Once the pandemic hit, the types of content shared in my social media baking groups slowly started to change. As grocery store shelves shrank, there were desperate requests to buy flour and yeast from fellow bakers. Hordes of new members started sharing photos of their sourdough starters; the new ones were greeted with names, while the old ones were mourned when they stopped bubbling. Additionally, a certain genre of video has begun to dominate timelines.
The videos all started the same way. The camera lingered on a bulbous, smooth ball of dough until a hand appeared out of frame to strike the center like a boxer punching a bag. He would deflate, of course, and the camera would once again focus on the indentation. The comments section was populated with a variation of the words “so satisfying”.
After the first rise, many recipes call for the baker to deflate – or “cut” – the dough. This is an important step: during the degassing of the dough, the yeast cells are redistributed. They form a closer bond with moisture and sugar, which aids fermentation and improves the second rise.
To boot, it was a time when apparently everyone was “raging” or “stressing.” As a result, there was something inherently satisfying about this part of the bread baking process.
It was also around the same time that I started making focaccia. I, too, enjoyed feeling the weight of the dough flow under my clenched fist. It was not only controlled but also intensely dramatic. I could see Nicolas Cage’s Ronny Cammareri, the charismatic “Moonstruck” baker, raging about something while aggressively pounding an industrial-sized tub of dough. (I could see it so clearly that I had to watch the movie again to see if such a scene in fact exist ; This is not the case.)
Although the process was satisfying, my focaccia was still a little . . . disabled. While the focaccia I liked to order from bakeries and restaurants had a lightness and lightness to it, mine always looked compact in comparison. I turned to my baking groups for help. Everyone had a suggestion: buy a different flour, use sparkling water instead of still water in the dough, or pray to the bread gods for mercy.
Nothing really clicked until a helpful commenter posted a YouTube video of professional baker and cookbook writer Claire Saffitz making focaccia. “Skip to 6 minutes,” they wrote. “I believe this will help you.”
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At this point in the video, Saffitz’s focaccia has completed its first rise. Instead of hitting her, she makes it a point to gently bend the dough instead.
“I’m going to go down the sides and lift it up,” she said. “Then I give it a little wiggle and give the bowl a little spin.”
Saffitz repeated this step over and over again until nice air pockets formed under his fingers and bubbled on the surface of the ball of dough. Those bubbles stayed through the second rise and baking process, leaving the finished product just as fluffy as the bakery focaccia I so coveted.
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The next day I pulled out my ingredients to try the same technique – and it worked. My focaccia went from flat and dense to completely risen with a beautiful open crumb. There is a bread baking technique to back this up.
As Elizabeth Yetter wrote in her “How To Punch Down Bread Dough” cheat sheet, the more air pockets you can remove “from the dough, the finer the grain (or crumb) will be.” While this is great for sandwich bread or sweet rolls, it’s not as desirable for breads, like focaccia, where you want lightness.
I feel like there’s a metaphor here, right? At this point, we are years into the pandemic. After the world has brought us down so much, maybe a softer touch is what we need to thrive. However, if you find yourself wanting the palpable satisfaction of hitting a ball of dough, maybe pie crust is in your future?
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