Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Sourdough Saturday baking day

Earlier this month, after much anticipation and preparation by a lot of people (and plenty of worry on my part!) we finally had our Sourdough Saturday at the Heron Corn Mill. Whereas our bread groups normally try to fit a couple of bakes into a long morning, this time we set aside a medium sized day (10:00 till 16:00) to see if we could produce a couple of sourdough loaves out of a single session in the shepherd's hut at the mill. It was always going to be a bit of a close thing, as sourdough really wants the best part of 24 hours from start to finish. Not for nothing is it called "our daily bread".

We took a little bit of a short cut by making up a bulk quantity of sponge the day before baking. Even so, we were pushing our luck a little with the timing. Fortunately the sponge was vigorous and hungry enough to fit in with our plans, and "rose to the occasion".

Autolysis and spongeing

To try and maximise the available rising time, I suggested doing all the mixing first, to get both lots of dough started, and then starting the kneading as a separate stage. This was a purely pragmatic suggestion on my part, but it begs the question why do we do things in stages in breadmaking?

Making a sponge the day before baking is quite a common technique. A sponge is basically a very wet dough, made up with a quarter of the flour and half the water, all the yeast (wild or commercial) and little or no salt, depending whose version you follow. Making a sourdough sponge turns a small, sleepy starter into a bowlful of wide awake, lean and hungry production sourdough. It is a long, slow pre-fermentation, taken at a leisurely pace. It makes for a stronger fermentation on baking day because there is in effect more yeast - and hungrier yeast - to do the job.

Autolysis is similar to making a sponge, except that you don't put the yeast in - just flour and water. If a sponge is about getting the yeast ready to make bread with, autolysis may be seen as getting the flour ready.

You start a sourdough culture off with just flour and water, so autolysis is like the very beginning of a new sourdough culture. Whatever reaction starts when you mix a new starter, the same thing happens when you mix flour and water before making up dough. But whereas a starter may take about 10 days to develop, autolysis just means leaving the mixed flour and water for an hour or two.

If you were really keen, you might make a sponge overnight to wake up your yeast, autolyse in the morning to wake up your flour, and then add salt when making up your dough.

Rye starters can be vigorous

My starter, about a week old at this stage, was making a break for freedom an hour after I fed it. Like something out of the Rocky Horror Show.


Our bread rested for about 2 hours in the bowl, and then after a gentle shaping, it got another hour in the basket. This is really just about the minimum you can get away with. But with a really active starter, which leads to a good vigorous sponge, the dough should be getting on with things in that kind of timeframe. I had made sure that everyone was using the same sponge, so we all had the same chance of getting a good rise. If any single loaf didn't rise, we would know it was not due to yeast issues. With sourdough it is as well to try and eliminate as many variables as possible, so that you can say with reasonable confidence "X happened because of Y". If there are too many variables, you can't be sure which of many possible snags you hit.

Time for a spot of lunch

Getting the bread out of the basket - tricky 

The afternoon was naturally less busy that the morning. All the physical stuff was out of the way, and all that was left was the skilful stuff - moving the dough forward to create that fragile but beautiful thing, a loaf in the oven. Getting dough out of baskets is a tricky business. It might stick to the basket. You might deflate it by flopping it out too hard onto the peel. It might catch cold on the way to the oven. You might drop it on the way to the oven. It might stick to the peel. It might come off the peel so fast that it slides over the edge of the stone in the oven. All of the above might happen! They have certainly all happened to me at one time or another.

We talked about basket problems in some detail. When the dough is really wet, it can stick like glue to the basket. I told the story of the great beetroot sourdough experiment. Here are some pictures which show the full extent of the problem. Scroll down and look out for the purple dough. You will get the idea by the end!

Slashing - you've got to be bold

There is definitely an art to slashing dough, whether you use a razor blade, a Stanley knife or a serrated edge bread knife. Point the blade down a little, and don't think about it too much - just go for it. I always tell myself "be bold", and usually when you see people make a hash of it, they are really being timid. It's no good being afraid of the dough, and if you try to be gentle with it to avoid hurting it, you will just finish up making a mess of it. Show it who's boss!

Signature slashes

I went for a single slash with my rye-based loaf on the left here. But it wasn't enough to allow it to expand as much as it wanted. It spontaneously ripped - quite dramatic actually.

The round loaves seem to have come out the best this time.

And the deep, bold slashes have opened up really well without deforming the loaves.

It's always nice when the bread gets shared.

The loaf on the bottom left (below) has three slashes. One slash is much bolder than the other two. Look how much better the bold slash has opened up than the other two.

And the loaf at the bottom right (above) shows how the cut narrows to nothing as the knife comes off at the end of the cut.

This is a cut I've not seen before - 3 intersecting lines. The thing to realise here is that rather than make 3 full cuts right across the loaf, it's better to do one full cut right across, followed by 4 half cuts up to the middle. That way rather than pulling down away from the weakest point (where all the cuts cross) you are always pulling up towards it.

Look at this beauty! Just about held together at the corners, while opening up nicely. And beautifully browned and risen.

A baker's half dozen

All of us took home bread that would grace any table - something we could present with pride.

And relax