Ratio-based Bread Baking

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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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