Introduction: Casting Bread

There are a lot of conventional materials that we know can take the form of their container. Wax, glycerine, plaster, concrete. What about bread?

Bread dough isn't quite solid. It's got an elasticity that allows it to conform to the shape of its container (or at least try). Something that helps it do so is a leavening agent. When bread is left to rise, yeast creates air bubbles inside the bread, expanding its volume. The bread continues to expand until partway through baking. Then the crust reaches a certain hardness, the expansion ends, and that's the form of the bread.

I wanted to explore the power of yeast and how it affects the form of bread. After some experimenting, the formwork is used was a block of wood drilled with holes of varying depths. Two rules I used to define how I drilled the holes: 1) they must all overlap to create connected voids and 2) they were only drilled in one direction. I'm going to explain how I made this formwork but feel free to try your own! Just make sure it's oven-safe.

You'll need:

  • Flour
  • Instant yeast
  • Salt
  • Approximately 1" x 3" x 6" block of wood
  • Drill or drill press
  • Approximately 1" diameter drill bit
  • An oven
  • Bandsaw
  • About 15-21 hours (a lot of it is just waiting for the bread to rise)

UPDATE: I continued experimenting and made two new kinds of formwork, one using acrylic and one using basswood. Photos and further instructions are included in the steps!

Step 1: Prepare the Dough.

Adapted from this recipe: NY Times No-Knead Bread

We're only making 2/3 of the recipe, which should be more than enough dough to play with. The amount of yeast has also been increased for optimum expansion.

Combine 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast in a large bowl. Add 1 cup of water and stir until just blended (like the recipe title says, no need to knead). Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for 12-18 hours at room temperature.

Step 2: Create the "formwork".

Clamp down the piece of wood. Using a drill or drill press, make some holes in the wood. You can use the rules I came up with, which I talk about in the introduction, or come up with your own.

Again, feel free to develop your own processes for making formwork. This is just one example. It can be additive or subtractive. Just leave some voids in which to put the bread.

UPDATE: The acrylic and basswood formworks I made were laser cut. Each one is made up of two pieces of material. They mimic the original drilled wood formwork by having some holes that go through both pieces of material and some that only go partway. All of the voids created by the holes connect to each other. In addition, I left a quarter-inch gap between the two pieces of material to give the bread something else to expand into. The two pieces were held together by bolts to keep them from separating as the bread expanded. They were intended to come out.

Step 3: Assemble and Let It Rise.

Once the 12-18 hours are up, take the dough out of the bowl onto a floured surface. Cut off pieces of dough of varying sizes. Arrange in the formwork in a random but varied fashion. Let rise for 2 more hours at room temperature. Preheat the oven to 425˚F.

Note: If there's excess dough (and there should be!), form loosely into a ball and let rise alongside your non-edible experiment.

Step 4: Bake It.

Place your creation (and excess dough, if any) on a metal baking sheet and put it in the oven. As when baking anything, supervise it to make sure nothing catches fire. Bake for a minimum of 30 minutes and longer as needed (you want a nice brown crust). If desired, you can lower the temperature of the oven after the first 30 minutes and continue to bake the experimental bread (don't do this with the one you're going to eat). This is to dry out the bread and delay mold on your experiment.

UPDATE: Acrylic is dangerous to put through the oven. It will melt. I used an old toaster oven that I wasn't afraid of ruining, plugged it into an extension cord, and put it outside. I had also stained the laser cut basswood, so I baked that one outside as well. Be sure to wear a mask and take precautions if you're experimenting with potentially hazardous materials.

Step 5: Run It Through the Bandsaw.

When your creation is completely cooled, trim some of the protruding bread with a bandsaw. This will expose the some of the insides and help you see how the dough reacted to its container.

Step 6: Enjoy!

Eat the bread you made from leftover dough, but also take a look at your experiment. How did the elastic bread dough react to the rigid formwork? What do the air bubbles look like?

Hopefully you made some cool bread forms and learned how to make bread in the process.