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.