A Bread Post

I started baking again, which is remarkable in that it’s the first baking I’ve done in months and also because somehow my ferment survived all of that alone time in the fridge.

Lately I’ve been attempting high hydration doughs. These incorporate something like 75 bakers percent of water meaning that for each 100 g of flour in the dough there’s 75 g of water. This means that you don’t get a nice kneadable dough at all. At best it becomes juuuust shapable at the end of a 4 hour long fermentation. Before then it’s kind of a sticky goo.

My first stab involved me following my normal volumetric measure recipe which is something like this:

2 cups starter (my starter is 50/50 by volume flour and water)
6 1/2 to 7 cups of flour
4 1/2 tsp salt

But this time, at about 5 1/2 cups of flour, 2 cups water, and 2 cups starter I decided to see what would happen if I ran with the dough as-is. I mixed it in the kitchen aide (I’ll never do that again). About 10 min total under the dough hood (5 min, then rest for 20, then add salt, then 5 more min). I turned the dough into a bowl and covered and let it ferment.

Came back after a few hours and attempted to cut the dough and shape it as I usually would. This was a mess. My method of forming rounds involves tucking with my hands while turning the dough with friction against the counter top. But everything was a sticky mess and at best I got a sorta round shape. I put that in the fridge on a floured baking sheet thinking I could just pop it into the oven the next morning.

After an overnight retard in the fridge it was clear that the loaves didn’t have any kind of good shape for baking. So, I risked another shaping with slightly better results and then put the dough in my normal proofing baskets with lots of flour. I let this rise for ~3 hours and then baked using the dutch oven method given in Tartine. Essentially this involves pre heating the dutch oven to 500 degrees then somehow loading a loaf in the oven, lidding, and baking the first 25 min with the lid closed at 450 degrees F. The last 20 min is baked without the lid.

The results were pretty good. I botched the docking by trying to use a kitchen knife (NO!). But, the loaves somehow pulled off a magic oven spring but it was clear by smell and later by taste that the loaves were over proofed. Not bad, but definitely very sour tasting.

Not bad looking high hydration loaf.

Not bad looking high hydration loaf.

Then I went away for a week and then came back to give it another shot. Because I had cracked Tartine to look up the Dutch oven method, I decided I may as well start following their basic white method. Or at least give it a shot and see how it would work for me. First off, the author uses weights. This is the de-facto standard for any serious baking because it eliminates issues with varying flour density and starter consistency (or at least minimizes issues with starter consistency). The recipe for the basic country white is as follows:

900 g white flour
100 g whole wheat flour
750 g water
20 g salt
200 g starter

For this, I used my normal starter which is equal parts water and flour by volume rather than the Tartine starter/leaven which is equal parts by weight. The important difference is that one gets less flour when measuring per volume than one would if measuring per weight so my starter was wet to begin with. This is also about 1/2 the starter I would normally use in a recipe, so I expected things to be less active overall.

I mixed the dough following their method which involves just blending the water (700 g of it) with the starter and then mixing in the flours. Once this is mixed, it’s allowed to rest for up to 40 minutes. I gave it the full 40 to allow as much water as possible to absorb into the flours. Next, the remaining water and salt are incorporated again by direct hand mixing (this is hand in dough, not hand on spoon). Once everything is well mixed, it’s allowed to ferment for 3-4 hours.

This bulk fermentation has a key feature that is a major change for me and will make bread baking much more palatable. Instead of kneading, every 30 minutes of the bulk ferment, the dough is “turned”. A “turn” involves reaching into the dough with a clean, wet hand and pulling the bottom dough onto the top, roatating and repeating several times. This is done gently to prevent loss of gasses in the dough. By the end of the ferment, roughly 6 turns will have been performed and the dough is essentially very well kneaded. This works because it allows the fermentation to do the work of kneading as gas expands in the dough slowly pushing against the gluten and aligning things.

So far so good, but I didn’t know where I stood because this was completely foreign to me. The dough was definitely alive with spring and a fair bit of gas in it. Next comes the shaping and this is where things got difficult partly because the book is a bit hard to follow and partly because it was all new to me and partly because my dough was wetter than the recipe called for.

The dough is dumped onto a clean counter (no flour on it) and then the surface of the dough is sprinkled with flour. The idea is that floured dough surface will become the bread’s crust and will thereby primarily stay on the outside of the loaves to come. I dumped the dough, sprinkled and cut it into two pieces. As I cut, the method is to turn the dough over, which worked. Next one is meant to somehow fold the dough to seal in the unfloured bits and then tuck and round the dough into some kind of initial form. I found this very tricky as my hands kept sticking (more to one piece than the other) and then the dough kept firmly sticking to the counter and undoing my work. Eventually I kind of had it tamed and the dough balls separated enough to rest. Again, there’s a 40 minute rest here to let the dough relax.

At the point there was a clear difference between the dough balls. One was tighter, smaller and overall less sticky than the other. I think I got less water in this one as I was using wet hands to shape the dough and transferred more water into the one ball than the other.

The final shaping is actually pretty straight forward. One piece at a time, the dough is floured, then flipped onto its floured side. Then it’s folded bottom third up, then right third in, then left third to right edge, then top third over to bottom edge, then a final fold of the bottom edge up and over dragging the load to flip it on the counter. I found this very cool as it was clear that each fold was making the dough firmer and more like a loaf. By the last fold, these impossibly wet loaves actually had some shape. I inverted them (seam side up) into proofing baskets and left them for the night (6 hours in the fridge).

In the morning I made my first mistake which was to pull both loaves out of the fridge. Tartine says you only need 20 minutes between pulling the dough out and baking, but I don’t see how this is possible given the coldness of the fridge and the relatively little amounts of starter in the dough. So, I gave them a full three hours which is equivalent to what would be done if the dough was to be baked straight from shaping. Because I pulled both pieces out, I knew one loaf would get more proofing time because I can only bake one loaf at a time in the dutch oven. Nearing bake time, I chose to bake the larger, wonkier loaf first because it seemed more slack as if it were about to become overproofed. I put the other one in the fridge to retard it a bit while the first loaf baked. I’d pull it out when the first loaf was nearly done. This would give about 40 minutes for the loaf to come to room temperature while the first loaf finished baking and the oven re-heated to temperature.

I totally botched the docking and loading of the first loaf. The loaf was firmly stuck to the proofing baskets owing to my use of flour and the wetness of the dough. I kind of had to shake it out and at one point it looked like ruined dough. When it flopped into the hot dutch oven it was half on its side and looked funky. I then tried to dock it with a razor, but the blade slipped off my holder and I just hacked at it. In frustration I stabbed the razor holding stick into the loaf until it broke and then slammed the loaf into the oven. FUCK. I’m having a rough time these days and even small things like this can throw me.

After the 25 minutes, I pulled off the cover and somehow the bread looked okay. After 20 minutes it was as if some kind of miracle had occurred. The loaf was rounded and risen (not as much as it could have been, but risen for sure). The color was golden and the smell was a little overproofed, but pretty good. Wow.

After reheating the oven, and making damn sure I had the other loaf unstuck, I got it into the dutch oven, docked it a bit more successfully, and then shoved it in the oven. At 25 minutes later, the loaf looked great an had sprang up a lot. I was actually sad to see a bit of deflation when I pulled the lid off and am curious about trying a bit longer with the lid on to see if I can capture more of that poof. After 20 minutes the loaf was beautiful. Golden and risen to a nice height (although still somewhat of a disk). A much nicer specimen than the first and holding true to its behavior from the initial shaping.

Second round (uncut) and the cross section of the first round. Overall, the second is much nicer but they will both be really good.

Second round (uncut) and the cross section of the first round. Overall, the second is much nicer but they will both be really good.

While the second loaf was baking, I cut into the first and found it to be pretty amazing. There is a lot of hole structure, the crust was crisp, but not a rock, the taste with butter was outstanding. Overall, really good bread and something I would be happy to have bought in a fancy bread shop. These were made using cheap flour, so have about $1.75 of materials in each loaf. With nicer organic flour bought in small bags, this will double but $3 isn’t bad for a good loaf of bread these days.

Next up is a whole wheat using good organic flour and the leaven as described in Tartine. I expect the dough to be a bit easier to work with and now I’ve got more practice too. Fun.