This post is part of a short series. See part 1 here: https://iowaagliteracy.wordpress.com/2021/03/24/what-the-pandemic-has-taught-us-about-sourdough-part-1/
Now it is time to make the bread!
One thing that most people familiar with bread will know about is kneading. A good loaf requires kneading to build up the gluten. Gluten is the protein of wheat flour that binds together and gives it its stretch. This stretch allows for the dough to hold in the carbon dioxide from the yeast and trap them in little bubbles. You need to knead the dough to build the gluten up. That might mean 10-15 minutes of kneading the dough. My forearms have been built up over this time. You are supposed to be able to do the ‘window pane‘ test with the dough to know it has been kneaded enough.
My pandemic learning – and this has been a life saver – is autolyse. Letting the flour and water sit and just absorb and meld for about 30 minutes before kneading really seems to cut down the needed kneading time. In fact, whenever possible I almost exclusively practice the ‘no knead’ technique with the ‘stretch-and-fold‘ technique every 30 minutes for 2-3 hours. It might take longer, but it takes much less energy. Of course you can over knead and under knead. I’m not a fan of kneading. I’m a fan of autolyse and stretch-and-fold. I’ve yet to have any problems with the final product using those techniques.
This is the one step and lesson that I had – pre-pandemic – never practiced, but now has changed and defined the final product. Bakers typically shape any bread loaf. With sourdough the shaping helps the overall structure. By creating surface tension on the dough, you help trap more bubbles and air pockets. Creating this surface tension is achieved by rolling and stretching the doughball or boule.
The second important part of shaping is using a baton. A baton or wicker basket is lined with cloth and used for the second proving. Dusting with rice flour helps prevent the dough from sticking. The wicker basked allows for air flow. The dough will develop a little bit of a skin as it proves and that skin will help hold or direct the shape of the final loaf. I’ve found that a baton is most useful for long proves, overnight in the refrigerator. The refrigerator retards and slows the microorganism growth. You can easily make a loaf of bread in a day, but timing and spreading things out by using the refrigerator can yield different results. A baton isn’t essential. You can easily do the second prove in a bread pan or any other vessel that you choose. But a breathable baton will help create that ‘skin’ to help direct the final shape.
With the first prove you are looking for the dough to double in size. This can take anywhere from two to more than eight hours depending on everything from temperature to the active nature of the microorganisms. I usually plan for about four hours. Then you knock out the air, shape it and allow for the second prove. Again you are looking for it to roughly double in size. This usually takes less time, maybe 30 minutes to four hours – again depending on a variety of factors. After this second prove, it is ready to bake. Enriched bread doughs (with butter, milk, and/or eggs) can bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40-50 minutes. But for the basic sourdough of just water and flour, you want a quick, high heat to start (roughly 20 minutes) and then a slightly reduced heat for the remainder of the time (roughly 20-25 minutes). The quick, high heat forces those air pockets in the bread to expand making the bread rise quickly and then the skin or crust forms, locking everything in place.
Scoring the dough immediately before baking by drawing a sharp knife through the surface of the dough allows for the bread to expand as much as possible. Artisan bread makers have a lot of artistry in the scoring process. But don’t get overwhelmed. Focus on a few simple slashes. The quick, high, humid heat will help give the bread its ‘oven spring’ and complete the rising process. Scoring the dough with a couple of slashes allows for the bread that has taut skin to expand in specific places rather than tearing at random places.
High humidity environments help with that initial expansion of the bread. Some ovens have steam injection to increase humidity. For most of us who don’t have steam injection ovens you can recreate the effect by dumping a cup full of ice cubes on the oven floor as you put the bread in. This allows for incremental release of steam as the the ice melts and the water evaporates. This method does work. However, I’ve found the cast iron self-contained steam to be better. As you pre-heat the oven, place a cast iron pan with lid inside. When the oven is preheated, pull the pan out. Turn the shaped dough into the hot pan. Parchment paper is key to prevent sticking. Put the lid on the cast iron pan – dough inside – and place the whole thing in the oven. The steam from the bread stays in the pan and helps with the rise and expansion. After 20 minutes, remove the pan lid and let the bread finish baking at a slightly reduced heat (450 degrees F to start and then down to 425 degrees F).
I have enjoyed making loaves and loaves of bread with my sourdough starter and so much more. Sandwich bread, round loaves, doughnuts, pretzels, focaccia, challah, stollen, panetonne, pan de muerto, bagels, baps, kings cake, bao buns, pizza dough, baguettes, and English muffins.
I’ve also enjoyed using the discard for things like crackers, chocolate chip cookies, and my personal favorite: pancakes. My go-to family recipe for weekend pancakes (or waffles) is: 2 cups sourdough starter, 2 Tbsp. oil, 1 egg, 2 Tbsp. sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla, and 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda. My secret ingredient is a 1/4 tsp. of ground cardamom. Mix everything together and cook it on a griddle, in a pan, or on a waffle iron. It is a very forgiving and universal batter.
One of my cherished memories of sourdough from childhood into adulthood is the container used to store the sourdough. My parents always used a vintage crock from the Kaukauna Klub Wisconsin Stoneware Cheese Crock Dairy Co. I had no idea it was a cheese crock growing up because we only ever kept sourdough starter in it. Then when I needed to make my own sourdough starter, I was lucky enough for find another cheese crock! The rubber ring was a perfect non-airtight seal for the breathable sourdough.
I have also had fun with my sourdough starter by giving it a name (and therefore a personality). My starter is named Marlon Brandough. “I’m the king around here, and you don’t forget it.” This is nothing new and many people have been very creative with their names.
My basic recipe is simple and does get tweaked nearly every time I bake. If you want to try your hand at a loaf, I would suggest this recipe: Mix 1 cup fed and active sourdough starter with 1 cup lukewarm water. Mix in 2 cups bread flour and 2 teaspoons of salt. When the water is absorbed, knead with your hands for 2-3 minutes until it all comes together. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Stretch and fold the dough four times. Rest another 30 minutes. Stretch and fold. Rest. Stretch and fold. Rest. Stretch and fold. Let prove until doubled in size (approximately 4 hours). Knock all the air out and shape the dough and use a baton or bread pan. Let prove until nearly doubled in size (approximately 1 hour). Place the dough in the pan and bake at 450 degrees F for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 425 degrees F and bake another 25 minutes. The bread should be golden brown and have a hollow sound when tapped. Remove from the oven and let cool. Slice and enjoy!
Sourdough is not something to be scared of, but it does take some work. With these tips, hopefully you can create the perfect loaf for you and yours.