Gal Science: When a Scientist Bakes Bread -The Toast

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220px-Baecker-1568As The Toast searches for its one true Gal Scientist, we will be running a ton of wonderful one-off pieces by female scientists of all shapes and sizes and fields and education levels, which we are sure you will enjoy. They’ll live here, so you can always find them. Most recently: How to Predict the Future. This post was brought to you by the talented commenter laurenipsum.

Cooking is my haven from research science. It’s funny, because cooking isn’t really all that different from bench work. I mix things together with precision while following written instructions and wait given periods of times. Maybe it’s easier to obtain desired results in the kitchen (feeding myself), so I feel more confident in my abilities. I throw myself at new recipes with zeal. I fixate and obsess. Right now my obsession is bread.

I hadn’t been exposed to really great bread until Hungry Ghost Bread. Hungry Ghost Bread is a one-room bakery in Northampton, MA, though you’d probably mistake it for a small cottage. I lived immediately next door to Hungry Ghost in college, so I’m well acquainted with their bread. The deeply browned, fire-licked, hardened, and chewy crust readily tears to reveal the softest and spongiest innards. Their bread goes best with a homemade tomato soup, which softens the crust and soaks into its airy pockets. I’d most often end up buying a five-dollar loaf on the weekends (because I’d inevitably slept through brunch), pairing it with a crunchy apple and a sharp cheddar cheese from State Street Market. Hungry Ghost Bread is my bread ideal and inspiration. It’s a lot to live up to.

French_Boule_BreadI’ve been curious about bread making since college but intimidated to try it. How could my attempts compare to those Hungry Ghost artisanal loaves? It doesn’t help that bread recipes are pretty opaque to a beginner. What does knead to desired consistency really mean when you’ve never made bread before? Recently The Kitchn, my go-to-website resource for recipes and cooking inspiration, posted beginner guides to make your own starter and a simple sourdough sandwich loaf. This was my chance to conquer bread. 

Pursuing my graduate degree in the sciences has honed my resilience in learning new things. I am your canonical perfectionist. I like to get things right. I like to be good at things. I get embarrassed when I make mistakes. You can’t maintain perfectionism in running experiments though. Something inevitably goes wrong and then you learn from it. You try again. Actually, this is how you learn anything. You make mistakes. But it’s really important to fail and repeat with science. I’ve failed so many times at this point. Failing at making bread doesn’t seem that bad. I can try it. It will be okay if it isn’t perfect.

Pain-poolish1I love complicated processes and routines. There are a lot of steps to puzzle over. Maybe this is why I enjoy making so many things from scratch. Maintaining a starter can be involved and time intensive, akin to looking after a pet (your pet yeast.) To initiate a starter, you mix flour and water, cover and leave at room temperature. You add flour and water and stir every day for a week. After a few days of this, the mixture will bubble, grow and develop a film of moisture on top. Wild yeast break down the flour into starches and sugars, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. My starter smells potently like beer.

I’m still figuring out the actual making bread part. The most basic steps involve mixing the dough (containing water, flour, yeast and salt), kneading, allowing the dough to rise, shaping the loaf, allowing the loaf to rise again and baking. In mixing and kneading, you want to foster the structural protein gluten so your bread can hold its shape. Rising gives the yeast time to process the flour and produce gas. I made things more difficult by using whole wheat flour. Whole wheat, being less processed, has a grainier texture and can cut the strands of gluten.

My loaves so far have been chewy, dense and lacking in flavor. I’m unfazed by these disappointments. Maybe lab work has trained me to expect that nothing will work the first time. The bread is at least edible and gives me plenty to think about.

330px-Sour_dough_loaves03Fixating on bread means I talk about it all of the time. I’ve found the reaction from friends surprising. I’d expect boredom and disinterest, but most often they are confused. Why am I going to all of this trouble? Why don’t I just buy bread? I’ve been most surprised by their apparent discomfort though. While I’m intrigued and looking forward to the challenge of my next attempt, they encourage me to bail. They cut me off when I start speculating on what might have gone wrong. Haven’t I heard of the no knead recipes? Why am I trying to use my own starter? Why am I doing this again? Maybe when I acknowledge I’m struggling, they want to spare me the frustration. Maybe it’s difficult to hear that something is going poorly without knowing how to fix it. They pose the immediately obvious solution, get out of this silly experiment, rather than wanting to discuss rising times or if I should let the dough rest after mixing or knead immediately.

I suppose the time and thought I’ve invested into bread making is pretty crazy. Compared to my day-to-day in lab, figuring out bread seems manageable though. After all, I’ve spent years repeating experiments that require me to come in at strange hours of the night, take hours for me to perform, or require months of waiting before I know any results. I would probably give up on bread if I didn’t have an idea of how to improve and move forward with my efforts. Luckily, I have a lot of experience with experiments not working optimally and the resolve and know-how to continue forward. Namely, I know how to troubleshoot.  

Troubleshooting involves identifying what went wrong and how you can address the problem. It’s one of the most important skills you develop as a researcher. How do you think through a problem when something doesn’t work out how you expected? Do you repeat the experiment without changing anything? Do you change just one condition or many? With complicated, time intensive experiments there could be dozens of things you could try differently. Good troubleshooting requires strategizing.

My failed loaves provide insight into future bread making strategies. Having something concrete to go on, density and absence of flavor, I know what conditions to vary. I’ve been playing with how long and at what temperature I allow my dough to rise, trying to give the yeast enough time to produce gas and make the bread lighter. I’ve learned that overnight rises in the fridge don’t work very well. I’ve increased the amount of starter I use to give a more traditional sourdough flavor. I’ve added honey. Just like when I get stuck in lab, reading what other people have done and talking through some of my ideas have helped. As long as I have an idea of what I can try next, bread making doesn’t seem so frustrating or impossible.

I’m a far ways off from artisanal bread loaves I remember from Hungry Ghost Bread, but I’m enjoying the process. Amidst my brick-like loaves, I’m learning more about bread making than I ever thought I would want to know. Most surprising, I’ve come to appreciate my training as a scientist in a new context. Not only has it come in handy for tackling problems in the kitchen, but I realize I’ve developed the confidence to persist in failure, no matter what I’m working on.


5 oz water

¾ teaspoon yeast

1 cup sourdough starter*

2-2 ¼ cups whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon honey

Mix warm water, yeast and starter. Let rest for 3-5 minutes to activate yeast. Add salt and honey. Add flour. Stir. Let rest for 20 minutes. Knead for 10-15 minutes and form into ball. Roll in olive oil in clean bowl and cover for 2-4 hours at room temperature. Form loaf. (Flatten dough into rectangle. Fold into thirds. Fold again in half so you have a taut, smooth top.) Cover for 2-4 hours at room temperature. Bake at 450ºC for 10 minutes, spraying oven with water when you put loaf in for a crispy crust. Reduce temperature to 400ºC and bake for another 25 to 30 minutes. Remove loaf from pan and allow to cool on a rack.

*STARTER: Add equal weight water and flour (2 oz of each, about ½ cup.) Stir, cover, and leave at room temperature. (REMEMBER: rinse utensils immediately or you will have flour glue covering your mixing spoon.) Repeat for five days. At this point you’ll have a lot of starter. Remove half before feeding again. Keep covered in refrigerator. Take out once a week, remove half, feed equal weight water and flour.

Sarah Wardlaw is a PhD candidate in Neurobiology & Behavior at the University of Washington. When she's not researching circadian rhythms and memory in mice, she spends a lot of time thinking about how to tell better stories about science.

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