12 Cookbooks: Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast

Post by Matt, Information Services staff.

Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from, and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!

The last time I had to buy yeast was April 3rd, 2020. Coincidentally, that was the same day that I learned I was on “temporary emergency leave” from my position here at KPL. In the end, I was lucky: I was asked to return to work four months later and I qualified for the CERB payments while I was unemployed. Many people have not been as fortunate. It’s clear now, in May 2021, that COVID-19 has altered all of our lives in countless, immeasurable ways. But on April 3rd, 2020, I don’t think anyone really knew what would happen; all I knew was that I’d lost my job and I suddenly had a lot more time to use the pound of yeast I’d just bought.

I didn’t want to buy a pound of yeast, but it was the only size available at the only store that had it in stock. Back then, you may remember, grocery stores were being cleaned out of all sorts of essential goods. I often had trouble finding toilet paper, cleaning products, bread, flour, chocolate and, weirdly, sweetened condensed milk. Like many people, I was eager to fill my time with baking desserts that tasted delicious and helped me forget the chaos of the outside world. 

I wanted the yeast specifically because I was making a chocolate babka for my partner who had just received some sad news. A popular Jewish dessert, babka is a sweet bread filled with chocolate or cinnamon and braided together in a loaf. It’s a perfect comfort food. That’s why I was so adamant on getting yeast no matter the size. The babka was delicious, but only used a teaspoon of yeast, so I had a comically huge amount left over. Luckily, yeast can be refrigerated or frozen almost indefinitely. In the year since, I’ve used that yeast here and there, but not nearly as often as I expected I would.

It’s taken me over a year, but with the added structure and incentive of 12 Cookbooks, I’m ready to start expanding my bread knowledge with the help of Ken Forkish and Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast.

Book cover for Flour Water Salt Yeast; the Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish
Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast
Ken Forkish
Ten Speed Press
265 pages
2012

Yeast, the fermenting single-celled organism responsible for civilization’s greatest accomplishments (bread and beer, obviously), is only one quarter of the materials used in Forkish’s book. Over the course of 14 chapters, Forkish explains how flour, water, salt and yeast all come together to create different styles of artisan bread and pizza, the best techniques and equipment for home baking, and 30 different recipes ranging from same-day yeasted breads, overnight pre-ferments using poolish or biga, to multi-day levain (or sourdough) style breads, as well as pizza doughs and focaccia. 

If some of those words sounded like gibberish, you’re not alone. The world of bread-baking is full of confusing terms, made even more terrifying by the amount of science and math involved! I know, it’s not fair. I too thought that baking bread was like 90% waiting, not 70% hydration or whatever y’all keep yammering on about. Thankfully, Forkish’s book helps to explain those terms, unpack that science and empower us to understand the math behind the recipe. Side note: a dough’s hydration percentage refers to the amount of water it contains compared to the amount of flour, so a dough with 70% hydration has 70 parts water to 100 parts of flour.

I decided that my goal this month would be to make two different recipes, one same-day “Saturday White Bread” and a more involved “Overnight Country Blonde.” But first I needed some equipment. Forkish recommends using a large plastic tub to mix and rest your dough, as well as cane proofing baskets and a Dutch oven to simulate the steam-filled ovens of a bakery; I recommend borrowing or substituting all of that junk. In a tax refund-induced frenzy, I decided to purchase these things and, while I’m excited to use them on a regular basis and fairly confident I will, I don’t want to shy away from the fact that using this book cost me money. Thankfully, the other ingredients are cheap.

I actually made the “Saturday White Bread” on a Saturday, beginning in the morning by mixing flour and water and letting it soak for 30 minutes in a process known as autolysing. Next, I mixed in the salt and yeast, stretching and folding the mass of dough over itself before pinching it apart and beginning again. After 5 hours of rest, the dough bubbled up and tripled in size. Divided in two and left again to ‘proof’ in the cane baskets (or bannetons), the dough was then placed in turns into a preheated Dutch oven and baked for nearly an hour, coming out golden brown and crackling.

By about 6 pm that day I had two beautiful loaves of homemade bread that tasted incredible. The crust was crisp, chewy and visually dynamic. The interior was soft, airy and full of subtle flavour. The first loaf was quickly devoured by the end of the weekend and the second we gave to my family (mostly to avoid the impending bread coma). So far my adventures in bread-baking were successful!

But next I needed to create a levain. Known by many different names in many different cultures (levain, starter, ferment, sourdough, motherdough, and more), this mixture is created when flour and water are allowed to ferment over several days with the help of wild yeast and other bacteria that act as a leavening agent, adding softness, air and flavour to the final product. These amazing mixtures grow as you feed them, can be tailored to a specific flavour profile, and, when regularly cared for, can last for literally hundreds of years. 

Luckily, I just needed mine to live for a week. Following Forkish’s instructions, I aired and fed my starter for five days until it was fully matured; overall, it was about five minutes of work per day. It was a sticky business. Tossing the spent starter, measuring out specific amounts of flour and water, and mixing them by hand, I got to know the regular rise and fall of the levain and its signature smell: an odor that Forkish rightly and disgustingly describes as ‘leathery alcohol.’ Don’t let that dissuade you though, this was science at work. A complex ecosystem of wild yeasts and bacteria was slowly taking shape, working hard to provide that important rise and sour flavour to my final loaves. I began this process on Monday and by Friday, it was ready. I fed my levain one last time on Saturday morning, went to work, and when I came home it had expanded reliably, ready to be used in a dough.

Like most recipes in FWSY, the “Overnight Country Blonde” begins by combining flour and water, then adding salt and a small amount of starter (equivalent to a cup or so). Mixed and left to rest overnight, with a few extra folds in the evening to encourage gluten development and increase its strength, the dough was ready to be folded on Sunday morning. As I floured my hands and began folding, I noticed that the dough was a bit less gaseous and a little more slack than the previous recipe, but I carried on hoping that was common for a dough without yeast. Little did I know that disaster was about to strike…

After a four hour proof, I tried to carefully remove the first ball of dough from its flour-lined basket. I failed:

Perhaps I was too rough or I didn’t dust enough flour in the banneton, or perhaps the error was made unknowingly at an earlier stage. Regardless, my first loaf of sourdough looked…interesting. This happened because, as I struggled to remove my dough from the banneton, I accidentally tore it open and released much of the gas needed to make it rise. In the end it was ugly, but functional. The second, fortunately, looked amazing in comparison!

And they both tasted great. The crust was gorgeously decorated in lines and patches of deep brown and gold that cracked apart in my mouth. The interior was soft and airy, though not as raised as the yeasted bread, but it also had a distinctive sour aftertaste that added a layer of complexity to the flavours. We ate most of these loaves with butter or nothing at all, and turned the last few stale ends into garlic bread a few days later. The leftover levain was tucked in the fridge to hibernate for up to a month.

Overall, my time with Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast was a great success. I made four great-tasting loaves of bread (and three great-looking ones). I learned a bit more about the process and terminology of bread-baking. And I got to share my efforts with my partner and my family. It’s easy to see how this can become a weekly obsession for people and how it can provide a great deal of comfort and stability during stressful times. It’s also a wonderful method for creativity and experimentation. I’d gladly recommend this book as a starting point for beginning bakers because of its detailed recipes, clearly illustrated methods and its delicious end results, with the caveat that it may require some investment in equipment or a reliable source to borrow from.

However, if you want to start baking bread without committing to a Dutch oven installment plan, then maybe take a look at some of the recipes in these books from our collection instead:

See you next month when I dive into local culinary history to learn about different kinds of traditional cooking with Out of Old Ontario Kitchens by Lindy Mechefske.


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