Category Archives: Bread

More Sourdough

While I’m thinking of it, I’ll work up what I do to make sourdough bread. Sourdough, to me, anyway, is the technique of using wild yeasts and bacteria to leaven bread. (Don’t be confused. There is a step in which a levain is created. This is just the French term for a pre-fermented portion of the dough. It creates a great deal of flavor.) Sourdough bread does not need to be sour. That one of the aspects that can be controlled. I don’t like the sour bit so much, so I try to control it out to a certain extent.

Anyway, this is my method. The recipe varies somewhat, and follows. These instructions produce two loaves of bread. It’s going to be a bit different this time around as I’m making one loaf and however many rolls I can get out of it for Thanksgiving. Rolls for Thursday means baking on Wednesday. Which means I start on Sunday.

Note that most of my measurements are in grams, not cups and teaspoons. There are two primary reasons for this, and they likely have equal weight, if I’m perfectly honest. One, weighing everything helps in reproducibility. I can make the same bread every time if I’m within a gram or two. Two, I’m lazy. I can weigh everything into one bowl. No cups or teaspoons to wash. And, I don’t have to fiddle with or worry that I’m not getting just the right amount of flour into the cup. (Given my tendency to leave the dishes for Peggy, this results in a higher level of matrimonial bliss.)

Day -3: (baking in three days)
Feed the starter and build the bulk starter. I only keep a starter of about 50 grams, and I need 100 grams to make the levain. So I “step up” the starter, and call it bulk starter. I don’t know what other people call it. If I baked more often, I would just keep a bulk starter going all the time, but I’d have to bake every three or four days to justify it.

Day -2: (baking in two days)
Make the levain, which is combining more flour and more water with the bulk starter. This will ferment overnight and create a huge amount of flavor. This step also increases the amount of yeast available to make the bread rise. In bakers’ terms, this is a “pre ferment”, in that a portion of the dough (the levain) is fermented prior to making the bread.

Day -1: (baking tomorrow – making the bread today)
Autolyze the remaining flour, which allows the development of gluten without all that tedious kneading. All that work your mother taught you to do is only hydrating the flour. Just letting it sit for two hours does the same thing. Go have a coffee.
Make the dough by combining the autolyzed flour, salt, and levain.
Fold the dough twice to provided structure and tension to the dough.
Proof dough until about doubled in size.
Divide dough into loaves and pre-shape into rough loaves.
Shape dough into final loaves and place in tins or bannetons
Proof dough – tins until ready to bake, bannetons just shy of that
Refrigerate dough in bannetons (or bake the bread in tins)

Day 0: (baking today)
Preheat oven to 450F
Pull bread out of fridge
Score bread
Bake bread with steam
Let bread cool

These are my ingredients:
fine sea salt – it dissolves more easily than the coarse stuff
spring water – filtered would also work, but geez, avoid the stuff with chlorine in it.
flour – Not just any flour, though. I use bread flour, what the British call strong flour. It’s simply flour that has a relatively high protein content, from 12-14%, versus 9-11% for all purpose (AP) flour. Whole wheat flour adds texture, flavor, and protein. Whole wheat is also the base of my starter. Rye adds flavor (that apparently some of us don’t like so much.) The amounts are included below, but here is a list of the flours I use, just to be organized:
King Arthur Organic Bread Flour (12.7% protein)
King Arthur Organic Whole Wheat Flour (13.8% protein)
Bob’s Red Mill rye flour

John rants: I use organic ingredients not because I think they are superior to, or in any way are more healthy than, “ordinary” foodstuffs, though that’s probably true. I use organic whenever I can to protect the pollinators, all of which are endangered by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Bread doesn’t stick to the basket when dusted with a mixture of rice flour and bread flour. Bread slides on the peel when the peel is dusted with cornmeal. (So that’s why my bread has cornmeal on the bottom…)
Bob’s Red Mill cornmeal
Bob’s Red Mill rice flour

Now, to make bread:

To make the bulk starter(Day -3)( 10-15 minutes):

  • 5 grams starter (50/50 mix of whole wheat flour and spring water)
  • 60 grams whole wheat flour
  • 60 grams spring water

To make the levain(Day -2)(10-15 minutes):

  • 100 grams bulk starter
  • 120 grams spring water
  • 180 grams bread flour

The autolyze (Day -1)(15 minutes):

  • 75 grams rye flour
  • 75 grams whole wheat flour
  • 620 grams bread flour
  • 530 grams spring water

Finally, the dough ( Day -1)(30 minutes):

  • 20 grams fine sea salt

The starter is a 50/50 mix of flour and water (give or take whatever biological action take place), so 100 grams of starter is 50 grams of water and 50 grams of flour. Thus the levain consists of (180+50=230) grams of flour and (120+50=170) grams of water.

To that we add another (75+75+620=770) grams of flour and 530 grams of water, totaling 1000 grams of flour, 700 grams of water, and 20 grams salt.

In so-called “bakers’ percentage”, this dough is considered 70% hydrated, because there is 70% as much water by weight as flour : 700 g water / 1000 g flour = 70%. Salt is usually added at about 2% of the flour weight – 20 grams in this case.

Now the details. The times are merely rough guidelines. Your kitchen may be warmer or colder than my kitchen, and temperature matters. A lot. Warmer kitchens tend to promote faster yeast and bacterial action. Not surprisingly, colder kitchens slow things down. So this is a game of watching the dough, listening to what it’s telling you. All ingredients are at room temperature, which varies probably 60-70F during the winter in my kitchen.

Day -3: Making the bulk starter is easy. If you feed your starter at the same time, there’ll be no extra dirty dishes. It’s the only sensible thing to do. My recipe calls for 100 g of starter for Day -2. 60 g of whole wheat flour and 60 g of spring water are combined with a bit of starter. Mix it well and loosely cover for about 24 hours. Tomorrow there will be enough starter to make the levain. These pictures are clearly of making the starter. The bulk starter is just three times bigger. I tend to do this step before going to bed.

Day -2: Still a pretty easy day, making the levain. Measure out 100 g of bulk starter into a bowl. Measure out 120 g of spring water, and mix well with the starter. Mix in 180 g of strong white flour until all of the flour is combined and no dry flour remains. Cover and leave for 12 hours or so. I also do this before going to bed to allow breadmaking to start after breakfast. Yes, retirement is nice.

Levain is ready

Day -1: Making the bread consists of a number of steps, each of which is easy. We just have to combine them. Your levain has been growing for about ten hours, and will be in peak shape in another two. It’s time to autolyze the flour. Weigh out 770 g of flour – my normal mix is 75 g rye, 75 g whole wheat, 620 g bread flour – into your bread bowl. Weigh out 530 g of spring water. Weigh out 20 g of fine sea salt. I measure the salt at this point because I forgot it once. Never forget salt in your bread. Never. Really. Never.

Mix the water and flour until all the water is absorbed and there are no dry bits of flour. This is the autolyze step, which allows gluten to develop without all that tedious kneading your mother taught you. Cover the bowl and go have a coffee, or run an errand.

Autolyze for thirty minutes to two hours, then turn the dough out onto a wet counter. Wet your fingers, then spread the dough out into a large rectangle, like making pizza.

Dimple the dough with your fingertips, and sprinkle the salt evenly over the surface. Turn the levain out onto the dough, and spread it out evenly.

Use a bench scraper to fold the dough from the edge to the center, overlapping to contain the levain, keeping your fingers wet to keep the dough from sticking too badly.

Pull the dough toward you, stretching it, and fold it back over itself. Turn the dough, and repeat this folding action until the levain is mixed in and the dough is a homogenous mixture. Scrape the counter clean and place the dough in the bowl to rest for 20 minutes.

The next two steps are simple folds: wet the counter and your fingers again, and turn the dough out. I like to spread the dough out like a square pizza. Then I fold one-quarter side to the middle, then the other quarter to the middle.

Fold the ends in toward the middle again, then fold that. Put the dough back into the bowl for another 20 minute rest, with the outside of the fold facing up. This is now the “good side” of the bread.

After resting for twenty minutes or so, do another fold as before. Put the dough back into the bowl for proofing again with the “good side” up. Leave the dough in the bowl on the counter until it has about doubled in size. Flour the counter, flour the dough in the bowl, and turn the dough out onto the counter. Weigh the dough and cut into two equal portions. Preshape each portion into a rough loaf, cover, and set aside to rest for 20 minutes.

Place the loaves in bread tins for baking after another proof. When the bread has again almost doubled in size (the crown should be peeking out of the bread tin), it’s time to bake. 375F for 30 minutes? I am guessing. I’ll have to test that.

Or, place the loaves in bannetons, wicker baskets made for proofing and fermenting sourdough bread.

The bannetons are dusted with a mixture of wheat and rice flour, and the loaves are place good side down.

After the bread has about doubled in size (the dough should yield to a finger, and should not spring right back), the bread is refrigerated at least overnight, to develop flavor as it continues to ferment. The action of the yeast is reduced, but the lactic acid bacteria that produces the sour taste continue to work. Longer fermentations produce more sour taste due to more bacterial action.

After their overnight stay, the loaves are scored and baked on a preheated pizza/baking stone at 450F for 40 minutes. Steam is added at the beginning of the bake (a cup of water in a preheated Dutch oven lid) to ensure a crispy exterior. Alternatively, a round boule can be baked in a preheated Dutch oven. When the oven beeps to indicate it’s up to heat, the cast iron Dutch oven will still be cold – give it at least a half hour. Then roll the boule out onto a square of parchment, score, and lower it into the Dutch oven and cover. Bake for 20 minutes, remove the cover, and bake for another 20-25 minutes.

Scoring the crust of the bread creates a path for the bread to expand while it bakes. If you haven’t supplied an easy path by scoring, the expansion will occur in random places – this rarely makes for a pretty loaf of bread. I use a razor blade, and try to cut at least 1/2″ (12mm) deep into the crust. Shallow cuts can be decorative, but a deep one is needed for expansion. Bread baked in tins don’t require scoring, as the sides of the tin prevent expansion out, to it has to go UP.

There is a lot more detail to it in practice, but following these steps will result in bread. And pretty good bread at that. It will only improve.

Thanks for stopping by.

Keeping Sourdough Alive

The heart of sourdough bread is the starter, which is a mix of flour and water that contains wild yeasts and bacteria. These yeasts and bacteria, rather than commercial yeast, provide the leavening so the bread rises.

It’s easy to keep an established starter happy and healthy. It might seem wasteful (this can be addressed), but the starter has to be “fed”, a misnomer I think meant to confuse the novice. What really happens is that a little bit of the “before” starter is added to a mixture of flour and water to make the “after” starter. This process is repeated every three or four days at room temperature. Refrigeration will slow things down, but I’m not experienced in that – I once put the starter in the fridge when I was gone for a week. It lived. That’s all I know.

But my starter began as 100 g each of spring water and King Arthur Organic Whole Wheat flour. I just mixed that up and put it in a pint canning jar with a loose lid. Yeasts and bacteria that naturally exist in the flour were activated. Subsequent feedings increased the microorganic population, and after a week or so, the starter was ready to use.

John Rants: Many will say that the yeasts “in your environment” are what makes “your sourdough” special, but mostly it’s wheat-specific yeasts that live on the wheat plants. Kind of like nature, right? Huge variety, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s “you”. But I was a software engineer. What do I know?

Continued care of the starter consists of feeding it every three days or so. I will with clear conscience admit that I have let this slip to likely a week. Three-day-old starter is nice and bubbly, and smells yeasty and a little sour. Seven-day-old starter looks like it’s died and smells like old socks. But feed it. It’ll be fine.

My feedings occur primarily when I think of it, but fortunately I keep the starter on the kitchen counter, so it’s never too far out of sight. In a pique of experimentation, I created a starter using whole wheat flour. My prior starter was based on strong bread flour, and worked quite nicely, but I wanted more flavor. I was surprised to see that the newly-created whole wheat starter showed signs of activity after only two days. I fed it generously (100 g water / 100 g flour / teaspoon of “before” starter) once again, and after two more “normal” feedings, I was making bread.

A “normal” feeding involves weighing out equal parts water and flour (20 grams is my goal, but it’s tough to pour grams of water). I hit 21 this time (below). So I used 21 grams of flour simply to make it equal parts. And then I mixed in just a tiny bit of “before” starter. I’ll cover that loosely and set it aside for two or three days.

When it’s time to make bread I’ll build a large starter in addition to a normal one. For my bread recipe I typically need 100 g of starter, so I’ll branch off with 60 g water, 60 g whole wheat flour, and a teaspoon or so of “before” starter, and the next day that’ll be ready to make the levain. So much more “before” starter is used because there’s a lot more flour to consume, and this large starter has to be ready on time. I allow a day for this large starter to be ready.

It’s getting pretty clear I’m going to have to get one of those cool blogging cameras…

Sourdough Bread

I was never a fan of “sourdough” bread, although Peg loves it. Always up for a challenge (and nice guy that I am) I tried to make some.

Retired as I am, I have plenty of time to watch videos on YouTube, hundreds, if not thousands of which are on the subject of baking sourdough bread. The YT channel that most resonated with me was ChainBaker, a bloke named Charlie who taught me how to make the starter from just water and flour, to making some pretty good bread.

I don’t try to get the bread really sour, per se, rather I use the wild yeast to do the leavening. And I am still learning how to control how the bread comes out.

Dinner Rolls for Thanksgiving

Ordinarily I’d just get some brown-n-serve rolls at the market, but to mix things up, I decided to make rolls from scratch.

There are only the two of us this year, so I’ve shot for a dozen rolls, which is severe overkill. My research involved nothing more than pulling down our trusty Betty Crocker cookbook from 1976. The recipe for their brown-n-serve rolls was halved and slightly modified, ending up with a yeast-rich dough:

  • one packet yeast (Red Star instant today)
  • 3/4 C tepid water – just warm – definitely not hot – shoot for about 100F
  • 2 T fat – I used bacon fat today, because – bacon
  • 2 T sugar
  • 1 t salt
  • 2 1/4 C bread flour

The original recipe calls for all-purpose flour, shortening, and half milk-half water mixture.

The mixing for this can be done by hand, but when one has a KitchenAide with a dough hook…

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water with the sugar and let it sit for a few minutes. If the yeast is alive it will start to foam, and the bread will rise. That’s important. If it doesn’t, get new yeast. Don’t waste your time.

Add the salt, fat, and about half of the flour to the mixing bowl and mix until a smooth batter is achieved. Gradually add most of the remaining flour until a soft dough is formed.

Flour a surface and turn the dough out onto the flour. Knead for five minutes, adding more flour if the dough is still sticky. Place dough in a greased bowl and cover with a damp tea towel. Place in a relatively warm, draft-free area, and let the dough rise until it’s about twice its volume, about 1-2 hours.

Punch the dough down to release the gas that’s built up, and divide the dough into twelve equal portions. Form each portion into a ball, stretching the dough to the bottom, pinching the dough sealed there to form a smooth roll surface. Place rolls in a muffin tin. Cover with the tea towel again, and let the rolls rise again, until about doubled.

Brush rolls with melted butter ( or bacon fat, because – bacon), and bake at 375F for about 15 minutes.

I recently found some elderberry jelly at a folksy roadside stand, and boy do these play well… oh, yeah, we had to test some of the rolls.

N.B. These rolls were not done in muffin tins. Nor were they created under the most auspicious conditions for yeast bread. They were half through the second rise when we had an unexpected trip to the Emergency Department in Boston, so they suffered an interrupted rise. The crumb was not as good, the texture was just OK, but they sure do taste good.

I’ll check back in after Thanksgiving…

I didn’t take many pictures on Thanksgiving. I think I was busy. I need an entourage… But this time, I used the muffin tin, and they turned out beautifully, but no photo, no proof. I didn’t get a picture of the turkey, either, and it should have been a turkey pin-up, it was so pretty.

I had a bear of a time with the other two packets of Red Star yeast. Neither of them rose! I ended up at the market with the choice of Pizza Yeast or a pound (a pound) of proper yeast. I know the shelves are rather sparse, but that choice was asinine.

I found in subsequent batches that using about 2 C of the 2 1/4 C of flour in the initial mixing is just about right. The other quarter cup can be kneaded in as necessary to get the right dough texture.