On Being Flexible

Often through the bread baking process, there are times when words like ‘judgement’ or ‘feel’ can be put to use with the majority of recipes properly noting that, as a result of a number of variables, a set time will not always apply. I am generally guilty of simply following the guidelines laid out in a recipe, ie. bulk ferment for four hours, trying my best to adhere to the author’s conditions to prevent myself from having to apply those seemingly difficult, subjective notions of judgement or feel.

However, on my path to becoming as best a home baker I can, learning to respond to the environment and the bread itself at least partially will be necessary. Following a recipe in a rote fashion certainly makes my life easier, but if I’m honest with myself I am not sure that I’d be baking loaves that require 24+ hours of total time, even if it is not all fully involved, if I was looking for the easy life. I’d probably just drop $6.50 on a loaf of bread from the artisan bakery down the block.

So, at what stages can I look to employ and develop these skills? For one, given what can be a highly variable ambient temperature, I can determine the appropriate water temperature for use in the recipe. Most recipes will provide a suggested temperature, but chances are it’s much colder in my apartment – I live in Canada!

The following equations (filing this one under math) when applied can provide the proper temperature:

Desired Temp. * Contributing Factors = Base Temp.

Base Temp. – Factor 1 Temp. – Factor 2 Temp. – Factor n Temp. … = Water Temp.

First, a couple notes on this. Desired temperature will generally be 74-78°F depending on the recipe, according to the San Francisco Baking Institute, and is also commonly referred to as Final Dough Temperature (FDT). The remaining temperatures are that of ingredients making up your dough such as flour temperature, pre-ferment or levain temperature, and room temperature (okay, technically not an ingredient), as well as friction temperature which I’m not sure is all that relevant given that I mix by hand, but it’s still a factor. The friction adjustment for a standard mixer, again as per the San Francisco Baking Institute,  is 8°F which I may need to adjust for hand mixing (open to suggestions), but it’ll do for this explanation.

To clarify, here’s a quick example using a desired temperature of 78°F. The result is a water temperature of 89°F, which is not all that far off what I’ve typically used in the past.

78 * 4 = 312, Base Temp.

312 – 70 (Room Temp) – 70 (Flour Temp) – 75 (Levain Temp) – 8 = 89, Water Temp

Additionally, most recipes will suggest a more volume-driven bulk fermentation time rather than a … time-driven bulk fermentation. For example, “Allow for bulk fermentation until dough has doubled in volume, or approximately four hours.” Depending on my fermentation vessel, this can be easier said than done so I often just wait the prescribed time. A new one that I’ve recently read about on the perfect loaf is responding to your levain in a similar fashion prior to proceeding with a bake, but in this case responding more to the smells (sweet or slightly alcoholic) rather than volume.

Lastly, the most obvious method that I often forget to do in my early morning haze is the highly technical finger dent test. I’ve mentioned it before, but the test can be used as a means of determining whether a loaf is appropriately proofed. I’ve woken up to completely flat, overproofed loaves before, and likely baked underproofed loaves before as well as I have not stuck my finger in to ‘test the waters’.

My goal for the next few bakes will be to begin to at minimum consider applying some judgement through the process. As a starting point, whether I apply judgement or not, it would be helpful to think about these things as I go.

Have a good week!

Successes AND Failures

This past weekend I figured that I would try something different following a craving for a good grilled cheese sandwich. I’ve been making bread for a while, but I typically stick to the fancy boule-style bread which isn’t ideally suited to a simple sandwich. I decided it should be simple enough to make a sourdough pan bread and did some digging around to find a suitable recipe.

I settled on this recipe from Mr. Trevor J. Wilson which included a handy video demonstration of a shaping technique that I’ve never used before. The nice thing about the recipe, and this style of bread, is minimal active time – requiring no folds throughout bulk fermentation. After having spent a significant portion of my Saturday morning and afternoons in past efforts, it was a welcome change with the more ‘set it and forget it’ process for this recipe.

Topshot: Tetris piece #4.

Going into the bake, my only real concern was for the shaping technique as it was generally straightforward otherwise. As you can see, something went wrong through the process as this loaf ended up looking more like a blobfish than a sourdough pan bread. I believe that the somewhat awkward final loaf was due to poor shaping technique (sounds familiar) with weak surface tension as a result of a poor shape. However, despite the less than pleasing look , I was surprised to find that the loaf was not hollow inside. I think it looks rather like an elephant animal cracker.

I will definitely attempt this bread again for weekend sandwiches as the subtle sourness of smell and flavour were welcome, but I need to work on shaping for the next round. I said when I started this blog that I would catalog both my successes and failures. I’ll throw this one in the failure column, but it didn’t hurt to have a delicious grilled cheese sandwich in which to drown my sorrows.

Local bread in review: Sidewalk Citizen

In a break from my ongoing cataloging of successes and failures in home bread baking, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at breads from local bakeries from time to time. While we’re all likely from different geographies, and so you will not be able to necessarily sample said breads, it may still be of interest to see the kinds and flavours of breads from bakeries across these different geographies.

My first stop is none other than local favourite Sidewalk Citizen. I’m lucky to live in an interesting space in Calgary, in that I’m right on the riverfront in the downtown area. What makes it even more so a great space is that right next door is an old, brick mattress warehouse from the Simmons company housing a local coffee shop, a restaurant, and the bakery Sidewalk Citizen. Fresh bread, fresh pastries, fresh pizza, and other lunch fare are on offer at the bakery with a beautiful display from which visitors and river passersby can choose.

My focus though was on a bread selection for the morning’s breakfast (and lunch or a snack later, too). In this location at least, bread does not appear to be the main offer as available breads were limited to an organic whole wheat and an organic whole grain loaf. I didn’t get an opportunity to question the flour breakdown of the whole wheat, but, as you’ll see, it is without a doubt not too high a percentage of whole wheat despite being labeled as such given a still fairly light, speckled crumb.

Crumbshot: Sidewalk Citizen whole wheat

Despite the mocking of my girlfriend for doing so, I shoved my nose as far into the crumb as it would allow for a good whiff. I mean, how else am I going to get to know this loaf as well as I can? The crumb gave off hints of a slightly sour smell, but did not smell strongly of wheat. Taste also produced hints of sourness, not cloying by any means, with a crumb had that nice, chewy texture that I quite enjoy. The crust was thinner than the loaves that I have baked recently, and was slightly chewier and less crunchy as well. Maybe I’m biased (most likely?), but I quite enjoy what I’ve been producing these past few weeks.

Topshot: Sidewalk Citizen whole wheat

Overall, I was pretty satisfied with the bread, but less satisfied with the price tag: $6.50! This is… what people pay for this style of bread? Given how much I’ve come to enjoy having bread for breakfast on the weekends, I’m pretty happy that I know how to make it myself. Even if it isn’t quite bakery quality… yet.


That Feeling

Back at it this past weekend looking to continue to improve upon my recent results. As I suggested in my last post, I took a shot at a slightly different recipe with a lower hydration and a more Tartine-style approach in timing, proofing, etc.

The basics:

  • 90% non-organic bread flour
  • 10% organic freshly ground whole wheat flour sifted to remove the most coarse germ and bran granules
  • 75% hydration
  • Rye flour feedings for three days
  • 100% whole wheat levain build the night prior

This bread is probably the best that I’ve ever baked, full stop. I don’t think anything even went slightly wrong, at least in method, with these loaves. If I had one complaint, it would be that the darker loaf had a slightly less chewy crumb than I would like, potentially as a result of a five minute longer baking time.

The pre-shape was successful without issue with a tight resulting boule and limited pancaking after resting for 35 minutes. There was also no unincorporated flour in the baked loaf – an issue that I’ve had in past bakes. Shaping was also successful with a few Tartine-style folds followed by shaping into a tight boule by ‘swirling’ the dough on the counter in an attempt to further tighten. An issue that I’ve had in the past is a poor pre-shape and shape as a result of an overly sticky dough; I’ll attribute at least a portion of the less sticky nature of this dough to a lower hydration, but I’ll attribute another part to better management of flouring surfaces as compared to prior attempts. It seems a key factor in ease of shaping is in maintaining contact with the counter with only the floured parts of the loaf. This seems obvious as I type it, but it’s not as easy at times in practice.

Side view, loaf #1.

As a result of some necessary changes to timing (had to go to a Star Wars matinee!), I cut the proofing time on these loaves to 15-16 hours from a suggesting 16-17 hours. Despite the cut, I may have found a sweet spot in timing as this was likely the best oven spring I’ve gotten from recent attempts.

There were also a few other successes this week that contributed to some stand-out loaves. This past week I finally caved and purchased some rice flour for dusting my proofing baskets. I’ve been stubborn as $4 for a small bag of Bob’s rice flour seemed pretty aggressive (sorry Bob!), but… wow. Both boules just fell right out of the proofing baskets. Following some sticking over the past few weeks (and some sad results), I was simply impressed to see the success of the rice flour dusting.

Not to be outdone by some simple flour, my cast iron swap also made a big difference. While I’ve typically used a 5-quart dutch oven (as recommended by Ken Forkish of FWSY fame, my prior bread bible), many bread bakers seem to favour the combo cooker as recommended by the Tartine crowd. I’ve been hesitant to purchase the combo cooker as my small-ish apartment cupboards can only handle so much cast iron, but I had the bright idea to try to combine my standard cast iron frying pan with my 7-quart dutch oven. It wasn’t perfect as they don’t quite ‘snap’ together as a normal lid would, but the overlap was nearly spot on and the extra clearance as compared to the normal dutch oven made scoring far easier. To further help what has in the past been some frankly Cleveland Browns-level scoring (that’s intended to be weak, sorry Cleveland fans!), I fashioned a simple lame with a toothpick. While not visually impressive, I was able to get that curve in the razor blade which seems necessary to get an effective score.

After baking and then tasting these loaves, I couldn’t stop smiling. Without seeming too grandiose, there are times in baking and various other hobbies when you just get that feeling. Man, I feel great.

On Cooling

In reviewing my notes on Jeffrey Hamelman’s aptly-titled BreadI once again came across his words on proper cooling of a freshly baked loaf. As I noted in my previous post, it’s amazing how different the results can be, at least aesthetically speaking, from waiting an hour instead of thirty minutes. I would be lying if I said I could tell a difference in flavour, but maybe my palate will develop in time.

According to Hamelman, “while really bad bread may only be palatable when eaten warm, well made breads never possess their finest aroma or flavor until they have cooled completely.” Now, I don’t know if my bread quite fits into the finest category just yet, but the message is quite clear. While warm, says Hamelman, the crumb remains doughy (see above for reference) and the aroma flat. Sourdough breads, in fact, do not come into their own until they have had a few hours or more for their flavours to settle and mingle after cooling. Here lies the beauty in baking two loaves, I suppose… I can have my bread and eat it too? Rye breads, apparently, require up to 24 to 48 hours of resting after a bake for the crumb to stabilize and full flavour to develop. More on this development when I delve a little more into different flours in the future!

In fact, eating quality can actually increase for days. Just try waiting, right?

Have a good week.

The Song Remains the Same

With a little extra free time this past week ahead of the holidays, I was lucky to be able to bake during the week. For the first time ever, I went ‘Full Monty’ with a full, two-loaf recipe as a means of gaining more practice in the pre-shaping and shaping arenas. After all, it’s the Holiday season so the bread will likely get eaten. Let’s dive in!

Bread flour was on the docket this week, also for the first time, as I continue to try to improve overall results. I’ll skip the juicy details on my starter this go around, but I will note that a lack of rye flour in the levain (despite being in my starter over the course of two days) resulted in a somewhat less sour taste which I’m not sure I prefer. The use of bread flour, however, did improve extensibility. While folding during bulk fermentation I noted the ease with which I was able to stretch the dough – a step in the right direction. While bulk fermentation was fairly successful (the easy part?) with temperature easily maintained in the 80F range, my pre-shaping and shaping results were again a challenge.

I was feeling pretty good heading into the pre-shape, but, man, the wetness of this dough was very challenging. A good pre-shape is supposed to result in a slightly relaxed round after having sat for 20-30 minutes; a pancake-style result is a sure sign that there was not  enough tension and should be met with a second, quick pre-shape (which I did not do). I can assure you that, while my pancake looked like it may have made a good breakfast nestled under some butter and syrup, it was most definitely not a slightly relaxed round of proper tension. My technique in the final shaping ended up as what should have been my pre-shaping technique – ample flour usage for dusting and effective bench knife usage applied to create some tension and a well-formed boule. Unfortunately, while I think my final shaping technique was pretty solid, it was in the wrong shaping step!

With two loaves en route, I had an opportunity to use my two proofing baskets: one of a smaller size and with a linen liner, the other of a larger size without. Unlike my last bake, the linen-lined basket did not release the proofed loaf easily. To make matters worse, the unlined basket did an even worse job of releasing the proofed loaf. Perhaps I’ve been baking lower hydration loaves for too long as I’d expected a good release from the linen liner (as I have in the past) and hoped that all purpose flour would work for the unlined – not the case! This had an unfortunate impact on the structure of both loaves heading into the dutch oven, as you can imagine.

Top shot: Loaf #1

As has been the case, my end result was still not that bad despite continued struggles in the shaping departments. The first loaf came out looking not too bad as you can see – we won’t speak of the second loaf after the disaster that occurred with it sticking to the basket. Oven spring could still use some work, which I will partially attribute to shaping, but temperature overnight appears to have been more in the 36-37F range rather than my intended 38, so that will have had an impact on proofing as well. That said, I was much happier with the crumb of this loaf following a full hour wait post-bake as compared to what I’ve typically done – 30 minutes. What a difference that extra time makes!

In the end I suppose the song remains the same from last week. I need to continue to improve upon pre-shaping and shaping technique. I’m happy that I was able to utilize proper technique with the bench knife (even if it was for the wrong shaping), and also quite pleased with the crumb result. I may take a shot at a different recipe next week to see if a slightly lower hydration is more suitable for my skillset at present.

Happy Holidays!

Flour Power

I had something of a realization this past week when reviewing various videos highlighting folding and shaping techniques. I was constantly impressed by how easily stretched the doughs were, or how extensible the dough was – extensibility being one of two key factors in developing a good loaf of sourdough bread.

In seeing the man himself, Chad Robertson, folding in this video, it shocked me with the ease in which he could stretch out his dough in folding and shaping. My dough is typically far more resistant to stretching so I got to thinking… I wonder if this has something to do with the type of flour that I’m using. This of course ignores any number of variables and techniques that I could be doing wrong or just poorly, but dialing in variables is part of the process so picking away at the low hanging fruit is an obvious choice, right?

Unbleached all purpose flour, at times organic at times not, has generally been my mainstay as I’d just assumed originally that all purpose would be suitable, though not necessarily ideal, while unbleached seemed a little more ‘kosher’ with a more pleasing colour. Over time, I think we all generally get used to the status quo in any number of avenues so we stop questioning things like using bread flour or all purpose flour for… baking bread. It seems that unbleached all purpose has a fairly low protein content in general, around 10.5%, though I am certain it varies by manufacturer and, apparently, by bag at times as well. My frugal nature was a driver in this respect I must admit, as the local supermarket variety had been the most economic option – plus I could use it for baking other things as well!

Bread flours, it seems, trend higher in protein content to the 12-12.5% range, and so are more suitable to the style of bread that I’m shooting for. Unbleached all purpose is primarily the friend of sandwich bread. After all of the baking that I’ve done in the past few years, I’m honestly somewhat embarrassed that it has taken me this long to consider at least trying bread flour, but c’est la vie I suppose.

According to the San Francisco Baking Institute, flours between 10.5% and 12% protein content should produce a good ratio of elasticity and extensibility. With too high a protein content, doughs will be highly elastic and not very extensible. This made me question whether my all purpose flour was in fact on the low end of the protein range as I’ve typically had a more elastic dough. Conversely, too low a protein content will result in a more extensible and less elastic dough; I plan on going into more detail on this stuff in a future post. Good extensibility, as noted earlier, is one key to a quality loaf, and apparently a key to a good oven rise. As I’ve noted in previous posts, I’ve had a somewhat less desirous oven rise so this may be a factor.

I plan on experimenting with bread flour at some point in the near future. There are days when I wish I could try a different method, technique, or flour every other day. Today, in thinking about my potential results and improvements utilizing a change as simple as flour, is one of those days.