The Sweetness of Sourdough: The Loaf

Now that you’ve got your starter…wait, do you all have your starters? Since you are all devoted fans who read my blog diligently and follow my every wise word, I can assume everyone’s read my last post and has a nice little starter sitting on their counter ready to be baked up, right? No? Oh well. For anyone who missed it, this is a continuation of my last post on making sourdough. Go do the reading and the homework and see me during office hours for a make-up session.

Those of you who are still with me, grab your starters, and here we go. Making sourdough, especially if you’re braving the process without the insurance of a little commercial yeast, takes time. It usually takes me about eighteen hours from start to finish, but don’t run away! Most of that time the work is on the shoulder of the little yeasties. Your part is quite small, to be fair to them. There are four important stages in the baking process: the sponge, the knead, the rise, and the bake.

The Sponge

The point of the sponge is to wake your starter up again and give it a good meal to get its metabolism going. Presumably it’s either been in the fridge for a while or sitting on your counter longer enough to have consumed most of the tasty fuel you gave it. Stir the starter well (especially if it has separated) and split it between two bowls. I usually equally feed them equal amounts of flour and warm water, e.g., each bowl gets a cup of flour and a cup of water. N.B. The same rule about water temp applies here as well—warm like a baby’s bottle, not hot.

How much flour and water you will add depends on how much bread you want to make and how much starter you want on hand. I usually do a generous cup to get a loaf that would fit in a standard bread pan, if you’re a pan sort of person. Two generous cups would get you two slightly smaller loaves, and so on. If you want a little insurance, this is a good place to sprinkle in maybe a teaspoon of commercial yeast to ensure a good rise. It’s not usually necessary, but it also doesn’t hurt. Give everything a good stir; put the bowls in a warm, draft-free place; cover them with warm, damp towels; and leave them alone overnight.

The Knead

This is the most labor-intense step, but it’s also going to be the most familiar to any veteran baker of bread. When you wake up tomorrow morning and bound into your kitchen of joyful anticipation of the loaf to come, start by boiling water to get your starter storage container super clean. Once it’s been sanitized and dried, pour the starter back into it and put it away. It’s important to get the container quite clean—leaving it with dry, crusty bits of starter overnight invites bacteria that might have a chance to get a foothold and grow before the acidic environment of the full starter can kill them. In large enough quantity, such nasties can ruin a starter. If your starter is ever full of white, black, or green fuzzies, throw it away. It’s dead.

Moving onto your sponge for the loaf, it’s time to add flour and salt. I add a bit less than a tablespoon of salt for a single loaf, and while I would add more for more loaves, I wouldn’t quite double that amount. Don’t skip the salt, whatever you do. For one thing, salt retards the growth of yeast, which will help the development of a good flavor during the rising process. For another, salt-less bread is vile to the point of being barely edible.

Stir the salt in with the flour. I probably end up using between four and six cups of flour in total, but that’s a rough guess. Start by stirring in as much as you can with the spoon to get a loose dough forming around your spoon. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead the dough for a few minutes until you have a soft dough. Most cookbooks say to go for 8-10 minutes, but it’s useful to pause once you have a fairly coherent dough and walk away for 10-15 minutes. This rest period gives the flour and water a chance to get to know each other, so to speak, and it will help with the formation of gluten. I usually use the time to wash my bowl and grease it, and maybe deal with getting my starter put away if I haven’t done that yet.

When you’re ready to continue kneading, just knead and add flour like you would for any regular loaf of bread. The 8-10 minute rule is a pretty good rule of thumb, but as time varies based on the size of the loaf and the strength of the baker, use the windowpane test periodically to check the formation of gluten. It’s simple—just gently pinch a bit of the dough and spread it out carefully, seeing how thin it can go before it breaks. If you can get the dough to be translucent, you’re done.

A note about gluten: while this is the stuff of horror for people with celiac disease, it is absolutely essential to getting a rise out of yeast bread made with wheat flour. All-purpose, bread, and cake flours, by the way, are all wheat. The more protein in the flour, the better gluten formation you’ll get, which is why bread flour has a little more protein. In my experience, all-purpose works pretty darn well, but using the higher protein flour will be one more piece of insurance. Now that you’ve got a nice windowpane of gluten chains, it’s time for…

The Rise

Form the nicely kneaded loaf into a ball, plop it into your greased bowl, turn it once to grease it, and cover it with a warm, damp towel. Leave it in a warm, draft-free place, and go do something fun. You want the dough to double in volume, which will take an hour or two.

Part two of the rising phase is punching down. Slide the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and DO NOT PUNCH IT. In spite of the name, this step is more of a firm folding. What allows bread to rise is the gluten structure formed during kneading, trapping in the gas produced by the yeast as they belch their way along like the fun guys they are. The point of punching down the dough is to take that trapped gas and distribute it evenly throughout the dough. Fold and flatten the dough several times, and return it to the bowl to repeat the rise.

You may be scratching your head if you are a baker of bread. Isn’t this the time to shape the loaf? You might well ask. And yes, for many breads you would shape the loaf after the first rise and set it in the pan for the second rise. With sourdough, however, I have found both flavor and texture to be well-served by using three rises. For rise number two, just form the bread back into a ball and let it double again.

Part three involves the shaping of the loaf. Punch the dough down as before, gently, and shape the load as you desire. If you’re using a pan, grease it lightly. I use a pizza stone, myself, so I always shape the loaf as either a ball or a torpedo of varying thickness. The trick to using a stone, I’ve discovered, is parchment paper. I set the formed loaf on the parchment paper for the last rise so I can transfer the dough directly to my pre-heated stone. I usually turn the oven on towards the end of the last rise so that when my loaf is doubled again, I am ready to pop it in.

The Bake

I’m going to assume you’re using a stone (or terracotta pavers, which are cheaper and work just as well), because half the fun of sourdough is a good crust. I like a nice crispy crust, but not too thick. A thick crust can get in the way of the bread rising the way it’s supposed to, creating some very peculiar looking loaves, which is why you see bakery bread with the cuts across the top. Use either a very sharp knife or scissors to put three cuts across the top of the loaf before you stick it in the oven.

I think my oven temp is usually about 350 degrees, but as I have had horrible ovens with questionable ability to self-regulate, that’s a pretty approximate guess. Pick up the formed, slashed loaf by firmly grasping the edges of the parchment paper and holding the sheet tight to put it down on the stone. To keep the crust from forming to quickly, thoroughly spritz the sides and floor of the oven with water to create steam. If you have glass bulbs in your oven for light, be careful not to spray them with cold water. Shattered glass does not a delicious loaf make.

Leave it in there for a bout half an hour, until it’s golden brown and sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom. I don’t always get this right yet, so I can only give you limited advice. If you have a probe thermometer, you can stick it in the bottom of the bread. The target is just below the boiling point of water—205-210 degrees Fahrenheit. I highly recommend letting the bread cool before you eat it because the flavor is better on a cool loaf, but there you have it, your lovely loaf of sourdough!

To wrap up, I want to point out that I’ve spent a lot of time with certain resources that have helped me figure out how to come up with a decent loaf. Some of them you can purchase, others just deserve the credit for teaching me some of the stuff I’m passing along. For working with starters: my former roommate SK and the Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book. For bread science, rising, and baking advice: Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread and Alton Brown’s Good Eats episode “Dr. Strangeloaf.” For kneading and my bread-baking apprenticeship: of course, my mom.

Have fun with those strangely sour doughs!

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