Creating a “Mother” Dough

I’m soon going to be doing a big bake. It’s for a fundraiser that I’m putting on where for each loaf of bread I sell, I donate a loaf to a local shelter. With that in mind, I’ve been trying out ways to be as efficient as possible. One of those ways was to see if I could make different kinds of loaves from the same batch of dough. Hence, a “mother” dough.

So two nights ago, I started a 1:5:5 levain (1 part 100% hydration starter to 5 parts flour/water each). I let that ferment overnight, then mixed a final dough which was 3 parts flour to 1 part levain, then added water to bring the hydration to 71%. My thought was to create a dough that I could use for boules and batards and baguettes.

I was a little iffy about the baguettes because I normally make them at 75+% hydration. But my starter has been particularly active as of late, so I thought the yeast could more than compensate for the slightly lower hydration, and I would proof them a little longer than normal to create just a touch lower pH in my dough to help with its extensibility.

As you can see from the pictures above, it worked! I was able to use one dough to create baguettes and batards, and by extension, boules. The crumb is not perfect for either loaf. Though I got big holes with the baguettes, they’re not as numerous as in my regular baguettes. With the batards, which are huge, the crumb isn’t really open with big holes, but the interesting thing is that I got HUGE oven spring out of these loaves – lots of little holes working together to make the loaves expand! And the texture is exactly how I like it.

So while the loaves aren’t absolutely perfect, they’re pretty good in their own right, so I will most likely proceed with this dough. Here’s the formula/process:

The Night Before…

Before constructing the dough, I had to make my levain. For this, I didn’t want my levain to be particularly sour, so I used a 1:5:5 ratio: 100 grams mature starter, 500 grams water, 250 grams high-extraction flour, 250 grams AP flour. I made this at about 9pm the previous night. Since it was like a feeding it would take about 9-12 hours to fully develop in my < 70° kitchen. Long story short, it took 12 hours before it got really bubbly and active.

NOTE: You don’t have to use an active starter for this. I used a completely spent starter that was ready for feeding. The microbes are still alive, so I’m just feeding them when I make the levain. Then I feed the remaining culture in my jar and put it away. I’m not of the school of using my starter directly. I prefer to use a “mother” that I then create child batches of levain to give me more options.

Day 1 – Dough Build

The basic, overall formula that I used is this:

1/3 High-extraction flour*
2/3 AP Flour
3:1 ratio to total flour used in levain
Water71% – factoring in the water in the levain
Salt2%
Instant Yeast**0.02%
LevainAll of it
* That 1/3-2/3 blend of high-extraction to AP flour gives me a protein content of 12.7%, that of regular bread flour.
** This is a minuscule amount just to give the starter a little boost, just in case it was too spent.

With the exception of the instant yeast, you may probably notice that this is a riff on the basic 1-2-3 sourdough recipe, though technically, the hydration is a little lower. Remember, I was trying to achieve a happy medium that could be used for different kinds of loaves.

  1. Autolyse – Combine the flour and water (reserve a little to help break up the levain later), and let soak for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Mix – Break up the levain with the reserved water, then add it to the autolysed dough along with the instant yeast. Mix a little, then sprinkle salt evenly over the mass, then continue mixing until all ingredients are incorporated and there are no dry ingredients and no large lumps. Mix until you create a well-incorporated shaggy mass.
  3. Stretch & Fold – Do two sets of stretch & folds every half-hour in the first hour after mixing. This is to build strength and make sure all the ingredients are well-distributed, so make sure you stretch and fold to the point where the dough doesn’t want to be stretched any longer. Since it was a bit cool that day, I did three sets just to make sure that everything was well-combined because I saw little activity in the dough.
  4. Coil Fold – After the S&Fs, I wanted to be much more gentle with the dough so it wouldn’t degas significantly so I switched to coil folds for the next hour and a half. By the time I finished the third set, it was clear that I was getting enzymatic activity in my dough, so I let it rest for 30 minutes, then popped it into my retarder fridge.
  5. Retard – Retard the dough for at least 24 hours, or until the dough has expanded 50-75%.

Day 2 – Making the Loaves

I couldn’t do all my loaves at once because 1) The timing would get screwed up; 2) Different loaves require different bulk fermentation times. But that’s an advantage! With baguettes, you want to start pre-shaping at about 50% expansion. Because you need a nice, long runway for intermediate and final fermentation. So with that in mind, early on Day 2, I scaled out what I’d need to make three 400-gram baguettes, so 1.2 kilos, then returned the rest of the dough to my retarder because I wanted to do a longer bulk for my batards.

I went through my regular baguette process, then once I finished baking my baguettes, I set my oven back to the proper temp, then removed the rest of the dough to create my batards. For those, I pre-shaped into tight balls, then bench rested for 30 minutes. I then shaped the loaves and put them in their proofing baskets and they proofed at room temperature for 2 hours (the dough was pretty cold so that probably accounted for the long, slow proof – which is NOT a bad thing).

Final Thoughts

All in all, I’m quite happy with the results. However, I am going to up the hydration to 73% or maybe up to 75% the next time I do this. Even with just 1/3 high-extraction flour in the final dough, the water absorption of that flour is high because of all the bran that at 71%, it felt like working with a 67-68% dough: pliable but a little stiff.

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