Get ready, because we are baking bread this week. Chewy, airy, crisp-on-the-bottom talami.
Bread baking enjoys a longstanding, deep tradition in my family. The women always baked by the tons, every week, to have bread on the table for their families each day. Now the rest of us weakling next-generation bakers are just trying to understand it well enough to bake a few good loaves every once in a while.
But before I begin my aria to baking Lebanese breads, let’s cover the flour question. Because flour can confuse. We’re baking bread, but we won’t be using bread flour. Why? Because bread flour, unlike all-purpose flour, has a higher level of gluten. Gluten is the protein in flour that gives it structure, or a springy quality. The higher the gluten level in the flour, the more structure your baked goods will have. The gluten forms a kind of network or netting throughout the dough that traps the CO2 from your yeast, allowing the dough to rise and air pockets to form. If only my chemistry teacher would have talked bread to me in high school, I might have listened with a little more enthusiasm.
Think of bread flour as giving your bread, like a French baguette, a buff, muscular physique. The bread we are baking, talami, is soft and chewy, so we’ll use all-purpose flour (often referred to as “AP” flour in recipes). I like to use unbleached AP flour; the wheat is not bleached so the flour isn’t quite as white as bleached flour, but there is no difference visually in the end product. Might as well go natural and avoid the bleach. Even though it isn’t considered harmful, bleach can have a negative impact on flavor.
Cake flour, on the other hand, has a lower level of gluten than bread flour or AP flour. Cake flour gives cakes and other pastry their tender crumb; it really does make a difference, so it’s best not to use other flours as a stand-in when cake flour is called for.
As for the best brand of flour, King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour reigns supreme among my family members. It’s “Naturally Pure and Wholesome.” Who can argue with that? And I’m happy to note that Cook’s Illustrated ranks it as their highest recommended flour (they also like Pillsbury). One reason this flour comes highly recommended is that, of all the AP flours, it has the best flavor and the highest gluten level.
To measure flour, the method is not to scoop it into your measuring cup—and never to pack it in. Ideally the flour is measured by weight by placing your bowl on a scale and zeroing it out, then adding the flour to the desired weight. But to measure cups of flour, spoon the flour into your measuring cup and level the top off. When you’re making bread dough, experience is the key to understanding how much water to add to whatever amount of flour is being used in order to get to the right texture for the type of bread you are baking. A recipe can give you measures but many factors influence how your dough will turn out on any given day, so the baker must be in tune with her dough and her end goal so that she can adjust as needed. Then she can begin to apply this same type of versatility to other aspects of her life, right?
The beauty of bread is that it requires so few ingredients. All you need are flour, salt, sugar, yeast, and water. Later this week we’ll transform them, and your kitchen, and you, into something divine.