You Gotta Love Happy Accidents

Shown above are the remnants of my latest bake. I made three batches of dough yesterday for baguettes, 3 rustic sourdough loaves and two Poillane-style “hugs,” which are the two loaves in front. They’re about a foot in diameter!

The first two dough batches went without incident, but when it came to the hugs, while the dough was mixing, I noticed that it wasn’t coming off the sides. Then I realized that I used the wrong calculation for water! I used way too much for that formulation and the dough – if you could call it that – was like a thick pancake batter.

Now I could’ve added flour to thicken the dough to the right consistency. But to tell the truth, that has never worked out very well for me. So I decided to go with it and challenge myself to work with a super-high hydration dough. By my calculation, the hydration only got bumped up to 80%. But because the flour blend I used was 60% AP flour, it felt more like the consistency of an 85%+ hydration dough. So given that, I knew that developing the gluten was going to make or break that bake.

Initially, I resolved to employ a 6-fold folding schedule over three hours ala Tartine. But after the first fold, which was more like running my hands through batter, I realized that I’d probably have to do more folding sessions. In the end, I only had to fold the dough 8 times over the course of three hours, doing the last four folds in 20-minute intervals for the back half of the three hours. I then let the dough rest for another hour to let the starter yeasts do their thing, then I popped my container into the fridge for an overnight rest.

What was truly amazing was witnessing first-hand the dough transform from a batter to a well-formed, well-structured dough! As I performed my folding sessions, I could feel how the gluten was developing. At this hydration, it was never going to be stiff, but I could tell that it was strong by the time I finished the last fold. I was able to stretch the dough with the window-pane test with nary a tear!

Twelve hours later, I removed the dough from my retarder fridge and saw that it had more than doubled, with nice, large pockets of fermentation. Preshaping was a bit of a challenge because the yeast was pretty active as you can see in the photo below.

But what was truly incredible was how the dough balls maintained their structure while they rested. Yes, they spread out a bit, which was to be expected, but they didn’t become pancakes. Mind you, with the dough being predominantly AP flour, had I not spent that time developing the gluten, they would’ve collapsed easily.

I could tell that I was getting close to full fermentation, so I did a cold final fermentation for another 4 hours. I’m glad I did this because had I let the final fermentation go at room temperature, I would definitely over-ferment the loaves. In the end, the loaves were very close to full fermentation, but despite that, I still got pretty good oven spring.

The thing that concerned me the most was with the size of the loaves – which I knew would bake out to about a foot in diameter – was that at that hydration, they’d collapse under their own weight. And within the first few minutes of baking, I was horrified to see how they had pancaked out on my stone. But I trusted the steam to do its work and the yeasts to play out – besides, at that point, what the hell could I do?

But the loaves sprung up nicely despite my initial concerns and while I wasn’t expecting a super-open crumb with huge holes, the crumb opened up nicely; looking very much like a Poillane-style loaf inside.

As far as taste is concerned, these loaves are nicely sour, though not overpoweringly so, despite the starter being about 35% of the final dough flour. The crust is thin and crispy and the crumb is light, chewy and moist. With 40% of the flour being a mix of white whole wheat and high-extraction flour, you can taste the nuttiness of the grain as well. Overall, this is a flavor profile that I really enjoy.

So… all in all,

Here’s the original formula, in case you’re curious:

Baker’s %Example (g)
Flour100%1153
Water76%828*
Salt1.8%24
Starter35%407
Total2412
*The “mistake” I made was that I used 928g of water that pushed hydration over 80%. Damn! I wasn’t even drunk! 🙂 Even for experienced bakers, that hydration level with AP flour is a real challenge!

I know… 2412 seems like a weird number, but I always add a process loss fudge factor of 1% to my calculations because I know that I’ll lose dough in the process. My idea was to be able to scale out 1200g portions. With this particular bake, I only lost 4 grams, so the portions were 1204g apiece.

For folding, as I mentioned above, I did 8 folds in a 3-hour period. Because the dough was so delicate, I did nothing but coil folds. But as opposed to folding one side, turning 90-degrees, then doing the other side and letting it rest after that, I’d coil fold at least 3 times, carefully stretching the dough. After the final folding session, the dough held up quite nicely. I knew it was going to spread out eventually, but it more or less held its shape for several minutes. It was a real feel thing.

Luckily for me, the loaves turned out great. It truly was a happy accident!