Vacation with Your Sourdough Starter? F$%K THAT! :)

I was on a home baker’s forum and saw a post where some dude’s wife took pictures of him proudly displaying his jar of sourdough starter that he just pulled out of his suitcase. The caption read something like, “My hubby took his starter with him on vacation!” When I saw that picture and read the caption, I chuckled, then thought to myself, I thought I was obsessive… But this takes it to a whole different level! Several people chimed in on the discussion thread and said they had done the same. That kind of amazed me.

Then I asked myself, “Why in the world would someone do that?” The only thing I could come up with is that home sourdough enthusiasts seem to have this notion that they have to feed their sourdough every day – some even twice a day – thinking that their starter will die if they don’t feed it.

Though I do my best to be nice, there’s no other way to put this: Your starter won’t die if you don’t feed it. And yeast is extremely hard to kill! In other words, go on your damn vacation and don’t let your starter dictate your schedule! 🙂

I studied Biology in college with an emphasis on Microbiology and Virology. Though that was decades ago, one of the things I learned about yeasts is that they’re extremely hard to kill. As opposed to dying, when they don’t have a food source, they enter into a sort of suspended animation and go dormant. They can be in this state for thousands of years and be revived, amazingly enough (click on that link – it’s pretty fascinating).

So where does this daily feeding thing come from? Probably from professional bakers or home enthusiasts who bake sourdough every single day. They have to be on a schedule because they need their starter daily. But for those who don’t make sourdough every day, there’s just no need to feed the starter until it’s needed. In the meantime, it can sit in the fridge.

And why go through the hassle of discarding all that flour? It’s nonsense. From a purely practical standpoint, how many crackers and pancakes can you eat? Sheesh!

Look, I bake every day, but I don’t feed my starter daily because I don’t make sourdough every day. So when I’m not making sourdough, my starter is in the fridge. When I know I’m going to bake sourdough bread, I begin feeding it the day before – no discard, by the way, and I’ll get into my method below – or early that day if I make my dough in the afternoon.

For me, I use a tailings method with all my starters (I currently have 3 in my fridge right now). In each Kilner container, I probably have 100 grams of starter. When I’m going to use one, I remove it from the fridge, add 100 grams each of warm water and flour for the first feeding, then when it doubles, I do another feeding. The amount of flour and water I use varies based on how much starter I’ll need. I’ll actually make more than what I need so I will have extra once I add the starter to my dough. That extra – the tailings – goes back into the fridge.

This morning, I revived some tailings that are well over a month old as I have been traveling this past month and have only managed to bake yeasted bread while I was home. As of this writing, the levain I’m building is in the midst of its second feeding and it’s highly active. I’ll be ready to build my dough in another hour or so – that’s literally four hours since I removed it from the fridge! The point is that I let it sit for a long time and it still came back.

That said, yes, a starter can indeed slow down. But kill off the yeast? It’s highly unlikely unless the starter was exposed to some really extreme conditions. But in a cold environment like a fridge, all the microbes slow down, so competition in the environment will also slow (read: You can let it sit for quite a while).

But… if you want to take your starter on vacation, no one’s stopping you. But if it’s because you feel you have to feed every day, you just don’t need to do it. Pop your starter in the fridge and go enjoy yourself. Don’t let your starter dictate what and when you can do things.

What Baking “Real Bread” Has Meant to Me

No matter what endeavor I take on in life, there has to be some meaning attached to it. As a career software engineer, I didn’t want to code just for coding’s sake, I wanted to build cool stuff that had affected people in a positive way; either by automating monotonous, manual tasks, or providing impactful information to help impact the world around them.

So when I started seriously considering opening a micro-bakery out of my home, I didn’t want to just make any old bread. And quite honestly, I didn’t want my bread to be about me as a baker; rather, I wanted my bread to be a statement of nutritiousness and, of course, tradition. The rebel in me wanted to break the chains of the conveniences in our society to which we’re all accustomed. My thought was that while I’m all for progress, in some cases, older is better, and with bread, older is also better for you.

So when I started putting my micro-bakery together, I made a conscious effort to seek out communities and organizations of like-minded individuals. I met plenty of enthusiasts such as myself, but it was difficult to find organizations whose ethos and narrative aligned with my own with respect to bread. Then I stumbled upon The Real Bread Campaign.

Established in 2008 in the UK, Real Bread has a very simple ethos:

Real Bread has nothing to hide. It is made with simple, natural ingredients and NO additives. Simple, eh?

from Real Bread – About

Once I read the About page, I knew this was an organization I wanted to support and after a few months of lurking, I finally recently joined as a paying member to literally put my money where my mouth is. And I can also add the Real Bread Loaf Mark to my marketing materials which is totally cool.

The concept of baking “real bread” is easy. No additives. Period. This means no chemical dough conditioners such as ascorbic acid. Ingredients must all be natural. Here’s an excerpt:


What is Real Bread?

Everyone has his or her own idea of what Real Bread is. Here’s the Real Bread Campaign’s basic definition:

Made without the use of so-called processing aids or any other additives*

In fact, we believe this should be a key criterion in the legal definition of bread full stop.

Why should bakers who make bread in a time-honoured, natural way have to qualify it with ‘real’, ‘artisan’, ‘craft’ and the like? We say let’s reclaim the name bread and leave it to the industrial loaf fabricators to come up with a new name for their additive-laden products.

Amongst the additives not used in Real Bread making are: Baking powder and other chemical leavening; ascorbic acid; xanthan gum; added enzymes or any other so-called ‘processing aids’ – that exclusion applies to any addtives in the flour or mix you use.

…and by bread, we mean any additive-free crusty bap, bagel, bialy, injera, wrap, khobez, baguette, chleb, naan, chapatti, roti, stottie cake, lavash, ruisleipä, ciabatta, bara brith, Staffordshire oatcake,  tortilla, paratha, porotta, pitta, pida… the list goes on.

NB All genuine sourdough is Real Bread but not all Real Bread has to be sourdough.

*The only exceptions we make are the four so-called ‘fortificants‘ added to most UK milled flour by law.


The phrase, “All genuine sourdough is Real Bread but not all Real Bread has to be sourdough” is an important one because handmade bread risen with commercial yeast counts, so long as you don’t add stuff to it.

So what has this meant to me?

Though the guidelines are fairly simple and straightforward, this has meant so much to me beyond the guidelines because it helps reaffirm my own particular ethos of creating delicious and nutritious bread that’s simply flour, water, salt, and yeast.

But the whole concept of “real bread” also keeps me mindful of the wholesomeness of the ingredients I use, especially flour. I only use certified organic flour or use flour from producers who responsibly source their grain – read no-GMOs and sustainably farmed wheat. The flour I use is NEVER bleached or bromated. I will even source directly from the mills!

And in going to the source, I do my best to support the small, independent farms and mills. Yes, the flour’s a bit more expensive, but the quality is top-notch and I’m going around all the middlemen and the huge agribusiness conglomerates.

And I know that this may sound a little New Age, airy-fairy, but in baking bread in traditional ways, there’s a certain Zen to it all. Zen isn’t dogmatic nor religious. It’s the direct experience of the natural order of things – at least from a fairly simplistic perspective. “Real Bread” provides a framework for the Zen of breadmaking as we follow the natural order of how dough is risen. Yeah, like I said, it’s a little airy-fairy, but at least for me, it’s a real experience.

I may actually write a piece on the Zen of breadmaking. I’ve been mulling that concept for a few days now… Stay tuned…

Finally, making “real bread” has helped me be patient with the process – any process. Where I used to be very reactive, I’m much more measured and observant first and that allows me to respond to situations in a much more relaxed manner. Since I’ve been baking, my stress level has really dropped!

Whether or not you join the organization, I recommend reading through the website. There’s lots of useful information there to help anyone wishing to bake real bread.

A “New” Steaming Method

When I started making artisan bread, I thought it was weird that to get a crispy crust you needed to bake with steam. It seemed so… contradictory. But, as I later learned, steam allows the dough to expand, preventing the crust from hardening too soon and promoting a full oven spring. Once the steam is removed, then the crust is allowed to set and harden. In the end, the crust is comparatively thinner because it wasn’t allowed to harden early. So you get a thin, crispy crust as opposed to a thick, hard crust.

After hundreds of bakes this past year, the seals on my ovens have started wearing out. I first noticed it a couple of weeks ago when my sourdough loaves, which normally get great oven spring, weren’t rising much vertically and by the time I’d remove my steaming containers, all the water would be gone and the loaves we much darker at that point than before.

After trying a bunch of things with my dough and process to correct the problem – to no avail, by the way – I happened to look at my oven seals and laughed. They’re pretty worn down which explained why I wasn’t retaining steam. Unfortunately, my ovens are older models, so I’m not sure if I can even get seals for them. No matter, I had to figure out a way to produce good steam in my ovens.

So I did a search and came across a bunch of different methods: Lava rocks in a pan. Cast iron skillet with boiling water (I was doing a variant of that, but using a broiler pan underneath my stone). Then I saw that one person used cheap, terry cloth shop towels soaked in water that she popped into the microwave before baking, then placed in bread pans. OMG! I knew I had to try it!

After trying it, I couldn’t believe how much steam this method produced, so I thought I’d share the process here!

Note that all this happens about 5-10 before I pop the loaves into the oven. This ensures that the dough enters a humid environment.

The Towels

It’s best to use terry cloth towels because they retain water much better than tea towels. When I first started using this technique, I used an old worn-out towel that I cut up. I have since purchased some cheap shop multi-purpose terry cloth towels from Home Depot for ten bucks. I use four of them for baking and the rest for cleaning. They work great!

Prep the Towels

Loosely roll up the towels into logs, place them in a microwave-safe bowl, and pour water over them to completely saturate them. Then pop them into your microwave and zap them for 4-5 minutes on high. They should come out steamy. If not, then zap them for another minute.

Transfer to Loaf Pans

Transfer the towels to loaf pans and pour any remaining water from the bowl over the towels.

Place the Pans in the Oven

I put my pans on the top rack of my oven to ensure they’re in the hottest part of it. The steam will come down from the top and envelop the loaves as shown. I also have a broiler pan that sits on the floor of my oven that I also put water into.

The Results

Thus far I’ve baked ciabatta and baguettes with this steaming technique and they’ve come out wonderful! But I knew that the real test would be to bake bread with a lot of whole-grain flour. The loaves to the left are 40% Kamut/10% Whole Wheat and 50% High-protein flour. The oven spring on them was incredible! I realize the loaf on the left is a little misshapen. That’s because of handling before baking, not because of the oven spring.

I’m just diggin’ this technique! Before I realized what was going on, I started thinking, Have I lost my touch? Luckily, I haven’t. But based on this, I really am going to have to save my pennies to get a dedicated bread oven.

Recipe: 40% Kamut Flour Sourdough (Updated)

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I love baking with Kamut flour! It’s such a dream to work with and most importantly, it just produces damn good tasting bread! In light of that, I thought I’d share my formula for making sourdough with 40% Kamut flour. With that in mind, here is the overall formula:

Overall Formula

Flour (40% Kamut, 10% Whole Wheat or Rye [from starter], 50% Any other combination of flour)100%
Water78%
Salt1.8%

Notice in the formula, there is no entry for the starter. This is because the starter’s flour and water are always figured into the overall hydration. It is NOT a separate ingredient.

Final Dough

Flour809
Water611
Salt16
Levain180
Total Yield1616g
2 X 800g loaves with some extra for process loss
Optimal Dough Temp76°F
Total flour is about 900g

Make the Levain. Make a 100% hydration levain. I use a hybrid scrapings method of leftover mature starter from my fridge and botanical starter and whole grain flour (for me it’s usually white whole wheat but I will use kamut at times).

Mix. Reserve about 50g of the water and dissolve the salt into it. Mix the flour and remaining water and autolyse for at least 30 minutes (you can autolyse longer if you want). Once autolyse is finished, fold the starter into the dough, then add the salt water and thoroughly mix until everything is well incorporated.

Bulk Fermentation. 1 1/2 – 2 hours (or until 25%-50% dough expansion)

Folding. 2-4 folds at half-hour intervals. You want to be gentle with the folding since you’re using a whole grain flour. Windowpane test after each fold to determine dough strength. If at any point it’s sufficient, stop folding and let bulk fermentation complete.

Divide and Pre-Shape. This recipe yields 2 X 800 gram loaves, so scale the pieces out then shape into rounds. Once shaped, bench rest for 20-30 minutes until the dough has relaxed.

Shape and Final Fermentation. Shape into rounds or ovals (I love to free-form batards). Once shaped, you can let the loaves proof for 1-2 hours at room temp, or pop them into the fridge for 8-16 hours. Note that if your fridge is particularly cold or your yeast really slows down in the cold, it may take longer.

Bake. Bake at 485°F/250°C for 15 minutes with steam. Remove steaming container or purge steam, then bake at 425°F/220°C on convection if you have it; otherwise, 435°F/225°C for 25-30 minutes. Bake until the bottom half of the loaves is a nice mahogany.

Basic Ciabatta

One would think that with the bread craze that has swept the world during the pandemic lockdown, that sourdough is the only bread being made and that the only bread that qualifies as artisan can only be made with a starter. That’s bullshit of course because doing something in an artisan way has less to do with the ingredients or materials and much more to do with craftsmanship.

When I make ciabatta, I typically use a biga or a poolish. But sometimes, I just want some bread. So as I do with Baguettes de Tradition, I’ll just whip up a batch of dough in early in the morning, and have fresh, hot bread for breakfast. No, it doesn’t keep, but at the small quantities I make, it’s gone in less than a day.

One might think that a straight dough can be bland and boring. But done right, a bread made from straight dough can be absolutely wondrous. And I will submit that while a same-day straight dough bread may not have the depth of flavor of one made with a preferment or employing a slow-rise, cold bulk ferment, employing great technique will go a long way toward making up for that.

That said, one way to add a little flavor complexity is to use a flour blend. Though I list using unbleached AP flour in the formula, my flour is actually a blend of 30% high-extraction flour and 70% AP flour. The high-extraction flour lends a nuttiness to the overall flavor of the bread, plus an ever-so-slight grainy texture to it making it seem much more substantial than it actually is.

Especially with ciabatta, the crisp, crackly, and crunchy crust combined with the light and airy crumb, redolent with large holes can create a magical bread. A full bake that activates the Meillard reaction (but not taking it to super-dark) can add flavors that would otherwise not be present on lightly baked loaves.

Overall Formula

Unbleached All-Purpose Flour100.00%
Water75.00%
Salt2.00%
Yeast1.50%
Milk (optional – see below)10%
Olive Oil4.00%

MILK?!!! No, I’m not kidding. It actually makes the dough fluffy and soft. This is perfect for sandwiches. You can dispense with the milk though and replace it with water. Definitely do the bassinage stage described below, so mix to an initial 75% hydration, then take it up to 85% with the reserved water.

Final Dough

Unbleached All-Purpose Flour*525
Water394
Salt10
Yeast8
Milk**52
Olive Oil21
Yield2 X 500g loaves
4 X 250g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp76°F
*Preferably organic and definitely > 11% protein. You can use Bob’s Red Mill or King Arthur. I use Azure Market AP Flour.
**If you don’t want to use milk, that’s okay, just use all water, but milk will help with the fluffiness of the bread.

If you use a baking stone, preheat your oven to 485°F / 250°C to ensure your stone’s hot by the time you’re ready to bake. Things happen pretty quick with this bread, and you don’t want to get to final fermentation and have to wait for your oven to warm up.

Mixing. I recommend using a stand mixer if you have one, but this can be done by hand as well – it just takes longer. Sift the dry ingredients together then add the water. If using a mixer, mix on slow speed to incorporate all the ingredients then go to the second speed until mixture is smooth and the dough climbs to the top of the dough hook as the gluten is starting to form at this point. Rest for 20 minutes.

Bassinage. Once the dough has rested (you may also notice bubbles forming), fold the milk (or water if you decide not to use milk) into the dough until it is fully incorporated. This will get it to 85% hydration. But since the gluten started developing with the thorough mixing, there’s already strength in the dough and it will not feel like a soupy mess. You can actually feel the gluten strands! Once the liquid has been fully incorporated, drizzle the olive oil over the dough, and mix it in well.

Again, I use a stand mixer for this because it’s much more effective at getting the milk and olive oil incorporated.

You want to be gentle with folding and lamination steps. What we’re trying to do is build the gas retention properties of the dough in these steps.

Folding. Once the milk and olive oil have been incorporated, rest the dough for 20 minutes then do a set of stretch and folds. Don’t just do the standard four-fold North-South-East-West. Stretch and fold until you feel the tenacity of the dough building. Rest for 20 minutes.

Laminate. Liberally flour your work surface then gently pour the dough onto it. Gently tug it into a rectangular shape that is about 1/2″ to 3/4″ thick. Letter fold the dough in an NSEW pattern 3 times, gently pressing and flattening the dough between folds. After the last letter fold, roll the dough onto the seam (no need to seal) and shape it into a round. The dough ball should hold together and not collapse too much (don’t worry, it will collapse a bit because of the hydration). Place the dough into a well-oiled bowl seam-side-down (I just wipe down my bowl then spray it with olive oil). Rest for 20-30 minutes (or more) until the dough ball has almost doubled in size.

After laminating, you can go directly to dividing or shaping after the 20-30 rest, or retard the dough in your fridge for a few hours. With this much commercial yeast though, I recommend that your fridge temp is between 36°-40°F. You really want to slow the yeast and promote the lacto- and acetobacillus activity. That said, alternatively, you could use a bit less yeast, say 4 grams and retard the dough for an even longer period of time.

Divide and “Shape.” Again, liberally flour your work surface then pour your dough onto it. Gently tug it into a rectangle, then divide it into two equal pieces (or four if you want to make sub-sized buns). I’m kind of anal about things being even, so I actually scale out my pieces to 500 grams apiece. Gently tug each piece into long rectangles, then transfer to a well-floured couche (as shown to the right). Once you transfer them to the couche, flour your fingertips and gently dimple the loaves to promote even rising – and prevent over-rising, believe it or not – for the final ferment.

Final Fermentation. Cover the loaves and allow them to ferment for 30 minutes or until the dough is nice and relaxed and puffy.

Bake. Liberally sprinkle semolina or rice flour over the loaves while they’re on the couche, then flip them onto your transfer board. Bake the loaves with steam at 485°F for 12 minutes. Remove your steaming container, turn your oven down to 435°F, then bake for 20-25 minutes or until the crusts are a deep golden brown. You don’t want to go out to dark brown/black with these as the dough doesn’t have enough complexity in flavor to compensate for a super-dark crust. That’ll be the predominant flavor and the bread will taste like burnt toast. Not good. However, a deep golden-brown crust will also be relatively thicker lending a nice, textural quality. I realize that this veers from the traditional thin crust of ciabatta, but I love the textural contrast between the crunchy crust and the soft, pillowy crumb.

These are best eaten warm, so let cool for 30 minutes, then enjoy!

I don’t really think about it because I’ve made it so much, but ciabatta’s a challenging dough with which to work because of its hydration level. You have to make quick, precise movements with a dough like this. But the handling of the dough is mitigated by the bassinage. I just can’t stress enough how important that step is!

When first mixing the dough, it’s at a workable 75%. This allows us to work it and develop the gluten and thus dough strength early on in the process. Once the milk and olive oil are added, even though dough may appear to be a smooth batter, if you pull on it, you’ll see that it actually transforms into a highly extensible dough with all the wonderful gas-retention properties we expect! (Read: big holes)

And let me re-emphasize that the craftsmanship put into making bread like this is tantamount to its quality. But be that as it may, as a straight dough, it doesn’t really have a lot of complexity in flavor. That said, done right, it becomes a canvas on which you can build wonderful dishes.

I love using this bread for dipping into a fine olive oil (my preferred brand is Segreto from Italy that I have my daughter bring from New York City) mixed with a well-aged balsamic vinegar. I’ve used this bread for bruschetta as well. And let’s not forget that its very shape lends itself for wonderful sandwiches! Gawd! I’m getting hungry just thinking about these things! 🙂

Happy Baking!

I’m Sorry But…

The following is meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. Every now and then my “outside voice” surfaces and I need to vent. 🙂

…I will not mix dough with my bare hands if I can avoid it, but if you want to do it, go right ahead! That doesn’t mean I use a mixer every single time. I don’t. But I do use a Danish dough whisk for mixing up batches of dough, both large and small when I’m mixing by hand. It’s incredibly efficient and it keeps things – as in my hands – neat and clean! Plus, it’s just so much faster at getting ingredients incorporated with each other. No scraping dough off my hands, or rubbing them with flour to remove the dough. No brushing my fingernails to get all the dough out from under them.

Now I realize that there seems to be this romance about mixing the dough with your hands. Ken Forkish talked about getting close to the dough and feeling how it transforms, same thing with Chef Markus Farbinger in his video series. The way they present compels you to always mix by hand. And that said, I’m a big advocate of that when you first start out. It’s important to feel that transformation. But from lots of experience now, I can look at a dough mass and pretty much know how it will feel. So mixing by hand? Hell no! I’d rather be clean.

Stretch that dough!

…If the instructions say to stretch and fold your dough, STRETCH YOUR DOUGH! The whole point of doing the stretch and folds – and especially the stretching – is to align the gluten molecules to help build strength and structure in the dough. If all you’re doing is folding over the dough mass and not stretching the dough, you will not develop sufficient structure. So stretch your dough as far as it will go without tearing it. (BTW… I love the extensibility of my baguette dough to the left, and no, not because it looks phallic)

Close your fingers!

And for goodness’ sake, use closed fingers when tugging on your dough! (see picture to the right). I’ve spoken with so many people that say they keep tearing their dough when they stretch it. When I point out that they should be using closed fingers, it’s usually the culprit.

…Yes, I use a stand mixer. So sue me! This is REALLY tongue-in-cheek but I recently spoke with someone who kind of scoffed at the idea of me using a stand mixer to mix my ingredients. But once I explained that I was mixing a few 3-kilo batches, they changed their tune quickly. Look, I’m not against hand-mixing but when I’m on a schedule doing a big bake, I have to be as efficient as possible. If I can cut down some time by employing some automation, as long as it doesn’t impact the quality of my product, I’m going to use it! And make no bones about it: I chuckle when I see these chefs talk about mixing by hand and I see a 40-liter mixer in the background.

…There’s more to bread than frickin’ sourdough!. And yes, it really is okay to use commercial yeast. Okay… I admit that this is really my outside voice coming out, but I have to say that this is a subject that gets me mildly annoyed. The positive thing about the shutdown was that it got lots of people into making bread – especially sourdough. But it also created what I call sourdough zealots who think that EVERY bread has to rise with a sourdough starter otherwise it’s not real bread. Which is bullshit, of course. Baguettes and ciabattas typically use commercial yeast as leavening agents as do many many other types of beloved bread.

Also, you have to understand that while you can indeed replace commercial yeast with sourdough starter, you have to change a few things. First of all, if you’re going after a specific yield, both your flour and water amounts change. Furthermore, rise times will change with sourdough, generally getting longer. The recipes and formulas were developed with the stated ingredients. My advice is to master the process with the commercial yeast first, then make the tweaks to the formula. It’s not as cut and dry as it seems.

…You need to make your bread look good too… I know that the most important thing in making bread is that it tastes good. But the implication of the word artisan means that there is a certain visual aesthetic to the bread. For example, I can’t stand looking at misshapen baguettes. It’s like fingernails scratching a blackboard to me. And mind you, this is just me, but I want my bread to both taste and look good. It’s not about achieving a “professional” look per se. It’s about reflecting and demonstrating the craft behind the bread. For me, it just has to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. After all, we bakers spend hours creating our bread. How it looks should reflect the work we put into it.

…You dough doesn’t have a disease that requires inoculation… I’ve quipped on this in the past so I won’t rant on it too much. But coming from a microbiology background, the term inoculation has a specific meaning and that is to introduce a pathogen (or antigen) into a living organism to trigger its immune response to create antibodies. Unfortunately, lots of people have bandied about this term in the sourdough world so much, seemingly in an effort to use big words, that it’s now common. When you mix sourdough starter into a dough, what you’re doing is feeding the starter not trying to trigger an immune response!

Testing the Waters

This past weekend, my wife and I camped with other couples and families on the Northern California coast at MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg to celebrate the 4th of July. What a great place! Just a few hundred yards from the ocean, it was calming to hear the constant pounding of the surf, and the copious fog – at least for me – gave a sense of coziness rather than casting a pall over our festivities.

Food was as plentiful as it was delicious and, of course, I brought some bread.

Unbeknownst to anyone but me, this was going to be a major test for me as a baker. It would be the first time I gave bread to total strangers as I only knew a couple of people there and those that I did know I hadn’t seen for at least ten years! Most of the bread I’ve given away has been to friends and family and while I’ve gotten some great feedback, well, they’re friends and family. They’re always supportive.

And yes, for those that are in the know, I do give bread to shelters, but I never get any feedback as I drop it off and go home. But this time, people that I didn’t know at all would eat my bread and I could see their expressions. Needless to say, there was a little part of me that was nervous.

Why all the fuss? Simply because I needed to get affirmation that people I didn’t know at all enjoyed my bread. It’s one thing when friends and family rave about it. It’s an entirely different matter when there’s no personal attachment to it. And getting that kind of feedback was important to me because I’m going down a path with my baking that’s going to involve some serious financial investment. So I needed to see reactions to make sure that it wasn’t my own hubris that was driving me down this path.

On purpose, I brought loaves that were slightly flawed. Normally, the ear on my loaves is much more pronounced, and the crust quite a bit more crunchy, with a moderately open crumb. The ears didn’t form as well because the crusts set too quickly. I think after hundreds of bakes, the seal on my oven is giving up and I’m literally losing steam. That also affected the crumb. It was still airy with a nice chew, but because the crust set, the crumb didn’t have a chance to open up more so I ended up with lots of smaller holes.

Bringing bread that I knew was not to the aesthetic quality of my ideal was akin to something I learned from my late father when he took photography classes. Instead of bringing his best shots to class for critique, he’d bring, in his words, just okay shots so he’d receive feedback on what was wrong in the shots, and more importantly, get the affirmation that what he felt was wrong with the shots were the correct observations.

So I did a similar thing with my bread this weekend. I figured that if people responded positively to bread that did not completely live up to my standards I would know that even on an off day, my bread would still be good.

Admittedly, that’s playing with fire because it would be easy to let the positive reaction get to my head and just keep on putting out just okay product. But I’m not about “just okay.” To me, there’s always room for improvement. That’s not to say that I’m a perfectionist. I do my best to not be one. But knowing that I can always improve drives me to always get better. And with those loaves (they’re pictured above), I can do better.

So what was the reaction? Generally positive and what I was hoping to get. I wasn’t expecting anyone to rave about it. My expectations were much more humble. And though folks gave great verbal reviews, I was looking at their facial expressions and those little micro-expressions that speak WAY more than words ever could. And thankfully, I didn’t see any crinkled noses. 🙂 Finally, I left the bread out on my cutting board as much as I could. If people just left it alone, then that would be plenty of feedback. But luckily they didn’t. Whew!

For me, this weekend was very impactful. I feel confident now that I can move forward with my plans!

You Know You’re Obsessed…

When your friends start giving you gifts that reflect your obsession. In this case, it’s bread. The figurine to the left was given to me by one of my oldest friends this past weekend in commemoration of the recent passing of my father. Thoughtful as ever, she thought that this would provide me comfort in my time of emotional vulnerability. It’s quite a special piece. It’s a Lladro entitled, “Our Daily Bread.” I love it!

I’ve placed it on the bar in my kitchen that overlooks my work area. It really does provide me comfort, and it’s an affirmation for me as an artisan bread baker, however fledgling I may be.

Yet, I do have to laugh a bit because as my friend shared with me, “I had a hard time choosing what to give you because I know of your three passions: Music, Whiskey, and Baking. But I figured this would have a bigger impact.” She couldn’t have been more correct.

Look, I love playing music. I still play professionally part-time and being a musician is an integral part of my identity. Heaven knows I love a good bourbon or rye, and I have lots of gift bottles to show for it. I enjoy consuming whiskey or whisky. But bread… well… that’s a different animal altogether, and I still haven’t figured out what that is. I do know that I’m obsessed with it.

Maybe baking bread appeals to that nurturing part of me. I like to feed people. I do most of the cooking in my house. Bread is almost an extension of that. But then, upon closer inspection, my bread baking even goes beyond that. It’s also an incredibly creative process. And that appeals to the artist in me. But there’s also a very scientific side to it. And that appeals to the engineer in me. I guess I should just be satisfied that it checks so many boxes for me. It has the same appeal to me as playing guitar. But with bread, I can eat the fruits of my labor.

It’s All In the Shaping…

As I do most mornings, I woke up early – before 6 AM – to start my day. I turned on my oven as I had two batards that fermented in my fridge overnight that I’m going to bring on a camping trip this weekend. Normally, I start doing baking things first thing in the morning, but today, I thought I’d sip my coffee and have some breakfast while watching the Tour de France (I’ve been watching it for most of my life every year at this time). So I got a little into the program.

I lost track of time getting engrossed in the race, but nevertheless, I got up, got my loading board out, then went to my retarding fridge and turned my loaves onto the board. It was then that I remembered that I had to drive my son to the airport at 8 AM!

Obviously, I couldn’t put my loaves back into the baskets lest I degas them, so just took my whole board and put it back into my retarding fridge with the turned-out loaves on it. In the back of my mind, I was a little worried that the loaves might collapse outside their baskets, but nevertheless, I had to throw some proper clothes on and get my ass ready to go!

But even with that thought, I said to myself, This is going to be a good test of my new shaping technique. Those loaves didn’t really expand out that much when I turned them out, so they might just turn out okay once I bake them.

It took well over an hour for me to return from the airport so the first thing I did when I walked in the house was to get my loaves out. Then I got some steam going in the oven and scored my loves. I popped them into the oven, then set my timer for 20 minutes.

Curious, about 10 minutes into the bake, I did a no-no and peaked into the oven to see how the loaves were doing. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t spring up quite nicely! So I was a happy camper for sure!

Granted, I was using a rather strong, high-protein flour, but those loaves were close to 80% hydration, so I had to rely on my shaping to give them good internal structure. This is a new technique that I developed a couple of months ago, having gotten frustrated with the way my batards were turning out when I upped the hydration of my dough. I loved the more open crumb, but they were collapsing a little, and I didn’t want that. So I started working with a couple of different approaches and found one that I now use for all my batards.

Essentially, it involves gently tugging the dough into a rough rectangle, pulling the corners to towards the center and overlapping the dough, essentially stitching them. Then I do a standard push-roll shape to tighten the skin, perpendicular to the stitch seams. Once I do that, I jelly-roll the dough perpendicular to the seam, then seal that seam (I got this from pre-shaping baguettes). What I end up with is almost a ball that I then place into an oval basket. When the dough relaxes, it will relax out to the ends of the oval, but the middle will always be higher.

I’m still perfecting the technique, but I’m loving the results! It creates a strong internal structure that really holds up!

Recipe: Baguettes de Tradition

The way I learned to make baguettes was from Master Chef Markus Farbinger, who uses a slow rise or pointage en bac method. It is a straight dough, but bulk fermented and retarded overnight. This allows the amino acids and lacto- and acetobacillus bacteria to develop, while retarding the activity of the yeast. The results, as shown in the picture to the left, are pretty magnificent.

But I learned another technique called Baguettes de Tradition from Jeffery Hamelman’s book, “Bread” that he learned from Japanese bakers. This is a straight dough that differs rather significantly from slow-rise baguettes. First of all, these baguettes are baked in just a few hours from the final mix, so you’re working with room-temperature dough. Second, where I would normally use an 11.7% protein AP flour mixed with about a third high-extraction flour, this recipe calls for 100% bread (strong) flour. And finally, this is a wetter dough than what I’m used to using at 76% hydration.

As Hamelman puts it: “…a baker could be excused for concluding that the dumpster and not the belly is the destination for the bread.” This is because mixing is done gently, so after mixing – even using a stand mixer – there’s virtually no gluten development! The dough just comes apart. But with the folding schedule, the gluten develops quickly, and by the last fold, the dough is luxuriously smooth and supple – and strong.

Chef Hamelman warns that this is a challenging bread and certainly not one for beginners. I can attest to this as the dough at this hydration using pure bread flour is tacky and will easily stick – especially since you’re handling a room temperature dough. So keep your hands floured when shaping and use quick motions!

But the end result is pretty fabulous. You will notice right away when the loaves come out of the oven, that you will not get pronounced ears. This is because with these particular baguettes, you minimize the creation of a skin during shaping. The crumb is significantly different from my other baguettes in that there were not many huge voids. But that could be more of a function of how I handled them during shaping. But in spite of that, the texture of the crumb is magnificent, redolent with numerous pockets.

Overall Formula

IngredientBakers %
Bread Flour100%
Water76%
Salt1.8%
Yeast.75%
Total178.55%

Final Dough

Flour769
Water585
Salt14
Yeast6
Total Yield4 X 340g pieces
Optimal Dough Temp76°F

Especially with this recipe, before you get started, I highly recommend sifting your flour to avoid creating lumps which are a pain to get out, especially if you’re mixing by hand.

Mix. Combine flour, salt, yeast in a mixing bowl and mix thoroughly until all the dry ingredients are well-incorporated. Whether or not you use a stand mixer, gradually add the water until you form a shaggy mass, then stop. I know that it might not make any sense, but believe me, the end result will be pretty amazing!

The dough is a shaggy mass after the initial mix

Bulk Fermentation. 2 to 3 hours depending on the ambient temp of your kitchen. I know it’s a wide margin, but on hot days, things will happen quickly! The dough should more than double during this time. Do not take bulk fermentation out too far, otherwise, you will shorten the final fermentation, and a lot of the final magic of creating nice holes happens there.

Right before the second fold. The dough has already started puffing up and is well-domed at the top!

Folding. During the first hour, gently stretch and fold the dough at 20, 40, and 60 minutes, being careful not to degas the dough too much. For each folding session, make sure to feel the tension and tenacity build up in the dough. When you’ve finished folding, turn the dough onto the seams. By the end of the third fold, you will have a very luxurious and supple dough! I never cease to be amazed by the transformation, plus the gentle, but frequent folding in the first hour really helps build the gas-retention properties of the dough. As such, I use this folding technique for all the baguettes I make!

By the end of the third fold, the dough is super-strong and smooth, with proonounced bubbles inside. This picture was taken about a minute after I turned it over on its folds to show how well it holds together.

Divide and Shape. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces (for this recipe, they’ll be 340g). Gently letter fold each piece, pulling one side over two-thirds of the dough, then repeating that on the other side. Roll against the seam like a jelly roll, seal the seam, then place seam-side-up on a well-floured couche. Let rest for 15-30 minutes ensuring the dough has sufficiently relaxed before shaping. Shape into baguettes then transfer back to the couch for final fermentation.

Final Fermentation. 30-90 minutes depending on ambient temp. No matter how gentle you are, shaping a baguette is a bit of a violent affair on the dough. This is why you want to leave as much room for final fermentation to let the dough recover from the shaping process. Use the poke test at about 30 minutes to see how fast the dough pops back up. If it’s real quick and leaves no mark, then it’s not ready. Check it after 15 minutes to see how things are progressing. It’s a real feel thing with baguettes!

After final fermentation, baguette loaves should be puffy. Note that the skin on these is very delicate so scoring must be quick and decisive. You cannot pause the blade.

Bake. Bake at 500°F with steam for 12 minutes. Remove the steaming container, then bake at 425°F with convection (if you have it) for 15-20 minutes. If you don’t have a convection setting, bake at 435°F. When you remove the loaves from the oven, check how they weigh in your hands. They should feel lighter than they look and the crust should not be soft. It will soften a bit later but fresh out of the oven, it should firm. If you feel they still have a little mass or if the crust is soft, pop them back into the oven for a few minutes.

Notes

  • Though I provided specific ingredient amounts in the table above, I always work backwards in figuring out how much of the ingredients I need. For instance, for my oven, my standard batch is 4 baguettes scaled out to 325g apiece. So I know I’ll need 1300g of dough. I always add a fudge factor due to loss during processing, so I’ll up that to 1310g. Given that, I can easily calculate the flour I’ll need by dividing the total yield of 1310g by the total of the percentages – in our case here it’s 178.55%. So 1310 / 178.55% = 734g of flour. From there, I can just use the ingredient percentages to figure out the amounts for the rest of the ingredients.
  • As far as scaling out the pieces is concerned, officially, a baguette should be 60 cm in length and weigh 250 grams. I’ve found through experimentation that I can get there if I scale the baguettes to 330 grams. However, I myself prefer a little bit wider baguette, so I scale my dough out to 340 grams. But as a rule of thumb, I use a factor of 5.5 or 5.6 and multiply that by the length of the baguette I want to make. This factor is basically dough weight/centimeter.
  • As with any high-hydration white flour dough, this dough is tacky! I can’t stress enough the quick, definitive movements I had to make to work with this dough. I also had to make sure that during shaping I was dipping my hands in my pile of flour to prevent sticking.