You Have to Be Adaptable

Last night, I created an overnight levain before going to bed as an experiment. It contained 400 grams of culture, 400 grams of high-extraction bread flour, and 400 grams of water. By morning, it was ready. So… to get the flour to a nice, round kilo, I added 400 grams of AP flour, and 150 grams of water to get the hydration to 75%.

My thought was to make a batch of sourdough baguettes. But this time, I’d try out the process of making baguettes traditional, which involved a loose mix, followed by stretch and folds every 20 minutes for an hour, then bulk fermenting for a couple of hours (though I’d check after an hour).

What I should’ve done was check after 30 minutes because at the 1-hour mark, the dough completely overproofed! It was a sticky mess with absolutely no strength. Pulling on the dough would tear it! And worse yet, it was highly acidic!

BUT!

Rather than chucking the dough, I thought to myself, why not add a bunch of flour and water and use that dough as a pre-ferment? So I took my mixer out, then gradually added flour and water until I got a dough texture that was consistent with an approximately 75% hydration dough.

But my yield completely changed by doing this! Normally, my dough yield is about 1.7 – 1.8 kilo of dough, which allows me to create 6 X 290-295 gram baguettes. Adding flour and water literally doubled my normal yield!

So my next thought was that when bulk fermentation was finished, I’d divide the dough such that I could make 6 X 250 gram baguettes, then divide the rest of the dough into two medium boules or batards.

It was a great idea on paper, but when bulk fermentation was finished (as shown in the picture above), although it looked normal, the dough was SO acidic that it was overly extensible and super-sticky even though I could feel there was plenty of strength in the dough. Shaping that kind of sticky dough into baguettes was completely out of the question.

Furthermore, I knew instinctively that though I could shape the dough into three or four batards or boules, the dough wouldn’t stand up to the sheer size of the loaves and though they’d expand, they’d expand outward instead of up. So in the end, I decided to create 6 small, free-form batards.

My thought was that they’d be big enough to create some decent slices for finger sandwiches or what-not, but small enough that they wouldn’t collapse under their own weight. Thankfully, it was the right decision. The loaves popped up beautifully in the oven!

As you can see in the picture above, I got great oven spring with all of them. And I was actually surprised to see the moderate crumb considering the dough consisted predominantly of high-extraction flour that has lots of bran in it. I owe that to the acidity of the dough which, as I mentioned, adds extensibility.

This whole exercise provided a couple of HUGE lessons for me!

First of all, there’s always a way to salvage an over-proofed dough, and secondly – and most importantly – you have to be adaptable and flexible enough in your thinking to respond to different conditions. If I went ahead and tried to create baguettes, they’d tear in the shaping process, and with baguettes, it’s all about the skin because there’s little internal structure, so you have to rely on shaping.

Granted, this is probably something I wouldn’t have figured out early on in my journey. I would’ve chucked the dough. So this experience presents yet another important lesson: Never stop studying and practicing! I’ve spent so much time studying not only techniques, but the science behind dough fermentation.

Just last night, I read about how acid content affects the dough and makes it more extensible as well as eventually breaking down the gluten structure! Thank freakin’ gawd that I learned that! That information allowed me to respond to the high acid content in my dough! So for those of you who read this who are on their own journey, you can never learn enough.

Finally, I’ve learned to approach bread making much like Bruce Lee approached martial arts in that the technique you use is dictated by the situation. Especially early in my process of learning artisanal bread making, I was fairly canonical in my approach and followed recipes and techniques I’d learn fairly religiously. But I was always wondering why my bread wouldn’t turn out the way I was expecting. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to tweak on the fly and respond to different situations that I started seeing much better results.

So yeah… You have to be adaptable!

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