Saturday, March 7, 2009

Colorado Sourdough from Scratch

Today was attempt #2 at using my sourdough starter to actually make bread. As much as I love tending to it and seeing it grow, I'm not looking for a new pet - it's time to put it to use.

As I mentioned in my last post, I was trying that very day to make my first ever sourdough bread. Many, many hours later, my "boules" were about as risen and tender as slightly misshapen softballs. Yumm. I decided not to waste the electricity to bake them - there was no hope.

What went wrong?

The recipe I used was suggested as the easiest one to start with for new sourdough bakers in the King Arthur book -

Pain Au Levain with Whole Wheat.

  • 1 c. (9 oz) ripe whole wheat levain - yes, I have that finally!!
  • 1-2/3 c. (6-5/8 oz) whole wheat flour
  • 2-2/3 c. (11-1/4 oz) unbleached bread flour
  • 1-1/2 c. (12-oz) cool water
  • 1 Tbs honey
  • 2 tsp salt
I am not going to recount all of the steps in detail here as the recipe is actually FIVE pages long with a few extra sidebars on other pages. If anyone is interested, let me know, and I can provide more detail.

Actually the recipe wasn't hard - easy steps with short risings in between, followed by one long rising. So I was surprised that my dough was so leaden.

After thinking back on each step in the process, I had an idea for what the problem might be. This recipe is a little unlike other yeast recipes I've used in that it suggests that you add all of the flour and water to your rising agent in the first step, stir it slowly and then let it sit for 20 minutes. This step is called an autolyse and is apparently quite important.

Heartland Mill, supplier of organic grain products, says, "This pre-hydration allows for better links between gluten and starches and results in shorter mix times and improved dough extensibility. Loaves made with autolysed dough will be easier to shape and will have more volume and better crumb structure."

In other recipes I've used, which don't happen to have this step, when the flour is added to the liquid, you only start with about two thirds of it. The remaining flour is added during the kneading process so that you can judge whether or not it is necessary.

Well, being a bit baffled by the autolyse step, I thought I'd better just follow the instructions and added all of the flour.

And this, I think, was the problem. Colorado is extremely dry, which makes the flour here extremely dry. The drier your flour, the more liquid it will need. When making bread, your liquid amount is predetermined, so all you can do to get the right balance is use less flour. When I make yeast bread, I typically add about 1/2 to 1 c. less flour than suggested for a two loaf recipe.

Rather than pay attention to this previously observed pattern, I just dumped in all of the flour. As soon as I began the first kneading step, I sensed a problem.

Whole wheat bread dough is extremely wet and sticky to knead, which is quite different than white bread dough. After a good kneading period and the right amount of flour, a white bread dough will feel smooth, warm and elastic - maybe a little tacky, but definitely not sticky. Whole wheat dough will feel elastic, but it will be much more sticky. If you add enough flour to whole wheat dough to make it smooth, the dough will be so heavy that the yeast won't be strong enough to make it rise.

And that was my problem... my dough felt exactly like white bread dough.

So today I started over, which brings us to the present...

Man, this bread takes a long time to make. I am not kidding, here are (roughly) the steps:
  • Mix the starter, water and flour slowly.
  • Let rest for 20 minutes
  • Add salt and honey, knead for a few minutes
  • Let rise for 45 minutes
  • Put dough on floured surface, spread into a rectangle, fold up like a letter, twice, put back in bowl.
  • Let rise for 45 minutes
  • Repeat folding step
  • Rise for, surprise, surprise, 45 minutes
  • Turn onto surface, divide in two, draw up edges and pinch together
  • Let rest for 20 minutes
  • Shape into boules (long, long explanation here which I don't really understand, basically I ... shaped them into taught rounds)
  • Put into bowls or baskets lined with heavily (didn't do it heavily enough!) floured, smooth tea towels and cover
  • Let rise for 2 to 2-1/2 hours
  • During rise, preheat oven to 4500 for half hour with baking stone on middle rack and iron skillet on bottom rack
  • Bake loaves on stone for 10 minutes at 4500, then 20-30 minutes at 4250. When putting loaves in the oven, put 1/2 c. water into iron skillet to create steam, which makes the crust crispy.
The only modification I made was to hold back about 3 oz of the bread flour from the first step. As it turns out, I never needed to add it back. The dough seemed to fit the description pretty well from thereon out.

How did it turn out? ... It was everything I hoped for: chewy, tender, crusty, and with the extra flavor of a whole wheat loaf.

So ... living in a town with great artisan bread available, was it worth it all the effort? It tasted quite similar to expensive breads I've bought. The one extra characteristic I noticed was that it tasted fresher. I don't know why, given that any bakery bread I'd buy around here would have been baked that morning, but my husband and I both agreed that it definitely tasted fresher. And it's pretty cool that I made the whole thing using flour, water, honey and salt.

Notice that in the picture, the loaf is half eaten. That picture was taken about 3 minutes after we cut into the first loaf. That might give you an idea of how it tasted. So at this point, I'm thinking I'll keep my little pet around for awhile.

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