Awhile ago I had promised myself to do more baking to regain some of those skills I lost due to not using them much over the last many years. While I have done more baking since I started this blog, I haven’t done nearly the amount I want, so I’ve made that promise to myself again and hopefully will stick with it.

The bread I baked the other day is the first loaf I’ve baked in quite some time, and I realized just how rusty those skills become without use. Don’t get me wrong, it turned out fine, but I do need a little work on my skills to get my breads to the level I would like them to be. None the less, I thought I’d share the recipe I used as it produces a bread with really good flavor. The crumb was a little dense for my taste, but again this was more due to my rusty skills then the recipe itself.

Before I get into the recipe though, there are a few terms I need to go over as many of you may not be familiar with them. First off is the term “poolish.” There are numerous different types of pre-ferments and words used to describe them. Poolish is one such term. While there are many different words out there, I find that there are 4 that people need to know. The rest of the terms are mostly variations on these 4 terms. These are, sourdough, levain, biga and poolish. The first 2 are preferments that capitalize on wild yeasts and micro organisms. These tend to take numerous days to create initially. Once created they are stored in the fridge and “fed” every so often to keep them active. When ready to bake with these type of preferments, a bit of the starter is pulled from the fridge and “fed” over a day or 2 to make the wild yeasts active again before making bread. These starters give bread a wonderful depth of flavor and often a slight sourness to them. These are very traditional methods of leavening a bread.

In contrast a biga and poolish use a small amount of commercially prepared yeast (store bought) to create a preferment. The yeast is mixed with water and flour, covered and allowed to sit for a few hours or overnight. Like its sourdough cousins, these starters help add depth of flavor to the bread and contribute to a more open texture and crumb. The main difference between a biga and poolish is hydration. A biga has less water and is more dough-like in consistency while a poolish contains more water and is closer to a batter or sponge in consistency.

In this recipe I also use a “stretch and fold” method of fermentation. During the initial bulk fermentation the dough is gently stretched out, folded into thirds, turned 90 degrees and folded into thirds again then gently rolled to tighten the surface again. This is often done every 30 minutes for the first 90 minutes of fermentation and is used in open textured breads to help align the gluten strands.

Finally, if you are looking for a nice crisp crust to your bread you really need to invest in a pizza stone, preferably a large, square one and a spray bottle. The pizza stone will help provide a more even temperature in your oven, along with helping to crisp the bottom of your bread. The spray bottle, filled with water, will create the perfect steamy environment, in your oven, for producing a nice crust.

In general, when it comes to baking it is best to weigh your ingredients instead of using volume measures, but I know that not everyone owns a scale so this recipe does use volume measurements.  This means that when adding your flour you may need to add a little less or a little more than the recipe calls for.

Basic Batard

1 1/2 cups bread flour
1 1/4 cups water, 90-100°F
3/4 tsp. yeast

2 1/2 cups bread flour
1/2 cup water, 90-100°F
2 tsp. yeast
2 1/2 tsp. salt

Start the night before you want to bake. To make the poolish, combine the first set of ingredients and mix until well combined. Cover, loosely with plastic wrap and allow to ferment, at room temperature, overnight. The following morning, combine the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl and set aside. Add the remaining water to the poolish and mix to loosen. Add the dry ingredients and mix to combine. Pour out, onto the counter that has been lightly dusted in flour and knead for 7-10 minutes. The dough will be slightly soft and on the sticky side. Refrain from adding too much flour as you knead. You want the dough soft. Lightly oil a bowl and place the dough in it. Place in a warm spot (preferably about 70-75°F – an oven with the light turned on is perfect if your kitchen is on the cool side). Every 30 minutes do a stretch and fold, as described above, making sure to be gently so as to not knock the gases out of it. After 90 minutes the dough should be about double in size. If not allow to proof a little longer, without doing any additional folds. Divide the dough in 2 and form into batards (a short fat baguette). Allow to rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile place pizza stone in oven and preheat to 500°F. Dust a peel with flour, place batards on the peel, dust the tops with flour and, using a thin, sharp knife slash the top of batard starting about 1 inch from the end and going to within 1 inch of the other end and about 1/4 inch deep. Open the oven door and, using the spray bottle spray the sides of the oven. Try not to directly spray the pizza stone as excess moisture on the stone may make it crack. Quickly slip the loaves onto the pizza stone, close the oven door and reduce the heat to 450°F. During the first 5 minutes of baking quickly open the oven door and spray down the sides of the oven with water 3 times to produce steam. Do this quickly so as to not lower the temperature of the oven too much and to trap as much steam as possible. Bake for an additional 20 minutes or until an instant read thermometer registers 200-205°F.

As tempting as it may be to cut into the bread right away, allow it to cool for at least 15-20 minutes to help develop its flavor.