Reader E writes:
This mixing discussion is fascinating! I never realized that how I mixed can have such an impact. Can you tell me if the way I mix effects the size of the holes in bread?
It certainly does, E! There’s a whole world in the subject of mixing, so I don’t want to make too many generalizations here, but there’s a correlation between the degree of mixing and the relative openness of a bread’s crumb. As we’ve been discussing, lots of butter and yolks and lots of mixing results in thousands upon thousands of very small, very evenly dispersed droplets of fat. Those fat droplets prevent a lot of gluten formation which keeps bubble walls from getting very elastic, so the bubbles don’t get very big. The result, when the bread is baked, is a very fine and even (and tender!) crumb.
Conversely when you don’t add much — or any — fat to a high-gluten dough and don’t touch it very much after mixing you tend to get very large and uneven holes. Those result from lots of developed gluten which creates a very stretchy dough. The longer the dough sits without being agitated very much after it’s mixed, the bigger those bubbles get. These days very open crumbs are in fashion, so you’re seeing a lot less “punching down” steps in bread recipes (which breaks bubbles) and a lot more dough “stretching”. No-knead bread recipes are very much in vogue in part because they’re easy but also because all the sitting tends to give you a big, open crumb.
Other factors play into this of course, notably leavening. The speed at which the dough produces gas is important. Natural leaveners (starters) tend to work rather slowly and so produce a crumb with small holes. This is why a lot of modern bakers like to “spike” their starter-based doughs in the mixing stage with fast-working packaged yeast. The rapid gas production creates the big holes that artisan bread lovers like. There’s so much to mixing…but I hope I answered your question, E!