Sourdough: Take One

We’ve been wanting to try a loaf of sourdough – mostly because it’s delicious.  And it reminds me of being in San Francisco with my dad.  We ate chowder out of sourdough bread bowls and he showed me where Janis Joplin’s ashes were spread.  

Anyway, Evan and I recently started our own wild yeast starter.  It’s really cool – if you like science or food science, or you have friend/family member/partner who likes you enough to pretend to like the science of wild yeast, well, then this is fun for everyone! 

We followed the directions in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, but no matter where you find instructions, the gist is the same.  We started by mixing whole rye flour and pineapple juice and leaving it out on the counter.  Each day you throw some out and add some bread flour and water.  It begins to ferment and develop from the yeast in the air.  But be careful – it’ll spill all over your counter if you don’t use a large enough container. ( I speak from experience – it even overflowed in the fridge, when it was supposed to be cool enough to stop the fermentation!)  Once you have a developed starter, you can use it to make all sorts of different types of bread.  It gives a unique depth of flavor to the bread, and you can adjust that by altering the percent hydration of the starter.  

Now, we tried one sourdough recipe that didn’t exactly rise that well.  Okay, okay, to be honest, it rose just fine, but we left it on the counter too long while we were out running errands and it over proofed and the dough collapsed.  We ended up with tasty bread, but fairly flat loaves.  

We tried a new recipe this time, and we (okay, Evan) created an at home couche to proof the dough in, and it really helped!  

We used this recipe: Norwich Sourdough, from the Wild Yeast Blog, which is a fantastic resource for home bakers.  Here’s how it went:

Ingredients:

  • 900 g white flour
  • 120 g whole rye flour 
  • 600 g water at about 74F
  • 360 g mature 100% hydration sourdough starter
  • 23 g salt

Yes, the ingredients are in grams.  Get a kitchen scale and deal with it. 

Directions: 

1.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the flours, water, and starter on low speed until just combined, about one minute.

We don’t have a stand mixer, so we just mixed this well by hand. 

This is our starter: 

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This is the appropriate weighed amount of starter.  Weird stuff, right? Now, I should be clear – our starter looks firmer because it is 50% hydration.  We lowered it to try and get a more sour flavor.  So we added 270 grams of our starter and 90 grams of water to even it out.  Baker’s math: see here and here.  

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Artsy-fartsy picture of the different flours – note that this is a mountain of flour.  This makes two large loaves of bread.  

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Be prepared to get out your punch bowl to mix it in.

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2.  Let the dough rest (autolyse) for 30 minutes.

3.  Add the salt and continue mixing on low or medium speed until the dough reaches a medium level of gluten development. This should only take about 3 or 4 minutes.

Again, we did this by hand.  (Okay, okay, Evan did all the kneading.  What can I say, he’s stronger than me and it takes him less time!)

Dough when Evan first finished kneading:

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Dough after the first fold, 50 minutes: 

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Dough at the second fold, 100 minutes:

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Dough at the end of the first rise: 

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Transfer the dough to an oiled container (preferably a low, wide one so the dough can be folded without removing it from the container).

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter. Divide it into 400g – 500g pieces. I usually make four 400g loaves and refrigerate the rest to use for pizza dough later. Preshape the dough pieces into light balls.

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I did all the dough shaping.  Honestly, the progress I’ve made with shaping loaves of bread is probably my biggest accomplishment of the summer.  #realtalk

Sprinkle the balls lightly with flour, cover loosely with plastic, and let rest for 15 minutes.

Shape into batards and place seam-side-up in a floured couche or linen-lined bannetons.

Don’t have a couche or linen-lined bannetons? Neither do we!  We do, however, have a rolling pin and a pepper mill, which Evan used to support the sides of the batard.  I was amazed.  Serious kitchen genius at work here, people.

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The boule loaf I shaped and then placed into the parchment-lined Dutch oven to proof. It worked pretty nicely. 

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Slip the couche or bannetons into a large plastic bag or cover with plastic wrap and proof at room temperature for 2 – 2.5 hours. Alternatively, the loaves can be proofed for about 1.5 hours at room temperature, then refrigerated for 2 – 16 hours and baked directly out of the refrigerator; this will yield a tangier bread with a lovely, blistered crust.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven, with baking stone, to 475F. You will also need steam during the initial phase of baking, so prepare for this now.

It’s this point in the baking that I like to dramatically shout, ‘PREPARE THE OVEN FOR HEARTH BAKING!’ Hint: I shout it in the exact same way one might yell ‘release the kraken!’

Turn the proofed loaves onto a semolina-sprinkled peel or parchment. Slash each one with two overlapping cuts that are almost parallel to the long axis of the batard.

Once the loaves are in the oven, turn the heat down to 450F. For 400g loaves, bake for 12 minutes with steam, and another 15 – 18 minutes without steam. I leave the oven door cracked open a bit for the last 5 minutes of this time. The crust should be a deep brown. Then turn off the oven and leave the loaves in for 5 minutes longer, with the door ajar, to help them dry. Larger loaves will need to be baked longer.

Cool on a wire rack. Don’t cut until the loaves are completely cool, if you can manage it! 

I have finally developed some patience in this area – and only because I read that if a loaf is above 160 degrees, it’s still gelatinizing.  And since most breads set at about 200 degrees, I really have to wait a while for it cool.  I don’t want to ruin my bread and interrupt it while it’s still technically cooking!  If you do cut in too soon, you’ll end up with bread that could be soggy.  Letting the loaf cool completely also allows the flavor to fully develop.  

Final products!!  The loaves got really good color – I can’t say enough about using steam when you bake bread.  It really helps.  The slashes on the batard didn’t quite work out…it’s just not our strong suit. Every time we try, I just claim that we would be better at it if we had a bread lame.  Or a sharper knife.  Or a better innate ability to cut neat slashes into dough.  

Still, they look pretty good, I think!

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Light, crispy crust with a nice soft crumb that’s just a little bit open. 

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What I think is particularly incredible about this bread is that we didn’t use any commercial yeast – it was only the wild yeast that was naturally in our starter.  The loaf had a really nice depth of flavor, but it wasn’t quite as sour as I like my sourdough to be.  I’m looking into ways to develop a more sour flavor, and our next attempt will likely be this recipe, which was a follow up on Wild Yeast: A More Sour Sourdough.  Until then, bake on, friends!

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