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if you’re struggling to turn out a decent sourdough loaf, try the following tips to success:
1. Give your Starter a Heads Up
If you’re not the sort of person who feeds your starter every day, then a couple of days before you’re planning on baking, get your starter out of the fridge or off the shelf and freshen it up with a pre-feed. The following day you can build up your poolish or sponge for your loaf for 12-16 hours overnight, and then bake the next morning. You will find the extra day of feeding will give you a most vigorous sponge which will rise rapidly. If I’m baking on Saturday, I feed the starter on Thursday night, build the sponge on Friday night and bake on Saturday morning.
2. Aim for a Dough temperature of 25 degrees C
There’s little point getting your starter all fired up if you’re only going to plunge it into a cold dough. The cold dough will retard the yeast and delay proving. Aim for a dough temperature of 77F or 25C. Do this by making sure the water you’re adding to your dough is warm enough. If your kitchen is 25C (summer in the UK) and all your ingredients are the same temperature, you need only add water around room temperature. Remember the mixer will increase the dough temperature too as it works the dough. A nice cosy dough will be a comfortable place for your yeast to get to work. Mix a little boiling water in with your cold water before making up the dough. There is a calculation in Hamelman’s book, but I usually just do it by trial and error. But clearly professional bakers need to control temperatures more than home bakers as they are running a production line, and if you want to have consistent results with yeast, you need consistent temperatures.
3. Add the Salt after 1 Hour’s Pause
When you put the flour, sponge and water in the mixer to initially incorporate the ingredients, leave them in the mixer for an hour before adding and incorporating the salt. This ‘autolyse’ phase starts to develop the gluten more rapidly in the absence of the salt. Best to weigh out the salt you need and put it next to the cleaned dough hook so you don’t forget to incorporate the salt. Yes, I have forgotten to add salt at least once.
4. Fold the Dough, don’t Knead it
Folding is a Hamelman technique from his wonderful book bread. Once the salt is added and the dough lightly worked in the machine, you will need to fold the dough twice at 50 minute intervals. The dough should ferment for 2.5 hours in total so leave another 50 minutes after the second fold before shaping. Folding has two purposes; removing CO2 from the fermenting bread, and it is a gentler way of developing the gluten in the bread than kneading. Kneading breaks down the structure of the flour, folding is more gentle to the dough, preserving the flavour an goodness and the gluten strands are elongated by stretching and folding giving structure to the dough. To fold the dough, do a book fold as you would in pastry making, then turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat. Replace the dough in the bowl and cover.
5. Shape the Loaves before Placing in the Bannetons
The aim in shaping the dough is to develop tension in the outside skin of the dough which has well developed gluten through your previous actions. This way you will end up with nicely risen loaf – rather than the typically flat sourdough. When blowing up a balloon, the rubber skin is in tension, holding the pressure within, When baking a loaf the outside of the loaf must have well developed gluten strands and these need to be elongated. The shaping technique is difficult to explain in words, but luckily Jeffrey has a video showing how it is done at his bakery.
6. Don’t Wash your Bannetons after every Bake
When I started out baking sourdough, I would wash my cane bannetons after every bake. I found the dough would stick to them and I had to dust with vast quantities of semolina flour. Now I just get the bannetons out of the cupboard, empty out any crumbs and dust lightly with bread flour. After baking I leave them out to dry in the warm kitchen before storing them back in the dry cupboard. The extra layer of flour acts as a moisture buffer, preventing the dough from sticking to the banneton. If they start to look a bit mouldy, give them a brush to remove any unpleasant looking material.
7. Score Loaves with a Lame (bare razor works but watch your fingers)
When you bake your loaves, they are going to expand. As they do, they are going to split as the surface tension of the loaf is overcome by the pressure caused by the expanding CO2 in the cooking dough. In order to get this expansion in places that you want, you need to slash the loaf with a sharp knife (Stanley works) or better yet a razor blade. To keep the blade safe you can mount it in a lame (which I don’t have yet but is on my Christmas list). Available from Bakerybits.co.uk along with any size cane banneton you could care to imagine……….
8. Bake with Steam at 240C (220C fan) for 40-45 minutes
To get that nice rich brown colour on your loaf, you need three things: high heat, a decent time in the oven and steam. You can use a baking stone as well if that works for you, but I find I get a good rise putting the loaf onto a baking tray and popping it straight in the oven. To get steam in your oven, put a small baking tray (I use a little enamel pie dish) in the bottom of the oven while the oven is heating up. Just before you turn out your loaves from their bannetons on your parchment lined baking trays for scoring, boil the kettle and fill half a mug with boiling water. As you put your loaves in the oven, pour the mug of water into the hot pie dish and immediately close the door. This will be enough steam for your two loaves for the next 45 minutes.
9. Allow to Cool Completely on a rack before Eating (or Freezing)
Sourdough freezes really well. This is great news as those of us with busy lives and families don’t always find the time to bake it, so if you bake two loaves in one batch, you can eat one, and freeze the other. Make sure you let your loaves cool for a good few hours before tucking in, or popping in the freezer. Enjoy!
If you think I’ve missed anything or have any suggestions for the list, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
How to shape loaves from Jeffrey Hamleman at the King Arthur Bakery in Vermont
For Jeffrey Hamelman’s wonderful book, Bread
And for everything sourdough related I recommend bakerybits.co.uk
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Also published on Medium.