakes that Starbucks sells, try making cream scones first and you'll have a much better experience.

Pancakes

The recipe in Ratio is one of the best I've ever tried, and after you read it you will see how easy it is to modify.

Pasta

Get yourself a pasta machine and make pasta all the time. It's really easy. You almost can't overwork the dough. In Ratio, Michael Ruhlman basically says, one egg per adult serving, plus 1.5 times that weight in flour. I find using Bob's Red Mill semolina flour gives amazing results. You can cut it with AP flour or whole wheat flour or whatever. I make a big pile and fold the eggs in with a fork and then just sort of work it for a few minutes, throw it in the fridge under some olive oil for 20 minutes. I'm not even sure that step is necessary.

Get the pasta machine out and roll it to the 2nd to last setting for everything. Well, I might do the last setting for ravioli. Send it through the first setting a few times, folding it in half between, until it really looks like a big noodle. Then go one setting at a time. It's pretty easy; I've made pasta from scratch probably about 50 times and the first time it came out just as good as the last, minus my nerves.

So that's what's been on my mind lately.