I’m a firm believer that >95% of the problems encountered by bread bakers originate at the mixing stage. The main objective of proper mixing is to develop the gluten sufficiently so that it can effectively trap the CO2 produced during fermentation. Overmixing should be avoided since it can lead to an overly strong dough which can result in a loaf with poor volume and a tough crumb.
It has also been emphasized by many professional bakers that overmixing can also cause the oxidation of compounds present within the dough which contribute to the flavor and color of the bread. While I don’t doubt that this can be a real concern at the commercial scale, where highly efficient dough mixers can quickly incorporate too much air into the dough if left unchecked, at the scale of the home baker I found that I had to look for ways to actually increase air incorporation. At appropriate levels, the air is beneficial in that it contributes oxygen which is used, albeit rather quickly, by the yeast during its aerobic reproduction phase. Small air bubbles in the dough also acts as nuclei for alveoli production during fermentation.
Not having a tabletop spiral mixer on hand (although I hope one day to be the proud owner of an SP5, http://www.tmbbaking.com/sp5.html), I turned to my trusty KitchenAid Pro 6000 stand mixer. Unfortunately, I found my KitchenAid mixer to have insufficient torque to properly mix bread dough and, with either the standard C-hook or the spiral hook, was unable to stretch or aerate the dough to the necessary extent.
I next looked at mixing my baguette dough with my Magic Mill Assistent (no, that’s not a mispelling!). These mixers are now available under the Electrolux DLX name. While the DLX has plenty of torque to adequately stretch the dough, in my hands I still wasn’t able to incorporate enough air to properly develop the small quantity of dough with which I was working.
After trying more approaches to mixing than any sane person would ever attempt (I even went so far as to construct a makeshift spiral mixer with the spiral dough hook of my KitchenAid mixer spinning within the bowl of my DLX), I was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, to the realization that the best technique for mixing small (and not so small) quantities of dough was to mix by hand, using a technique I first learned from Richard Bertinet in his book Dough: Simple Contemporary Breads. This technique can be seen below:
The idea here is to stretch the dough and then fold it over upon itself, trapping air within the dough in the process. When the hand mixing is begun, the dough starts out rough and sticky; resist the urge to add more flour. As the mixing proceeds, the dough becomes more cohesive, smooth and much less sticky. In Bertinet’s words, the dough begins to “feel alive”. Just 10-15 mins. of hand mixing in this fashion will produce a smooth French bread dough with just the right amount of development for a loaf with good volume, a tender crumb and a nuanced flavor.