I’ve been working with my sourdough starter for the last few months and trying to bake at least one loaf a week. Usually I tweak at least one thing every time I make a loaf. Sometimes more than one thing, so the results haven’t been very consistent. But I thought it would be good to come up with a solid baseline loaf and document that so I have something to use as a comparison for future experiments.
I like the flavor from adding some whole wheat to the dough, but it can make the dough a lot heavier. I’ve found that adding more 20% whole wheat flour (as a percentage of total flour) makes it denser than I care for, making it difficult for the nooks and crannies to develop that are found in any decent sourdough loaf. Adding a bit of gluten seems to help.
The main difficulties I’ve had in producing a consistent loaf are a decent rise in the oven, getting those nooks and crannies to form, and getting a deep brown and crispy crust to form. So I’ve been implementing some techniques that seem to be helping in these areas.
Getting a properly hydrated dough proved to be one of the keys to getting the right texture in the dough. I think my previous bread making attempts weren’t as successful because the dough wasn’t wet enough. The wetter dough is a little more difficult to work with, but the kneading technique below helps with that. If I’ve done the math right, the recipe for this loaf is a 68% hydration, which seems about right for what I’m looking for.
The next involved the kneading of the dough. Previously I’d mixed the dough in the Kitchenaid for 10-12 minutes and then let it proof from there. That worked, but a slower method helps to develop more flavor. My current method is to mix the ingredients, without salt, then let it sit, or autolyse, for 30 minutes to help the flour absorb the water and the gluten start to develop. I’ve read that the salt can interfere with yeast development, so it gets added on the second fold. After that, rather then kneading, I’ve been using the stretch and fold method, which is so easy I was really surprised how well it worked the first time I tried it. Of course, the trade-off is in time. Instead of 10 minutes in the Kitchenaid, it’s more like 4 hours of letting the dough sit, with about 5 minutes of actual stretching and folding interspersed in there.
The best trick I’ve found for getting that crunchy crust is to add some water to a cast iron skillet in the oven, and then invert a stainless steel bowl over the loaf for 15 minutes to contain the steam around the dough. The steam is the key to getting that crust. Steam contains more heat than the dry air of the oven, so it helps to quickly caramelize the outer layer of the dough. Baking in a dutch oven would work, too. I’ve just never figured out how to get the dough into the dutch oven without completely mangling it. Using the inverted bowl method, I can slide the dough onto a stone in the oven using a piece of parchment paper.
The final trick is patience — leaving the loaf in the oven long enough so that the inside is completely finished cooking and the outside has a nice deep brown crust. This is the one I still struggle with. I’m usually a bit disappointed when I first cut into the loaf because I can tell it could have used a bit more time. I’ve never come close to over cooking a loaf. That might be a good experiment, just to see how far it can be pushed and how the texture changes if it is over cooked.
Using this basic loaf as a template hopefully I’ll be able to try some new experiments in the future. I’d like to try varying levels of whole wheat, as well as other whole grains to get some different textures and flavors.