Baking with Sourdough Revisited
Baking with sourdough, Revisited
Making a brilliant loaf of sourdough bread isn't easy, at least not without an experienced tutor. If you'd like to learn how it's done, perhaps I can help.
I love sourdough, probably because I was raised in California, where San Francisco Sourdough is King. I've maintained my own culture and baked great sourdough breads for more than a decade, but I've never quite achieved my goal: To produce bread that tastes like San Franciso-style sourdough. I say "style" because artesan bakers nowhere near San Francisco have been producing outstanding loaves of sourdough for years, but if it isn't baked in the San Francisco Bay Area, it doesn't seem right to call it "San Francisco Sourdough."
To Cool or not to cool...
For years, I have kept my sourdough starter in the refrigerator when I'm not using it. When I needed it, I'd take the crock out of the fridge, feed the starter, warm it up until it was active (see photo for an active starter), remove the amount of sourdough starter needed for my formula and return the crock to the fridge. The technique works well, and the starter can be safely maintained in a dormant state for months.
Recently, however, a renowned and award-winning local artesan baker gave me a tour of his bakery and explained that he did not recommend storing starter as I did. He said that flavor was lost because the lacto-bacteria which are responsible for the sour flavor were not fully developed using my process.
He told me to keep an active starter in the kitchen at room temperature and feed it daily. simply throwing away a bit when the crock filled up. He also suggested that it was still a good idea to keep "backup starter" in the refrigerator.
So, my friends, that's the first change I've instituted: I now keep an active starter in the kitchen, ready to use, and keep an emergency supply dormant in the refrigerator.
A Retarding Experiment
After experimenting with various retardation times and temperatures, I settled on 12 hours at 40 degrees F - or, in technical terms, "overnight in the fridge."
Here is the recipe I am following for my final experiment - It's quite straight-forward:
1/2 cup active sourdough starter
4 cups unbleached white flour
1 cup dark rye flour
1 cup whole grain whole wheat flour
3-4 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
Place the active sourdough starter and one cup of the white flour into a bowl. Add one cup of water and blend thoroughly. I normally do this late in the evening (9-10pm) so I can let the dough proof overnight, when temperatures are cooler.
After proofing 12 hours, add the rye flour and one half cup of water, and mix well, then proof for another 12 hours.
In the evening, add the cup of whole wheat flour and another half cup of water and proof overnight.
After 36 hours' proofing, the dough is ready to finish and shape the loaves. However, if you want to try for a more sour result, add one cup of white flour and a half-cup of water and proof another 12 hours.
Reserve 1 cup of the flour for flouring the board. Mix and spoon knead the remaining flour into the dough a cup at a time. AQdd the salt to the last cup of water, and add it to the mix. When it's too stiff to mix by hand, transfer to the floured board and knead in the remaining flour.
This is what the dough looked like 4 hours later...
Proofing the dough
Encouraging the yeast
Our goal during this stage is to encourage yeast growth before retarding it. This means we build up the yeast population so that we'll have the "yeast power" needed for baking when the retarding process is over.
The target is a dough temperature that encourages yeast growth - that's about 74 degrees F. You can use a digital probe to determine the temperature of your dough during this stage, and adjust your proofing time accordingly - if the room temperature's over 73-74, you may need to shorten the time a bit to prevent over-proofing.
Space in our fridge is limited, so after kneading for about 5 minutes, I divided the dough into three portions, shaped them to (more or less) fit my baking pans. I prefer round loaves, but don't have proper bannetons. (I have provided links to a few of Amazon's Bannetons so you can see what they look like, and acquire them if you wish.)
After putting the dough in the bread pans, I allowed it to proof for two hours at room temperature.
I oiled the pans using an olive oil spray, then added the shaped dough and gave the loaves a light dusting of flour. In two hours, the dough should be ready for retarding:
Two hours later...
Retarding the dough
Encouraging the lactobacteria
The process of retarding the dough is simple: Put it in the refrigerator for 8-10 hours ("overnight"). I find 40 degrees F. works well. My fridge varies from 39 degrees to 42 degrees F. - a range adequate for the purpose of severely retarding yeast activity (which is the point of the process).
For my first attempt at retarding, I made four loaves - three in pans, and one free round loaf.
The round one (shown below) was proofed for two hours at room temperature, then retarded for 12 hours at 50 degrees F. As you can see from the lack of oven spring, the dough was over-proofed. The next time I used 50 degrees, I reduced the retardation period to 6 hours and the dough remained over-proofed (although the texture and taste were marvellous).
I will try retarding for 4 and 2 hours respectively at 50 degrees and include the results here at a later date. For now, I recommend sticking with the 40 degree refrigerated technique, since I know it works without adverse impact upon the dough.
After proofing at room temperature to build yeast levels, retarding the dough slows the yeast activity substantially while encouraging the lacto-bacteria. The lacto-bacteria provides the sour flavor, which is, after all, our primary goal.
You can increase the retarding temperature (it's rumored that San Francisco bakeries use 68 degrees, F), but if you do, you will encourage yeast activity and will have to reduce retarding time to avoid over-proofing.
The pan loaves were retarded for 11 hours at 40 degrees F., and the dough appeared to be somewhat over-proofed, but acceptable. (It was also very sour and had lovely texture.) In the future, I will shorten retarding times until I've corrected the problem.
The expansion slashing on the round loaf didn't open up at all, showing the lack of oven spring. There simply wasn't any food left for the yeast to consume, so the dough didn't rise.
The Next Morning....
Time for the oven!
After 11 hours retarding in the fridge, I removed the pans, turned the oven up to 475 degrees F., and prepared the loaves for baking. As you can see, the dough shows good rise in spite of spending the night at 40 degrees...
I put a pan of hot water in the rack below the loaves. The high temperature causes the water to boil lightly and give off steam, which helps create a thick, chewy crust. After ten minutes at 475, the temperature is reduced to 375 degrees and the bread's baked for another 30 minutes.
Bakers' Percentages - Formula Baking Simplified
"One way for all of us to strive to be better bakers is to understand how to apply "tools of the trade." One of these tools is Baker's Percentage. Professional bakers do not use 'recipes'. They use formulas. Formulas show basic proportions of ingredients, calculated and expressed as percentages. Formulas also contain instructions. "
Basics: Bakers' recipes are expressed as formulas, where all the ingredients are measured by weight rather than volume. In learning about Bakers' Percentages, I found several excellent sites which discuss the issue in depth. Rather than try to explain something that is completely new to me, I thought I'd simply refer you to the experts.
- The Artisan Net
An informed baker can infer a wealth of information when analyzing a formula. This information often includes, but is not limited to, the relationship of one ingredient to another, the hydration or water content of the dough, the mixer type, mixing s
- Tad's Baker's Calculator
Tad's Baker's Calculator uses baker's percentage to store and calculate formulas in grams, pounds and/or volume (teaspoons and cups). The baker's percentage calculator also works for formulas that include a preferment. In seconds the percentage of th
- The Traditional Oven
Here's a neat online calculator for converting all-purpose flour, plain flour, flour-type 00, self-raising flour, rye flour, wholemeal and whole grains flour types. Conversions from weight and dry volume scales for baking recipes.
Baker's percentage is a baker's notation method indicating the flour-relative proportion of ingredients used when making breads, cakes, muffins, and other pastries. It is also referred to as baker's math, or otherwise contextually indicated by a phra
A closer look at one of the loaves retarded at 40 degrees for 11 hours, showing good oven spring. You can see that the expansion slashes opened right up, which confirms good oven spring. Note the light dusting of flour, which is applied after the loaves are formed.
This bread is very sour and downright delicious!
in conclusion, I can only add that I have a lot to learn. My bread's getting better, but it's a long ways from what I am looking for. I need to work on avoiding over-proofing my doughs and creating dough with a higher moisture content.
The secrets of retarding sourdough are still a mystery to me, but half the fun of baking for a hobby lies in the learning. I'm starting to experiment with baking stones, and will keep plugging away at retarding issues until I get it right!
Bannetons from Amazon
These are the sites I haunt on a regular basis for advice about baking, and I'm certain you'll find them all quite interesting as well as useful.
- Proving Bread (an excellent article)
For a fuller explanation refer to a science based baking textbook such "Principles of Breadmaking: Functionality of Raw Materials and Process Steps" by Piet Sluimer, published by the American Association of Cereal Chemists 2005 ISBN 1-891127-45-4 Pr
- Sourdough Companion
This website is packed full of baking resources such as sourdough recipes, a community forum (home of the infamous Bake-Offs) photo gallery, videos and baking supplies. I find it a bit frustrating to navigate, but persistence pays dividends.
- Sourdoughs International
The best source for exotic sourdough cultures. Dr. Ed Wood's family business dedicated to the resurgence of authentic sourdoughs. Authentic? Commercial yeast produces something that looks like sourdough but is completely bland and tasteless. Absolute
- Wild Yeast Blog
What is Wild Yeast? One meaning is the yeast that makes sourdough, which I bake with often, but not exclusively. To me, though, baking with all kinds of of yeast, sourdough or not, is "wild:" outrageous, amazing, magical. Read more about why I bake.
Special thanks to Chef Bill Clay, at Bodhi's Artisan Bakery in Nanaimo, B.C. for his patience and his guidance. I encourage Vancouver Islanders to visit Bill and his pleasant staff at 5299 Rutherford Road the next time they're in town.
I've struggled with sourdough flavor issues for years, but Bill put me on the right track, and I'm finally starting to produce the kind of taste I've sought for more than a decade.
Please take a moment to share your sourdough experiences - I love hearing from other bakers.