I have a bad habit of sabotaging my boule type loaves. I taughten/shape by pulling up consecutive sections of dough up from the bottom towards the centre of the top pinching in the middle, eventually turning the whole over before proofing (no bread tin). Occasionally, while baking, as one side holds its intended shape the other rises a little upwards before the crown is formed. I will try a different technique.
Not withstanding the lack of consistency with shaping (possible overproofing?), it's useful to know there are some merits to where I'm at the moment, and here's why. When you guys talk about values like complex flavours, I have no idea how to turn that into a target when striving for excellence - I can't frame that in such a way I know how to aim for it.
When I make a simple white loaf that's pleasing to me, when I feel it's right, There's a great relationship between the crust and the crumb, and I get a sense of the sunshine that went into the making of it. Fanciful description, but it's the best way I can describe the sense of it. i
I've not got that same relationship yet when working with wholemeal/brown flour. I don't yet find the dough as pleasing to work with, and I don't feel I've hit the equivalent of recognising that 'sunshine taste' moment.
Based on my evaluation and that of my friends/critiques, the flavor of my bread improved greatly when I switched from all purpose flour to a bread flour and I'm certain that there were other factors in the flour besides protein content that contributed to improved flavor.
Have you tried taking some of the overall flour, water, and a pinch of yeast to make a preferment? I've achieved a much better flavor using a preferment that's 8-10 hours old versus one that's 12-15 hours old.
I've done this a couple of times when baking white bread, and found that there has been an intense and undesired 'home brew' kind of quality about the bread when I've done it this way. I know I need to experiment more with this and downsize the amount of yeast I use, together with as you point out, experimenting with my timings.
Perhaps some of the more experienced bakers can tell you a little more information, as most of my approaches have a scientific basis, however the flavours of bread come from:
1) The ingredients.
2) The yeast.
3) The bake.
Think of your basic bread; (as you mentioned) white flour, water, salt and yeast. Apart from using a different flour and the addition of anything else, most of the flavour comes from the yeasts and bake.
Here's the rule; Yeasts not only excrete carbon dioxide, but also alcohols. The SLOWER it ferments, the more complex the flavours of the alcohols in the mix. The quicker it ferments, the harsher the flavour.
SO, the slower you ferment it, the more flavourful it is; this can be done by cooling to fridge temps and leaving for as long as you like. A poolish is flavourful as it fully endorses a well-fed, slow fermentation.
Couple of things to remember:
Don't run out of things to feed your yeast! Add a pinch of sugar (tinyest pinch) or a dribble of honey, and your yeasts will be very happy feeding (although will weaken your glutens slightly),
...and don't add too much... in terms of percentage anywhere between 0.5% - 4% of the flour weight is fine, half that if slow fermenting (retarding).
I, like most here (I believe) generally produce maximum flavours, by adding a poolish and retarding for as long as possible (I usually aim for overnight).
I will leave my poolish for as long as possible before wild cultures start to acidify the flavours (5-7 days at fridge temps work great for me).
...And the bake;
The MIGHTY brown! The browning reaction generates hundreds of aroma compounds including caramel, vanilla, and even slightly fruity and buttery aromas. Get it as brown as your comfortable with the crust, and you'll enjoy good flavours. That means HOT oven! (I don't allow mine to drop below 250C).
You got to the heart of a lot of matters. There are a couple of things I'd like to add to, though.
Handling: How you handle the dough has a lot to do with the ultimate texture.
Holding: You talked about retarding, preferments, all the right things but didn't give it its own separate paragraph. It called me in tears. I can't repeat the entire conversation but as your mutual friend: If you want out of the doghouse,you owe it flowers, dinner at its favorite restaurant (no hot pot joints), and earrings. Minimum.
Speaking of preferments -- Poolish, biga and sour are nice and the more you use them the nicer they seem and the more you use them and so on. But not for every loaf. Some things are better without. But, there's a very interesting formula for sourdough challah on The Fresh Loaf. Have you seen it?
Oven temp: Hot! Hot! Yes if you want crusty, crackly bread. Lower temps for a more tender crust, as for sandwich breads.
For my 6C loaf, the preferment consists of 1/8th tsp of INSTANT YEAST, 1.3C water mixed into 2 1/4C flour. And yes, at the end of the 8-10 hour preferment there certainly should be a beery odor because that's what beer is, essentially, fermented wheat. A tiny amount of yeast is preferred since it'll minimize the beeriness (CO2and alcohol production) and, I think, optimize starch conversion into sugar and its's those sugars that'll improve the flavor of your bread.