Saturday, July 15, 2006


Richard Bertinet is a French baker/chef who teaches at his school The Bertinet Kitchen in Bath. We met recently to talk about his sourdough bread, but before we got into the detail of ferment and biga he said to me “Do you know how to make a dough?”

I opened my mouth to say yes, then caught sight of the raised eyebrows and thought better of it. I muttered something incomprehensible. He gave me an impromptu lesson in how to make dough, his way. And suddenly it all became clear!

Richard’s book Dough is a million miles away from either the worthy or the fake artisan. This is bread in a lighter tradition, infused with colour and sunshine, the crunch of the baguette, the taste of the olive, and it is hugely inspiring.

He says that English home bread makers don’t know how to make dough. We put in the ingredients, flour, water, salt, yeast, and when the mass is incorrigibly porridgy what do we do? Why, we add more flour. This is quite true, I do it myself.

When a recipe says ‘ knead until the dough cleans itself off the work surface’ I know that my dough will not do that as it is far too sticky. I must have done something wrong, or the recipe is not right, or my flour is different, or, or, or.

Richard showed me how to do it his way. The recipe is not wrong. The mixture is extremely sticky. It would be impossible to knead it in the way I have been used to, with the heel of my hand.

If you add water to flour it gets sticky” he says. “And your natural reaction to sticky hands is to stop them being sticky, you don’t like the feel of the wet dough on your hands. So you add flour until the stickiness disappears. But the job of the flour is to absorb the water, which changes its consistency and structure, and if you add more flour it can’t do that. Think like a dough hook, it starts off working in the sticky mixture but it’s a dough hook so it doesn’t mind.”

Rule No 1: follow the recipe exactly.

500g strong bread flour

350g water

10g fresh yeast

10g salt

Rub the yeast straight into the flour, do not add it to water.

Add the salt and rub through.

Add the water, keeping back a little in case you don’t need it all.

Now, using a flexible plastic scraper like this, or something similar with rounded edges, incorporate the water into the flour. Turn the bowl with one hand and use the scraper with the other. You will end up with a very sticky mixture. Use the scraper to get the mixture out of the bowl.

You cannot knead this mess in the ordinary way. Indeed, Richard dislikes the word ‘knead’, he says you ‘work’ the dough. “Slide your fingers under it, like a pair of forks, with the thumbs on top; swing the mixture (which is sticky enough to be cohesive, just) upwards and then slap it back down, away from you on to the work surface. Stretch the front of the dough towards you, then lift it back over itself in an arc (to trap the air), still stretching it forwards then sideways and tucking it in around the edges. Keep repeating this sequence.”

I have quoted almost verbatim from his book, but having done it myself I have to tell you that your fingers will be stuck in the dough all the time. There is an almost irresistible urge to clean your hands. Don’t do it! You have to keep going, rocking from back foot to front foot so the tension is eased from your shoulders and you get a whole body motion going. Sort of like baking Tai Chi.

Quite soon the texture of the mess changes into a sticky dough with definite dough-like characteristics, and after a while lo! it actually starts to clean itself off the work surface! That’s the time to stop, clean off what little remains on your fingers with flour, and make the still rather wobbly dough into a ball on a floured surface.

From then on it is pretty much business as usual. You don’t slap the dough about to ‘knock it back’, you stretch and fold and tuck, trying to keep the air bubbles going. I let the dough rise for an hour, proved my loaf for an hour, baked it on a stone as usual, and it came out light and perfect.

The book, with excellent photographs, comes with a DVD. I defy anyone who reads it not to reach for the flour bag.

Dough. Simple Contemporary Bread by Richard Bertinet

Published by Kyle Cathie Limited, 122 Arlington Road, London NW1 7HP


Susan in Italy said...

I love it! "Baking Tai Chi" that's great. I feel that the more you work with sticky dough the better you get at making it stretch in order to free your hands and to not stick all over your work surface. But I've also found in my un-air-conditioned environs this summer that my starter (or just the dough once it sits out of the fridge for a while) is suffering it's too hot here. Are you, June, going through this too?

June said...

Hi Susan
The little plastic scraper was a big help. My daughter's credit card would be good too!

This was a yeast dough, but I am going to try the same technique with the sourdough. It has only been really hot for a few days here so far and my leaven seems ok, but the house is also fairly cool and aerated (open doors and windows!). Dan Lepard's website has some FAQs about too hot conditions, and the Breadsetcetera boys were using ice water to mix the dough.

lindy said...

It wasn't until I got my Kitchenaid mixer, and worked with really damp doughs that I got the idea of stretching the dough over itself and keeping as many of the bubbles in as possible. I still have a hard time doing it by hand, but as you point out, the dough scraper is a big help. Think I need to read this book.

Loney Kitchen said...

I can only use instant yeast since fresh is not available here. What are the proportions? Thanks.

June said...

Hi Loney
I think you are in the Philippines - I don't know what the local bakers use but you might be able to get fresh yeast from them, they are often very helpful and you would need so little. Otherwise, if you absolutely have to use dried yeast (the ordinary kind) use as little as possible, just half a teaspoon ought to be enough. I can't tell you how long the rising and proving will take because your conditions will be different; rising will probably be about an hour and let the bread prove until it has doubled in size and springs back when you press it with a finger.

Bonnie said...

All this insider info that you're getting is fabulous June! Thanks for the wonderful tips....

Andrew said...

I have this book, sadly underused.. I think it's the reliance on the fresh yeast which I cant get hold of.

June said...

Are you ever near a branch of Tesco's? Just go to the bakery department and ask them for some yeast - they will give it to you free. That's where I get mine. Sainsbury's bakery department will charge - not much. Haven't tried the others.

keiko said...

June, your bread looks superb as always. I love the book too, although I must say I haven't tried any from it yet! Thank you for the great post, I hope you're having a lovely time in Cornwall (I'm sure you are...)

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