Blog post by request

July 7, 2010

Anyone who is around me very much is aware that I am turning (or maybe have already turned) into a bread nut.  Since I was raised in San Francisco I can’t help but be partial to a wonderful sourdough, but truly I love them all.  I’ve made a lot of bread over the years, too… my copy of A World of Breads by Dolores Casella was well worn by the time we packed up for México. I didn’t bring it with me, thinking that it would be too warm to bake here.

Well sometimes it is too warm to bake, but that isn’t stopping me.  Before my trip to San Francisco in April I shopped online for some things I needed for baking, primarily sourdough starter and vital wheat gluten flour. Little did I know, though, that when I returned I’d take a bread baking class from Hector Peniche of Molika Bakery and Restaurant and find myself more absorbed with baking than I had ever expected.

Several dozen loaves later I was lucky enough to take a general baking class from him and enjoy learning about making sweet pastry (pâte sucrée), crumbly pastry (pâte brisée) and puff pastry.  The class was wonderful and I loved being around a group of people who really care about good food.  The ideas that bounced around the room kept me energized for days.

Knowing that I’ve been baking a lot lately several people have asked me what I’ve learned.  Well, quite a lot.  I have read most of three books:

Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery

Baking Illustrated by the editors of Cooks Illustrated Magazine

Ultimate Bread by Eric Treuille & Ursula Ferrigno

I bought the Silverton on Hector’s recommendation and the other two were gifts from a wonderful friend who is moving soon.  I don’t think I could have put together a more compatible collection.  There is just so much to know, and I am working hard at learning.

So I thought I’d put together some information that might help a person wanting to take up bread baking, especially in México.

  • One of the main issues bread bakers face is that the flour available here is soft wheat flour.  Hard wheats come from areas with cold winters and soft from everywhere else.  It’s the hardness that gives you more gluten, and gluten is what gives the dough its elasticity.  You need elasticity so the bread will rise, so it’s pretty important.  You can compensate for the low gluten flours by adding a bit of vital wheat gluten or malt syrup/extract to your dough.  Unfortunately I haven’t found either of these here or in México City, so have your friends bring them to you or get them when you visit NOB. You’d add about 20 grams of vital wheat gluten per a 1 kg recipe, so a couple of bags will last a long time.
  • The act of kneading the dough is what develops the gluten.  If you (or your machine) is tired and the gluten still hasn’t developed, let the dough rest for 40 minutes and then continue to knead.
  • If you want a nice crust on your bread, use a baking stone.  I have read that you can use unglazed terra cotta tiles, too, but I happen to have two pizza stones and I use those.  You want to heat your oven thoroughly, and it should be hot – 450 F.  Leave the pizza stones in the oven while it’s heating and slide the bread onto the stone from a peel. I don’t have one so I just put tin foil on a cutting board and when it’s floured the boule (shaped dough) will slide right in.  The thing the stone does for you is because it is very hot it encourages the bread to rise quickly – before the heat in the over fixes the outer crust.  I love the term “oven spring” for what happens when your dough goes into a hot oven.
  • For a nice crust again, you need steam.  Before the bread goes into the oven, spray-spray-spray.  Then spray once or twice in the first five minutes of baking.  After that, leave the door shut so the steam stays in!  The purpose of the steam is to again allow the crust to stay moist until the bread has lifted as much as it can.  Don’t spray the bread, spray the sides of the oven.
  • Before your bread goes in the oven you’ll want to spray it with a bit of water and sieve a bit of flour on it so it will brown nicely.  Then give it a signature – slice the top so that it can grow in the oven.  Some breads may need to be sliced all the way around to allow them to grow, too.
  • If your bread is a boule shape (round, artisanal shape) don’t try to make big old long slices (like I had been.) Cut the whole loaf in half, then set the cut end of one half on the cutting board and cut slices off that.  Boy did I feel dumb when I heard that!
  • If you want your bread to last longer, add a little fat.  My most recent success was a loaf of olive oil – kalamata olive – sundried
    tomato – rosemary sourdough bread.  That’s it, above.  It is wonderful, and I made it!  I didn’t even follow a recipe, just adjusted the sourdough one until the dough just “felt right.”  When I cut into that bread and took a taste – well, that was a pretty big moment for me.  I’m already thinking about what I´ll make next!

I am keeping a “web journal” of my baking here.


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More about Nancy

I'm Nancy, a US expat living in San Antonio Tlayacapan, Jalisco after 11 years in Mazatlán, México.

    1. Panaderia Nancy! A new career, how exciting. The breads look and sound perfect. Excellent choice of books. Wish we lived closer! Well, maybe it’s for the better. . .

      1. Mexican Trailrunner, No new businesses for me – I am strictly doing this for fun. I’d love you for a neighbor, bread or no bread!

        Zoe, I had heard that the gluten thing was only important for bread since it has to rise, etc. but I do remember from way back when that pie crust was very sensitive to heat and humidity so that might be an idea… I know the tip about cutting the bread is pretty basic, but hey now we know, right?

    1. So, that’s it! I noticed the difference in the flour when I was rolling out my pie crusts; didn’t have that “stretchability”. And the hint for cutting a loaf in half for slices is a winner, too. How simple a solution and how stupid I feel now.

    1. Thanks Nancy, I need to remember to buy some wheat gluten when I go north again. My bread is okay here, but not as good as I remember it being when I was in California.

      1. Theresa, If Merida has a “beermaking” supply place they might have malt extract, which does the same as wheat gluten, I hear. Might be worth checking around.

        John, See you Sunday!

        Anna, Thank you! When you get an oven you might try using the bread maker to do the initial mixing and rising and then take it out and give it a second rise before baking it in the oven. Especially if you love a good crust! Have fun, let me know how it goes.


    1. This is a great entry!!! I live in Cozumel, Mexico and have recently bought a bread maker. My bread is OK but does not rise well and I am excited to hear about Wheat Gluten. Right now we live in a tinsy apartment and do not have an oven, but we are building a house with a decent sized kitchen and when I get my oven I will be in a better position to bake more. Your book recomendations look great. Cant wait for my next trip to the US to get started. Sour Dough looks complicated – but I love it too so that will be on top of my list of experiments:)

    1. Great post, Nancy. Thanks so much from this sourdough bread enthusiast.

      Three other bread books to consider adding to your “bread baking” library are:

      The New Book of Breads (Dolores Casella) I think the World of Breads is better.
      Bread Winners, a Rodale publication by Mel London
      Adventures of Sourdough Cooking & Baking by Charles D. Wilford. This one is published by the Gold Rush Sourdough Company, that packages and sells a great dehydrated SF style sourdough starter.

      30 + years ago I was the lucky recipient of an old copy of Casella’s World of Breads. Some years back, through my own negligence, I lost my batch of Gold Rush “starter” and decided to make (as in collect wild yeast) my own starter.

      I followed a recipe from The World of Breads using soured milk and flour and collected the wild yeast. I’ve kept this one going for some time.

      Just before I sat down to read some blogs today, I stirred up my “starter” that was fed last night, and bubbling beautifully, in preparation to make several loaves of bread. I was planning to make Panetone, but after reading your post, will likely try something similar to your herbal/sun dried tomato bread, instead.

      When I want a crunchy crust, I pour boiling water into a large shallow pyrex pan, into which I’ve placed 3 or four “fist sized” chunchs of lava rock. Then I quickly place it on the bottom of the preheated oven immediately before I put the loaves in. This “steam producing” method has worked well for me. Also good because I don’t have to open the oven, thus losing some heat, to spray the sides.

      BTW, we spend about half the year in Mexico, and the Gold Rush sourdough book, is one of only three cookbooks that made the cut of which ones to carry.

      Again, I’ll have to be sure to carry gluten with me when I return.

      Thanks again for your bread baking (&appetite stimulating) post. Ah, back to the kitchen.

      1. BJ, Thanks so much for writing, I sure wish I had kept my World of Breads now! And when I was in the US in April I brought back the dehydrated starter from Gold Rush Sourdough. Too funny. I will have to check out the books you recommend when I am visiting north in September. Where do you live in Mexico for half the year? Anywhere near Mazatlan???

    1. nancy, what great information. thanks so much! i still remember when you posted the recipe for the armenian bread and it remains our favorite, am eager to keep track of the baking posts!LL

      1. Linda, Thanks. I am having so much fun! In a few minutes I’ll shape another batch of ciabatta bread, I guess I had better make some soup to go with it! Take care, Nancy

    1. Interesting post. Have you tried the New York Times No-Knead Bread? If not, just Google it. There’s a nice video done by the NYT and recipes. It’s the easiest thing in the world, and produces amazingly good bread, with a hard crust, and big bubbles. In the winter I make most of my own bread using this technique, but it’s too hot in the summer to bake.

      However if I ever end up in Mexico, I’d plan to bake my bread year round as most Mexican bread is pretty uninspiring. Thanks for the tip on the gluten. I had wondered about Mexican flour.

      Any thoughts on baking bread at altitude, like in Mexico City?


      Kim G
      Boston, MA
      Where we are fortunate enough to have a nice supply of artisan bakeries.

      1. Hi again, Kim! Yes, I’ve tried it, actually posted about it here: I am baking like a madwoman here, when your kitchen is already 85 degrees who cares if the oven is on? Billie Mercer is baking a lot in San Miguel, do you read her blog? She might have some insights into high altitude baking. (She’s listed in my blogroll at left)

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