(Baking) Rule #1

When I was a young teenager, I followed professional basketball rather – and this might be a bit of an understatement – closely. I can still recite the starting lineup, with jersey numbers, of my hometown (championship, then and again!) team, the Boston Celtics. I didn’t get to many games at Boston Garden, but I faithfully listened to each one on the radio and relished the televised games even more.

Naturally, I became familiar with players on the other teams as well. Although many of those opponents’ names have vanished from my memory, there is one player I will never forget: Rick Barry of the Golden State Warriors.  He is one of the game’s greatest all-time stars, an eight-season NBA All-Star and a Hall-of-Famer. But to be honest, and intending no disrespect to his all-around achievement, what stands out most in my mind about Rick Barry is that he shot his free throws underhand.

Yes, one of the greatest (and at the time of his retirement, the best) free-throw shooters of all time shot in a highly unconventional way. Or, as Red Auerbach pointed out in this Red on Roundball video (which, just to be clear, was shot way before my time!), the old way. Auerbach didn’t, but some would call it the wrong way. Shaquille O’Neal is reported to have said “I would shoot negative percentage before I shot like that.”

Perhaps people (like Shaq and – ahem – young teenagers) were laughing, and high school coaches were cringing, but Rick Barry didn’t care. He put the ball through the hoop every time.

Which brings me to my all-time, trumps-everything, supreme grand Rule #1 of bread baking (and of most things, for that matter): Do What Works For You. And Corollary #1: Don’t Do What Doesn’t Work For You.

There are myriad bread-baking “rules” floating around out there: “It’s cheating if you mix sourdough with baker’s yeast.” “Wetter is better.” “Don’t knead the dough, just fold it.” “If you mix by machine you’re just not a real baker.” Some rules even contradict other rules: “Cooler proofing temperatures make bread more sour.” “No, it’s warmer temperatures!” “Don’t degas the dough.” “Degas the dough!”

If you’ve been reading here for a while you may have noticed that I’m rather opinionated about some things myself. “Weigh your ingredients.” “Use flour milled from winter wheat.” Blah blah blah. I hope it’s understood, but in case not, let me spell it out: I have these opinions because I have found these things to work well for me. For me. For. Me. Maybe for you, maybe not.

Think of some of the rules you follow when baking. Think about what you “know.” Now ask yourself, how are those rules and that knowledge working for you?

Of course you might not be able to tell how well things are working unless you think about why you bake in the first place. Rick Barry’s goal was pretty straightforward: deposit the ball in the basket and score the point. Presumably most basketball players have the same goal, although some (like Shaq) may care more about how “manly” they look than about actually scoring points. If Barry had been one of those, his free throws would probably have been performed a bit differently.

As bread bakers, our goals can cover quite a lot of ground. Does “winging it” in the measurement department make you feel free and artistic? Do you enjoy taking copious notes and making precise, minute tweaks? Does baking without any baker’s yeast at all give you a sense of accomplishment? Do you want a soft sandwich bread or a hearty crisp-crusted boule? Do you want to come home from work and bake a better-than-storebought loaf in time for dinner? Do you revel in the feel of dough between your fingers? Do you love tools and toys? Or will you do anything to keep technology out of your kitchen?

If you find that some of your “rules” aren’t working so well for you, consider where the rule came from and the goal it was designed to achieve. Maybe you have a different goal.

But even when we share the same goals, we may end up doing things differently from each other and from “the right way.” Different paths can lead to the same place; different methods can lead to similar breads. Each kitchen, each oven, each pair of hands, each climate, each flour, each water, individually and together create a unique set of factors that are never completely knowable and that can make our own paths to success belie the prevailing wisdom, sometimes quite starkly.

So if you’re baking great bread with a spring wheat flour, why change to a winter wheat one? (Unless of course one of your goals is to satisfy your curiosity about different flours.) If starting your bake from a cold oven, rather than a prehreated one, serves you well, why preheat? If mixing baker’s yeast and sourdough in the same bread gives you bread you like in the time you have, who is anyone to order you not to do that? If weighing ingredients feels fundamentally wrong to you, why weigh?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn from and share ideas with each other, or that we should ever stop trying new things and challenging ourselves. All I’m saying is that when someone presumes to tell you that you shouldn’t be doing something you know damn well works just fine, or that you ought to be doing something you’ve already tried and found to be an exercise in futility, it really pisses me off.

My own overriding goals are simply to bake bread I enjoy eating and sharing, and to have fun and learn something doing it. If I achieve that, I’ve done something right, and I don’t need a rule or an authority to tell me it’s right (or not).

What are your goals when you bake? Where’s your hoop? And what works for you to get the ball through it? Or are you missing the hoop on a regular basis? In that case, here’s an idea: do something else.

CommentsLeave a comment

  1. says

    Susan! How radical!
    When I was working in the hospital, people would always ask me What would you do? And I would always tell them I’m only too happy to tell you what worked for me BUT I also tried to tell them listen to all advice to find what works for you. All advice maybe good but the best advice is what works for you and may not work for anybody else!
    For a girl, you sure seem to understand basketball, bread and life;))

  2. says

    I couldn’t have said it any better Susan.

    When people ask me during my classes on bread baking how I “know” that the breads I create without a recipe or by “winging it” will work out. I tell them I don’t exactly until they are finished and the first slice is cut and tasted BUT that the failures I have are when I don’t do what feels right to me.

    I also caution my students that what works for me may not work for them but part the joy of being part of the bread baking community at large is the sharing of the information and advice, trying different methods, and discovering what works for you as a baker. After all that is all part of the fun!

  3. says

    Man, that is so true. It’s funny because our mistakes and failures lead us to those conclusions and we think that everyone needs to do it that way.

    I like the learning, the whole process, and what you stated is just that.

    “the sharing of the information and advice, trying different methods, and discovering what works for you as a baker. After all that is all part of the fun!” – so true!

  4. says

    Susan this was a great post, and I am sports challenged. Got the message though and it is so true. Thanks for a great story.

  5. says

    Excellent post. I grew up with my mom making bread–and the experience was invaluable–but now we make bread very differently. I weigh and am inspired by recipes; she throws in the stuff and probably has practically never looked at a recipe. We each roll our eyes at the other and go on our merry way. :)

  6. Lisa says

    It’s funny you brought up that business about not using commercial yeast in sourdough recipes, because I’ve heard from several sources that doing so is useless–that the ph of a wild yeast dough will simply kill the commercial yeast–yet have seen experienced bread makers use such combinations–as in your sprouted wheat bread. Maybe your entry today explains your reasoning–”I do it because it works!”–but if you have another reason for combining the yeasts, I’d love to hear it. Many thanks for the excellent blog, btw. I enjoy reading it and have had lots of fun trying your recipes. Lisa

  7. says

    A really great post – that was just what I needed to hear. With my bookshelves filled to the brim with “expert advice” I think I often take their statements as dogma and hesitate to deviate. I think so many of us (myself included) have this desire to be by-the-book, as if there was some prize at the end of the road for knowing all the rules; when in fact, the real prize is the knowledge that comes from experimentation and the smiles that result from pulling bread out of the oven that you know will work, despite all the rules you broke!

  8. says

    I was wondering where you were going with the basketball story — then it made perfect sense. Thanks for the entertaining read.

  9. says

    Well said and so very important to remember. I was rather “shocked” when I first started in on American sites, books and forums regarding bread. I couldn’t believe how many different views there were and how people claimed that each way was the only way. But it does all come back to every individuals motivations for making bread and that is often forgotten. That is a pertinent point!
    I don’t mind weighing and trying to reproduce certain recipes perfectly but I have to admit I really enjoy just feeling the dough and adding a bit of this and a bit of that and even if each time it’s a little different, that is one of my great pleasures. Learning from each other and experimenting is such fun.
    Jane

  10. ct says

    This is not just a post. This is an excellent essay! Better than many “pro” articles in food magazines! You made me smile so many times with delight as your wittiness points out the “truths” with all these (fussy) baking rules.

    ps: all of your posts are always so much fun & informative to read.

  11. says

    I agree! And sometimes the best successes come from little tweaks that just feel right! :-) BTW, when I was in high school, I was a basketball nut too. I had a major crush on (of all people, so random) Dennis Rodman! (And I think Shaq’s free throw percentage *is* negative, so maybe he should reconsider that statement…)

  12. says

    wise words – I have often puzzled over some of the advice I see on blogs because I work differently without problems – but there are so many variables working on recipes that cannot always be known when writing it down for someone else. And it is such a joy when it does work!

  13. says

    How refreshing! We have been recently noticing how very forgiving bread actually is. Up until about two months ago, I was baking all the bread – virtually my only real task in the kitchen. But I got tired of baking sandwich bread. My husband (a brilliant cook) neeeeeeeds sandwich bread. And so he has taken over and now kneads sandwich bread, leaving me free to make more interesting (to me) bread.

    The remarkable thing is that his methods of mixing the bread are entirely different from mine. I am a measurer. I consider myself a strict measurer (even though I generally measure by volume and don’t actually make sure that a cup measure is always full). My husband, on the other hand, is a “wing it, toss in the ingredients” kind of guy. His sandwich bread is easily as good, if not better, than the sandwich bread I was making by measuring oh so carefully (the sandwich bread I was making was good too…). What gets me is that he uses a kitchen spoon to eyeball how much yeast he should add. And a coffee cup to scoop flour out of the bag. And adds it to “some” water until he likes the consistency…

  14. says

    J., thanks!

    baking soda, glad this struck a chord for you.

    Tanna, I’m very familiar with that scenario with patients also. Those decisions are usually so much heavier than those involved in baking, but the principle is sure the same, isn’t it?

    breadchick, very wise advice!

    Lori, we fall into that “my way or the highway” mentality all to often, don’t we?

    Claire, thanks!

    Kim, I’m more sports-challenged than I used to be, and to tell the truth there’s a lot I don’t like about the mindset around professional sports, but I still find some heroes in the sports world.

    rainbowbrown, maybe it’s just that I’m getting older but I think that kind of integrity in sports figures is getting harder to come by.

    Laura, it’s so good you can accept each others differences with only a little eye-rolling!

    Lien, thank you!

    Lisa, that’s one of the great points of contention in sourdough baking. I wrote a little bit more on the subject in my Sourdough Stories post.

    Melissa, indeed!

    Jude, I do need to learn to cut to the chase a little sooner, don’t I?

    Jane, I’m curious whether opinions in France vary as much as here.

    ct, thanks! “Fussy” is a good word, I think.

    Jennifer, thanks for reading and have a great day yourself!

    Katy, I can’t say Dennis Rodman was ever one of my crushes. :) (Neither was Shaq.)

    Johanna, I like to read the advice and if I have no idea what I’m doing it’s good to have some guidelines — but you’re so right that all the variables can make things so complicated that sometimes you just need to throw the guidelines out the window.

    Elizabeth, funny how that works, isn’t it? WIsh I could get my husband or kids interested in baking…

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