The Wood-Fired Blog

Pizza Oven Ash on my Bread

One of the aspects of daily bread baking that I am continually running over in my mind is the trade-off between attempts at perfection and time. The law of diminishing returns, and where you reach the cross over. Return on time investment. Time and motion analysis. Operations research.

Earlier, I wrote about how I usually proof larger batches in the mixing bowl, with a linen cloth covering the dough. I know this isn’t the best way of doing it, as it doesn’t do a good job of keeping air away from the top of the dough. But I don’t like moving my dough into a large Tuperware container with a lid, because I end up with two large bowls to clean (and cleaning up dough is a big pain in the ***). And I don’t like to use plastic wrap because I don’t want to throw away a bunch of plastic every time I make bread. So I accept a second-best alternative in order to be able to stay true to my values and find the time to pursue my hobby most days.

This is a long winded lead up to a second time investment decision. Whether or not to wet swab the oven cooking floor. The last few times I have baked, I was in my usual hurry, and decided to not clean all of the ash off the floor — I just used by soft brass brush to push the fine ash to the sides, after shoveling out the coals.

And guess what. I now have ash on the bottom of my loaves. Which leads me to an interesting question. Do I care? I guess I should do some analysis on just how much time it takes to get a rag, soak it with water, wrap it round by oven brush, swab the floor, and then throw the towel into the wash, and compare that time investment with the benefit of not having ash on the bottom of my bread (and perhaps of putting a little more steam in the oven). Gotta think about this one.

So Many Variables

When I said that I was going to follow the same formula, but increase the water, in order to see if I could replicate (and hopefully fix) the problems that I encountered a couple of days ago with my too-dense, under-proofed, really crusty whole wheat loaves.

The good news is that I bumped the water from 78% water to 84% water, and it made a huge difference. The dough was much more lively and elastic, and if proofed better and baked better. That’s good.

The loaves had nice oven spring and they are a lot lighter than the same formula from a few days ago. One came out really nice, and the second exploded a little, which leads me to believe that my new scoring pattern might be part of the problem. More to learn there.

Having said all of this, my latest round of baking underscore for me just how many variables there are in bread baking. The idea that I would only change one variable, while holding the rest constant, so that I could understand the impact of that one variable just doesn’t work. The physical world and my daily schedule threw in a wide range of changes from one batch to another. For example, I started the bread later in the day, I mixed the flour and water and let it rest for 30 minutes before adding the rest of the ingredients and mixing my dough, I mixed for a shorter time period, I didn’t stretch and fold before my bulk fermentation, etc. And then there is the oven itself. It is, after all, a wood-fired pizza oven — without a digital temperature control panel. To be honest, I didn’t even check the temperature of my oven (my hand got warm at 5 Mississippi’s, which is a good guide).

So, to summarize. I think the 84% water was huge. It made all the difference in the world, and I think I have learn enough to know by feel in the future when my dough it just too dry and too tough. I also think that the other problems I encountered — including difficulty stretching and handling the dough, poor final proofing, weak oven spring, the cracked loaves, the dense crumb and the tough crust all spiraled out from that initial mistake.

But I also know there are so many variables at play that it’s going to be a fun project working out the cause and effect relationships that result from all the other variables.


Headlands 50

Speaking of hobbies. I have decided to run the Headlands 50 in Marin County on Sept 15th. It’s a 50 mile race with nearly 10,000 ft in elevation gain and loss. It’s two 25 mile laps of the same course, where I ran my first trail marathon last year, and I can say that the trails are pretty wild. Great views of the Pacific, the headlands, and the Golden Gate bridge and some scary cliffs.

Best case, I could win 50+. Worst case, I crash and burn and don’t finish. But that’s half the fun of distance running. You just never know. Maybe I can break 10:30.

I was considering the Vineman Ironman in Healdsburg, but after my knee injury healed, I fell back into my old habits of running. Beside, I’m a terrible swimmer.

You can see more on the race here:

Under-Proofed Multi-Seed Loaves

One of the great things about hobbies (bread baking or distance running) is that they are, well, hobbies. We strive to do our best, but let’s be honest, we aren’t exactly virtuosos at our hobbies. And that’s good. We keep at it, trying to improve, and some days are better than others. As long as we keep learning and improving, all it well. Just don’t expect perfection. haha.

With that, I made an under-proofed whole wheat multi-seed bread yesterday, that was close to being nice, but had some serious flaws. It exploded and it’s too dense. I am still trying to work whether it was under-hydrated or under-proofed. Maybe both. Either way, it didn’t spring the way I had expected, and it exploded. Although that might have been the result of a new scoring pattern.

Here is the formula:

100 gram white whole wheat
780 grams water
100 grams sunflower seeds
100 grams flax seeds
100 grams old fashion oats
40 grams molasses
30 grams olive oil
30 grams honey
10 gram yeast
20 grams salt

This is a heavy and dense dough that really made my Cuisinart mixer struggle. It took 18 minutes to just blend the flour, water and seeds; and I had to hand stretch the dough before the bulk fermentation. Blah. Now I know the limits of my mixer.

After a long (at least 3-4 hours) bulk fermentation, I shaped two boules and let them rest for perhaps an hour — though probably not long enough. But it was getting late and the oven was ready. I think you can tell from the photos that this dough is pretty heavy and pretty dense. Delicate it’s not.

My oven was mid 500F on the floor and a little hotter in the dome, but the loaves still took longer to bake than I had anticipated. The crust was getting brown, and I checked the internal temperature, thinking that it should be close, but it was still barely above 100F internally. Basically still very doughy. So I closed the door on the oven and waited it out.

The final crumb is very flavorful and it has some real character, but it is not a moist as it should be and the hole structure is very dense. Not bad, really, but it could be better.

Right now, I am leaning toward doing an exact replication of this formula in a couple of days, but with higher hydration. That will help me work out whether the biggest issue was hydration or technique. More to come.



A Good Supermarket Baguette?

If it’s a good supermarket baguette, I guess I’m not back in California. Bad supermarket bread is one of my favorite pet peeves, and I’ve been writing and blogging about it for years on As an American born in the later stages of the Baby Boom, I grew up with Wonder Bread, Swanson’s TV dinners, and all that goes with along with that. But even the French are suffering, with a growing number of neighborhood bakeries throwing in the towel and buying frozen baguettes from the large industrial supermarket suppliers, and baking it locally. The little dimple pattern on the bottom of the loaf is a sign of frozen dough — and a really awful loaf of bread.

But not in Holland! The baguette below is from the C1000 supermarket chain (this one was from Delft), and it’s really darn good. I think it is on par with the expensive micro-bakery baguette you can find in California, and it doesn’t even compare with supermarket bread. Apples and oranges. The dough was never frozen and it was baked on site. Amazing.

How do they do that?

Half Whole Wheat Baguette

It’s never that great coming back from vacation, but one thing I can always look forward to firing one of my pizza ovens. You just can’t beat a good fire to lift your spirits. Another interesting thing about having been away is that the cupboard can be pretty bare — which was the case today, where I could barely scrape together 500 kg of flour without having to go shopping. The result was a fun 50% white whole wheat/50% Caputo pizzeria flour formula, with 70% hydration.

I also used an airtight Tupperware container for my bulk fermentation, and it seems to have  helped. That, and it doesn’t seem to add too much to the clean up time — which is one of the most important factors in determining my day-to-day baking processes.

The fire went fast and I hit a nice oven baking temperature in about an hour and 15 minutes. I raked the coals to the outer edge of the cooking floor after the fire burned down,  hit a nice balance between the dome and floor temperature.

In order, fire, bread and a nice crumb structure. With my focus on eating healthy and replacing simple carbs with more complex carbs, this one might be a keeper.

One last note. I’m going to have to put some attention into making two baguettes that look the same in the same batch. Mine seem to always look different.

More Bread from Belgium

Here are a couple of additional photos of the wonderful whole grain breads bought at the Stokell street market — a nice, upscale village just outside of Brussels. Lots of diplomats and career foreign service people to be found. The dark bread was an 8 grain, loaf leavened with yeast. It was light and moist considering the whole grains, and it worked really well as fresh bread with a cheese and salad lunch, and after a couple of days, it was still fresh enough for breakfast toast. The bakery had an automatic slicer, so our 1/2 kg came out in perfect slices.

The boule in the the right front was a whole wheat levain. We also had this pre-sliced and it was a nice, rustic hearth loaf. The whole wheat flour, pre-ferment and sourdough culture gave the bread a complex and well-developed flavor and texture, along with a thin, but very crunch crust. This was the loaf where the bottom of the bread was darker than the top (an issue that I can relate to).

Last little bit. I really liked their waxed paper bags. They worked well in helping keep the bread fresh, and they had a nice traditional feel.

All in all, a nice part of the European market experience.