Baking skills pt. 3: Bulk Ferment

Once the dough has been kneaded (or not, depending on which method of kneading you are using) it is time to let the ingredients do their own thing. This crucial stage of bread making is referred to add the bulk ferment – bulk because the dough is fermented as a whole mass, prior to dividing and shaping, and ferment because of the action of the yeast and enzymes in the dough.

During the bulk ferment a lot is going on inside the dough. The process that began when the ingredients were combined, whether in an autolyse or straight into a kneading, comes into its own now. Enzymes in the dough thrive in the warm, moist atmosphere as they go about converting the starch from the flour into sugar and the protein into sugar. In a yeasted dough or a dough with a natural levain, this sugar becomes food. The yeast cells, whether commercial (such as instant dried yeast or fresh baker’s yeast) or wild (from a ‘sourdough’ starter or barm) consume the sugar in the dough and release carbon dioxide as they reproduce and expire.

pita_dough
A white dough during the bulk fermentation stage

The release of carbon dioxide is what creates the rise in a leavened dough, and also some of the flavour. The gluten formed by the enzymes and helped along by the kneading allows the dough to stretch and trap pockets of air. In a very high hydration dough, this results in those large, irregular holes that are common to ciabatta and sourdough loaves.

During this stage it is possible to use the stretch and fold technique to add structure and encourage a well risen bread. As explained in the previous post on kneading, this means taking a portion of the dough, stretching it and folding it back on itself, and repeating a few times for the first few hours (if using a ‘wild yeast’ levain) or a couple of times during the start of the bulk ferment.

It is important to let the dough rise in its own time, preferably at room temperature or slightly above. A longer fermentation results in more flavour. This is less important in a sweet or savory flavoured loaf where other flavours may dominate anyway. Once the dough has risen (usually to double or at least one and a half times its size, depending on the recipe) it is time to divide and shape the loaf, being careful not to knock out too much of those flavour filled, well risen gases.

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Wholemeal spelt and black rice loaf

After the excess of Christmas (and Boxing Day, and the day after, and Saturday) it is good to get back to a healthy wholemeal spelt loaf. We do sometimes get a bit tired of dense, chewy sourdough though, so this time I have made a yeasted loaf with the added flavour of black rice.

Black rice, cooked and cooled, adds flavour and colour to the finished loaf
Black rice, cooked and cooled, adds flavour and colour to the finished loaf

Extra flavour also comes from the use of a wholemeal spelt poolish, made four hours before putting the dough together. As I said in the last post, the poolish is a way of encouraging a longer period of activity in the yeast, so that more starch is converted to sugar.

Wholemeal Spelt and Black Rice Loaf

Poolish

  • 225g wholemeal spelt flour
  • 1tsp/3g instant yeast
  • 225g water

Dough

  • All of the poolish
  • 115g wholemeal spelt flour
  • 5g salt
  • 1/2 tsp/2g instant yeast
  • 30g honey
  • 90g cooked and cooled black rice (about 2 tbsp uncooked rice)
  1. Mix the ingredients for the poolish in a mixing bowl and leave, covered, for about 4 hours at room temperature. The poolish will bubble, rise, and fall slightly.
  2. Combine the poolish with the remaining dough ingredients, tip onto a work surface, and knead for 15 minutes.
  3. Bulk ferment (first rise) in a lightly oiled bowl for about 90 minutes, until doubled.

    The fairly slack dough will be supported in a loaf tin after the first rise
    The fairly slack dough will be supported in a loaf tin after the first rise, but may cause problems if not handled carefully!
  4. Tip out and shape for a loaf: stretch the dough into a rough rectangle, fold the ends in to make a rough loaf shape, pinch the seam together and turn over. Place seam side down into an oiled loaf tin. The dough should fill about 2/3 of the way up.
  5. Cover loosely with cling film and proof at room temperature for about 60-90 minutes, until the dough has crested the edge of the tin by about a centimetre.

    Dough proofing in a loaf tin
    Dough proofing in a loaf tin
  6. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 20 minutes, then turn and bake for a further 25-35 minutes, until the dough sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
  7. Cool on a wire rack.

Unfortunately this time around the bread did not rise as much as I would have liked – always a worry with a 100% wholemeal loaf, particularly with a fairly slack dough (didn’t help that I got cling film stuck to the top of it…). Despite the disappointing rise, however, the loaf still tastes fantastic and is an incredible colour thanks both to the spelt and the black rice. It is also surprisingly light in texture given the wholemeal and the collapsed top. Next time, I’ll let it proof for a little longer and make sure that nothing sticks to the dough!

A slightly deflated look, but dramatic colour and open crumb texture nonetheless
A slightly deflated look, but dramatic colour and open crumb texture nonetheless
Good colour and texture in the crust, with little bits of black rice peppered through the whole loaf
Good colour and texture in the crust, with little bits of black rice peppered through the whole loaf