I have been baking bread on and off since I was a teenager, but it was only in the last six months that two things happened that revolutionised my bread making. The first was buying a plastic scraper (or two actually). Far more radical was buying a copy of Richard Bertinet’s Dough. This has completely transformed the way I make bread, and has made me into a breadmaking fanatic, whose weekends don’t seem complete unless some new challenge is underway.
Bertinet wouldn’t claim to have invented the method of working with dough that he describes – it is essentially a traditional French technique – but he is certainly one of its finest exponents and a very eloquent advocate of it. If you haven’t yet tried it, I strongly urge you to do so.
The Bertinet Method in a Nutshell
The method has two key elements:
- The first is the use of a very moist dough, which is “worked”, rather than kneaded. This consists of slapping it onto the work surface, stretching it and folding it over itself. This develops both the structure of the dough, and incorporates air into it. The resulting bread is very light. What’s more, once you get the hang of it, working the dough is far quicker and less hard work than traditional kneading.
- The second element is the way the dough is treated after its first rise. It is not knocked back. Instead it is gently folded and shaped, in such a way as to strengthen the skin of the dough so that it can retain all the bubbles that have been created so far.
Find Out More
Of course words cannot convey the method as well as seeing it in action. So, if you want to give it a try, I would recommend you buy Bertinet’s first book, Dough. It is outrageously cheap, at only £15.99. It comes with a short DVD in which the author demonstrates the method. The book itself is full of great recipes, as well as inspirational ideas for shaping and slashing bread and rolls. It also contains some quite stunning photographs.
Alternatively you’ll find a number of videos on line (I found these a useful supplement to the book).
- Bertinet himself can be seen demonstrating “working” the dough (and making fougasse) on Saturday Kitchen. However, because this is a popular television program, there are a lot of distractions going on, and this video only really provides an introduction to the technique. You do however get to know this charming and amusing Frenchman.
- My favourite video for working the dough, apart from the one that comes with the book, is on Cooking with Paul, in which a young American very ably demonstrates the technique while making Cinnamon Rolls. The relevant bit for working the dough is from 2:35 mins to 6:12 (although he refers to it as folding).
- You’ll find Bertinet giving a quick demonstration of making white bread, from mixing to baking, on the Guardian website (you may have to watch a 30 second commercial first).
Give it a go. I guarantee you won’t regret it!
Adapting Recipes to Use the Bertinet Method
If you’re at all like me, then sooner or later you’ll want to start using the Bertinet method with recipes that weren’t specifically designed for it. However, the method does work best with a higher ratio of liquid to flour (known as hydration) than is found in many recipes written with conventional kneading in mind. Those might specify 600ml of water to every 1000g of flour (60% hydration), or perhaps 650ml (65%), but Bertinet’s recipes generally use 700ml (70%).
There are a number of approaches you could take here.
- If the only liquid involved is water, you could just get out your calculator and work out how much more water you need to add to bring the hydration up to 70%.
- If milk or oil or eggs are involved, then in theory it is more complicated, but you won’t go far wrong if you treat all these as being equivalent to water.
- If you find it too difficult to work out, then just try adding some more water in 25ml increments until the dough feels “right”. It’s quite easy to mix extra water into dough at the first mixing stage. (If you’ve got as far as experimenting, I assume you already know roughly what “right” feels like).
- Don’t worry too much about getting the dough too wet. There isn’t really such a thing. A very wet dough will still make bread. It may have trouble holding its shape, but it will rise and will almost certainly turn out very light and bubbly. And if it really is wetter than you feel you can handle, you can always break the otherwise golden rule and add extra flour.
Bear in mind that there are some occasions when the method is not suitable, and also when a drier dough is appropriate. For example making croissants will probably be easier with a drier, less tacky dough.
All the bread shown in this post was made by me using Bertinet’s method. With the exception of the scissor-cut loaf at the top right it was also formed following the directions and pictures in Dough.
Bertinet’s second bread book, Crust, is at a more advanced level, covering things like sour dough, ciabatta and croissants. He has also written one called simply Cook, and his new book, Pastry, will be out very soon.
By a strange coincidence, on the very morning when I sat down to write this blog, I came across a post by thelittleloaf where she describes attending one of Bertinet’s courses in Bath. I’m determined to do that myself at the first opportunity! If not for bread, then for pastry or cooking.