Saturday, October 8, 2011

One Year of Real Bread.

It's hard for me to believe that it has now been an entire year since I grew my sourdough culture. I thought of this since my Parents came to visit me this week, bringing with them grapes, tomatoes, and pumpkins for me to play with. When we first moved as a family to the farm in 1988, we were excited to have a variety of already established, old-timey things like apples, grapes, and raspberries right in our yard. Grapes in particular were exciting to us, since they can't really thrive up north where we had come from. We had both wild grapes and Concords, and my Mom has canned grape juice and grape jelly pretty much every year since. I was busy most of the day today with grapes, and will likely talk about them at length later, but smelling that deep purple of them just reinforced my love of bread - how grapes remind me now of the symbiotic relationship between wild yeast and fruit, fermentation and bread.

While I have always had a deep love for all things carbohydrate, and have never been shy of yeast bakery, I never would have dreamed that it was possible for me, amateur home baker, to turn out wild, natural leaven breads one at a time with relative ease. Those grapes that assisted me on my favorite fermentation adventure ever are a continual reminder of the relationship between the baker and the ingredient, and the realization that what comes from my hands is really maybe only half skill and the other half a credit to the powers of the unseen world. No wonder bread has such mystical and spiritual connotation - the more I make it the more I am solidly convinced in the power of the Almighty.

While I have written many posts on bread and my experiments with it, I wrote them all with the passion of new discovery. As I have worked my way through different books, different methods, various ratios and flours, I have found little tips with each loaf. Having baked through an entire year with wild yeast, I can say (from my personal experience, anyway) that Summer bread is tough to master. Now that the air is thinner, crisp with impending Autumn, my excitement for bread making is again in full swing - the past three or four loaves in particular knocking my proverbial socks right off.

firm starter, just out of the fridge.

I am still using the ratios in Peter Reinhart's book Crust and Crumb, and yes, I am still available if he'd like me to personally go door to door and promote it. All Summer, I had been making his recipe for Country Style Levain (which a few other loaves interspersed in there too). Generally, it was good. Big, airy holes and a nice round sour flavor, sometimes it felt a little wet in the middle... but I chalked it up to a "custardy interior" and ate almost all of it regardless of the varying degrees of perfection.

But a week or so ago, I went back to his slightly different "San Francisco" Sourdough, and I am newly smitten, as if I had never had such success with bread before. Both aforementioned breads use a base Peter calls a Firm Starter. The build begins with the firm starter a day or two prior to mixing up bread, and the firm starter remains viable for about 3 days in the fridge (longer if you refresh it with additional water and flour). I'm not quite sure if it is a combination of the weather, the hint of malt extract, or my decision to autolyse my loaves, but these breads have been so great they deserve their own billboard. The crumb is tight, absent of airy holes, but still with a bit of that wet custard feel. The crust is particularly amazing: crisp and caramel-y, making a proper mess of my floor when I go to slice into it. It's the best of all bread worlds, at least for now.

it windowpanes like nobody's business...

I have made this recipe before, though the results were not mind-boggling, and hence I had moved on to the Country Levain. Why it has decided to work for me now, I am not sure. I am beyond excited that for the first time ever, I have been able to use a well-floured brotform without having the loaf stick at all. The loaf does not deflate when I gingerly tip it over, even though each time I fully expect it to. I invert it onto the counter, then slash and move it to my preheated cast-iron pot, and it stays proudly puffed, living and breathing like I remember Nancy Silverton referring to it doing - and I never understood what she meant until now.

Since I usually have 100% hydration starter in largish amounts, because the firm starter lasts a few days in the fridge, and because I like using the firm starter in things besides bread (like this pizza dough), I usually mix up a larger batch of it. I'm still working on the optimum feeding schedule for my starter(s)... since I don't keep my main (100% hydration) starter in the refrigerator unless I absolutely have to, I feed it every day which sometimes can feel a tad wasteful. The build time for this bread can be shortened, and flavor sacrifice is minimal, so go ahead and bake it if you need bread!

Maybe I'm not really a true bread baker since I let my KitchenAid do my mixing. Had I the resources of a sturdy wood bench, I would likely do the hand kneading since I probably do need the exercise. You can make this bread by hand, just make sure to knead it until the gluten develops enough that you can spread a thin windowpane without tearing, and you'll be fine. This loaf is a good size for a standard 5 quart cast iron pot, which is how I prefer to bake to get a good crust. You can use a different baking method, and then form other bread shapes.

"Wisconsin" Sourdough (adapted for volume and method from Peter Reinhart)

For the Firm Starter:
  • 1 c. 100% hydration starter
  • 1 c. bread flour
  • enough water to make it form into a ball - a few tablespoons
To make the Firm Starter: mix the starter ingredients in a mixing bowl. When they form a ball, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead just until all the ingredients are incorporated, and dough forms a smooth ball. Place dough in a clean bowl, cover, and let ferment at room temperature for 4 hours. Then transfer to the fridge overnight or about 8 hours. The firm starter will be active for about 3 days. (If you leave it longer and need to refresh it, add 1 c. flour and 1/3 c. water or as much water to bring it back to roughly the same consistency. You can easily double the ingredients to allow for additional firm starter.)

For the Bread:
  • 9 1/3 oz. firm starter, taken out of the fridge at least 1 hour before you want to use it
  • 10 oz. bread flour
  • 1/2 t. barley malt extract
  • 6 oz. water
  • heaping t. salt
Take the firm starter, break it into pieces, and combine it with everything else *Except Salt* in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook or, if working by hand, in a bowl. When it just comes together into a ball, cover the mixer with a towel, and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Sprinkle the salt over the top, and start the mixer. Knead for 8-10 minutes, until a golf ball size piece of dough will pass the windowpane test. (The dough is a little sticky, just drop it into the flour bin before trying to pass the test.) Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board, and give it a couple of kneads by hand to form it into a nice ball, then put it in a clean bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, or a plastic bag, and let rise at room temperature for 4 hours. It should show "signs of swelling", it doesn't need to truly double in size. If it seems to be rising faster due to a warmer room temperature, still let it ferment for the full 4 hours.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured board, and shape into a round loaf. (Try to "pull" the dough tightly, so that it forms a nice, compact ball. Pinch the bottom seams together if need be. It shouldn't spread out on you after you've formed a tight ball, that "skin" is what prevents the loaf from growing into a less desirable and larger shape.)

Lightly dust the loaf with flour, and place it in a floured brotform or circular colander lined with a linen towel that has been rubbed with flour. (Be sure that you have the smooth size facing down, and the crimped bottom side facing up.) Place the formed loaf in a plastic bag and let it ferment at room temperature for 3-4 hours, until about 1 1/2 times it's original size.

(You can now bake it... or let it sit overnight in the fridge well wrapped in the plastic bag. I've left it in the fridge for as long as 16 hours, and it still baked up fine.)

Remove the loaf from the fridge 1 hour before baking. Preheat the oven to 475 with a lidded cast iron pot inside. Carefully tip the loaf out onto a lightly floured surface and slash the top.

Transfer to the cast iron pot, and bake with the lid on for 30 minutes. Remove the lid, and continue to bake 10-15 minutes longer, until the crust has the color you like.

Let cool for at least an hour before cutting into it...

hot bread.

More than any other bread I've made, this one really "sings". Singing bread is the ultimate reward and one you can quiet your 5-year-old son with; it is the reaction of the hot loaf hitting the cooler room temperature air, the process of the exterior cooling and contracting. The fissures it creates in the loaf are pretty interesting, the cracks appearing in this particular bread are deeper than any other I've made. And like I said earlier, I can't be sure if I can take credit for any of it.

cool bread.

Sometimes I feel guilty that I can enjoy wheat. When I run into more and more people with gluten allergies, I really feel a particular sadness that I can't share this kind of bread epiphany with someone. When I stand proud over a cooling bread, when I try to identify that wheaty, toasty smell and can't find the proper word, when I can't stand it any longer, and cut the crusty end off the loaf to eat before dinner... I really remember to appreciate this ancient thing that no longer seems unattainable to me. I enjoy every single bite. I still have so much to learn, but now I feel empowered with competence: a year of wild yeast under my belt, and the world is my oyster.

This post has been YeastSpotted.


  1. I am sorry, but IMO, there's many burnt spots on this bread, and other "artisan" breads I see posted recently. Please explain more on why so many artisan breads look burnt, because it seems to me that many of the bakers seem proud of their burnt crust, whereas I see carcinogenic acrylamides. Maybe the burnt areas are unavoidable, so they're scraped off before eating. I just haven't seen this discussed, so am curious.

  2. Anonymous: Actually, the only truly burnt spots on this bread are only around the "ears" - the flaps that are thinner and curl upwards in the heat of the bread's expansion where the loaf is slashed. Personally, I don't mind a bit of burnt flavor in my bread. I do not eat a lot of grilled foods which also can contribute to the carcinogens you mention, I don't smoke either, so I figure a touch of added flavor is worth it for me. Had I baked this loaf maybe 2 minutes less, I'd have had less blackening around the edges - and if you are looking to avoid all traces of blackness, I'd recommend lowering the oven temp by 25 degrees after you remove the lid for the final baking.

    As a side note, deeply burnished breads are higher in antioxidants. I have read many sources to confirm that eating the crusts are good for you.

    All in all, I think that you may see many artisan loaves with deep, dark crusts purely for personal preference. I know I really love them!

  3. Deena: Thanks! And, I keep meaning to ask you... did you activate your starter yet?

  4. I absolutely LOVe your entire blog. I have devoured it, saved recipes, and virtually dog eared it like a well worn paperback. If you and your boys ever find an excuse to come to Port Townsend, WA I'd love to show you around! Cheers, Charlotte

  5. Thanks, GT! You really made my day! I look forward to checking your site out a bit more in depth too - and if you ever need a recipe tester... I'm your girl!

  6. I really appreciate you taking the time to explain about the very dark areas Ms Cakewalk. I myself don't like burnt bread, however I do enjoy slightly burned grilled things if it's the basting sauce that's grilled, and the crusted rice on the bottom of pots (if the rice is highly flavored, not plain rice), so even if I don't care for the slightly burnt areas of bread, I can understand why others might.

    And a big thanks for the antioxidant info, I did find many credible looking results when searching that. You'd think at least a few of the posts about acrylamides might mention this instead of scaring us (me haha).

  7. Wow, that loaf is a stunner!

    I've been surprised that some loaves I've sampled, which had almost black crusts, didn't taste burnt or bitter, but just very caramelized and flavorful. In particular, the bread from Tartine, in San Francisco, as well as a beer-rye bread that I made, inspired by your beer bread (which I saw on Yeastspotting which led me to your blog earlier this year - yay!).

    I can't wait to try your sourdough pancake recipe!

    Oh, is the "100% hydration starter" equal amounts flour and water by weight (rather than volume?) What sort of consistency does it have?

  8. Alanna, it's kinda like a thin pancake batter- or better like crepe batter. (In fact, I've added eggs, and had instant crepe batter with discard starter!). And yes, equal parts by weight. I weigh the starter, and feed it's wieght - so if I have 100g. to start, I feed 50 g. each flour and water. Sorry I forgot to tell you this earlier :)

  9. The photo of the bread standing up on the counter is astonishing to me! And that's a beautiful crust.


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