Still Scratching My Head: Is It Poolish or Is It a Levain?

As some might know, I technically don’t make traditional sourdough in that I don’t maintain a starter culture to inoculate my dough. There are a number of reasons for this which I won’t go into here, but in lieu of a starter culture, I do use a poolish I create the day before I bake, which means I make practically every evening.

I know what you’re thinking. I could just maintain a starter and use the discard every day. But I have to be honest. I don’t want to invest the minimum five days in creating the culture – at least not right now. I’d rather be baking. Plus, as I greatly admire Nancy Silverton who started La Brea Bakery in LA, when I’m ready to do a sourdough starter, really want to try her grape sourdough. It’s pretty amazing. But I digress…

So as I mentioned, I use a poolish as a starter for my breads. A poolish is made from a 50-50 mixture of flour and water, and literally a pinch of yeast (I measure out 0.4 gram). I make mine at about 6-7 PM in the evening, then let it sit in my fermentation bucket on my counter overnight. Then at about 9-10 AM the next day, I prepare the final dough.

Now here’s where I scratch my head. Technically, a poolish is not a levain. A levain has no commercial yeast. And conventionally, a levain equates to a sour taste. This is because the airborne yeasts and lactic acid bacteria work in concert to consume the sugars in the flour and create that sour flavor. But my poolish is sour.

I let my poolish develop around 14 hours. And in that time, the natural yeasts and bacteria have time to activate and make a contribution to the flavor and gluten development in the starter. And it seems that at that point, the predominant microorganisms that act on the dough are the natural ones, not the commercial yeast. But of course, unless I actually do a chemical test, I can’t be absolutely certain.

But if my assertion is true, is my pre-ferment starter a levain at that point? Frankly, it’s not really important at all, but I just like to understand things so it remains a bit of a head-scratcher for me.

And as Nancy Silverton, founder of La Brea Bakery in LA said, “For me when I think of any food product, the most important test is the result, right? And how you got there is sort of incidental…”

When I first heard her say that, it gave me a lot of encouragement because I’ve lately had this feeling that even though I’ve been absolutely methodical and meticulous with my technique, I’ve been a bit unconventional. But the results have been great for the most part and it’s great to hear one of the greats in bread making provide some validation. So I guess I can keep scratching my head about this, but at least I know that the results are what matter.

No-Knead ≠ No Work

I have to admit that I was originally compelled to make bread when I saw a recipe entitled, “Easy Dutch Oven No Knead Bread.” And with that recipe, all you did was mix the ingredients together and let the dough sit overnight. Other than forming the dough into a ball the next day, you don’t touch it. I made it and it’s easy and no fuss. But then after making it a couple of times, I started looking at other no-knead bread recipes and each one of them had some sort of manipulation involved; specifically, stretching and folding. So I set out to understand why these recipes involved folding and not just leaving the dough alone.

And in my research, which also involved making bread from the recipes I encountered, I came to realize that even though the mix-together-and-let-sit-for-24-hours method works because it gives the yeast time to convert the proteins into gluten, it can have inconsistent results. The reason why is that if the dough wasn’t sufficiently mixed with all the yeast distributed evenly through the dough, the rise will be uneven. On the other hand, folding the dough ensures that not only is the dough mixed well just in case I missed some, it also ensures that the yeast gets distributed consistently through the dough.

Now technically, stretch and fold, coil fold, slap and fold and other dough folding techniques aren’t kneading. But they are methods to physically work the dough, albeit a gentler approach than kneading or using a machine which is the most intense way of developing gluten. And no matter how you work it, it’s going to help the yeast evenly distribute throughout the dough and help build up the gluten network.

So given all that, while no-knead can mean fire and forget, to develop a good loaf, you need to work it somehow.

No-Knead, No Oven Spring? No Problem!

I lurk a lot in online bread baking forums in search of tidbits of information and insights that will help me improve my skills. And though I’ve finally reached a point where I can consistently make a pretty good loaf of bread, I’ve refrained from contributing to public forums. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to share, which is one of the reasons I devoted this blog to bread baking. A large part of this blog is a diary of the things I discover, the other part of it is sharing the lessons I learned. And a HUGE lesson I’ve learned is this:

With no-knead bread, if you want good oven spring, you have to have achieve sufficient dough strength so the gluten network retains the gases to promote forming gas pockets and be strong enough to hold the dough’s general shape in the first 10-15 minutes of baking.

Okay, for the experienced baker, this is a given. But for many folks like myself up until recently, it wasn’t an intuitive thing. I now know how to feel that my dough has strength and the telltales, but when I first started making bread, I was just following the recommendations in the recipes I’d follow.

Specifically, I’m talking about the recipes in Flour Water Salt Yeast (“FWSY”) by Ken Forkish, which seems to be the “reference” book for many home bakers. It surely was mine when I first started out. I still follow many of the principles Ken lays out in the book, but after having created dozens upon dozens of loaves over the last few months (I bake at least two loaves a day), I realized that there was one discussion that was missing in the book, or more implied rather than specifically called out and that is developing dough strength and why it’s important.

On page 35 of FWSY, he has a page devoted to folding. The salient point of the section is in the first paragraph:

Doing this [folding] several times during the bulk fermentation of the dough helps organize the dough’s gluten network, which allows it to holod on to gases produced as the dough ferments… The more complexly knit this network of gluten becomes, the more strength the dough has.

That nails it. And for a more experienced baker, the implication is clear: Developing dough strength gives you a better rise and oven spring.

But for the beginning baker following recipes, they don’t have the experience and, more importantly, haven’t developed the feel for dough strength. So like me, they’ll just follow the recommendations as in the Saturday White Bread which specifies just two folds. But that’s assuming you’re using AP flour or white bread flour. But even with those flours, if you haven’t sufficiently folded the dough and developed the gluten network, even those will collapse or spread out in the oven like the loaf shown below:

As you can see, the crumb on that loaf actually wasn’t all that bad. At first, I thought it was a proofing issue, but if it was, I would’ve gotten a really weird, uneven rise. So after doing a bit of research, I learned that I hadn’t developed enough strength in my dough.

I have to admit that I kind of scratched my head at that discovery because I followed the Saturday White Bread recipe in FWSY absolutely closely. But two folds was just not enough. As a dough expands in the oven, you should get both horizontal AND vertical rise. If you don’t get much vertical rise, it means the gluten network isn’t strong enough to support the vertical height. Also, if you look at the loaf, it’s also not scored on the top. That also could be a contributing factor as there may have not been enough give in the top skin, which forced the bread to expand outward instead of up, but that’s another discussion altogether. For now, we’ll just focus on developing dough strength.

How Do You Know Your Dough Has Strength?

I’m just going to start off by saying that there is no magic number to the amount of folding you need to do. Even Ken Forkish says in the last paragraph of “What Is Folding?” on page 35:

The recipes in this book each give guidance on the time and number of folds recommended, usually specifying a range, such as three to four folds. However, I don’t want to be overly hard and fast with rules about this. When working with your douh, you’ll be able to see the physical change after you’ve folded it. If, based on what you observe, you want to give it one more fold, go ahead and do it.

I remember reading that last line and saying out loud, “What the f$#k am I supposed to observe?” But despite that, I went on reading because I thought he might delve a littler deeper into the observation. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as he went with it.

So I had to do a bit of research and did a lot of baking and have a couple of telltales that I use to make sure I’ve developed enough strength in my dough.

The first test is a common one that you’ll probably see online – a lot. It’s known as the windowpane test. Basically, you take a hunk of your fermenting dough and stretch it. If you can stretch it into a thin membrane (window) without it tearing, then you have good dough strength.

But there’s also a way to feel the strength developing when you’re doing your stretch and folds that I use to gauge how far along my dough is. When it’s time to do a stretch and fold, if, when you do the first stretch, the dough stretches really easy and you can stretch it to two times the width of the dough ball, it’s likely not strong enough. And when you finish the last fold, if the whole dough ball doesn’t want to come along when you pull, you don’t have enough strength in your dough.

Furthermore, when you stretch and fold, you’re supposed to turn the dough over onto the folds after you’ve formed a ball. You should be able to do this easily if your dough is strong. But if you finish and the rest of the dough settles back, then you don’t have enough strength and you’ll need to do more rounds of folds.

That said, if you’re working with a super high-hydration dough (like above 80%), your dough will have a tendency to collapse, no matter what you do. But when you stretch high-hydration dough, the dough mass should come along with your stretch. If it shows signs of tearing, you’ll need more folds.

For this very reason, as opposed to following the guidelines in FWSY, I’ve taken the Tartine Bakery approach where they do 6 folds over the course of 3 hours, doing one every half-hour. I know, that’s very involved. By the time you do the last stretch and fold, you can really feel the resistance!

Folding Forms the Foundation

A lot of emphasis is put on shaping and creating a taut skin to get a good oven spring. No doubt, it is critical. But if you don’t have the good foundation of a well-developed gluten network with which to start, you won’t get as good an oven spring. It’s really the combination of a well-developed gluten network AND a nice, tight skin that will give you great oven spring, at least as far as structure is concerned. There are other factors as well, but those are beyond this particular discussion.

For me, I started getting great oven spring when I started to trust what I was feeling in the dough as I folded it. Was it too easy to stretch? Did it feel like tearing? Or did it put up some resistance and want me to take the whole dough ball in one pull? These questions led me to fold the dough more than the prescribed or suggested amount of folds in FWSY, and since then, I haven’t had to worry that my loaves will collapse, even with really wet dough. And especially now that I’m using a whole wheat and high-extraction flour combination, those extra folds have worked wonders with my oven spring.

I thought that maybe it was my folding technique that was flawed. But as I mentioned in a previous article, this is exactly what they do at Tartine Bakery!

Now all that said, I’m only sharing what works for me. You may do fewer folds and still get great results. The great thing about making bread is that though there is a certain exactitude to the process, there’s also a lot of variability. So what may work for some, may not work for others and vice-versa.

Happy baking!

Stumbling Into Technique

I’m not a professional baker, but like many other avid amateurs, I’ve totally immersed myself in the process of making bread with the goal to create bread that I can call my own; that has kind of my own personal stamp. It’s not an ego thing. It’s akin to a musician doing a cover of someone else’s work. And from that perspective, I can actually speak as a professional because I’m a part-time professional musician.

For my solo acoustic gigs, in addition to doing some of my own original compositions, the bulk of my repertoire is comprised of covers. And though there will never be a mistake that I’m covering a song, my arrangement of a song often tends to be significantly different than the original song. After all, I’m playing just an acoustic guitar. So the song sounds like “Take It Easy” by the Eagles, but I’m the one performing it, so I don’t sing it like Glenn Fry and I do some other riffs than Joe Walsh.

And I take a similar approach to bread making. Especially with my latest loaves, it looks like sourdough bread, it tastes like sourdough bread, so you inherently know it’s sourdough bread. But it has a slightly different texture than a traditional San Francisco hard loaf. There’s a distinct nutty aftertaste due to the kinds of flour I use. But the kicker is that instead of using a sourdough starter, I actually use a poolish that I make the night before.

And while I’d love to say that it was all planned out and I took a real scientific approach in arriving at my “sweet spot,” I have to be honest and say that I stumbled upon it more than anything else. Sure, I took notes of all the tweaks I did and how they affected the final product, and believe me, I literally spent hours poring over books and the Web to gain as much insight into the process. But in the end, how I arrived at my sweet spot was the result of lots of trial and error.

And I still don’t have it 100% down! I’m close, but I’m still perfecting the technique. While I’ve figured out the flour and am pretty sure what the optimal hydration rate is, I’m still figuring out the optimal fermentation and proofing times. Admittedly, I’ve pretty much got it down, but I’m running tests to see what the boundaries are so I can zero in on the most optimal process.

And talking about stumbling onto technique, one of the things that I started to do was to do a BUNCH of stretch and folds for three or so hours – every 30 minutes for a total of six times. I had read that when working with any amount of whole wheat flour, you have to work it a bit more than with standard white bread flour. And as I made the switch to a combination of high-extraction bread flour and whole wheat flour, I just started doing this to ensure that the gluten network gets sufficiently formed.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when I ran across a Tartine bread recipe (it was a link in a blog entry) and that’s exactly what they do! They do six stretch and folds over three hours during the bulk fermentation! I I literally had no clue of they did this. As I mentioned above, I started doing this because of the flour I was using. I have to admit that it gave me a real smile to know that I was doing something a famous sourdough bread bakery did with their dough.

And apparently, making Tartine-style bread (from the famous San Francisco bakery) is a rite of passage for makers of sourdough. I had no clue that it had this much importance when I first started making bread. My foundation was Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast book and Bonnie Ohara’s wonderful book, Bread Making for Beginners. I knew of Tartine Bakery though I never had their bread, but I didn’t know just how influential the bakery was in the sourdough world. So it’s cool to stumble onto what they’re doing!

The great thing about this bread journey is that I really don’t know where it’s going to take me. Who knows what I’ll stumble upon next?

There’s Nothing More Sublime Than Feeling A Dough Transform

The one positive thing that has come from this pandemic lock-down is that a lot of people – myself included – have started making bread. And many like me have learned how to make bread using the traditional methods which involve manually working the dough, either through the entire process, or at least a good portion of it.

I freely admit that I’m in the latter camp. I do all my initial mixing of ingredients in my trusty stand mixer; not because I’m lazy, but because it does a better job of creating a consistent mix. I started out doing all my mixing by hand so I knew what it was like and once I felt what a good mixed dough should feel like, I switched to using my stand mixer. But I did make a promise to myself that I’ve never broken: After doing the initial mix, I would work the dough – either kneading or folding – entirely by hand.

The reason is that there’s really nothing like working a dough and seeing it transform from a shaggy mess into a smooth, pliable ball if I’m kneading it or; if I’m working with a high-hydration dough, feeling the dough transform from a wet, gooey, and sticky blob into a cohesive network of gluten strands that gradually resist my ministrations. Plus, it just FEELS good as the dough becomes smooth and luxurious. And the ONLY way to see and feel the transformation of the dough is by touching it and working with it with your hands.

What I’ve come to realize is that artisan bread is really not about creating beautiful loaves of bread. The loaves are a by-product of the artisanship and craftmanship in the process leading up to actually baking the dough. For instance, look at this antique hutch that’s sitting in my dining room:

That was handmade in the 1930’s and restored by a local artist. The door panels were hand-carved. And even after all these years, according to the artist who restored it, it was crafted so well that even after all these years, it was so structurally sound that all she had to do was clean and refinish it.

The craftsmanship of bread is similar. In order to create a beautiful loaf, you have to build the structure of the dough. Just like you don’t throw random pieces of wood together to create hutch like the one to the left, you don’t just throw ingredients together and expect to create a loaf of bread that’s aesthetically pleasing, both in taste and visually. So in essence, the craft in bread is in manipulating the dough: Working it with your hands, adjusting hydration, the type(s) of flour; even the salt and yeast. We do this to create a structurally-sound base on which our dough will bake.

And the thing about baking bread is that it’s not forgiving. Even if you’re simply following a recipe you find online, to achieve the result that you see in the pictures the author provides, you have no choice but to apply at least some craftsmanship to the process. I think that’s the reason why so many bread recipes you read are incredibly verbose.

The bakers who write them know that there is an inherent and unavoidable craftsmanship in baking bread. They provide the gotchas and pitfalls because they know that there are lots of variables that affect the structure of the dough. And invariably, almost all the recipes involve some sort of manual handling of the dough because the bakers also know that it’s difficult to understand how a dough is being affected unless you physically touch it!

But to me, as I’ve alluded throughout this post, feeling the dough is incredibly sublime and pleasing. As I write this article, I’ve been taking breaks to fold a dough I created this morning. I just popped it into my fridge to bulk ferment for 24 hours. That dough gave me the inspiration to write this article. From the first fold to the final fold, the dough went from a slightly shaggy pile to this gorgeous, velvety-smooth ball that I could stretch and stretch without it tearing. It’s so satisfying! And I wouldn’t have known this if I did use my hands.

Measuring By Weight Changed My Life!

When I first started baking bread, I followed recipes that listed ingredients by volume, and I stuck to them because that’s all I knew. But looking up recipes online and in books, the bakers always provided weights and percentages, stating that it was easier to remember the specific ratios of ingredients and more importantly, be able to scale up or scale down the recipes as needed.

But I resisted because I fashioned myself an expert in the kitchen. Cooking was and has been my lifelong passion and I just knew my way around a kitchen. Bread? Pah! I could do it, no problem! And I did do it! To make my first loaves, I followed the same basic recipe and made my bread in a Dutch oven. But like I said in a previous post, I quickly got bored of making boules.

Then on top of that, for Fathers Day, my son got me Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast and he wrote out all his recipes in grams. And though he provided volume equivalents, rightfully so, he did say they were approximations at best. But in my arrogance, I just followed his volume listings. And after a few loaves of not being able to make bread nearly as pretty as the loaves in the book, nor getting anything consistent from bake to bake, I knew I had to get over my ego and start measuring by weight if I was going to achieve good results.

So I made the switch and got myself a couple of digital scales. I use one for weighing my bulk ingredients and scaling dough portions, and I have a precision scale for measuring anything less than 20 grams. Life got A LOT easier after that! On top of that, all the bakers percentage listings started making sense. Because everything is measured in grams, we work with a standard decimal standard! So scaling a recipe up or down is SO much easier than Imperial volume measurements!

It literally changed my life. I now use spreadsheets to do measurement calculations. In fact, I have three Google Sheets spreadsheets for my different calculations. So convenient.

A Note on Bakers Percentages

If you’re not familiar with bakers percentages, don’t sweat it. It’s not rocket science, though if you’re new to it, it can be a bit intimidating. But it makes putting together recipes very easy. Here’s how it works:

Every ingredient’s percentage in a recipe is always relative to the amount of flour, which is 100%

That’s it. So if you hear someone talking about an 82% hydration dough, no matter what amount of flour is used, you’ll know that the water’s weight is 82% of the flour’s weight. So if the flour’s listed out at 1000 grams for an 82% hydration, you automatically know that there are 820 grams of water in the dough.

What is so powerful about this is that no matter what the amount of flour is used, all you need to do is multiply the flour’s weight by the ingredient ratio and divide by 100 to get the weight of the ingredient. So technically, a recipe can be listed only as percentages!

But given that, this is where having a large scale and a precision scale (or a scale that can do fractional grams) come in handy as some yeast measurements might come in at 0.4 gram. But no matter, scale up or scale down, and as long as you have the percentages, you can easily work out the weights!

Making Bread Like in the Old Days?

And I mean in the old days like a few thousands of years ago. Archaeological evidence has been found that people have been making some form of bread for almost 30,000 years! But I want to fast forward to Egyptian times (about 3000 years ago) as they seem to be credited with the first “mass” production of yeasted bread and generally establishing what we now know as Artisan Bread. If you look at the ancient pictograph above, what we do today to bake our bread really hasn’t changed much since those days… or has it?

The basic technique of mixing flour water and salt and adding a leavening agent really hasn’t changed much since those ancient times. But let’s make no bones about it: What we do today is MUCH easier than how they did it back then.

Think about it: The way we make Artisan Bread – whether at home or commercially – today is graced with a plethora of conveniences that our predecessors just didn’t have. Bread making has come a long way since then. Let’s look at a few things that we take for granted.

Our forefathers had to grind their flour. Though the Mesopotamians invented the grinding wheel and what we know today as milling, this was low production, highly manual intensive work to get flour. Even today, there are countries where community millers still exist. And if you think about it, the type of wheat or grain people baked with was highly regional. They basically baked with what grain crop was grown in the vicinity.

We, on the other hand, go online, and get our organic, hard red or white wheat, either stone ground or steel rolled or processed with a Unifine mill. We can get AP flour, bread flour, high-extraction flour, whole grain. We can get wheat, spelt, rye, millet, ancient grains like einkorn or durum. The variety that we have accesses to – literally at our fingertips – is mind-blowing!

Also, look at our baking apparati! At home we have our electric or gas ovens. For the more rustic-thinking, there’s the Ooni and other hearth-like ovens. Commercial bakers have deck ovens or huge stone or brick hearth ovens. For those using the traditional wood-burning ovens, sure, there’s a lot of labor that goes into maintaining a fire. But consider this: Our environments are controlled and somewhat predictable. Ancient bread makers didn’t have HVAC.

Furthermore, not everyone had a baking hearth. Most villages had a community oven. In his wonderful book, The Apprentice, chef Jacques Pepin described being a boy in a village in France where on a certain day, the whole village would bake at the community oven. Us? We preheat our oven at home and pop our bread in any damn time we choose!

Also, think about how information was passed on from baker to baker back then. It was all word of mouth. And it was truly a craft where master bakers took on apprentices, and the apprentices went on to being masters and pass that on. But today, we open up our browser and look at bread making blogs and join home baker forums. We learn in a matter weeks or months what would have taken years for an apprentice to learn.

For instance, I went from this:

To this:

…in just a matter of months. Sure, it was a lot of learn by doing, but I also had the luxury of the Internet to help diagnose issues. And mind you, that loaf above is one of my so-so loaves. I’ve been able to reach a level of consistent quality not just by doing it a lot (I do bake practically every day), but having information readily at my fingertips. And I’m not alone in this. What I’ve seen other home bakers create is absolutely amazing! And I’ll submit that it’s the quick, free-flow of information that has enabled people to get to relative mastery much sooner than in the old days.

And while there are people who have totally geeked out on creating and maintaining a sourdough culture, I’m not one of them. I generally use a poolish or a biga to get the slightly sour taste in my bread. But I can do this because of the easy availability of commercial yeast. That said, I actually do maintain three active cultures but I bake several different types of bread. My cultures are tools, not pets. 🙂

Back in the old days, people had to create and maintain their starters. But let’s take a deeper dive into that. They didn’t have refrigeration. They didn’t have convenient little tupperware or glass jars. They didn’t have high-precision gram scales to get the right proportions. They certainly didn’t have silicone spatulas to clean out their bowls! Get the picture? While there is still a definite amount of craft that goes into our baking today, our lives are SO much easier than the artisans of old!

But from the standpoint of tradition, very little has changed. If there was any good about this whole 2020 lockdown, the fact that so many turned to baking – myself included – has been a real bright spot. And based on my participation in bread making forums, there’s a widespread, renewed enthusiasm for making bread. It’s heart-warming to see so many keeping the tradition alive!

Working with High-Extraction Flour

As I was watching a YouTube episode from Proof Bread in Mesa, AZ, Jonathan mentioned that Proof uses Type 85 flour, which is a high-extraction flour where 85% of the wheat kernel is retained in the milling process. At the time, I was trying to make a transition to including more whole wheat into my bread for nutritional reasons and Jonathan mentioning his flour really intrigued me. So that put me on a quest to find Type 85 flour.

I did finally find a Type 85 flour through Azure Standard, but they were sold out. Then I ran across their Ultra-Unifine Unbleached Bread Flour and got really intrigued. This is what sold me:

“We’ve taken a strong, full-bodied hard red wheat flour and refined it slightly by removing about 10% of the bran,” said  Azure Mill Manager. “In the milling industry it’s known as a particle reduction processing technique. We’re taking an already fine Unifine flour, sifting out some of the bran and giving you a finished product that has softer flavor notes, rises better and adds a little lightness to your artisan breads.”

I love this flour! But I have to admit that though it kneads and folds and feels like regular bread flour when you work with it, it acts a lot like whole wheat flour when it bakes; that is, it doesn’t have the oven spring that I’m used to with white bread flour. But that is to be expected because even though 10% of the sharp bran particles have been removed from the flour, there’s still a lot of the germ and bran left over. So given that, I’ve had to make adjustments.

First of all, just like with baking with 100% whole wheat flour, I’ve upped the hydration ratio when I’m working with this flour. I experimented with 73%, then went up to 75%, and today I prepared a 78% straight dough.

The 73% hydration dough produces an okay oven spring, but has a fairly dense crumb as one would expect from a whole wheat flour. It’s not bad, and by no means does it taste bad, but it is a little dense.

The 75% hydration dough has much better oven spring with a much more open crumb than the 73%. And it amazed me how just a 2% increase in water content could have such an effect on the oven spring.

Finally, the 78% hydration dough… Well, I think I found the sweet spot. As I mentioned, I just did a straight dough today. I made two baguettes and a small batard, and they all turned out fantastic!

You’l notice that the crumb on the batard is a little wonky – not sure what that was about, and though the baguette crumb seems to be dense, it’s actually not. As opposed to big holes, there a lot of small holes. The bread is amazingly light in texture.

I didn’t change a thing with respect to how I prepared the dough. I just added a bit more water. It really made a big difference. And while I think this might be the sweet spot for hydration, I think I’m going to try a dough at 82% hydration to see how that works.

So now that I’ve got the basic sweet spot, I’ll start working with a poolish and then I’ll cold proof overnight. I’ve found with high-hydration flour, a cold-proof works best and the dough will hold its shape better when I score and put it in the oven, promoting a more vertical rise as opposed to spreading out. I’m also going to see what adding a bit of diastatic malt powder will do to open it up even more.

Stuff like this just gets me SO jazzed about baking bread! There’s a definite precision that you must observe, but at the same time, variations in the environment force you to make adjustments on the fly. It’s a lot like golf where even though you develop the basic swing, conditions like wind direction and humidity force you to make adjustments. And it’s that constant challenge of making adjustments that keep you coming back for more!

Experimenting With Proofing Temperature

The picture above shows two loaves I created from the same base dough (77% hydration). I proofed the loaf on the right at room temp (~80-degrees), and the one on the left I proofed for 30 minutes at room temperature then popped it in my dough retarder for an hour to not just slow down the proof but to chill the dough.

Based on the final results, chilling a slack, high-hydration dough maintains the shape much better whereas not chilling that same dough will spread out. Both loaves are roughly the same height, though the left-hand loaf is just a tad taller. But the big difference is that the chilled loaf has much more consistent vertical spring throughout the entire loaf, and did not expand length-wise. It did expand a bit width-wise, but that’s okay. I expected that to happen with my scoring. As you can see, the bread really opened up where I slashed it.

To be open and honest, I didn’t come up with this idea. I happened to be reading a blog post last night where the author suggested chilling a nearly-proofed loaf for about an hour in the fridge. The thinking was that it would chill the outside skin of the loaf and be much easier to score. I had to try it today and the results speak for themselves.

While there’s plenty of oven spring – and I’m actually expecting a nice, open crumb with both loaves – there’s not as much spring as I would get with regular white bread flour. The base dough was made with that high-extraction bread flour that contains more of the wheat kernel than regular bread flour. And even though it has a high protein content at 14.7%, the fact that there is more bran and germ in the flour affects the overall structure. Given that, I’m probably going to have to fortify the flour with some vital wheat gluten. But that said, I will be chilling all my high-hydration doughs from here on out or even doing overnight proofing.

Working out things like this is what has made my bread making journey so rewarding. I have fewer and fewer outright fails now than when I did in the beginning. But now, even my less than ideal loaves are much smaller “fails.”

As Mel Gibson said in the movie The Patriot, “Aim small, miss small.” For me, improving my technique has been about making little changes. With this particular experiment it was about tweaking one little thing – temperature. And that one small thing produced tremendous results!

“Fake” Sourdough…

See that loaf above? Beautiful right? It has a nice, sour taste to it that’s perfectly balanced with the rest of the flavor profile. To most people who’d eat it, they’d think that it’s a loaf of sourdough bread. But it’s not. It was started with a poolish I made the previous day. So technically, based on the accepted convention, my bread really isn’t sourdough… or is it?

Traditional sourdough is made from a culture where wild yeasts and bacteria work together to leaven a dough. The result is that the bacteria produce both lactic and acetic acid which provide the sour taste. Bakers yeast, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as tolerant to acidic environments. But it can leaven a dough all by its lonesome.

So given that my poolish bread was started with bakers yeast, how does that account for the sour taste of my bread? The only thing I can think of is that since I do a long ferment of my poolish – like 18 to 24 hours – the wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria have time to develop and make a contribution to the fermentation process. And given that I literally start my poolish with less than 1/2 gram of yeast (literally 0.4 gram), there’s plenty of room for the wild yeasts to do their thing, which in turn help to feed the bacteria.

And this is where it gets a little interesting. The bakers yeast kicks off the process, but the environment may become too acidic for it. I’m kind of wondering if it actually gets killed off when the dough becomes acidic. The reason I say this is because a notable trait of a traditional sourdough is that fermentation takes a long time. My poolish bread takes several hours to go through bulk fermentation. The dough for the loaf above took almost six hours to get through bulk fermentation! That’s right in line with using a sourdough starter.

So this gets back to the question: Is sourdough a taste, or is it a technique? Or maybe I’m just full of crap. After all, I did recently write that I just want to make great bread. I love the fact that my poolish bread imparts a distinct sour flavor to add to the overall flavor profile of the finished loaf. And I’ve done it enough now where I can reproduce it every time. But in the end, what makes it a great loaf is the process. So yeah… technique…