That’s right, today we’re making pan bread. Just plain ‘ol pan bread. I know that many of us started baking at home so that we could escape the tyranny of pan bread. But I tell ya what, I love a good pan loaf. It doesn’t even have to be fancy — factory made pan bread will do.
I know, I know.
But hey, I grew up eating Wonder Bread. And if you were to plop a loaf of that stuff in front of me right now I’d happily eat the hell out of it. I don’t care what anyone else says, nothing makes a better PB&J than soft squishy air-whipped pan bread.
There’s no shame in enjoying a good factory-made white pan loaf. And I suspect that many of those who are so adamantly against that style of bread might guiltily sneak a bite if they thought no one was looking. But I’ll offer a compromise . . .
We’re going to make our pan loaf with a sourdough starter, and we’ll even include a touch of whole grain to fancy it up a bit. We’ll keep it unenriched so as not to stray too close to factory-made territory. But I have to warn you, we’re going to be making this with a stiff dough. I know that shit ain’t cool anymore, but we’re going old school here. Folks will just have to deal.
Here’s the thing . . .
Pan bread is supposed to have a fairly tight and even crumb. Not every loaf is made better by extreme openness. There’s room in this great big world for breads of all textures, including humble even-crumbed pan bread.
And personally, the last thing I want is a high hydration custardy pan loaf. Blame it on my Wonder Bread upbringing if you like, but I want a traditional fluffy crumb — more like cake than custard. If your preferences differ, then that’s cool. But here we’re doing it my way.
Don’t worry though, just because we’re using a stiff dough doesn’t mean our bread will be dry and unpleasant. Stiff dough can and will make a lovely moist and tender loaf so long as it’s well made. And it doesn’t take any special technique or secret formula to do so. In fact, it couldn’t be easier.
Let me show you how . . .
726g Bread Flour
32g Whole Spelt Flour
16g Whole Rye Flour
100g Starter @ 100% Hydration (50g Bread Flour, 50g Water)
Baker’s Percentages for Final Dough (numbers are rounded):
Bread Flour — 94% (6% prefermented)
Whole Spelt — 4%
Whole Rye — 2%
Water — 65%
Salt — 2%
We’re gonna be using the exact same mixing method here that we used in the Easy Baguette post from earlier. To find out why I love using this method go read about the mixing over there, but here we’re just gonna cover the how . . .
First, just add all your ingredients to the bowl and mix until everything is evenly incorporated and you have a nice shaggy clump. Don’t try to develop the gluten, this initial mix shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. Once the ingredients are evenly disbursed and everything has come together then cover and let rest for 1 hour.
This hour long rest allows the gluten to develop on its own. It’s not quite an autolyse, since we added the salt and starter, but it does the job all the same. Of course, if you prefer to give the dough a traditional autolyse then you’re always free to do so. But first, ask yourself exactly why you’re giving this dough an autolyse . . .
Okay, Gotta Rant
The autolyse is usually performed in order to 1) hydrate the flour and develop the gluten while minimizing mix time (and therefore limiting flour oxidation and preserving flavor), and 2) to help create a more extensible dough by virtue of uninhibited enzymatic activity working to condition the gluten.
Well, we’ve got issue no. 1 covered — the dough sits long enough here for the flour to hydrate and the gluten to develop, all while minimizing mix time and preserving flavor. The addition of salt and starter doesn’t noticeably inhibit this process. As for issue no. 2, yeah — perhaps we’re not getting quite as extensible a dough as we might if we were to autolyse it instead.
But do we even need an extensible dough here?
Extensibility is often helpful in developing a more open irregular crumb. But we’re making pan bread here — we want a more even crumb. Extensibility also helps with certain shapes and shaping methods. But again, we’re just making pan bread. We’re not rolling out long loaves like baguettes, or using a lot of folds and stitching as we would if we were making a Tartine Style loaf. So in this case, extensibility just isn’t that valuable a quality.
So here’s the tradeoff . . .
If you choose to autolyse your dough instead of using this method here, that’s cool and all. But adding starter and salt to a fairly developed stiff dough takes some effort. With wet dough it’s no problem — everything just blends right in. With stiff dough however, it’s more difficult to make sure all the starter and (especially) the salt are fully mixed in and well blended.
I’m not saying it’s the most difficult thing in the world, but it’s certainly more work and more risk than just blending it all together from the start. And in return for this extra work and risk, you get . . . what exactly? A slightly more extensible dough, which really doesn’t matter here.
Sure, you can say that the autolyse also helps to free up sugars that help in fermentation and improve crust browning during the bake. But really, this is an extremely minor effect — more noticeable with faster rising yeasted breads than with sourdough. If you had two loaves of this pan bread in front of you, one made with a traditional autolyse and one made with the method as described here, I would bet money that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I know I can’t.
Now despite what it sounds like here, I’m not trying to convince you not to use an autolyse. I love a good autolyse as much as the next baker. I’m just trying to emphasize the point that we should never approach a method by rote — we should have a reason for every step we take in a process. And if the reason doesn’t justify the effort, then perhaps we should find an alternative way.
So if you honestly feel that the effort of the autolyse justifies the results in this loaf, then by all means go for it. Personally, I don’t feel that it does. That’s why I do what I do. Your bread, your choice.
Alrighty then, now that I got that off my chest let’s get back to our mixing . . .
After the dough has sat (covered) for an hour, we can just give it a couple minutes of kneading — just until it smooths out nicely — then call it a day. I like to knead my doughs in the bowl, but feel free to knead on the tabletop if you prefer.
I like “bowl kneading” because it doesn’t require the addition of extra flour to prevent sticking, and because it’s cleaner — just a dirty bowl to clean up rather than a dirty bowl and a dirty bench. Plus you’re maneurvable. You can walk around while kneading the dough, or go sit on the couch and watch TV as you knead. You’re not chained to the bench.
Once the dough is nice and supple, place it into a lightly oiled bowl and cover for proofing.
This dough should take around 2-4 hours to proof at room temperature. You’re aiming for a 30% to 50% rise in volume. For the baguettes we made last time, we were aiming for something closer to 30%. But here, 50% is preferred. The further a dough proofs, the more strength it gains (up to a point).
With baguettes, too much strength is the enemy — it makes them difficult to roll out. But for pan bread, a little extra strength is just fine. Plus, dough that is bulked somewhat young tends to have a more irregular crumb, and we’re looking for an even crumb here.
There’s no need to fold this dough. Since stiffer doughs are stronger by nature, and since the loaf will be supported by the pan, we don’t need to worry too much about developing extra strength and structure. Of course, you’re more than welcome to fold the dough if you prefer. Again, it just comes back to whether you feel the ends justify the means. For me they don’t.
Nothing too complicated here. Just one note — an oval preshape here will make for an easier loaf to shape. While making a round preshape is perfectly acceptable, it does make it a bit harder to get straight even sides on your pan loaf. It’s more likely that you’ll end up with a shape something akin to a long football or an egg rather than a nice even cylinder. As the loaf proofs in the pan, it’ll tend to be substantially taller in the center where the meat of the dough resides, while the tapered ends will just spread out to fill the pan, rather than proofing up. This gives you a rather sloped loaf shape with shorter slices on the ends and taller slices in the middle. Best to avoid that if we can.
But as always, whatever works best for you is what works best.
It’s easier for you to just watch the video a few times to see how I shape this loaf. But the basic idea is to flip the preround onto its back (don’t forget to lightly flour the work surface so the dough doesn’t stick). Then you just (gently) grab the upper corners of the loaf and fold them into the center. Then you (again, gently) grab the resulting top point and fold that into the center as well.
The next part is where it gets difficult.
Essentially, you roll the loaf into itself while lightly pressing into the center with each roll. This inward pressure actually spreads force outwards towards the surface of the loaf which creates surface tension. Once the loaf is fully rolled up into a nice log just roll the seam over so that it becomes the underside of the loaf. Then, if you like, you can push and pull the loaf against the bench to create even more surface tension.
Finally, just roll out the very ends of the loaf using the sides of your hands (not the palms) to create little nipples which you can just fold under the loaf. This seals off the ends of the loaf, and “squares” them so that they better fit the pan.
Of course, there are many alternatives when it comes to shaping. So feel free to use whatever method you prefer. This particular method, in addition to pan loaves, works great for many types of batard or “deli” shapes. It’s actually one of my favorite shaping styles, and probably the one I use most often in production settings, with a few adjustments here or there.
Once the loaf is shaped, place it into a lightly oiled pan. Now, I use a 12″ X 4.5″ X 3″ bread pan. For my international friends out there, that’s 30.5 X 11.4 X 7.9 cm (roughly). I sized this recipe to fit that particular pan. For those who are using a standard 8.5″ X 4.5″ (21.6 X 11.4 cm) pan, you can either resize the recipe (cut it in half) or split the dough to make two loaves. If that doesn’t fit quite right, then adjust as necessary. And don’t forget, a smaller loaf will require an adjustment in baking time.
This loaf typically takes 1-3 hours to proof. Just cover it with a damp cotton tea towel to prevent a skin. Now, I always say to use a damp towel because that’s what I need to use to prevent too much skin from forming, but your mileage may vary. So if a dry towel works fine for you, then go for it. As for me, a damp towel it is. Then I remove the towel 15-30 minutes or so before I’m ready to bake it so that the damp surface can air out a bit.
Keep in mind that if you have trouble retaining steam in your oven, then a damp surface on the loaf might actually help out a bit with the ovenspring and crust browning. So again, do what works best for you — if that means leaving the towel on the loaf for the entire proof then so be it.
Feel free to score however you like. With pan loaves, I tend to score with a few different patterns — either the one you see here, a crosshatch pattern, or a single cut down the center. The single cut is the easiest, the crosshatch is the most difficult, and the one on this loaf is inbetween. But you can score in a myriad of ways so feel free to experiment.
When I score pan loaves, I’m not usually trying to get an ear, so I keep the blade at a 90 degree angle. What matters most to me is just using a score pattern that allows for a nice even expansion of the loaf. Something visually appealing. Something symmetrical.
I bake this at 425F (218C) for 20 minutes with steam, then I pull the steam, rotate and bake another 20 minutes. For steam I use a pan of lava rocks, but there are many many different ways of steaming an oven. Whatever works best for you. Just be sure to keep a safe distance from the steam or you WILL get burned. Not fun.
When it comes to pan bread, I don’t like it to be too dark. I prefer a lighter and softer crust. In fact, I usually bag it up in plastic once it’s fully cooled so that the crust softens completely. That’s right. Now, if you prefer it dark and crusty, then feel free to bake it hotter and/or longer until you achieve the crust you like. It’s all good.
Cool and Enjoy!
You know the deal — two hours. Don’t you dare cut into it before then. Or do. Whatever. Your bread, your choice. When people tell me not to do something, I typically give ’em the finger and do it anyway. Even when I know it’s a bad idea. So I fully respect those that do the same.
Trevor J. Wilson