Awards and a sourdough holiday

A big thank you to lapetitepaniere for the nomination of the Dragon’s Loyalty Award, which encourages connectivity between blogs. I have made a decision not to follow the whole process of nominating more blogs, because there are so many great blogs out there that I feel the process would be never ending if I started now! Congratulations to all of the other bloggers nominated for that and other awards though, and I am very pleased to have been nominated so soon after starting this blog.

Another reason that I will not be carrying on the nomination process is that I am taking a short break from baking and blogging. I have fed my sourdough starter (I left myself a note so that I did not forget…) and stashed it at the back of the fridge until I will need it in a couple of weeks. Feeding it before leaving it for a while generally ensures that it will be easy to reinvigorate when you next use it; however, it is still a good idea to look for the following signs of deterioration:

  • Black liquid on the surface – this is OK, it is just the ethanol (alcohol) from the fermentation. It can be tipped off or stirred back in.
  • Overfermentation – this could happen as it has just been fed; the starter might explode out of the jar and into the fridge…
  • An ‘off’ smell – you would know something was wrong if you smelled it. A good starter has a sweet, cidery smell, a bad starter smells awful.
  • Mould – white/grey mould is OK, just scrape it off. Green mould is bad, throw it away.

So, all going well we should have a sluggish but still active starter to bake with in a couple of weeks.

Don't forget to feed the starter before going away!
Don’t forget to feed the starter before leaving it!
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Start early, finish delicious

With electric mixers, instant yeast, bread improvers and all the rest it is possible to rush through and get from dough to baked loaf in just a few hours. As I have mentioned before though, what you sacrifice in patience you also sacrifice in flavour. So how does someone baking at home, without the luxuries of expensive proofers and retarding fridges manage the slow process of making delicious bread without spending a whole weekend fussing over a loaf?

There are a few simple techniques which can be used to improve flavour and texture and, other than keeping an eye on the clock, only really add a few minutes to the overall time. To extend the bread making process does not require you to commit to slaving over a loaf. By planning ahead it is easy to use the following techniques at home.

Preferments

As dough ferments it improves. Simple. The longer you give the yeast to work on the starch in the flour, the more sugars are released and the more flavour imparted into the loaf. Increased fermentation time also leads to increased enzyme activity, which is especially important in sourdough loaves. One way of encouraging this extra long fermentation is by using a form of  preferment, such as one of the following:

Poolish

A French preferment made by mixing a portion of the flour with water and a small amount of yeast. A poolish will be wet and will bubble up over about 4 hours, at which point it can be refrigerated overnight to use the next day.

poolish

Biga

Similar to a poolish and used in Italian breads. Less water than a poolish, so it is firmer and gives a more distinct flavour to the finished loaf. Again the biga can be made the night before and refrigerated overnight. Both biga and poolish should be left at room temperature for a while so that they do not lower the temperature of the dough too much.

Pain de Campagne (Country Bread) made with an Italian style biga
Pain de Campagne (Country Bread) made with an Italian style biga

Old dough

For those who bake very regularly an old piece of dough can be cut from the main batch before it is baked, saved, and incorporated into the next batch. Has similar properties to a biga.

Levain (sourdough starter)

Technically a class all of its own, but I will class it as a preferment because essentially a sourdough starter will add a lot of flavour due to the extended fermentation time. A handful of starter can also be added to a yeasted loaf to improve flavour; just make sure to adjust the flour and water in the final recipe accordingly.

rye_starter
Rye flour sourdough starter, started in 2012

Time and temperature

The purpose of using a  preferment is to extend the period of time in which the yeast is active. It doesn’t take much effort- if I want to make a yeasted loaf I could simply mix the ingredients and dive straight in, or I could plan to bake later and spend a few minutes mixing a poolish 4 hours before. Other than a  preferment, the best way to manipulate time is to control temperature.

Checking the water temperature gives a more accurate final temperature in the dough
Checking the water temperature gives a more accurate final temperature in the dough

Water temperature

The temperature of the liquid used in the recipe will have one of the greatest impacts on the dough temperature. Yeast seems, in my experience, to work best at about 35-37°C – a bit above lukewarm – and mixing with water at this temperature delivers pretty consistent results. Start heading above the 40s, however, and the yeast will die. Cooler water temperatures mean that the dough will be cooler after mixing, and the yeast will be less active. This will give a slower fermentation, which means more flavour, but could shift your schedule from 2 hours to 4.

Room temperature

I have learned the hard way that it is best to just rely on the ambient temperature of your kitchen, and not try too hard to warm up the dough (balancing a bowl on top of a radiator on a tea towel was not my best idea). If you really want to speed the process, try a naturally warm space like near a sunny window.

Refrigeration (retarding)

The home baker’s best friend when it comes to flavour can be the fridge. Whilst it is possible to make a great tasting loaf in a single day, the added step of an overnight stint in the fridge is well worth it, and means that you can bake early the next morning and have fresh bread ready to go. Rather than treating it as an additional chore, look at it as a way to fit bread making into your own time. I find it much easier to make a dough on a Saturday then not have to be concerned about when on Saturday night I will be baking it- just whack it in the fridge for Sunday.

Other ways to extend fermentation

There are other ways to drag out the period of active time for the yeast. You can knock the dough back more than once (don’t try with sourdough unless you want to lose all of the air and flavour), and keep knocking it back until you are ready to bake. Be careful though; after a point the yeast will have consumed all of the really available starches and will stop reproducing. You can refrigerate or warm the flour and other ingredients prior to mixing to slow or speed up the rising time respectively. Finally, you can cut the account of yeast in a recipe- sometimes even a quarter of a teaspoon will be enough to leaven a loaf; it will just take longer.

In summary…

More time = more fermentation = more flavour Lower temperature = more time…Less yeast = more time…

So, start early, plan it out, and get on with your life in those 4 hour periods when you don’t even need to look at your dough: the yeast will be happily chewing through your dough whether you are staring at it or not.

The Reason for Rye

There are a lot of bread blogs out there. Many of them are excellent sources of information for both the home baker and the professional, and I am a member of a number of online communities that I find vital when fine tuning a recipe or troubleshooting flat loaves. So, when I decided to start writing this blog, I had to think what makes this any different from all of the others?

After scratching my head for a while, I came up with the answer. There are still far too few sites out there that bridge the gap between amateur home baker and die-hard professional (at home or otherwise). A quick glance across some of the aforementioned blogs demonstrates the fantastic technical skill of many home bakers out there, but is a daunting sight to a person just starting out.

barley_wheat_miche
A barley and wheat bran sourdough, made with a rye flour starter

I have been baking bread now for a number of years, so I am finally fairly confident when faced with terms like autolysedough hydration, baker’s percentages, levain, and so on, but, when I recently started handing out portions of my sourdough starter to colleagues with recipes and instructions, I was quickly taken back to a time when most “artisan” bread websites seemed like they were written in another language.

The aim of this blog, then, is to help take the edge off for absolute beginners. Baking bread is not always an easy process, but it is a very rewarding one. There is a glossary for some of the more technical terms, but I intend to keep all of the instructions and recipes as simple as possible.

Which brings me to the rye… I make all of my sourdough breads with a rye flour ‘starter’. This is a form of yeast that naturally rises the bread, whilst also giving a complex flavour. Starters can be made from almost any flour, and all have different qualities. The reasons I use rye are simple. The complexity of the flavour in a loaf is always my main goal, and I find that the rye flour ticks that box more than any other. Rye is also a very high quality source of food for the yeast – yeast is alive, and needs to eat! This means that a rye flour starter will be strong and long-lasting – something that I find crucial as a home baker where I am limited to storing my starter in a jar at the back of the fridge.

So, for the first recipe on this blog, here is my rye flour starter. In my experience it usually takes about a week to activate, but this may vary:

rye_starter
Rye flour sourdough starter, started in 2012

Rye Flour Starter
Day One

  • 100g rye flour
  • 150g water
  1. Mix flour and water in a sterilised container (I use a tupperware).
  2. Rest, loosely covered, overnight

Day Two – Five (or seven, or eight…)

  • 100g rye flour
  • 100g water
  1. Mix additional flour and water into the starter.
  2. Rest, loosely covered, overnight.
  3. Repeat each day, “feeding” the starter with flour and water at roughly the same time each day. If it gets to the point where you have too much, discard half, or give it to somebody else.
  4. The starter is active when it is bubbly. For the first time, I would feed it once more before using it in a recipe.

Storing, feeding, and using the starter

Now that the starter is active, all that you need to do is maintain it. I will explain further in later recipes, but your starter is now full of “wild yeast” and can be used to bake bread. The amount of starter in a recipe differs, but in all cases you will need to “feed” your starter once or twice over a couple of days prior to using it. I store my starter in a jar in the fridge (pictured) and when I want to bake I put about a tablespoon into a clean tupperware, feed with 100g each of flour and water, leave overnight, and repeat once. Any leftover starter from the recipe goes back into the jar in the fridge. I have found that my starter will last in the fridge for at least 3 weeks without being fed, and can be frozen for up to 6 months.