Complicated, poorly understood topics generally sufficiently intimidate me that I can't sustain real interest in them. Programming was one example for a long time, until I found good teachers that made it easy. Beer brewing was another. There is, however, one such topic that draws me back to itself time and time again: bread baking. Making bread is an almost unbelievably complex process. I don't mean that it is hard to make good bread; in fact, I've found that very simple ever since my sister made me watch Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey's no-knead bread video recipe. Rather, it is understanding why the bread you bake is good or bad that may be an insurmountable challenge. Baking bread is a many-staged process and the way each step of a recipe is performed changes how every subsequent stage will play out. As do minute environmental factors. As do equipment factors. At this level of complexity, the production of even a relatively simple loaf becomes a web of interdependent factors and tasks. Figuring out if you're on the right track in the middle of a recipe can be difficult without experience, and figuring which factors went right and which wrong when looking at a baked loaf is often even harder. Despite these challenges, I find myself retaining deep interest in baking bread, even when my experiments (which I always hope to eat) are relative failures. Perhaps achieving good results with no-knead bread has given me hope of mastery, or the relatively pain-free nature of experimentation (I like kneading, recipes take only hours or a day or two, even mediocre results can be delicious) keeps me from being discouraged, or maybe baking and eating bread is just satisfying and comforting on a basic level. In any case, I forge on.
Lately I've been reading through Peter Reinhardt's Whole Grain Breads (at a bookstore; sadly, I don't own any of his books yet). In his bread books, Reinhardt somehow manages to convey adequately detailed technical information in a way that doesn't seem at all divorced from his obvious enthusiasm for bread, which makes even discussions of yeast strains and enzyme activity compelling. Reading in Whole Grain Breads about his new delayed-fermentation and soaker method has made me reexamine how little I know about my my no-knead doughs work so well. In the interest of organizing my thoughts and being able to refer to this information later, I'm going to note here my hazy understanding of the concepts involved. Don't go imagining any of the following is necessarily accurate.
Apparently, when you mix flour, water, and yeast together, there are at least two main activities taking place. The third, which I won't talk about because I know nothing about it except that it creates acidity for sourdough breads, is bacterial. The first, and the one that everyone talks about, is yeast leavening. Yeast, a type of fungus, break down sugar and sugar chains (starch) in the flour and produce alcohol, a small amount of acid, and carbon dioxide gas, which is what "rises" the dough. So yeast contributes some flavor (its own and some acid) and gas to the final loaf. The last activity, the one nobody talks about, is enzyme activity. Flour contains enzymes needed to break down its own starches because the grain it is milled from were originally intended for growth into a new plant, and that new seedling needs shorter sugars for food. In fact, everyone, including ourselves and yeast, like those broken-down sugars. Hydrating flour somehow activates or releases its enzyme amylase, which breaks down starch, and also protease, which breaks down protein. I have often heard that a long, slow fermentation makes no-knead dough more flavorful. It seems that that long period of time and probably also the high hydration level promote the amylase activity which is responsible for much of that flavor. In addition, protease weakens gluten strands, which makes the dough more extensible and easier to tear, allowing larger gas bubbles to form in the crumb during baking.
Reinhardt's method, which I don't yet understand very well, involves preparing two pieces of "pre-dough" the day before baking: the soaker and the starter. The starter is a pre-fermented, yeast-rich piece of dough. It seems that, as opposed to what I would have thought, the yeast in the starter is not meant to drive fermentation, though of course it does some of that. The starter is so much smaller than the complete dough, and the yeast concentration so low, that it would probably take a long fermentation period for the starter yeast to rise the whole loaf. I guess the idea instead is to give the yeast an opportunity to produce its characteristic flavors. The soaker, which makes up almost all of the eventual dough mass, is much simpler: it's just hydrated flour. The hydration activates the above-mentioned enzymes in the flour, and they do their thing without yeast getting in the way (which apparently is dangerous, because the enzymes can go too far and dissolve too much sugar, making the dough collapse into gumminess) or imposing a time constraint based on full rising. The soaker idea makes a lot of sense: a dough that is hydrated and seeded with yeast at the same time has two (three) processes happening at the same time that are all important, but in a way end up racing each other. If the enzyme activity goes too fast and runs away, you end up with gummy bread. If the yeast win and the dough is baked before the enzymes can do their job, you lose flavor. In the soaker, the enzymes are free to do their thing before salt (which slows enzyme activity) and yeast are added, so if the timing is right (and apparently this is a ballpark thing, like rising the no-knead bread), you know you've developed about as much flavor as you can. When the starter and soaker are combined, salt and quite a bit of commercial yeast is added. The large amount of yeast makes for a quick rise. Since the enzymes have already broken down a lot of sugars in the dough, you don't need a long rise to get good flavor!