May 29, 2014

Converting to Natural Leavening for Bread

I've been baking bread for a few years, and always been a little interested in sourdough. But I generally don't favor the very sour versions you typically find labeled as sourdough, and the process seemed like a lot of extra work. However, I recently read Cooked by Michael Pollan, which has a section on bread that made me excited to try 100% natural leavening.

Pollan finds his way into the bread making orbit of Chad Robertson, of Tartine in San Francisco. He writes movingly about naturally leavened bread, and the elimination of a commercially sourced ingredient (instant yeast) from my list of inputs was appealing. An argument is also put forth in the book that bread made in this way has a significantly lower glycemic index and is digested more slowly by the body. This is how everyone made bread for thousands of years, until fairly recently. So I ordered the Tartine bread books from the minuteman library network.

Between reading the first Tartine bread book and a blog inspired by it called Girl Meets Rye, it didn't sound as difficult to build and maintain a starter as the impression I had taken away from various cookbooks.

Developing a Starter
I had a bag of boutique stone ground new england grown whole grain rye flour in the freezer from Wild Hive, which I more usually rely upon to add some flavor to my regular bread. Following the directions from Girl Meets Rye, which are even simpler than those in the Tartine Book, I began working up a starter using this rye flour.

All I did to begin was mix up an equal mass of flour and water in a small jar, and let it sit uncovered for a day in my kitchen.

The idea is that the organisms needed to eventually develop into a stable sourdough culture are already present nearly everywhere, one just needs to impose a set of environmental conditions that will favor the desired set of microflora. The first organisms are already in the flour, the air, and my kitchen, so no special effort is needed with assorted fruit mashes or juice mixes, etc., that are prescribed in other sourdough development systems.

There is sure to be plenty of bits of commercial instant yeast derived organisms floating in my kitchen, so the initial bubbling up of the rye mix was likely due to these. Soon things died down though, probably inhibited by the growing acidity generated by bacterial action.

I started doing the feeding routine, which involves removing most of the starter and adding back in an equal mass of whole rye flour and water. I just used tap water, though it is run through a carbon filter, so less chlorine than if it came straight from the municipal pipe. After things seemed to be well colonized, I moved to feeding twice a day.

Not too sure precisely what I was looking for, I continued the routine of feeding twice a day for about two weeks. The kitchen scale and a small bag of rye flour are left out on the counter close to the sink, so it only takes about 2-3 minutes to do a feeding and put the jar back on the top of the fridge where it spends most of its time.

For my first bread with the new starter, I made the Basic Country Loaf from the Tartine book and it turned out quite nicely.

 It was baked in a cast iron dutch oven, a great technique I had done many times already with variants on no-knead bread.

It wasn't as airy as the pics in the Tartine book, or one can find on the web. But I was happy with it. Here is our lunch that day: Fresh sourdough bread with butter, homemade fermented pickles, and homebrew kombucha. A real festival of foods produced with the aid of microorganisms!

Since then I have only used instant yeast one or two times for bread, if a need develops that I don't have time to rev up the starter for. I almost exclusively use the starter for all bread leavening, and now that I am used to it and have a system figured out it is really not that much extra work.

Maintaining the Starter
To cut cost on the flour used for maintenance feeding, I have moved to using Arrowhead Mills whole rye flour, which is available locally and is cheaper than the Wild Hive flour.

I keep my starter in a small canning jar, which weighs about 190g. To do a feeding, I put the uncapped jar on the scale. Including the resident starter, it reads about 250g

I scoop out starter with a big spoon until the scale reads 210g (so about 20g starter left).

The extra starter goes in the compost, then I add whole grain rye flour to get up to 230g

 then filtered water to get to 250g

I find with Arrowhead Mills flour that I think the consistency is better with about 19g flour and 21g water. Don't sweat it if the proportions are missed by a gram or two.

Mix it up with the spoon

Put the cap back on. When it is active, I put the jar of starter toward the back on top of my fridge. It is a little warm with relatively still air there.

You can keep the starter in the fridge until 3 days before you want to use it. The general idea is to wake the starter up by taking it out of the fridge, rev it up for a few days with regular feeding, build its volume into a leaven, then make the bread dough. If you bake every week or even more often, it probably makes sense to keep the starter out all the time. But if you are like me and only bake every two weeks or less, refrigerating it in between cuts down on work.

Making the Leaven
When I expand the starter to a leaven, which does end up constituting a fair portion of the bread, I use the good stuff (my Wild Hive stash, kept in the freezer). I've been using 20% of the flour weight in leaven. My regular batch these days is 2800g flour, so I start with 280g whole rye and 280g water.

I mix the rye and water up in a medium sized bowl with a good spoonful of the active starter. The rest of the starter gets tossed and I wash the jar, since after a while the jar gets kind of crusty. The leaven bowl gets covered and put on top of the fridge overnight.

Of course you can use wheat flour for maintaining the starter and building the leaven. But I've read that it is easier and more forgiving to use rye. And ending up with a portion of my bread as rye is fine with me. As a minority ingredient it just adds dimension to the flavor.

When I make the dough, I put a spoonful of the leaven in a canning jar to become my next chunk of starter. Usually it goes straight in the fridge since I know I won't be baking for two weeks.

Making the Bread
I ordinarily bake a ~5kg batch of bread about every other week. This works out to the equivalent of 3.7 store bought loaves per week!

Mostly I make the bread with whole grain flour from Wild Hive. I have been using 10% rye (supplied by the leaven), 20% hard red whole wheat, and 70% soft white whole wheat. The large proportion of soft white whole wheat makes the structure of the bread pretty droopy, so I use about 72% hydration. If I am baking for company or I've run out of whole wheat, I use 10% rye and 90% unbleached AP flour from King Arthur. The white flour does well with hydration at 80%.

My kids don't like the bread to be too hard, so I put in about 2% olive oil. And I think the flavor of whole wheat is especially good with a touch of local honey, which I put in at 5% (by weight, as a portion of the flour mass).

To start out, the leaven is mixed with the water and the flour in a big tupperware and left to sit for 30 minutes to autolyse.

After 30 minutes, the oil, honey, and salt are added, stirred more and numerous folds with wet dough scraper and hands. The lid goes on and it sits for 20-30 minutes.

 In the pic below I've got another 1kg batch going on top, to test how it worked out using 90% whole hard red wheat.

About every 20-30 minutes, 3-5 times, I stretch and fold in thirds one or two times. By the end the dough is smooth, soft but coherent, and elastic. I let it sit undisturbed for another hour or two until it is at least doubled in size from its pre-rise bulk.

Next, I dump out the big tupperware on the counter.

and divide the dough.

I understand that it is better to minimize use of extra flour at this stage, but I don't have much success in that department.

Child 1 prefers sliced bread, but Child 2 and Child 1 like "log bread" better. This works out well for me since I can do about half the batch in two long pullman pans, and the other half as six baguettes in triple baguette pans.

I form the loaves up, trying to get plenty of tension in the outer skin (but I still have a long way to go here). I proof them for 1-3 hours at room temp, then bake. Lately I have been baking at 250C (475F). If I bake the loaf pans with their lids on for the first 15 minutes, the high moisture environment in the pan leads to better bread. The pan loaves take about 30 minutes total. The baguettes take about 22 minutes, and I try in vain to steam the oven with water dumped into a preheated pan and some spraying the sides of the oven with a squirt bottle.

If needed, the dough can be put in the fridge overnight after the folding stage (bulk rise occurs in fridge), or after loaf shaping (proofing happens in the fridge). The sour flavors will be stronger the longer it stays in the fridge.

I let the bread cool completely on a rack. Usually we eat up a baguette or so for lunch or dinner. Then I cut it up.

It goes in bags and then to the freezer. Becky takes out a bag to defrost as needed through the two weeks between baking.

For pizza, I put in a stone on a rack near the bottom of my oven and max its temp out at 288C (550F) and let it preheat for at least 45 minutes. The dough gets predivided into 250g chunks and left to proof for an hour or two. Pizza dough holds together much better when made with KAF AP white flour, but half white half whole is also pretty good. But I often save a chunk of dough from the main 100% whole grain batch to make into pizzas one night for dinner. The whole grain turns out fine too.

Each chunk is stretched and placed on a wood cutting board sprinkled with semolina flour (to prevent sticking). The pizza gets topped, then slid off onto the stone. After 3-5 minutes, it is ready to come out and be served. These pizzas were topped with different combinations of mozzarella, parmesan, tomato sauce, chives from the garden, violets and dandelions foraged from the yard, and pancetta.

I started making sauce rather than using jar sauce from the store. It is far better (for pizza), and only takes a minute to mix up since it doesn't require cooking. This is adapted from the basic sauce recipe in Peter Reinhardt's great book on pizza.

  • 1 box Pomi tomato chunks
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ~5 cloves minced garlic
  • juice from half a lemon

I took some half whole grain dough balls to a pizza party thrown by Peter Kane in his back yard. He has a wood fired pizza oven, which provides the foundation for an awesome party! My hydration was too high, so the dough was too droopy and sticky. Hard to work with but still tasted good.

Pete's family cranked out a whole pile of pizzas, with assistance from Steve.

Here is Manabu, struggling gamely with one of my sticky doughs.

Pete's dough was based on the Neopoletana recipe from his pizza book, which was easier to work with and turned out great.