If you follow baking blogs or participate in online baking forums, you’ve probably heard this: The stiffer – lower hydration – the starter the sourer the taste. The thinking is that a stiffer starter promotes aerobic metabolism, thus creating more acetic acid, while a more liquid starter promotes anerobic metabolism which favors the creation of lactic acid. The difference is that acetic acid tastes more sour than lactic acid.
That’s all well and good. But as with so many things in making sourdough, there are several variables that can affect the sourness of your bread. For instance, with the loaf at the top, I used a 500% hydration starter to ferment the bread. It was 20% inoculation relative to the flour (BTW, I hate using that word with respect to bread because it has a specific scientific meaning). But at that hydration level, the yeast density was low, and it took 24 hours for final fermentation in my fridge. That loaf was nice and tart!
On the other hand, with the loaves immediately above, I used a 60% hydration starter, with the same inoculation level of 20%. But the yeast density was so much greater than the liquid starter, that final fermentation was barely 10 hours and I was pushing it, which accounts for the less open crumb. It hardly has any sour taste.
Myself, I’ve never bought into that rule of thumb that a stiffer starter will make a more a sour tasting loaf of bread. I’m quite familiar with the food science behind that and agree that aerobic metabolism promotes the production of acetic acid. But baking as long and as much I have, the best way I know to make a sour loaf is to have a long, cold final fermentation that favors bacterial over fungal activity, but also, making sure that my inoculation level is only about 12 to 13% to ensure I’m creating a less competitive environment that favors the bacteria in my dough.
You see, while yeast metabolizes, it creates inhibitors that block bacterial activity, effectively mitigating or eliminating competition. So, using a lower inoculation level will ensure a lower relative yeast density and will help mitigate fungal activity, and in turn, allow the bacteria to flourish during bulk fermentation. Then when bulk fermentation is complete, doing a cold fermentation of around 38℉ (and no higher than 40℉) will slow down yeast activity even further and let the bacteria continue do their thing. These principles apply to using all sorts of starters, from pure liquid fruit-based starters to high hydration starters, to super-stiff starters. So, at least for me, the type of starter isn’t as relevant as the dough fermentation techniques I employ.
That said, I could be completely full of it, and there are folks who will disagree with me vehemently. I get that. But for me, it’s time and technique that will dictate how sour my bread is, not my starter.
The other day, I got a shipment of my favorite flour, Azure Market Organics Unbleached Bread Flour. I’ve written about it several times, so I won’t go into detail about it. But if you’ve read this blog, you know I love this flour! It’s so flavorful and wonderful to work with, but until recently, it was out of stock at Azure. They finally got it back in stock and I immediately ordered it. I feel like a kid in a candy store!
I’m excited because this flour has been integral to my flour blends, and with it unavailable, I’ve had to use alternatives. That hasn’t been too much of an issue, but any time you change things up, you need to adjust to the change, and sometimes it takes a few times to get comparable results to what you’re used to, as you tweak hydration, preferment amount, fermentation times, etc. But baking with this flour? It’s like putting on a pair of broken-in shoes. It’s just comfortable, which in turn makes my dough development process comfortable and familiar.
And I’ve realized that a very large part of my progression as a baker has been getting familiar with my ingredients. When you’re used to working with different ingredients, you just know how they’ll react and you can execute your process without having to apply too much conscious thought. Things just become automatic.
I once got in a great conversation with a professional chef. He said that the fundamental difference between him and a home chef is that he knows his ingredients so well that he doesn’t have to think about what he’s cooking. He can just focus entirely on creating his dishes. But more importantly, he said he gets the reps in that build that familiarity. It’s the same way with baking. When you’ve put in the reps, you just know, and as they say, when you know, you know.
As soon as I got my flour, I made the dough for the loaf above. With that loaf, I used a 500% hydration starter (yes you read that right) to ferment a 75-25 Bread/AP flour blend. Final hydration was around 75%. That’s just a basic loaf. But this was a bit of a challenge because I couldn’t do as long a bulk fermentation as I normally do because of time constraints. But knowing this blend and recipe so well, I knew that I could make up for it by doing an extra-long final fermentation. So, this loaf spent about 18 hours in my fridge.
When I checked it baking through my oven’s window, I just smiled and gave a sigh of pure satisfaction. I just nodded and said, “Mm-mm-mm, how sweet it is!” Then when I removed it from the oven, I was giddy. I saw how much the loaf had expanded, and I knew it was going to turn out great. Yes, it has a nice, open crumb, but more importantly, the dough was fully fermented and in no place was dense. So satisfying…
Like many other bloggers, I often talk about experimenting with different ingredients. I think that’s part of the process of developing skill. And while experimentation is great, getting reps in and learning what ingredients work best for you is just as important.
…than pulling baguettes out of the oven, picking one up, and immediately noticing that it weighs far less than how it looks. That goes for any bread, but for baguettes, it’s a crucial quality because it’s an indicator that the loaves had great oven spring which, in turn, means that the crumb will be light and airy.
I baked the loaves in the picture above yesterday. For those, I used a rye poolish, with the flour of the rye accounting for 25% of the total flour. I knew that even with 25%, the bran in the dark rye flour that I use can cut up gluten strands. But I handled the dough much more gently, making sure I didn’t tear it, and only folded it once as the bread flour I use has over 14% protein – gluten forms up fast.
I still took a hit on the overall openness of the crumb, but the crumb still came out light despite the lack of numerous large holes. I knew when I pulled them out just by looking at them, that they had sprung up quite a bit. And though I didn’t expect a super-open crumb due to the whole-grain rye, with that kind of volume expansion, I didn’t have to worry about the crumb being dense and chewy.
Then picking that first one up… I just smiled in satisfaction. It was a good bake.
My daughter asked me if I could make her a garlic-parmesan-rosemary loaf for her birthday, as that is her favorite bread of mine. I normally make this as a sourdough, but because of time constraints, building a levain wasn’t an option. But I didn’t want to make just a straight dough. Not that it would be bland, but for me at least, it would just be a bit boring. Plus, a straight dough just doesn’t keep fresh for long.
But then it occurred to me that I could still use a preferment and make a poolish. While it wouldn’t have the sourness of a levain, it would contain at least some organic acids that would not only add to the flavor profile, but also add some natural preservative. Then it further occurred to me that if I made the poolish from rye flour, I’d add yet another dimension to both the flavor and textural profiles! The result was magnificent, as you can see in the picture above. Here are numbers…
Preferment % of total flour
Yeast @ 0.33%
2020g 2 X 1000 loaves
Normally, I’d include the whole garlic cloves, cheese, and rosemary in the overall formula and the final dough. But I’ve found that developing the dough first, then including the cheese and garlic when I’m shaping gives me much better results.
Raw, Whole Garlic Cloves
Parmesan Grana Padano Cheese
Fresh Rosemary (finely chopped)
Make the poolish. The night before you bake, make the poolish. Since it’s going to ferment overnight, there’s no need to use warm water. Just use regular tap water or room temp water. Because you’re using rye flour, you won’t get many surface bubbles, if any at all. But you will get lots of expansion by morning. And don’t worry if the poolish has peaked and subsided a bit.
Roast the garlic. Place the garlic in either an oven-safe container or some foil. Drizzle with a little olive oil to coat the cloves, then wrap them so all cloves are covered. Roast for 30-45 minutes at 375℉/250℃ until the cloves are mashable with a fork. Mash the cloves well, then set aside and allow to cool.
In a separate bowl, combine all the wet ingredients together, along with the yeast and poolish. Mix well to break up and dissolve the poolish and set aside.
Thoroughly combine the flour and salt in your main mixing bowl.
Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mix, then start to slowly combine. As the dough starts forming, add the mashed garlic.
Mix the dough until smooth and no dry ingredients remain.
While you can certainly hand-mix the ingredients, I like to use a mixer for this dough. It’s more efficient.
Bulk Fermentation. You want this dough to double in volume. This could take anywhere from 1 1/2 – 2 hours.
Folding. Fold the dough once within the first 45 minutes. But make sure you fold it to the point where the dough no longer wants to be folded. Once you’ve finished folding, turn the dough over onto the seams.
Divide and preshape. Once the dough has fully fermented, turn it out onto a clean work surface. Divide into two 1000g pieces (yes, I scale out the portions), then form the pieces into nice rounds. Bench rest the rounds for at least 15 minutes to allow the dough to relax.
Work a round into a rough rectangle as shown below.
Next, spread half the garlic cloves, parmesan cheese, and rosemary evenly over the surface of the dough.
Next, fold over the ends of the rectangle.
Starting at the “top” of the rectangle, start rolling the dough into a cylinder. Try to make the rolls as tight as possible without tearing the dough.
Once you’ve finished rolling up the cylinder, pinch the cylinder closed, then roll cylinder onto the seam.
Now, with a sharp knife, cut the cylinder in half length-wise, and form a “V” with the two halves.
Carefully, twist the two halves together.
Pick up the twisted mass from the ends, then place it into a well-oiled 9″ X 5″ X 3″ pan.
Bake. Drizzle olive oil over the top of each loaf, and bake at 375℉/250℃ for 45-50 minutes. It may seem that this is a low temp to bake at, but you want to roast the garlic slowly, plus you don’t want to completely liquify the cheese, which will happen at a higher temp. Bake the loaves until the internal temperature reaches 205-210℉.
Remove from the oven, turn the oven off, then separate the loaves from the pans. Put the loaves onto a baking sheet, then return them to the oven and let them cure for 15-20 minutes to help solidify the crust.
As much as I love baking with KamutTM, my normal supplier has been out of it for some months now. But what they have had in stock is dark rye flour. So for the past few months I’ve been experimenting with it and trying to find a good ratio. Like KamutTM, rye flour doesn’t form gluten. They’re both high in protein, but their proteins are more gelatinous in the presence of water as opposed to forming chains. Needless to say, they don’t add to the structure of the dough.
While you certainly could do a 100% rye or KamutTM loaf, you’d have to keep the hydration pretty low or bake your bread in a pan. As for myself, while I’ve made bread using 100% rye or KamutTM, I have to admit I’m not a fan. But I love what they contribute to the bread when used in a flour blend.
For this recipe, the final blend is a 75% bread flour / 25% rye flour blend. 15% of the flour comes from the rye-based starter. The other 10% blended with the bread flour for the final dough.
Here’s the recipe:
Rye Flour from Preferment
2020g 2 X 1000g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp
78°-82°F / 25° -27°C
Prepare the Levain. Make a levain that will yield about 350g or a bit more from a mature starter and equal parts of rye flour and water. The mother culture I use for this is 100% rye flour, but if yours isn’t, don’t sweat it. Once the levain passes the float test, it’s ready.
Initial Mix. In a separate bowl, mix the levain with all the water and make sure to break up the levain. The water should be very warm to increase the yeast activity. Blend the bread and rye flour together well, then add the liquid to it. You can mix by hand, but I use a mixer on the lowest setting. Mix until you achieve a shaggy mass and there are no dry ingredients. You don’t want much gluten development at this point. Cover and let the dough rest in a warm place for 30 minutes to ensure the flour is well-hydrated.
Final Mix. Sprinkle the salt over the top of the dough, then fold it into the dough. I do this with a wet hand, scrunching the dough together, then folding it. I do this until I can’t feel salt granules. This also serves as a bit of a stretch and fold session.
Bulk Fermentation. I’m not going to give a time for this as it varies wildly. But the telltale you’ll look for is 75-100% volume expansion – almost double. With the amount and type of starter I use (it’s from an ancient Italian culture that I got from Sourdoughs International), my bulk fermentation is about 2 1/4 hours! It’s fast. Make sure your dough temp is within the optimal range I listed above!
Folding. Fold once after the first hour of bulk fermentation. I realize this seems counterintuitive, especially if you’ve followed the dogma of 6 folds over a 3-hour period. But we’re baking with rye flour and even though it represents only 25% of the total flour, it’s still delicate. So don’t want to keep punching it down. When you fold, make sure you’re getting a really good stretch from the dough and fold it until the mass no longer wants to be folded and the whole mass comes up when you stretch. When you’re done, turn the mass onto the folds and LET IT SIT!
Divide and Shape. Gently transfer the dough to an unfloured work surface. Divide it into two equal piece weighing a kilo each. Shape into rounds and bench rest for 15-20 minutes, or until the dough has relaxed. Finally, shape them into rounds or ovals, then place them in bannetons.
Final Fermentation. Pop your bannetons into your fridge and let the dough ferment for 12 – 18 hours. I went up to 24 hours with my previous batch as an experiment, and though flavorful, there wasn’t much energy left in the yeast for oven spring.
Bake. Bake at 460°F/240°C for 15 minutes with steam. After this, remove your steaming container, then turn your oven down to 425°F/220°C and bake for 25 minutes. You can go longer if you want a darker crust.
Of course, if you don’t get those right then you’ll never be able to achieve an ear. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself…
The pictures of the loaves above and the one below were made using the exact same formula (85%/15% Bread/Rye flour, 75% hydration, 2% salt), processed and fermented in the same way, and shaped using the exact same technique. They are all 1-kilo loaves. The crumb of the loaves in all three pictures looks similar to the picture below. They are all moderately open with a complete rise throughout the interior. They were also scored using the same lame and same scoring technique.
But as you can see in the top-right picture above, my loaves didn’t form ears. Most people would immediately say that I needed to create more skin tension. Sorry, that’s not it. Others would say I didn’t let the loaves ferment long enough. Sorry, that’s not it either. Still, others would say that I didn’t have enough steam, and the crust hardened before it could form an ear. Nope. So what’s the answer?
The loaves in the top picture were made from the same batch of dough, but the loaf on the left was part of a batch that was baked after the two on the right. What happened was that my stone had not come to temp, thus the ambient temperature was higher than that of my stone. As a result, the bottoms of the loaves did not expand as fast as the rest, and the exposed surfaces literally ballooned during baking, destroying any chance of forming an ear.
What also led me to this conclusion was that since the bottoms of the loaves were not as hot as the rest of the loaves, the yeast activity took longer to come to a close on the bottoms of the loaves. As a result, the exposed crusts set before the bottoms were done and one of the loaves literally sprung a leak as dough burst through a crack in the crust! Now THAT was funny!
When I removed the loaves from the oven, I laughed out loud because the loaves were HUGE and as I mentioned above, one of the loaves had leaked and a rather large protrusion was sticking out the back! On the other hand, the loaf at the top-left and the other in its batch came out as expected because my stone had come up to temp by then. Ugh! So I’ve learned my lesson and have an infrared thermometer on its way to me so I can ensure that my stone has come to temp.
The point of this is that as with other things I’ve written about in the past, there are several variables that will affect the outcome of a bake. Even in a commercial bakery, though conditions tend to be much more consistent than in a home kitchen, there’s variability in the environment. So you have to take the time to know your environment so you can achieve consistent results from bake to bake.
This is why I get a little irritated at some YouTubers who entitle their videos, “The Last _________ Recipe You’ll Ever Need,” or some nonsense like that. Though there are helpful tips in those videos, the vloggers invariably fail to mention their kitchen conditions and talk about how to deal with variances. For instance, baking bread on a hot day versus a cold day in a home kitchen, or failing to mention what their optimal dough temperature is!
Look, I realize that processing and shaping dough is challenging, and mastering just those things are probably the first things you need to accomplish to become proficient in bread baking. But as you get deeper and deeper into it, you realize things like temperature, or in my case, the stone equalizing with the oven affects the dough and the outcome of the bake.
As for developing an ear, I hate to break it to you, but that is NOT a sign of mastery. It is a sign that your loaf expanded, but don’t think that just because your loaf didn’t form an ear, you somehow failed. There are lots of gatekeepers in the home-baking world, especially in sourdough circles who believe that these things are important. They’re not.
But here are some rules of thumb that you can follow:
You don’t have to make a super-deep cut into your loaf when scoring. It’s more important that you maintain a shallow angle with your lame. For the loaves above, my cuts were about 1/2″ deep.
Also, understand that the purpose of scoring is NOT to make an ear. The purpose of scoring is to control where the loaf expands. Otherwise, your loaf will expand unevenly.
Make sure your dough is fully fermented. And no, it’s not just bulk fermentation. Yes, you want a thorough bulk fermentation, but you have to make sure there’s food left for the yeast for final fermentation. This is why Chad Robertson only takes his loaves out to about 30%-50% volume expansion in bulk fermentation. With his long, cold, final fermentation, he needs to make sure there’s food left for the little beasties.
Of course, shaping is absolutely critical. But you don’t have to get super-tight skin to get an ear. And though others may stress the importance of tight skin, the purpose of shaping is to orient the gluten strands.
Speaking of orienting the gluten strands, in order to orient them in the first place, you need to build strength in the dough but make no mistake, depending on the flour, the amount you stretch and fold will vary wildly. I use bread flour that is very high in gluten content (>13.5). Though I usually cut it with some other kind of flour, if I bake with it as the only flour, my dough only takes two stretches and folds before it has built up strength. On the other hand, if I use pastry flour that is made from soft red wheat, I have to do 4-6 stretch and fold sessions before it has built up strength. The point of this is that you should never overdo your folding. Fold until the dough can hold its shape for a while before it relaxes. Then leave it alone!
Finally, especially if you’re using a baking stone or steel, make sure your surface is equalized with the ambient temp of your oven. This is much less of an issue if you’re using a Dutch oven, but even when using a Dutch oven, you need to preheat it. That said, I saw a video where Chad Robertson was giving a master class and was using several Dutch ovens. He was popping them in the oven cold! But he was using a commercial convection oven to bake, so it’s likely the Dutch ovens came up to temp pretty fast.
As I’ve mentioned many times in previous posts, the bread I love to bake the most is the baguette. The reason is that what makes a great baguette boils down to technique. Whether you use yeast or a starter to raise the dough, the dough itself is simple and straightforward. But the dough development and shaping techniques – for lack of a better word – are unforgiving. And on top of that, I’ve found that making baguettes requires using quite a bit of intuition and feel, much more than other types of bread I bake.
With more standard loaves like rounds and ovals, I tend to focus on building dough strength during fermentation. As long as I do that, shaping is pretty easy. Baguettes, on the other hand, are a different animal altogether. Dough strength is important, but timing and observing certain telltales with the dough are critical to getting a good result. And when using a sourdough starter, the process is a little slower than with commercial yeast, so the telltales are important. I’ll discuss those below.
As for these particular baguettes, the rye flour adds incredible flavors that really enhance the taste of the bread. You get the rye grain flavor as about 12-15% of the total flour comes from the rye. But I’ve also found that a rye starter creates a nice sour tang. It’s not really strong, but it’s noticeable.
And at least in the case of my mother starter, the yeast absolutely loves rye flour. In fact, if I add my mother starter cold from fridge into the rye flour and water mix, it will peak in less than 3 hours! I don’t know what that may be due to, but there must be something in the rye that makes my yeast go wild!
Water @ about 100℉
Water @ about 95-100℉ to get a 78-82℉ dough temp
Levain (30% of total flour)
4 X 40cm-335g loaves
Initial Mix. Reserve 50g of the water. We’re going to do a Tartine-style autolyse by combining the flour, levain and water. Mix well and make sure all dry ingredients are incorporated with no large lumps. Personally, I do the initial mix with a mixer with the dough hook. Let rest in a warm place for 20 to 30 minutes. We don’t want fermentation to really get going.
Incorporate the salt. Dissolve the salt into the reserved water, then mix it into the dough. You can use a mixer for this, but salt will tighten up the dough and it will quickly climb up the hook. So I just mix the salt in by hand. If you do it this way, wet your hand often. Transfer dough to another container to do your bulk fermentation (I use a 6L Cambro).
Bulk Fermentation. No time on this. You’re looking for a 30%-50% rise from the original dough mass. Using my active starter, this usually takes about 2 – 2 1/2 hours total with a dough temp of 80℉.
Folding. This only needs two folds within the first hour and a half. In each session, stretch and fold until you can pick up the entire mass. After the second fold, just let the dough ferment until you achieve 30-50% rise from the dough.
Telltale: Before you start folding, check the dough. You want to get good extensibility out of the dough. It should stretch very well but not tear. By the time bulk fermentation is complete. your dough should feel velvety smooth and luxurious.
Shape. Roll pieces into logs, then transfer each to a well-floured couche.
Final Fermentation. Especially with sourdough baguettes, it is critical to leave them alone once you start final fermentation. You want the shaped dough to expand to almost double in volume or until the indentation of the poke test comes back very slowly. You’re taking the dough out to almost full fermentation.
Bake. Bake a 475℉ for 12 minutes with steam, then 425℉ for 12-15 minute or until the crust is the desired color. I prefer a slightly darker crust without getting too crunchy.
I recently had a conversation at a party with a friend and fellow home baker who started our conversation by saying, “Oh, I never make yeasted bread. It’s just too simple and it tastes so bland.” Then after wolfing down several pieces of baguette that I had brought to the party she remarked, “This bread has a slightly sour tang to it. What kind of sourdough starter did you use?”
Willing myself to not roll my eyes, I smiled and said, “That’s a yeasted loaf. No sourdough. In fact, I didn’t even use a poolish.” I SO wanted to be snarky. But I behaved myself, and instead took a more conciliatory stance: “On the surface, sure, a straight dough is very simple to make. But there are lots of things you can do to completely transform it.”
Of course, she asked, “How?” So I spent the next several minutes – actually, it was more like an hour in total – discussing different ways I’ve learned to affect the flavor of my bread. But while some things I’ll share below are specific to yeasted bread, there are a couple of nuggets that could be used for any bread that you make. Note that though they’re numbered, the tips aren’t in any particular order.
1. Move beyond white flour
Like many, my first real bread book was “Flour Water Salt Yeast” by Ken Forkish. There was a section in the book where he talked about finding a flour to call your own. I was just starting out making no-knead bread at the time, so I didn’t pay too much attention to that section. I just wanted to learn the technique. But literally within a month, I was starting to get bored of making white bread. So I started experimenting with different blends of flour. Here are a few blends that I use:
I use this for my sourdough baguettes. As with Sourdough #1, the levain is made from whole wheat.
NOTE: All flour I use is certified organic
While fermentation will certainly drive flavor, I’ve found that the most significant impact on bread flavor comes from the flour blend that’s used. If you do create a blend, keep in mind that your processing technique may change as different flour has different protein content or, in the case of Kamut or rye, will not create gluten, or at least a protein that contributes to the dough structure. It may take you a couple or a few times baking with the blend before you get it down.
Note above that I list 25% Kamut or Rye. This is because both of these flours behave similarly in that they contribute very little if any to the dough structure. But they dd some incredible taste to the bread! Kamut adds a
2. Play With Hydration
Hydration affects the texture and density of the bread. And while texture and density aren’t flavors, they can affect our perception of flavors. For instance, a heavy, dense bread concentrates flavors, while an airy, light crumb tends to have much subtler, more delicate flavors. With the bread I make, I try to strike a balance between flavor concentration and texture. The crumb of my boules and batards isn’t super-open, but it’s still light and airy – it just doesn’t have a lot of big holes. To achieve consistent results, I’ve had to play with the hydration. But as a rule of thumb, the more whole-grain flour I use, the more water I’ll add. For instance, the hydration for Baguette 1 is 76%, while the hydration for Baguette 3 is about 80% (these are a challenge to shape).
3. Retard Bulk Fermentation
People who make sourdough are well-versed in long, slow fermentation and the flavors it can impart as the bacteria in the flour (and in the air) get a chance to release organic acids into the dough, and the enzymes have time to break down starches and convert them to sugar. We can do the same with yeasted dough. For instance, with my Pointage en Bac baguettes, I start bulk fermentation at room temp, then slow it down in a fridge that’s set to about 39℉ – 42℉. This doesn’t completely stop yeast fermentation, but it significantly slows it down to allow the enzymes and bacteria to better compete for resources.
Lately, I’ve been really getting into the Pain a l’Ancienne technique of delaying fermentation from the get-go for my baguettes. This involves using ice water at mixing to prevent the yeast from metabolizing. I then further retard in the fridge set at 36℉ for up to 48 hours. Yeast fermentation is allowed to occur only after this long rest in the fridge. This makes for an absolutely complex-tasting bread!
4. Retard Final Fermentation
While retarding final fermentation follows the same basic principles as retarding bulk fermentation, it’s a little trickier because we’re using commercial yeast. Commercial yeast has been literally bred to be fast-acting and resilient, even in harsh environments.1 So timing when you place your dough into your fridge is critical. I’ve found that as a rule of thumb to always place my loaves in the fridge once the dough has expanded about 50%. It takes a while for the dough to equalize to the cold environment, so you have to have enough runway to account for the yeast activity while the dough cools. I’ve found that if I let it get past that point, my dough will be overproofed when it comes out of the fridge. So now, if by chance I let it get past that point, I just let it finish and bake the bread.
That caveat aside, once the dough equalizes, you mitigate the competition from the yeast and the bacteria and enzymes can do their thing. Pizzaiolo’s know this technique very well, with some letting their pizza dough undergo cold fermentation for up to five days!
5. Salt Stress Yeast
When yeast is placed into a saline environment, it undergoes what is called osmotic shock. During this period, the fungus ceases fermentation while it builds up protection against water from being leached from its cells. Once that protection has been built, the yeast then can go about its business converting sugars into gas and it also becomes impervious to later osmotic events.
I now only use salt-stressed yeast when I’m making dough for Baguettes a l’Ancienne or other bread where I want to delay bulk fermentation simply because once I remove the dough from the fridge, I don’t want the yeast to undergo osmotic shock. I want it to start producing gas bubbles ASAP. The thing about pre-stressing the yeast is that it produces glycerol. An increased presence of glycerol has been shown to increase fermentation activity and also increase the gas-retention abilities in the dough.2 Gas is flavor!
6. Be Gentle With Your Dough
As of late, I’ve been doing my best to handle my dough in a much more gentle fashion. After a couple of batches where the bread turned out a little dense, I realized that the loaves were turning out that way because of how I handled the dough. I was degassing it by being too rough. So I made a conscious decision to handle the dough in a much gentler fashion. For instance, look at the ciabatta in the picture above. With that batch, I did my best to be gentle with the dough and the results, as you can see above, pretty much speak for themselves.
When you see a professional baker manipulating dough, it looks as if they’re throwing it around. But I realized that they’re just going fast because they’ve done it thousands of times. I started picking up speed myself as I got used to the particular tasks, but I realized that I also increased the physical pressure I was placing on the dough. By being aware of how I was manipulating the dough, I’ve greatly improved the texture and density of my crumb. And as with hydration, texture, and density affect flavor.
7. Experiment with Different Sourdough Cultures
A sourdough culture has the potential to affect the flavor of the bread in a variety of ways. The more starter you use, the more the grain of the culture affects the flavor. The less you use, the rising will be slower and flavor development will come predominantly from the bacteria in the final dough. But where the culture originates from can also play a factor as the combination of yeast and bacteria differs from region to region.
For instance, when I cultivate a culture from my immediate vicinity, the resultant bread isn’t very sour and the rising action is moderate. On the other hand, when I’ve made cultures from longan fruit, those microbes go crazy. The rising action is much higher and the microbes impart both sweet and sour flavors, though the sweetness could very well be coming from the fruit juice itself. If I make a starter from an original San Francisco sourdough culture, the bread has the distinctive San Francisco sourdough tang. Contrast that with a starter from Eastern Europe that has a very sour flavor.
By the way, if you’re interested in cultivating international cultures, look no further than Sourdoughs International. They have a collection of dry starters from all over the world and even have an Egyptian culture from antiquity that was captured from an unearthed ancient bakery at the foot of the Giza pyramids. It’s on the way to me as I write this!
But even if you don’t experiment with different starters, varying the amount of starter you use will affect the flavor of your bread. Note, that your rising times may vary wildly if you do this, so you’ll have to eyeball how your dough rises. And also note that the more starter you use will not necessarily make your rising go faster. In fact, the higher acidity may very well slow down fermentation. As always, use your senses – especially your sight and touch – to monitor your dough’s progress.
The one thing that really excites me about using different starters is that all of them vary in their microbe density. Some starters, such as the Giza starter I mentioned, seem to have a high density of bacteria, so the bread comes out particularly sour. On the other hand, one of my Italian starters is much more balanced and I’ve trained it to favor the yeast and other microbes in the starter that release esters, giving it a slight banana-like aroma (that’s actually frickin’ amazing, btw).
8. Use a Levain AND a Poolish
In my ever-popular Tartine Bread Baguettes post, I shared how Chad Robertson uses both a poolish and a levain to ferment his baguettes. I’ve used this technique for different kinds of loaves other than baguettes, and I love it! The levain adds the sour component to the flavor profile, while the poolish provides a nuttiness, plus a much more powerful rising action than the levain due to the commercial yeast. I’ve found this technique to be ideal for lower-hydration dough. It can get a little crazy with high-hydration dough as things will happen a lot faster, but it’s still manageable.
At least for me, using this technique almost invariably produces a chewy crumb. And that is an awesome thing because the chewiness gives you time to savor all the toothsome goodness that the preferments bring to the bread. Combining this technique with different blends of flour makes for an incredibly complex flavor profile. In the picture immediately above, I used a blend of 10% Rye, 40% High-extraction, and 50% Organic, Unbleached AP Flour. It was a powerful combination!
9. Vary Your Bake Times
Out of all the different techniques, this has the potential of really messing up your bread if you’re not attentive. If you read or participate in bread-baking forums, you’ll occasionally see references to the Maillard Reaction. Put simply, this is the browning process when heat is applied to food and how it affects taste. With respect to bread, as the crust browns, it opens up a whole new world of flavor. The nuttiness you get from a baguette or other crusty bread is due to the Maillard reaction.
There is a thing in artisan bread circles to bake the crust to a really deep color – or at least part of it. For instance, take a look at the loaves below:
Some folks might look at these loaves and say I burned them, but they tasted anything but burnt. In fact, those loaves were absolutely packed with flavor! There is a real depth and complexity in the flavor of bread when it is baked long enough to get this dark. I’ve literally baked hundreds of loaves, so I know just how long to bake them to achieve this effect. But I will admit that it took several burnt loaves before I got my own technique down. Even if you lengthen your bake time, there’s no guarantee you will actually like it. But give it a try.
To achieve this, bake at your normal temp. For most folks, this is going to be at 250ºC/475ºF. Lengthen your initial time at that temperature by 5-10 minutes to start with. Then once you get to the desired darkness, immediately reduce the heat in your oven so cooking continues, but browning doesn’t. For me, that’s 425ºF.
10. Vary Your Salt
Salt is one of those universal flavor components used in pretty much every food. And varying it can sometimes have dramatic effects on your bread. I typically use 1.5% or 2% salt in my bread, and never go beyond 2% with sourdough as salt attenuates the yeast action and really slows things down with natural yeast.
And no, contrary to popular belief, salt does NOT kill yeast. In order for it to kill yeast, it has to be in a super-high concentration. I don’t know how this myth originated, but it’s wrong. Do a search on “salt stressed yeast” and you will find peer-reviewed research papers on the subject and yeast’s tolerance to salt. Sorry, but science rules here…
With yeasted bread, it is possible to up your salt to 3-5%. If you salt-stress the yeast before mixing, you can go up to some crazy saltiness. But I’ve found that beyond 3%, the bread is too salty. See the section above “Salt Stress Yeast.”
On the other extreme is using no salt. Tuscan bread is saltless and it is insipid. The popular story behind this is that apparently, back in the Middle Ages, salt was heavily taxed, so the Tuscans chose to use it sparingly and stopped putting it in their bread (by the way, no one really knows the true story). To this day, bread in Tuscany is saltless. But they make up for it by making rich and flavorful sauces meant for dipping bread into.
Personally, I’ve made Tuscan bread and sorry, I’ll be sticking with adding a bit of salt to my dough…
All the techniques I shared above focused entirely on producing flavor in the dough naturally. But you can use additives such as roasted garlic, herbs, nuts, dried fruit, etc. I don’t consider doing that cheating, but additives could hide what could be rather insipid bread without it. So my advice with using additives is to not start using them until you can produce great-tasting bread that can stand on its own.
The low-hanging fruit to produce more flavorful bread is to experiment with different flour blends. For me, once I started doing that, it changed the game entirely for me. Using whole grain pretty much forced me to up my hydration. But then that got me thinking about modifications to the fermentation process. What a rabbit hole! But stuff like this gets me out of bed every morning. There’s always something to tweak!
1Money, Nicholas P., The Rise of Yeast: How the Sugar Fungus Shaped Civilization Oxford University Press, 2018
2Elham Aslankoohi, Mohammad Naser Rezaei, Yannick Vervoort, Christophe M. Courtin, Kevin J. Verstrepen, Glycerol Production by Fermenting Yeast Cells Is Essential for Optimal Bread Dough Fermentation, Plos One March 2015
During the pandemic lockdown, I discovered just how wonderful KamutTM flour was. But now, for some reason, it has become a little scarce. So I started searching for different kinds of flour to replace the Kamut, and I discovered dark rye flour. Yeah, yeah, there are lots of folks who’ve been baking with rye for a long time, but truth be told, I kind of stayed away from it because of that traditional rye bread taste. Little did I know that that particular bitter, almost nutmeg-like taste comes from the caraway seed that’s often added to traditional rye bread dough.
Plus, up until I started baking with it, my primary experience with rye bread was that marbled rye that you get with Reuben sandwiches. But after doing a bit of research on rye flour and baking with it regularly, I was soon corrected, and I have to say that I absolutely LOVE baking with rye flour!
Part of the reason why I love it so much is that it behaves very much like Kamut flour in that doesn’t form gluten. Like Kamut, the proteins that are formed when water is added to the flour don’t at all contribute to the structure of the dough. So you either have to be super, super-gentle with the dough, or use a smaller percentage, just as I’m using with these baguettes.
But even at this lower percentage of 25% (technically 12.5% rye flour to the total flour), the flavor that the rye flour contributes is incredible. Plus, being whole-grain flour, it contributes a nice textural element that contrasts nicely with the white flour.
My advice is to make the poolish the night before you mix the dough, giving it at least 10-12 hours to ferment. Whole-grain flour has lots of great bacteria that will produce organic acids that will add to the overall flavor profile of the bread.
The very first bread recipe I ever learned was a whole-wheat sourdough recipe made from an offshoot of an original San Francisco sourdough starter that I got from the TA of my freshman Microbiology class in college over 40 years ago. Along with the starter, he included a recipe. And while the recipe had times listed, he stressed to all of us who got the starter that the times he listed were only approximate and he gave us telltales as to when to move on to the next phase. That was the only bread recipe I used for many years and I got pretty good at recognizing and feeling what was happening with the dough.
You see – and I know this sounds a little strange – the dough will speak to you if you’ll only listen. Unfortunately, so many folks, especially newbies to baking bread, follow recipes literally. If a recipe says to fold the dough 6 times over three hours, they’ll do it. If it says bulk fermentation will two hours, they’ll start pre-shaping it at two hours. In either of these cases, under the right circumstances, they’ll produce nice loaves. But then they’ll scratch their heads wondering why their next batches didn’t turn out the same.
As Jonathan of Proof Bread said in one of his videos, “…the dough will let you know what’s going on with it.” And it’s true. The dough will indeed let you know, but in a way, you kind of have to know its language. Luckily, its language is limited to a few words. I’m going to put a humorous spin on it.
“Look, I’m strong enough already…”
Of course, we’re talking about dough strength and gluten development here. When you’re folding your dough, or even using a mixer, your dough will tell you when it has had enough. Even with high-hydration dough, you’ll start feeling a bit of resistance from the dough; where you no longer can stretch it to the extent that you were able to a couple of sessions ago. A good telltale is how long the dough takes to relax and hit the sides of your container. If it’s a fairly slow rate and the mass generally holds its shape – like minutes – chances are it’s strong enough. You’ve built enough strength into the dough so now let bulk fermentation finish.
But what about all those recipes like the Tartine Country Loaf and its various spin-offs that say to fold the dough six times over three hours? Well, just as with rising times, how much or how little you fold your dough to build strength is dependent on a lot of different factors. That said, probably the most important factor is the flour or flour blend you use as water absorption properties vary from flour to flour, which in turn affect both the rate and the quality of gluten formation. For instance, with the flour blends I use, I’ve never done the full six folds when following the Tartine process – even if I take hydration over 80%! My flour forms gluten pretty quickly and my folding builds strength quickly.
As I write this, I’m baking two 1-kilo loaves of 75% Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour / 25% Azure Standard Dark Rye Flour hydrated at about 81%. The bread flour forms up gluten so efficiently that even at this high hydration, I only had to fold the dough twice last night! If I used my normal Azure Standard High Extraction flour, I’d have to fold it at least 4 times as it is not nearly as good at forming gluten due to the bran particulates in the flour even though it has almost 15% protein content. See what I’m getting at?
“Feed me! Feed me!”
Let’s make one thing really clear: Your starter is part of your dough. In fact, it’s the first part of your dough. Lots of books and articles have been written about feeding your sourdough starter, but I thought I’d take a different tack on the subject and demystify it a bit. No, I’m not going to suggest a different feeding method or schedule, but bear in mind that your starter will speak to you as well and if you’re listening, you may very well change your schedule.
One of the things I often hear people talk about is the lack of activity in their starter, and I see many comments similar to this: “I’m not sure what’s happening with my starter. It’s not very active and I’ve been feeding it every 12 hours!”
There are three main factors that affect activity in a starter (not in any particular order): 1) The density of the yeast in the starter matrix, 2) The amount of acidity in your starter, and 3) the ambient temperature. You can directly affect temperature. but you have to do a bit of finagling of the starter to affect items 1) and 2), and that is through feeding.
Generally, what you hear with regards to feeding your starter is you do it to get it active enough to use for baking. But as with dough strength, you can’t be a fundamentalist about the schedule. For instance, many starter instructions say to feed your starter every twelve hours, and people will do it religiously and then wonder why their starter never bubbles up much. The probable cause for this is that the starter’s not ready to be fed and instead of increasing the density of the yeast in the starter, they’re actually decreasing it.
The starter will tell you when it’s ready to be fed. Look for telltales such as doubling in volume (usually the peak), or if there is a noticeable “ring” around the top of the starter where the starter has peaked and then receded. Or if you’re using a fairly liquid starter, look for a proliferation of bubbles on the top surface. This is the starter telling you it’s ready to be fed.
Yeast: “You’re on MY time…”
I recently ordered a couple of different starters from Sourdoughs International and yesterday (9/17/2022), I finally got the time to activate their Giza starter that was propagated from yeast captured from an ancient bakery unearthed at the foot of the Great Pyramid. This was part of a National Geographic project. Check out the link to find out more about the starter.
Anyway, I activated it yesterday and went to feed it this morning after letting it sit in a warm environment for 24 hours. To my utter amazement, the starter was not just bubbly, but even a bit frothy! That was totally unexpected. Before I activated the starter, I made sure to completely sterilize my container to ensure that the microbes in the starter were the predominant organisms. Well apparently, they’re not only the dominant organisms, they’re incredibly active! Then about an hour after discarding and feeding the starter, I noticed how much it was expanding. At this rate, I think it will peak after just four hours!
The activation instructions mentioned that I shouldn’t expect much activity after 24 hours and the starter shouldn’t be ready for baking for 4 to 5 days. But at this rate, I’ll probably be ready to make some dough tomorrow!
The point of this is that yeast operates on its own schedule. We can read and follow instructions all we want. But if the yeast is ready, it’s ready. On the flip side, some yeast is slower on the uptake and takes longer to get going. For instance, my original starter that I have been nurturing for the last couple of years has always been a little lazy at the start of fermentation. I’ve tried rebuilding it and refreshing it, but it still just operates on its own schedule. It has actually been ideal for long fermentation periods, and as it is pretty sensitive to a cold environment when I retard the final fermentation, there’s lots of flavor development.
With this new Giza starter, I’m going to have to work out a new baking schedule since it is so active. I reached out to Sourdoughs International to inquire about the incredible activity of the culture, and they confirmed that it is very active. This is just SO cool!