More Fermentation

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Yesterday I made some bread. Since our son hasn’t arrived yet, I will tell you about it instead of giving you baby pictures. This bread usually requires a minimum of 12 hours but can be stretched to 24 or more to accommodate a difficult schedule and to build flavor.

The main ingredient list is short:

salt
water
flour

Secondary list:

starter (Ralph) = water and flour, fermented
spray oil (optional)
cornmeal (optional)

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My starter is named Ralph, and he is the offspring of Pete, a friend’s starter. Ideally, you would be baking frequently and refreshing your starter once or twice each week. When I feed Ralph, I add 1 cup water and 1 cup flour (there should be less than 1 cup Ralph left in jar). Some people refresh with less water to get a different consistency to their starter. There are various names for different kinds of starters, but I don’t know these things. Mine is just named Ralph.

If Ralph has been fed relatively recently (at least 4 hours ago), I consider that the first “build.” The second build begins when I put 1 cup Ralph in a big mixing bowl along with 1/2 cup water and then 1 cup flower and mix it all together and cover.

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I leave this to ferment in a warm room for about 4 hours. You could go more or less depending on your temperature… I am not precise.

The third build is where most of the work takes place. Uncover the bread mixture, pour 1½ cups water in, and mix it up with a wooden spoon. In a separate bowl, mix together 4 cups flour and 2 teaspoons salt. This is so that the salt doesn’t interact with (read: kill) the yeast until diluted.

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Pour about half the flour mixture into the dough bowl and mix it in with the wooden spoon. After that is well mixed in, pour the rest of the flour in and do your best to mix it together with the spoon until it seems you’re not making any more progress. Then, turn it all onto a nice clean, flat work space for kneading.

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As you can see, a lot of flour has not been worked in. At this point the spoon is no longer helpful; use your hands to work the rest of the flour into the dough (or as much as seems necessary). With my old flour I wouldn’t necessarily get all four cups worked in. With my new flour I needed a little extra flour.

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This is what it looks like when it is all worked in. The outside is relatively smooth. Now, the real kneading begins. The dough should be firm and tacky. The more water content, the sticker it will be. I sometimes like it to have a bit more water in hopes that I’ll get bigger holes in the crumb, but it makes it more difficult to knead and shape, so if you find it too sticky to work with, add flour.

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You may knead from 10-15 minutes. I use the “window-pane” test to decide when I’ll finish. I tear off a little piece and stretch it between my fingers to see whether or not light shines through. If it tears quickly, you have probably not developed the gluten well enough; if it stretches, it may do the same while rising and springing in the oven, giving you a beautiful crumb inside.

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Knead that piece back into the dough. I usually knead it for a couple more minutes just to feel like I’m finished. Then, I lightly oil the bowl and roll the ball of dough around in it to get a very light coating and cover with saran wrap. This oil helps keep the dough from sticking to the bowl. Too much and you won’t be able to shape it properly; too little and the dough will stick and be difficult to remove without destroying. However, I’ve never measured.

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Let sit now for another four hours (or until doubled in size – this depends upon the speed of your yeast, temperature, etc).

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This is another difficult part. Here are the directions I received for shaping:

Gently remove the dough from the bowl. Gather the dough to form a rough ball in your hands. To create surface tension (without which your bread won’t rise very well), stretch the outside of the dough into an oblong, being careful not to squeeze out the gas trapped in the dough any more than is necessary. Repeat this stretching motion, bringing the opposite ends together to make a ball.

For me, this stretching into an “oblong” happens pretty naturally as I hold two sides of the dough and the middle droops with gravity. I then bring the two sides up and pinch them together before turning it 90° and doing this repeatedly. Once I see a very smooth top, I pinch all of the bottom together and place it top up on a pan sprinkled with cornmeal.

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Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let proof for 2-3 hours, depending upon the temperature (until is has nearly doubled).

Toward the end of the proofing, preheat your oven to 500° F (for 30-60 min). This time I changed the way that I usually do things. I usually bake the bread on a cookie sheet and have an old pan at the bottom of the oven for water/steam. This time I baked the bread on a pizza stone and removed the old pan at the bottom (was dirty from previous baking). If you are using an oven stone, leave it in the oven during the preheating.

After the dough has nearly doubled and the oven is preheated, uncover the dough and score it. Scoring helps direct where the loaf should expand during the oven spring. I use a very sharp chefs knife, and with a 90° angle, make a very quick slice across the top of the loaf.

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I made the number sign: # (four cuts)

Put the loaf or stone on a lower rack with a lot of overhead room so that the loaf can expand but remain in the center of the oven.  Now, if you are going to cook on the baking sheet, you can just slide it into the oven. If you are cooking on a baking stone, you must transfer the loaf to that stone from this pan. I have not figured this out yet. I haven’t purchased any baking parchment, which may be the way to go, but I didn’t want to pay for it. I have heard about neat doo-hickies. Maybe some Christmas or birthday…

Anyhow, I damaged my loaf because I didn’t add enough cornmeal to allow it to slide easily. I had to force it off, and it’s never good to force a leavened piece of dough because the air can escape and cause deflation.

If you are keeping a pan at the bottom of the oven, I would put a couple cups of water or some ice cubes in this before placing the loaf in the oven. This helps create steam. In my case, I filled a half cup with water and splashed that against the insides of the oven about every 30 seconds for the first few minutes. The steam helps the outer crust stay soft long enough for oven spring to take place; if the crust hardens too quickly, it will not be supple enough to allow expansion (professional baking ovens have a steam function).

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After about 10 minutes in the oven, I open it again to turn the loaf around 180° and check the temperature. My oven is finicky, and sometimes it goes up to 600° when it’s set at 500°. Anyhow, after the 10 minutes I would rather the oven be at around 425-450° because if the crust cooks too fast, it will begin to burn before the crumb has cooked through, causing tasty crust but gummy bread.

I usually check the color of the bread after another 15 minutes, but your bread could cook another 25 minutes or more before it has reached that beautiful golden, reddish, brown – whatever, I’m color blind, but I can tell when it looks done. Apparently there is a good internal temperature to check for, but I’ve never done that. One more indicator is to tap the bottom of the loaf and listen for a hollow thump.

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Put it on a wire rack if you have one to let it cool. At this point, the baking process is still ongoing, and if you cut into the bread immediately, the moisture won’t escape the bread properly, causing it to be gummy. I let this one sit overnight, but sometimes I’ll cut in after just an hour.

Here you can see how the loaf was damaged while transfering it to the baking stone:

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And the crumb:

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This is far from a perfect loaf. I would have liked more oven spring – perhaps I let it over-proof. I definitely made an error in the transfer to the baking stone. Maybe I add too much yeast from the starter in the very beginning. Perhaps I should do something more like a degassing than whatever escapes during the shaping stage. These are things that I don’t really know – and if you’ve got advice for me, please comment!

I must say, however, that this bread is much better than my first attempt 3½ years ago!

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~Eric

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4 Responses to “More Fermentation”

  1. kristy Says:

    Looks very tasty! Have you tried the no-knead bread recipe? It’s so simple and good: http://mosier.blogspot.com/2009/02/i-had-never-made-bread-before-until-i.html

  2. vagueperson Says:

    I have heard about no-knead bread, and I always sort of dismissed it. I read your post and then read a bit more about it on other websites. It really is popular!
    And, frankly, depressing. If my bread can be had and made better and easier, why have I been wasting my time trying to develop a needless skill?
    I suppose the skill is still useful if I end up living whenever the bomb is dropped and people can’t access packaged yeast but can get to milled flour.
    I will have to try it out sometime soon. I have a big pot with a lid that I think might work, though the lid isn’t very heavy and could allow steam to escape, perhaps (no holes, though).
    After looking at wonderful pictures of no-knead bread with airy crumb, the only question is the flavor. I’m not interested in add-ins, I want to taste the wheat and I want a tangy zing – that nutty flavor in a sourdough.
    If that can be had I suppose my method is superfluous.
    To the kitchen!

  3. vagueperson Says:

    I’ve started the no-knead, however, I used active-dry because that’s what we had. I read elsewhere on the internet that you could substitute 1/3 teaspoon… maybe it won’t work.
    But, if this stuff turns out, it might be something that Elizabeth will pick up for regular usage in the future since she’s never tried sourdough on her own.

  4. John Says:

    What Eric WON’T tell you, though, is that the best tasting bread is made by baking it with the saran wrap still on. My, oh my! You’d never guess this would work, and that’s understandable – Eric didn’t either, he had to have a trusty roommate help him figure it out.

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