Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A simple bubbly sourdough

Today's bread making was just the way it should be - happily unhurried for the bread, and completely stress-free for the human. Not surprising then, that the bread turned out just right as well - a proper, simple sourdough, crusty as you like outside -

Bubbly inside, with a nice oven leap, good opening of the slashes, and a firm texture.

The smell and the flavour, it goes without saying, were gorgeous. As it sat on the rack cooling, you could hear it crackling contentedly like a log fire, or as the lady in Filbert's bakery described it the other day - "singing". If you've never listened to the song of a cooling loaf, I can thoroughly recommend it. More relaxing than a soak in a Radox bath!

I started this bake off a couple of days ago by feeding my starter in the fridge. I fed it again the next day, during the day. And then in the evening before baking day I made a 660 g sponge by adding 350 g of water and 250 g of flour to 60 g of starter, and left it in the kitchen overnight.

Then this morning - baking day - I took back the odd 60g of sponge and put it in the fridge to be my starter for next time, leaving me with 600 g of sponge. That's a quarter sponge for 2 loaves - a quarter of the flour and half the water. I added the other 3/4 of the flour - 750 g - and the other half of the water - 350 g - so in the end I had 700 g of water and 1000 g of flour. That is called 70% hydration level - a nice soft dough.

I added some of my fancy new Himalayan salt, cracked wheat, rye flakes, wheatgerm, linseeds and olive oil - no yeast, of course - and gave it a good work out. It then stood, covered, in a bowl in the kitchen for about 5 hours. I then folded and shaped it and put it into 2 well floured baskets and left it, covered, for another 2 hours. During the second hour I put my oven on full whack with my clay roof tiles on the middle shelf to get thoroughly hot. These are my battle-worn tiles -

At about 17:15 I turned the bread out of the baskets and onto a metal peel and a wooden board, both well covered with rough polenta. (Using 2 boards means I only have to open the oven once.) I slashed the tops and shoved them onto the hot tiles, sprayed some water vapour into the top of the oven, and let nature take its course.

As I had nothing better to cook alongside the break, I did a rice pudd in the bottom of the oven - 1 pint of milk, 50 g of rice and 12 g of molasses, with nutmeg and cinnamon on top. The timing goes quite well with heating the stones and making bread.

Given that the bread came out at 18:10, I am very glad I am not a professional baker who is expected to get bread on the shelf by 09:00! But I do feel I have had a productive day - 2 beautiful loaves and a nice warm feeling.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Topics arising at the shepherd's hut last week


Although Stuart the miller makes wheat, spelt and rye flour these days, the Heron Corn Mill must have spent a large part of its illustrious history grinding oats. Oats were the main local grain, and many local place names include "Haver" (the old word for oats) - Haverbrack, Haverthwaite, Haverigg etc.

Dictionary definition of "haver" -
Borrowing from Scots haver, from Middle English haver, from Old Norse hafri ‎(oat, oats), from Proto-Germanic *habrô ‎(oat, oats), from Proto-Indo-European *kapro- ‎(goat). Cognate with Dutch haver ‎(oats), cognate with German Hafer ‎(oat)

When the more efficient but less gentle steel roller mills came onto the scene, the traditional slow grinding stones of the Heron Corn Mill could not compete, and were largely relegated to processing oats for animal feed. The Heron as we know it is specifically kitted out for milling oats. One set of stones is lighter than the others, and was used to crack the hard outer shell on the oats. The softer grain inside was then ground on a heavier set of stones.

One baker asked if you could make bread with oats. When I did a bit of Googling round this question, I found that the real answer is no, because oats do not contain any gluten. People with serious gluten problems have to be careful with oats because they tend to get contaminated with other grains like wheat, but the oat itself is a gluten free zone.

Googling searching is now so clever that you can just type things like "gluten in oats" and it comes back with all the information you could possibly be looking for, including a link to the coeliac society.

This doesn't mean, of course, that you can't use oats in bread, or as a coating for bread. But you do need something else to provide the gluten to give the bread a lift.


Unlike oats, rye does contain gluten. But it is the wrong kind of gluten apparently, and doesn't trap the gas the way the gluten in wheat does.


When yeast breaks down flour, it gives off gas. The tangle of gluten strands in the dough catches the gas and the dough rises. No gluten, no rise.

So if you want to make bread with oats or rye, it is pretty well certain that you will need to mix the grain with something that contains the right kind of gluten - probably wheat.

And if you want to make bread without gluten - well, good luck with that.

Real bread campaign

Gluten has had a bad press for some time, and the Real Bread campaign is trying to promote the positive for a change. Instead of trying to make something that is barely bread by avoiding gluten, they would have us make something that is super bread, and positively good for the gut - namely sourdough. Embrace the process, and get fermenting!


It's not immediately obvious that there is fat in grains, but if you Google for "fat in oats" you will see it is about 7% whereas "fat in wheat" is about 2.5%. So adding some oats to a loaf, while it won't improve the rise, might well improve the richness of the bread.


The more protein there is in flour, the more gluten it will produce when you make bread with it. This is why many flours boast about their strength - basically the amount of protein they contain.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica -

Strong flours are high in protein content, and their gluten has a pleasing elasticity; weak flours are low in protein, and their weak, flowy gluten produces a soft, flowy dough.

English wheat tends to be lower in protein that Canadian wheat, so you will often see "extra strong Canadian flour" in the supermarket. You may even get a figure out of the supermarkets, as in the case of Tesco's strong stoneground 100% wholemeal bread flour which comes in at 14% protein.

Again Google will give you good information if you just search for "protein in wheat".


I can quite understand why you might think it doesn't matter what salt you use when making bread. To be honest, I often have trouble deciding if bread is salty, very salty or not very salty at all. And I certainly couldn't tell you whether a loaf used table salt, sea salt, rock salt or whatever kind of salt.

But when bread uses so few ingredients - flour, water, probably salt and probably yeast - surely it is worth at least trying the effect of using different kinds of salt.

Elizabeth David used rock salt because she knew it was chemically pure, and because she could buy it in reasonable bulk, thereby avoiding being charged a premium price for what she had decided was for her a premium product. To quote Ulysses chapter two -
A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew orgentile, is he not?
I like to buy cheap, but I'm not so good at buying in bulk. So I've been using rock salt which you can get in modest sized packets at Asda, presented very much as a premium product.

Tidmans Natural Rock Salt

It works very nicely, though as I soon realised, if you use coarse salt in bread, you need to dissolve it in the water or you will get lumps of salt in your bread.

During the cold weather you sometimes see signs offering rock salt for treating icy paths. I doubt if this is how Elizabeth David bought hers, as it tends to be brown and includes anti-caking ingredients, which Andrew Whitley specifically warns against. Rather than rock salt, Andrew Whitley proposes sea salt -

Sea salt, especially the coarse flaked varieties from Anglesey or the Guérande in France, retains a wider spectrum of minerals, including valuable iodine, than industrially processed rock salt.

This is from the west coast of France.
Guerande coarse sea salt has been harvested using traditional methods and is well known for its culinary virtues. It is naturally grey as it crystallises on contact with the clay from which it takes its high trace element content. It is less salty than Mediterranean salt, softer on the palate and richer in flavour which makes it the salt that cooks prefer for salting stocks and the water used for cooking vegetables. It is also great when barbecuing for meat and fish cooked in a salt crust. Unwashed, unrefined and additive-free, it adds flavour to traditional family cooking.

I noticed on holiday in Nice recently that local products were proudly announcing that they included Mediterranean sea salt. This looked grey and really rather unappetizing like the Guerande, but was clearly being promoted as a special ingredient. This really got me interested, especially given our own Maldon sea salt.

In TK Max over Christmas, I saw some pink Himalayan sea salt. It was definitely presenting itself as a premium product, and was priced accordingly. I decided not to bother. But when I got home and checked my rock salt, it turned out to be just as expensive as the Himalayan salt in TK Max - just in a smaller packet.

So today I went back to TK Max, determined to try the Himalayan sea salt. It turned out that it was even more expensive than I had remembered it - 800 g for £4.99 - and I again decided not to bother. Instead I treated myself to some retail therapy in Domestic Bargains - one of my favourite places for self-indulgent shopping. You never know what you're going to find, but you know it won't be expensive. Fortune sometimes favours the parsimonious, and today the very first thing that caught my eye in Dom Bar was pink Himalayan sea salt - 1 kg for £2.49. Granted it was being sold for foot baths, but it did say "salt with nothing added". It is a lot finer than the showy equivalent in TK Max, but as I am not going to use it in a grinder, I am not worried about that.

Structure in dough

Getting dough to rise is only half the story. If you want to get a really good looking loaf, you need to help it to stand up for itself, by working some structure into the dough. As it rises for the first time, the gluten that is produced during kneading gets stretched. So you finish up with lots of air, and lots of strands of gluten all pointing to the sky.

When you turn a bowl of dough like the one above out onto the worktop, it collapses before your very eyes. But that's not the end of the world! When you fold it a few times (once you get the knack of how to fold it constructively) and generally tighten up the dough a little, the gluten will be arranged much less one directionally, and will do a much better job of trapping the gas which will continue to be produced as the dough rises again.


If you are shaping a round loaf, the simplest thing is just to fold it up like you would fold a letter to get it into the envelope. Just fold in half, turn 90 degrees and fold again. If you think it will take it, do it a third time and then call it a day.

There are two basic methods to turn this square, folded piece of dough back into a round again.

The first method starts with the dough on the table in front of you. With your hands palm upwards and one hand on either side of the dough, turn it round a couple of times by moving one hand away from you and the other towards you. The sides of your little fingers and hands should be tucking the dough underneath as you turn it. This has the effect of dragging the sides of the dough down and underneath, tightening the dome of the loaf as it goes.

This lady only does one fold, but she demonstrates the tucking-under principle of the first method very well, and you can see she gets a nice taut loaf. But it is a lot easier to put the bread on the table and just do the turning and tucking with the sides of your hands.

The second method of tightening your loaf up is to exploit the fact that it sticks to an unfloured surface, and drag it towards you with cupped hands.

As you pull the dough ball towards you, the side of the dough nearest you gets stretched, tightened and tucked underneath. You then turn the dough ball round 90 degrees and repeat the exercise, which stretches, tightens and tucks another side of the dough underneath. Do this four times and the dough should be tight and smooth all the way round.

If you watch this very skilled baker, working with very soft dough, you will see a comprehensive example of the second method, along with the folding I mentioned at the start. If you can copy even just a couple of the things this baker is doing, you will get good results.

It won't necessarily taste any better, but it is always worth ensuring the dough feels nice and tight when it goes into the tin or onto a tray and into the oven.

Keeping the crust soft

Strangely, the same thing is responsible for soft crusts and crunchy crusts: steam. You can't make a proper baguette for instance without a very steamy oven. The low, wide ovens you see in many small bakeries include a steam inlet which the baker can switch on or off during baking. Having plenty of steam around in the early minutes of the bake keeps the crust soft and allows the bread to continue rising more freely. As soon as the crust sets, the bread can't expand any more - unless it rips the bread open to do so. That is why we slash bread before it goes in the oven.

If a loaf is kept very soft until it is half cooked, and then blasted with dry heat towards the end, the crust should in theory be extra crunchy. This is a hard trick to pull off, but cooking in a dutch oven is a well established way of staying moist as long as possible, and then crisping off big time towards the end by removing the lod of the dutch oven.

There are many ways to create a steamy atmosphere in your oven, none of them particularly easy to do, because you want the door to be shut as soon as possible when the bread goes in, so it stays hot. 

Some people throw a cup of water into a preheated baking tray at the bottom of the oven, others spray water mist into the top of the oven, or even onto the loaves before they go in the oven, if they are in baking tins. One of the bakers in my group puts a tray of ice cubes in the oven, which has the advantage that it can be done quickly.

The baker at Peace and Loaf in Barrow market told me that the low roof on a commercial oven is also critical to getting a really crusty top to your loaf. So don't beat yourself up if you can't quite match the professionals, baking in a professional bread oven!

Not everything is important

We had a go at getting thumb-shaped bubbles into our flutes last time we baked at the Heron Corn Mill. It was a miserable failure. But not to worry - the flutes tasted pretty good, even if they weren't as crisp as they should have been. You can spend a lot of time chasing perfection when making bread. But it's alright to get a result that is just OK. It's bread made with our own hands, and with good ingredients and good intentions. That really IS important!