Last week's bread-bakers e-mail list included several questions (and
answers) about the proper temperature for baking bread. Example:
> I'd like some advice on the proper internal temperature for bread when
> baking in the oven. I am never sure if it is completely done inside &
> often wind up either over or under baking. I have a instant read
> thermometer & would like to know what temperature bread should be to be
Judged simply by the number of times this question is asked, and
the numerous replies that inevitably follow, suggests that the subject
deserves further scrutiny. Consider this perspective:
The oft-mentioned 190-degree figure is widely touted as "the
benchmark" if not "the gospel." The Cook's Bible says so, including many
Yet, the question steps beyond baking - an issue where art,
science and old cookbook-tales clash (thumping a loaf with your knuckles
and listening for a hollow sound is always worth a laugh).
Be it 190 or 195, the motherly advice, by implication, suggests:
"Do this and you will achieve perfection."
Unfortunately, following that advice is as much a handicap, as it
is an aid toward developing baking skills.
Frankly, I started out following the widely-touted 190-advice;
first by using an el-cheap-o barely readable dial thermometer, then
advancing to a "good" $10 Taylor dial thermometer, followed by a precision
instant-read Thermapen $60 electronic digital tool bought from the King
Long story short: After months of plying, probing and trying, I
ended up with many notes, lots of temperature numbers... but really didn't
make much progress in baking quality bread!
Determined to succeed, I probed King Arthur's baking guru P.J.
Hamel, who referred me to resident KA baking pro Jeffrey Hamelman (a very
successful former commercial baker). Jeff offered me some feather-ruffling
advice by effectively saying "I don't use a thermometer, never have,
wouldn't even know what to do with it..."
"Say what?" was my first reaction! Don't even use a thermometer?
Ya' gotta' be kiddin'? But all the books and advisors say I'm supposed to!
At first I thought Jeff was being a bit crusty with his reply...
the polished pro talking down to green-horn beginner-kid. Equally
disconcerting, Jeff's advice seemed far too simple: Bake by the color of
the loaf, i.e., use your eyes, not some mechanical tool!
Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly (minus $70 later in tools), I
came to appreciate that ol'-Jeff knows what he's talking about!
Forget the tool. Forget the oft-propagated ol-wives' tale about
190, 195 (or whatever).
Instead, use your eyes - bake by the color of bread. After a few
trial-&-error attempts you'll become a better baker. Yes, start with a
specific baking time, but use your eyes (loaf color) as the final "when to
pull" judgement. Don't keep opening the oven door trying to check bread
(Don't have a see-through door? Put that on your wish-list, and an
oven that is a convection unit.)
The confusing part of the 190-degree advice (if not
misappropriated advice) is forgotten basic science. To wit: Bread's
internal temperature can't rise above 210-212 degrees despite 400-450
degree surrounding oven air temperatures... until all the water evaporates.
(And when that occurs the loaf becomes inedible "toast!")
It is the same science principle about boiling water in a pot
can't exceed 210-212 degrees, until it evaporates.
Particularly frustrating when trying to measure bread's
temperature is that the increase from say, 185 to the 210-212 disaster
level doesn't progress in uniform minute-by-minute steps. In tech-talk: the
temperature change isn't "linear." It creeps slowly upward, then once the
water evaporates the bread temperature skyrockets.
Another thermometer measurement problem is that we are indirectly
measuring water content, not temperature, per se.
Adding to the problem: bread's very, very open physical structure
doesn't provide an adequate contact surface for the measuring probe.
Compare bread's open structure to that of meat, an object that we can
accurately measure because meat has a solid physical core.
The one instance I've come across where thermometer use may apply
is when the bread comes out of the oven - if you want, check it as a
reference point. If the core temperature is decidedly low (155-185) - that
is valid information: put it back in the oven!
In summary: the advice about baking bread to 190-degrees... take
it with the proverbial grain of salt.
The best idea, use Jeff's KISS formula: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Use your eyes. Bake by the color.
- Ed Okie