.Sourdough bread is a remarkably simple product - four ingredients - but also complicated, unpredictable and ever changing.
As a baker, once you have the flour, water, sourdough culture and salt scaled out, you have only three variables to work with in producing a fine artisanal loaf. Time, temperature and exercise.
There are two distinct chunks of time that the baker manages when making a sourdough loaf. The first is the time taken to let the levain - also known as the preferment or poolish - develop, prior to mixing the dough. This can be liquid, like pancake batter, or stiff, like a very firm dough, and can constitute anywhere from 15 - 25% of the final dough mixture Here, you have to time things right to make sure that the levain develops fully enough that when it is mixed in the final dough, it is rocking. Bubbly, active, lively. If left too long, the yeast and bacteria will become overworked and will not give the final dough much life. This activity can be moderated by the temperature - the second variable - at which the levain is proofed.
When the dough is mixed, a baker manages the third variable, exercise. Traditional techniques do not call for the dough to be kneaded (The way you might do so making bread at home), rather the dough is simply stretched and folded at regular intervals at the beginning of its proofing period. I recently acquired a commercial mixer and so do mix and knead the dough using it: this gives me greater consistency across batches of bread I am making.
With the dough mixed and folded or kneaded, we come to the second major chunk of time that the baker works with, in conjunction with temperature, and perhaps the most important time segment. That is the proofing time. Generally, a lower temperature and a longer proof time mean that one can deepen the bread's flavor and limit its sour taste. Shorter proofing times at higher temperatures will result in a bread with a less complex but more sour flavor profile. I proof my dough overnight in a refrigerator that I found on CraigsList and tricked out with a controller (so I can run it at a specific temperature). This slow, cool proofing means that my bread is not very sour but does develop a deep flavor. Overnight is nothing: it is quite common for baguettes to be proofed for 36 hours and I've seen recipes that require 4 - 5 day proof times.
There is another variable that doesn't fit nicely into this tripartite description and that is hydration (the percentage of water) of the dough. The wetter the dough, the more open the crumb and the more difficult it is to work with. I spent a few months earlier this year driving myself crazy by pushing the hydration in my bread up above 80% (that is 80% of the flour by weight). Chad Robertson's recipes all seem to start at that level and, for breads with a lot of whole grain, it can work (the bran absorbs a fair bit of water) but, for white flour, the dough becomes loose and sticky and very difficult to handle, let alone shape. I've backed things off the to the 70% range and finds that gives me a good crumb and loaves with a nice shape.
This Saturday's Bake
I'll bake a sprouted purple barley loaf for you this weekend (I think that I have baked this for some of you earlier in the year). The recipe calls for whole Kamut flour (I grind this myself), high extraction flour (I have purple barley berries that will sprout after 2 - 3 days of being moist). it is a hearty bread with a tighter crumb with great flavor.
Gluten-free products are big business - it is estimated to be $1.77 BN in the US and grow to $23.9 BN by 2020. It isn't clear why it is that more people now are gluten sensitive these days than were 50 years ago. Some blame modern wheat, others generally increased allergies, others just think gluten is plain evil. There are some indications that when your biome is limited or compromised (e.g. by not having enough exposure to bacteria - dirt - when you are a child), that subsequently limit your body's tolerance for certain proteins or enzymes.
Gluten is actually a pair of starches, glutenin and gliadine. These two proteins work together to give bread dough its extensibility and elasticity, both of which are necessary to both capture the gas created by yeast into bubbles to form the bread's crumb, and to retain the shape of the dough as it rises. The advent of commercially available white flour in at the turn of the last century (I've written about this elsewhere.), made light airy, high-gluten breads a foregone conclusion in Western diets.
Hard wheat (Winter or Spring) produce flour with enough protein (Including gluten) - 11 - 14% - to make good bread. Soft wheats (Typically Winter) are used for pastry or cake flour, where an open, crumbly texture is desired.
Back to the gluten free thing. This article about gluten that I thought was interesting: it may not be gluten itself that causes trouble but fructans and FODMAPs. And perhaps, the way modern bread is made (Industrially processed bread can be processed in as little as four hours, from flour to loaf).
This list of chemicals used to bleach white flour (And where they are banned) is instructive:
This Week's Bake
In honor of gluten, this week I am going to bake straight up organic white sourdough bread, using a stiff levain. Let's see if I can deliver an open crumb (something I struggle with): the flavor should be fine (deep, complex). Great fresh, nice toasted with some butter and jam.
Bread, like beer and wine, has only a few ingredients - flour, water, salt and sourdough culture (yeast and bacteria); it is rather remarkable that, from such simple materials, a wondrous variety of breads are baked.
Flour is the largest ingredient, by weight, in a loaf of bread. The quality of flour - the variety, how it is grown, harvested and milled - is the foundation for good bread. As you know, I source my flour from a number of mills that mill high quality organic hard red winter wheat, and ancient and varietal grains. These mill source their grain from all over the Mid West and are located in Utah, Montana, Arizona and Minnesota.
Water is the next largest ingredient. Our local water, is very good quality: I put it through an activated carbon filter, which takes out any impurities picked up in transit, removes the chloramines (These would kill the sourdough culture) but crucially does not take out dissolved minerals - these add flavor and body to the liquid.
The sourdough culture is the first of many small miracles that make a loaf of sourdough bread so tasty. As I have noted in other posts, the complex and only partially understood interaction between naturally occurring yeasts (Saccharomyces exiguus, Candida milleri, or Candida holmii) and bacteria (Three metabolic groups of lactobacillus) is what gives our bread a deep, complex flavor. There is some disagreement whether or not a sourdough "mother" - the source culture - develops and keeps its own genome as it ages, or if the genome is replaced steadily as the starter is refreshed. I start feeding the starter (retained in the refrigerator from the prior week's bake.) on Tuesdays, refreshing it every 12 hours. By Thursday it is rocking and super active.
Salt - highly valued in years past, making and breaking empires, and traded as a valuable commodity - adds flavor. I keep it simple by using mined sea salt, without additives.
These four - inputs in economist's parlance - ingredients are basis for sourdough bread. If these are up to snuff, the baker has only three additional variables to work with: exercise (kneading), time and temperature. I will write about these in another post.
This Saturday's Bake
I am going to bake you a small country "miche" - a round loaf made with high extraction organic flour (This is the flour that has the entire wheat berry ground as fine as white flour. This makes it as nutritious as a whole grain loaf, with the handling of a white loaf.
Your Canadian Baker