Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sourdough journey part 4 - Japanese flours test and a few more holes

In my last post I baked my first attempt at sourdough bread after having activated some dry San Francisco sourdough culture ordered from Sourdoughs International. The result was delicious, but there are definitely things I wanted to improve and evidently a lot to learn. One of these was to address how to get larger rustic holes in the crumb structure of my loaves.

The more holey result of today's experiment

I have read a few times that working with a wetter dough will help produce bigger holes, and that folding the dough after bulk fermentation also helps to trap in some pockets before shaping. I also read this wonderfully detailed account of an experiment into the difference that a flour's protein content might make to the crumb. I had a giggle at Azelia's description in the article of the "little obsession in particular within males about making lots of holes and big holes in their sourdough."

The verdict of her post is that lower protein flours give you bigger holes. It feels counter-intuitive, as much of the talk about the role of protein in flour is around the development of gluten and how it lends strength to the loaf. But many classic old European breads are made with comparatively low protein flours and Dr. Ed Wood says explicitly that you can make great sourdough bread out of low protein flour, so I was curious to see how the very low protein (8%) Japanese supermarket flour would hold up.

Nissin flour, weaker all-purpose flour on the left, strong bread flour on the right

If you want to check the protein level of your flour, have a look at the nutrition label. In Japanese 'protein' is tanpaku-shitsu たんぱく質 (or 蛋白質) and you can see here (3rd item from the top in the pics below) that in 100g of flour the Nissin all purpose flour there is 8g of protein (8% of the total), and the bread flour is 12%. Still, 12% is on the low-end of the scale of the flours tested by Azelia's Kitchen, where the strongest was a Canadian 15% protein flour.

I used starter from the same batch for each loaf, and used the following recipe for each loaf adapted from the Ed Wood recipe for a basic white sourdough, reducing the amount of flour from the recipe to get a wetter dough to work with.

  • 240ml of starter
  • 240ml water
  • 7g salt (about 1.5 teaspoons)
  • 470g flour
  • splash of olive oil to stop it sticking to the bowl in bulk fermentation.

The first difference I noticed between the flours was indeed that the low protein flour mixture was much wetter of the two. I should have taken a video of the kneading because it was so surprising! it was a bit like kneading chewing gum.. If you give up on being tidy and resign yourself to messy hands it's quite fun, it transforms into such an interesting texture, all warm and sticky/springy. A dough scraper (100 yen shop) is really handy when you want help managing the sticky dough and maneuvering it off your hands and back into the bowl. Here is how things looked after a night of bulk fermentation on the counter-top:

You can see that the 12% mix in the bigger bowl on the right has many more holes, and the extremely risen 8% protein flour mix on the left has holes, but still looks more compact, perhaps due to the wetness.

Both doughs spread out a bit during resting

I need more practice with the shaping. My favourite shaping video is from this highly skilled lady from Northwest Sourdoughs. I'm aiming for this, but it'll take a few more attempts. Here are my batards pre and post loaf proof. I proofed them for about 2 hours at room temperature. Note that this time I covered them with floured plastic wrap to avoid the dramatic crusting-over of my first attempt the other week ;) The plastic worked a treat and a light skin had formed without it becoming anything like a crust. You can see that the 8% protein flour version on the left had spread out a bit more during shaping and final loaf proof.

Here they are out of the oven. Still on the pale side for my liking, but that will be the next test (with more steam!) I'm afraid we couldn't wait for the second loaf to be done before demolishing half of the first loaf.

At first glance they appeared to have a fairly comparable oven spring, despite the lower protein loaf starting off more spread out. And there were holes, bigger than my first attempt loaf, in both of todays loaves. A wetter dough triumphed.

Looking more carefully though, you can see that the higher protein loaf on the right has a more rounded base, where the 8% loaf was a little flatter towards the bottom. I think in the end that the higher protein flour (still only 12%, though) produced the best loaf. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the flavour of the 8% loaf and it had a better crumb than my first attempt at sourdough, using 12% flour, but in the quest for more and bigger holes, this time the 12% won.

Last weekend I tried a different kind of sourdough loaf altogether. An Italian Easter bread made with rosemary-infused olive oil (and eggs, and milk, and sugar and raisins...) called pan di ramerino. Cut with a double cross, purportedly to make it easily dividable, but my loaf was so big I doubt the pieces would break apart easily.

The taste and seasonality of the bread made me wonder if this was a precursor to the hot cross bun? Now there's another one I'm going to have to make! As you can see, the wetter enriched dough for this bread also produced a more open crumb than my first sourdough loaf. The colouring of the crust is thanks to the egg wash used just before scoring the bread.

Apart from being Easter weekend, it was also the peak hamani picnic weekend of 2012, so I wanted something special to take on the picnic. We had the rosemary bread, and a regular sourdough batard, a bakewell tart.. it was a bit competitive picnicking ;)

That cheese in the bottom righthand corner of the photo below is a cheddar made with stout, and it is wonderfully rich and tangy. You can buy it at Nissin supermarket, it's called "Porter" cheese. It got me thinking about the 'umami' taste (from the amino acid L-glutamate), and I mused that sourdough - with its complex layers of flavour and richness - might also have 'umami'. I looked into it and it does appear that thanks to the yeast's metabolic processes, the amino acid is present in sourdough - I now wonder if this means that sourdough will be a great match for tomatoes, mushrooms, parmesan, meat, anchovies.. more food experiments await!

Hanami with daffodils

The next day, we tried french toast with the Italian bread and discovered that sourdough makes great french toast. The tangy acidity of the bread with the sweetness of the raisins and the syrup. It works!

Next stop, the quest for a golden brown crust on the simple white sourdough loaf.


  1. Hi,

    This is my third time visiting Japan and I have now been living here for two years. I can not for the life of me find any sourdough bread.

    I know this blog is about making bread, but have you ever found a place that sell sourdough?? OR would you be willing to send me some? hahahah


  2. Hi there Pigumon! Yes, commercial sourdough is a bit of a tough find - there is plenty of pain au levain and tennen koubo bread, both made with starters, but they generally also contain baker's yeast, and even if they are pure starter they are generally engineered to avoid the acidic tang of sourdough bread.

    I don't know yet if I'll do sourdough commercially - the numbers don't seem to make sense for a business in Tokyo - but I'll probably teach it! Then you can make it yourself, and that's the best ;)

    Well, we'll see. I may end up doing a "sourdough bread club" type thing now and again, where people can pay in advance for a delivery. Stay in touch and watch this space!

  3. I'd love to bake my own bread... but I can't fit an oven into my tiny apartment!!! :(

  4. Hahah, this is incredible... just after replying, Kinokuniya supermarkets announced "San Francisco Sourdough Bread"!!! I hope it catches on, but I'm getting my fill for now. It wasn't super sour like real SF Sourdough, but way better than nothing. I'm so happy!

    1. Wow that's wonderful news! I'll have to go and try some! Thanks for sharing it :)