Thursday, January 10, 2013

Update on the sourdough journey

I made a few discoveries over the past year or so experimenting with sourdough recipes in my home oven and thought I'd post a quick update on progress made since my initial somewhat anemic looking loaves.

The most important thing I've learned in this time has been the importance of getting a really high temperature to achieve an appealing red-brown crust. Some of the recipes I've used recommend putting the bread in a cool oven, but I have found that in my oven this generally results in the pale crust seen in my earlier posts.

I'll now generally pre-heat the oven as high as it goes and reduce the heat during the cooking time. At home my small electric oven's highest temperature is 250°C and it has a stone floor under which is a second heating element that can be used to give a kick of heat from below. Although I find the loaves blacken on the base if baked directly on that stone, using the lower heat source with the loaf on a baking tray on its regular shelf has given me the best results.

Most ovens won't have an in-built stone, so you can try pre-heating your oven with an unglazed quarry tile or pizza stone in it to get a similar effect. You'll have to experiment to see if baking directly on that stone works best in your oven or if like me you just use it as a radiating heat source below your tray.

Having a better feel now for when the dough is sufficiently proved has also helped improve the crust colour of my loaves. Recipes I've followed call for an 8-12 hour proving time at around 21°C, but I find this is often too long and results in an exhausted dough with low oven spring and a pale crust.

I've heard that this is due to a younger dough having more sugars from the wheat flour remaining to be used in the Maillard reaction though am not entirely sure if this is accurate. Dan Lepard recommends keeping the final proof in particular on the conservative side with the idea that you'll get a better oven spring.

The final tip is on something I'm still working on and starting to see the importance of – the folding and shaping of the dough. Practice this if you are looking to get a nice bounced spring to your loaf with a rounded base that lifts itself up from the baking sheet when baked and is easy to slash with a lame before baking.

There are many methods to try but they all arrange the dough, through a couple of steps with short rests, into a tighter package than it would have been in had you simply let the dough rise after kneading, tipped the proved dough onto a surface and formed your loaf shape there and then.

For free-standing loaves Dan Lepard has us making a package of the dough during the initial rising time, with what he calls a blanket fold. Dan posts a description of one blanket fold here, and there are variations such as repeating the same fold a few times during the initial rise or performing a double blanket fold in which you blanket fold, quarter-turn the dough and blanket fold again at each step.

On this journey so far I've also tried out all sorts of recipes from Ed Wood's Classic Sourdoughs recipe book including Christmas stollen with marzipan, soft pretzels, hamburger buns, waffles and Ramadan sweet breads. I can heartily recommend the book as a good solid way to get started and be amazed at the huge variety of things you can make at home from your simple starter.

In my own recipe experiments, I adapted a basic white sourdough recipe to include kombu! The idea came from reading about the glutamic acid that is responsible for umami in kombu also being in sourdough, and I wondered if adding the seaweed might produce a really tasty loaf that would be particularly good with other foods. (Interestingly, or so I thought, you'll find kombu in the ingredients list of many packets of salted crisps in Japan. Though it might not be marketed on the front of the pack it is used to improve the flavor.)

Super-umami! Kombu sourdough loaves

I added some roughly chopped shio-kombu to my dough mix before kneading, cutting back on the salt since there is so much salt on the kombu already. The shio-kombu I used contained soy sauce as well, and I found that using just about a teaspoon of it in a 680g loaf produced enough of a kombu accent without the soy sauce flavour taking over.

I plan to make more kombu sourdough loaves to photograph the crumb and write a separate post about it with a recipe.

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