Mixing by Hand

proofing bread
bread proofing in wood pulp baskets

We just celebrated our 2nd birthday at the end of August!  In celebration, we are choosing right now to begin our blog.  I hope this blog will be educational in some small part, and personal in nature, so that you can begin to develop an understanding of who I am as a person, and a baker; it is in this way that I hope this blog will help enrich your relationship with Field & Fire.  

I want to start by talking about hand-mixing.  Wow, is it ever cool to be a bakery that hand mixes almost everything we do!  It feels so special.  Bakeries that hand-mix are very, very rare (I know of only 1 other bakery that does this).  This means that early every morning, when you all are sleeping, a team of bakers comes in to field & fire and spends 1 ½ to 2 hours mixing dough.  We first measure water into a container, we add our starters and preferments, do a lot of swishing around and squeezing and whatnot, and then we add the flour, salt, and whatever else is in the recipe.  We then mix it all together by hand.  Let me tell you this:  when you are mixing the dough by hand, the smell is amazing.  Intoxicating even.  The pre-ferments have their own smell, and it is good, but the organic flour that we use, when we pour it in and start moistening it, lets off such a sweet and yummy aroma that it always gives me pause (i actually don’t physically pause, because bakers are extremely efficient people and pausing during most moments does not occur to us).  I want to swim in that smell.  I breathe it in and i feel refreshed.  so what if it is 3:00 in the morning.  🙂

We use so many great flours, and they all have their own aroma.  My favorites are the organic stone ground whole wheat flour and the organic Michigan grown and milled whole rye flour.  Both amazing!  You can truly smell the grain in these flours, and smelling them connects me to the reason that these grains became food for us in the first place.  They are packed with nutrition and deliciousness!  We use a lot of whole grains in our baking, since we actively care about the health of our customers, but I guess that will be the subject of some future blog.  Back to mixing.  By hand.

Mixing by hand is not easy!  The flours are thirsty!  So they soak up the liquid quite fast, and the nature of starch is to lump up a bit unless it is mixed with some degree of force and speed.  So away we go, and we use our muscles and our skeletons to mix everything together, hydrating all of the ingredients evenly and minimizing lumps.  Our doughs are what you might call high-hydration, meaning that they contain a lot of liquids.  That means they are very, very sticky.  So it’s a bit of a messy business, but we keep our handy plastic scrapers close by to clean up the containers and our hands once the mixing is finished.  High hydration dough is something we choose because it ends up making better bread.  Sincerely moist, and since the grains are fully hydrated, they ferment better and you are able to absorb more nutrition from them.

hand mixed
bins used for hand mixing all of our dough

On any given day we mix around 20 to 30 batches of hand-mixed dough.  When you mix by hand, you have to keep the batch sizes small enough that a person can physically mix it up.  French baguettes are one of our most popular products and generally we mix between 3 and 5 batches of that dough.  

Hand mixing presents the baker with a difficulty:  it is hard to develop a lot of gluten when you mix by hand!  That is why bakeries use mixers.  You can develop all of the gluten you need in 6 or 10 minutes of mixing in an electric mixer.  By hand, you could struggle with the dough for 20 minutes and still end up with a gloppy mess.  So, we approach the development of gluten differently.  We mix the ingredients, then we let the mixture rest for 30 minutes.  During that time, the flours moisten completely, the yeast and bacteria in the starters and preferments begin to look around for food, and a loose structure of gluten molecules starts to form on its own.

After the 30 minutes, we do what is called folding.  This implies stretching the dough and folding it over itself several times.  This organizes the existing gluten and strengthens it.  Then we let it rest for another 30 minutes.  Then we fold again.  And then we repeat 2 more times.  That means that 2 hours after the mixing, we have folded the dough 4 times.  This has allowed us to develop and strengthen plenty of gluten strength.  It is really amazing to see the change in the dough after the 4 folds!  After the final fold, the dough looks bouncy and has a nice sheen to it.  It looks like it is fermenting, with bubbles visible and volume increasing.  It is alive!  Let us take a second to celebrate the livingness of the dough!  There are living beings inside that dough, and they are where the real magic resides.  We bakers are just the stewards of their amazing life cycles.

the beginning
2 years ago… our ovens and kitchen weren’t even ready when we opened!

Looking closely at what is going on inside that dough, we would see a lot of yeast and bacteria at work.  They are metabolizing sugars and carbohydrates, and the byproducts of all this work, which we call fermentation, are so useful to the baker!  Carbon dioxide is key in leavening the dough.  When we mixed the ingredients together earlier, we left all sorts of tiny bubbles in there, and as the organisms emit carbon dioxide, it gathers together in the bubbles.  As the bubbles swell, the gluten in the dough stretches, and the dough grows.  In addition, the carbon dioxide strengthens the gluten, so as the dough ferments it tends to get stronger.  But those invisible organisms are doing more than producing carbon dioxide!  They are also producing various acids, other gases, and alcohol, as well as volatile molecules that contribute to flavor and aroma.  It is the fermentation of the dough that transforms it into an amazing food source.

wet dough
shelby scooping out the wet dough to be shaped

On a side note, I want to confess this:  I often scoff at non-fermented grain products.  I have a strong feeling that fermenting grains is what turns them into a viable food, and i have an interest in minimizing my intake of grains that have not been fermented.  So I try not to eat tons of pasta, crackers, cereal, etc.  Fermenting grains unlocks their nutritional value.  Read “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon if you want to explore this a bit.

Onward!  Once the dough has been fermenting for 2 hours, we usually rest it for another 30 minutes to an hour, and then we begin the next phase, which is scaling and shaping.  This is a matter for another blog.  I think that i have said enough about hand-mixing for now!  But next time you line up in our queue and look at all the bread on our shelves, look at the bakers inside our bakery and understand that it is their hands and bodies that have taken something from a flour sack and transformed it into what you see.  Buy it.  It is a very special product.

by Shelby Kibler