Lesson 8: A More Memorable Loaf

Over years spent baking bread, I have discovered approaches that help me consistently turn out more memorable loaves:

  • The timeframe for creating a loaf of bread changes as the temperatures change throughout the year. Paying attention to temperature will help you create good loaves of bread within a predictable time frame. If you’re less interested in monitoring temperature, you can still create delicious loaves of bread, but your timeframe will vary depending on how warm or cold your room temperature and ingredients are. In general, if you are monitoring temperature, your kneaded dough should be about 72 degrees. You can determine its temperature by pushing an instant-read kitchen thermometer into the middle of the kneaded dough. If it’s warmer, start with cooler ingredients the next time. If it’s cooler, start with warmer ingredients. With a 72-degree dough in a room that is about 75 degrees, moving from mixing the dough to putting the dough in the refrigerator should take in the range of 4-6 hours (it depends, in part, on the liveliness of your starter). By monitoring the temperature in this way, you will be able to predict your timeframe with some precision.

  • Making sourdough bread is an art and not a science. As a result, I can’t tell you exactly how long bread dough should rest on the countertop before you put it in into the refrigerator; you will ultimately do it often enough that you will be able to read each dough yourself. I can, however, offer some general guidelines. In cool weather and starting with room temperature ingredients (without measuring precise temperatures), the timeframe from mixing dough through putting it in the refrigerator takes anywhere from 6-8 hours. In contrast, in warmer weather the same process may take a total of 3-4 hours.
  • A long, slow rise gives bread better flavor and a longer shelf-life. You may taste this difference during colder months. And you may feel the difference because when bread is fermented slowly in cooler temperatures it can stay moist and good-tasting for up to a week.
  • When considering water, keep in mind that the best artisan breads begin as relatively wet doughs. It is water, as much as the starter itself, that defines the character of sourdough bread. Although differences in the way you shape, proof and bake your loaf can create variations in the crust, it is water—adequate hydration—that facilitates chemical reactions within the dough and creates and defines an open, airy crumb.
  • Early on, I assumed that scoring—making a pattern of cuts on the loaf just before baking—was mostly decorative; observation, reading, and experimentation have taught me otherwise. Those who have given birth to children might rightly consider scoring an episiotomy for the bread: as it facilitates and controls the direction of the rise, it also controls the tear. It works best to score your bread at a relatively shallow angle, perhaps 30 or 40 degrees. So rather than cut straight into the dough, cut just under the crust. For dough that is adequately proofed but still has some rise left in it—in other words, an ideal loaf—you might cut about ½” into the bread. For loaves that are slightly underproofed, cut a bit deeper to encourage the rise. And for loaves that are overproofed, make very shallow cuts or the dough may collapse and not make a full recovery. How do you know whether your loaves are well-proofed? Experience will be your guide. But if a dough is wobbly rather than firm, and if it begins to deflate when you score it, it is overproofed. When this happens, don’t worry; just make a shallow score and the loaf will likely rise, just not as high as it might have otherwise. It will still taste good, and you will then know to give your next loaf less time on the counter top before refrigerating.
  • I’ve listed measurements first in “cups” and “teaspoons” in order to keep the process familiar and simple, and in “ounces” for precision. But if you’re going to continue baking sourdough bread, you may eventually refer to the many artisan bread books that have been written. And this, in turn, may leave you feeling overwhelmed by unfamiliar terminology (like the “hydration” of your sourdough starter) and metric measurements for flour (like “grams”). Do not be deterred by language that is new to you. What you have is a 100% hydration starter, which means that you feed it with equal quantities of water and flour. As for the metric measurements, you can manage them by purchasing a kitchen scale; they currently sell for under $30 and are easy to use. Simply turn on the scale and put a bowl on top. Push “tare” to bring the weight to zero. Add the first ingredient until you measure the proper amount, and push “tare” again. Keep doing this. You will appreciate having no more dirty measuring cups and spoons, and you will also appreciate the ease and precision a scale will bring to your baking.

Next Up: Sourdough Pizza

Copyright 2014, Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul