Mixing. It’s the second step (the first being Starter Fermentation). Each step is as important as the rest. Each step builds toward my goal of creating a beautiful and delicious loaf of bread.
It’s always been the step I focused on the least. Until now.
I enjoy the process of hand-mixing because my eyes and hands can feel the flour and water change; I can really feel the gluten develop (if I’m present!).
The purpose of mixing is two-fold:
First, hydrating the flour. This involves mixing your flour and water together to ensure that there’s no dry flour still in your bowl. For me, this involves a lot of squeezing the dough between my fingers. Turning the dough over in my bowl and squeezing some more. I know when I’m done because I can’t see any more flour on my dough. My hands can even feel when there’s no more dry flour.
Second, developing gluten. The Tartine method does very little actual mixing. Why? It lets time do all the work. I’m sure it works, but for me at least at this stage in my baking, I like to develop some of the gluten myself before I begin the bulk fermentation process.
The first way to do this is with an Autolyse. If you’re a beginning baker (and I still think I am!), then let your flour/water dough sit for a couple of hours. I often let it sit for the 3-4 hours while I’m waiting for my leaven to become active and ready. Time is your friend.
Lately, I’ve been following the Tartine method which adds the leaven at the same time as the flour and water (a fermentolyse). This has been fitting my schedule well, and it’s working. One thing to remember is that your Bulk Fermentation starts the minute you add the leaven because that’s when the metabolic processes start.
Getting back to gluten development, I personally like the Rubaud method even though it takes a little strength and determination because I’m working with really low hydration doughs right now. This method is detailed well in @trevorjaywilson’s ebook: Open Crumb Mastery.
If you use this method slowly and purposefully, you can feel the gluten develop in your hand.