Ghost Loaf and the death of an oven

Last week I posted a recipe for wholegrain and millet sourdough, and mentioned that one of the loaves did not come out of the oven as I would have hoped.

The pasty ghost loaf. Over proofed, and worse!

The large loaf ended up with a pasty, dull coloured crust and an uneven rise. After thinking about the disappointing results from a few angles, I’ve decided that three factors combined to create the unfortunate looking “ghost loaf”.

  1. The dough was over-proofed – Although the dough was refrigerated overnight in the same manner as previous loaves, it was significantly larger, and probably took longer to cool in the fridge. This would mean that it was proofing for longer than intended. The deflated look around the slashed parts and uneven colouring also point to over-proofing. Additionally, in a seriously over-proofed loaf, much of the sugar in the bread that causes the colouring has been used up.
  2. The crust developed a skin– also during the refrigeration process, the dough seemed to have dried out. This made it difficult to cut, but also had an adverse effect on the conversion of starch to sugars in the crust.
  3. The oven temperature was not high enough – The other loaf baked from this batch of dough, as well as being smaller and the first out of the fridge, was baked in a cast iron pot. This would have created a more concentrated, hot, and moist environment, all of which would have aided the colouration of the crust. The next time I baked with the oven, I placed an oven thermometer on the inside. At maximum, the thermometer only reached 180˚C – it looks like my little gas oven has finally given up!
ghost loaf
The slash opened out, but it looks as though the sugars in the loaf, for one reason or another, were not caramelised

So, three factors combining to make this pasty looking “ghost loaf”. The loaf was cooked through, and actually tasted good,  but between now and when we get a new oven, it looks like we’ll be baking at low temperatures, or visiting someone else’s house to bake!


The room where the baker sleeps

If there is one thing I have learned over the last few years of baking, it is patience. Good bread doesn’t need lots of ingredients, or lots of fussing over, it doesn’t even necessarily need kneading, but it does need time.

When I first started baking the majority of my loaves were yeasted, and the recipes called for 1-2 hour rising periods in a “warm place”. I took the commonly seen phrase “until doubled” to mean that the ultimate goal was to get an enormous expanding dough ball in as short a time as possible. I was asking for trouble.

So, here are a few of the mistakes I have made in pursuit of the speedy loaf:

  • I once balanced a large Pyrex bowl full of dough on top of an electric heater, on a tea towel. If this wasn’t ridiculous enough, I then knocked it off with my backside trying to get into a nearby drawer. My wife insisted that I not use the dough, no matter how well risen it was, because it was full of glass.
  • I have proofed many loaves to the point where they collapse as soon as looked at. Doggedly, I have always insisted on baking them anyway, and always been disappointed when they come out of the oven deflated and solid as a brick.
  • Some of my doughs have been so sticky that they refused to leave the bowl they were rising in. This has not been helped by heaping an unnecessary amount of wet ingredients into the dough, like wilted spinach.
  • Frequently, not shaping loaves correctly, or over proofing them, or both, has led to the finished bread coming out of the oven either completely exploded or featuring “the room where the baker sleeps”: a large hole running right through the loaf just under the crust.
  • A good, dark brown, chocolatey crust is fantastic. A black, charred, inch thick , solid crust is not. Preheat oven to max does not mean “preheat oven to max, forget about it, go outside and bake loaf at 250°C for one hour.”
  • A sourdough starter ferments at its own pace. Using warm water to speed a white flour starter up meant that I had a lot of cleaning to do the next morning when I found that it had exploded all over the counter.
The room where the baker sleeps: A fairly inconvenient hole running all the way through a loaf.

Purged of those sins (and with the memories of many more where they came from) here are a few tips:

  • Get time on your side. Once in the habit, it is far easier to mix a dough in the morning, leave it to do its thing for a few hours, and come back later when it is ready. Don’t rush.
  • Wet dough will stick to anything. Use lots of flour, water or even a little oil when handling.
  • Only bake at max for 10 minutes to help with “oven spring” – the initial rise of the loaf. Turn the heat down and check on the colour half way through baking.
  • Shaping is important, and gets easier with practice.
  • A long slow rise gives a better flavour, which should be the main goal anyway.
  • Don’t balance dough on radiators.