Make Fantastic Bread from a Botanical Starter (aka Yeast Water)

About a week ago, I did a book review on Paul Barker’s “Naturally Fermented Bread.” At the time, I had already started building a ferment from a mixture of apples and pears and waiting for it to mature so I could make a starter from it.

Well after a few days, it finally matured enough where it was nice and fizzy and with a pleasantly sour taste. So I made a test starter with it to see how active it actually was, and lo and behold, that test starter expanded like nothing I’ve ever seen! And once I built it into a full starter that was ready for baking, I’ve been absolutely amazed at the activity in this starter. I can’t feed it fast enough!

And as for using it for baking, well, I can dare say that I’m going to be hard-pressed to use any other kind of starter from here on out. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. As opposed to cultivating the yeast that’s on flour – the traditional way – with a botanical starter, I’m essentially cultivating and harvesting the wild yeast that is on the particular botanical that I’m using. This could provide the opportunity to introduce a different strain of yeast, but more importantly, a botanical starter imparts its own flavor charateristics that add to the complexity of the aroma and flavor of the bread.
  2. But the big thing for me is that there is NO discard! That’s such a huge thing! With a traditional starter, you chuck 1/2 the starter everyday. When creating a botanical starter, you never discard. You just build it up then use it (I’ll get into maintenance techniques below).

Here are some examples of what I’ve baked with my apple/pear botanical starter thus far:

Whether I made baguettes or batards, the oven spring of the loaves has been outstanding! I was particularly impressed with the crumb of the baguettes I made because I thought I over-proofed them, but the yeasts kicked in once I put the loaves in the oven, and they sprung up nicely!

And the batards were made with 40% white whole wheat and they just exploded! In the picture above, I placed a ruler in front of the loaves to give you an idea of their size. These were proofed in 10″ bannetons! Like I said, they exploded in the oven!

I’m really having a hard time containing my excitement over this! I feel as giddy as I did when I took my very first loaf out of my Dutch oven. The sheer pleasure of making bread… There’s nothing like it!

In light of that, I thought I’d share how to make an apple starter. But to give credence and recognition where I learned the technique, I still recommend getting “Naturally Fermented Bread” by Paul Barker. He has made ferments from fruits, vegetables, and even edible flowers! He’s a real inspiration! Plus his recipes in the book are pretty unique. So without further ado, let’s get started.


Equipment

At the time I took this picture, that starter had already peaked and was starting to recede. Active AF!

The great thing about making a botanical starter is that if you’re already baking, you most probably have everything you need to get started. Since I was already canning and baking, I had plenty of jars available to me, but Paul Barker did suggest that Kilner-type containers seemed to work best. So I actually got a few food-safe plastic containers (I’m going to be building a couple of different ferments) with Kilner type tops at my local TJ Maxx. They were only a few bucks each, so it wasn’t a big investment.

I have two sizes of container. The larger one is a 2-liter container, while the smaller one is 1.4-liter. As you can see from the picture above, I use the 2-liter for the fruit ferment and the smaller container for the levain (yeah, it’s a lot because I bake practically every day).

You’ll need a nice, fine-mesh strainer to strain the fermentation liquid when you use it for a starter or a recipe to trap the particles. I use the same strainer that I use to dust my transfer boards and loaves. This is probably something you already have.

The other thing to have is a decent digital scale. If you’re baking with any regularity, you already have one, but if not, it’s an absolute necessity.

Ingredients

I used two apples and a large Asian pear for my ferment. Paul Barker recommends starting with apples in his book because of the natural sugars they contain that will feed the yeast.

If you want to use vegetables, you can help the fermentation along by dissolving a teaspoon of natural honey in the water. I stress natural because there’s a lot of crap honey out there. I use local honey only.

As for flour, I use either a whole-grain rye or wheat. My personal preference is white whole wheat that I source from Stafford County Mills in Kansas. With shipping, it costs a little more, but I can’t speak enough about the quality of that flour!

The Process

As a rule of thumb, whether you’re using fruits or vegetables, you want to use a ratio of 2:1 water to botanical. The exception to this is when using flower petals (which I haven’t used just yet, but will in the spring when my roses bloom). For that, I’ll need to refer to the book. Here’s the process.

Prepare the ferment

  1. Take a couple of apples and wash them off to remove any dirt or insects, and remove the stems as well. DO NOT SCRUB! You want to keep the yeasts on the skins!
  2. Cut the apples into eight pieces (no need to core).
  3. Place the apples into your fermentation container.
  4. Pour tap water into the container, leaving a couple of inches at the top.
    1. NOTE: If your tap water is chlorinated, you should set aside the water you need for 24 hours to evaporate the chlorine. Otherwise, you can use filtered water. I know that lots of people recommend using bottled water, but the plastic waste just kills me!
  5. Weigh down the fruit with either a wide fermentation weight or a small, ceramic saucer. In my case, I use a heavy, low-profile rocks glass. The point of this is to force the fruit into the water to prevent mold.

Fermentation

A quick stir should produce an abundance of bubbles. That’s how you know the ferment is active!

Fermentation will take at least three days, but it’s better to wait for four days. Though my ferment seemed really active on the third day, when I tasted the water, it was a little weak-tasting. But by the end of the fourth day, the ferment was super-fizzy and tart. Super-fizzy means it’s nearly as fizzy as a beer, which is kind of what you’re making. You’re not looking for it to create a head of foam, but you want some nice carbonation in it.

Twice each day, burp your container to release any built up gases, then stir up the contents with a wooden spoon to evenly distribute the microbes. As the ferment progresses, your water will become very murky. That’s okay! You want that to happen!

Also, you may notice a ring of white foam that has formed at the top of water. Do not clean that! It’s yeast. You’ll want to mix that back into the water.

Make a Test Starter

If your water is murky and fizzy and smells a little sweet and sour (sweet is from the esters, sour is from acetic acid that are by-products of fermentation), then most likely you’re ready to build a starter. But you have to do a test first just to make sure.

So strain 50g of yeast water into a small bowl, then add 50g of flour. Mix until well-incorporated then let it sit for a few hours. If after 3 or 4 hours the mixture is bubbly, then it’s ready to be built up. If it’s only just a little bubbly, cover it tightly with plastic (I put the bowl into a Ziploc bag) and put it in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Let your ferment go for another 12 hours or so or until the test starter has lots of bubbles.

When I first made my test starter, I had very little activity, so I just covered it up as I instructed above.

First feeding

To your original 100g of starter, add 100g strained yeast water and 100g of flour and mix thoroughly. Let stand for another 12 hours.

Second Feeding

Finally, to your existing 300g of starter, add 50g strained yeast water and 50g flour. This should double in about 5-6 hours and will be ready for baking. Use the float test to determine readiness.

NOTE: The times listed are approximate, and highly dependent on the ambient temperature of your kitchen. I live in a fairly temperate climate, so I listed the times that work for me. But if you’re in a warmer climate, things will happen a lot faster. What you’re going to look for is your starter to double in size.

Important Notes

  • If you bake infrequently, like every week, you can just repeat the process above and build up a new starter a couple of days before you bake. If you do this though, the fruit ferment will become much more active after 4 days, so you’ll have to monitor your starter.
  • Since I bake everyday, I actually did one more extra feeding of 50g flour and yeast water so I had 100g left which I then fed 200g flour and yeast water so I’d have a levain to use the next day. I didn’t want to spend a couple of days rebuilding a new levain. And if you look at the picture above, you can see that the levain has almost quadrupled! I fed it at 10 pm last night and it was like that when I came out to the kitchen at 7 am! What gives it a kick is that yeast water and the sugars in it. There’s lots of food for the yeast to multiply!
  • Another alternative to not building up a new levain is to do what I did above with the extra final feeding. Use 400g of levain, then immediately put the remainder in the fridge. When you’re ready to bake, let the levain sit at room temp for a couple of hours, then feed it to get the amount of levain that you’ll need for your bake.
  • If you don’t want to make so much starter, you can certainly half the amounts or scale them as you see fit.
  • At first, especially when your starter’s brand new, the speed at which it expands may not seem fast. But you’ll be using some of the fermentation water in the recipe so don’t worry if the starter’s not as active. But this is why I’m cultivating a starter as opposed to creating one from scratch every time I want to bake. It is so fast-acting now that it is built up.
  • Also, once you’ve established the starter, you can continue to use it as a regular starter after the yeast water has expired. I still use my original apple starter that I just feed every day like a traditional starter (more on that below).

Using the Starter In Recipes

Use a levain made from a botanical starter like any other levain. Though I often keep a mother, with some bakes, I just use all the starter up. And since my botanicals are fairly mature and dense with microbes, it’s easy to get a levain going that I can bake with in a few hours. The point to this is that there isn’t any real secret to using a botanical starter.

Maintaining the Ferment

Eventually, you’ll want to get rid of the fruit. I normally discard the fruit after a week-and-a-half to two weeks, then reserve the remaining liquid – even with all the extra particulate matter in it. This liquid can be maintained indefinitely.

Like any starter, whether botanical or flour-based, your ferment needs regular feeding. If I’m regularly using my starter; that is, every day, I feed it first thing in the morning with a spoonful of honey and let it get active for about an hour. I then make a levain out of it with 100g flour and 100g botanical starter. Once that doubles (usually in a couple of hours), I’ll measure out the botanical water and flour to get the amount of levain I’ll need for the bake. Then once that has doubled, I’ll mix my dough.

But if I let it sit for a few days, then like with a traditional starter, it’ll need a couple to a few feedings to get it fizzy again. I’ll feed it first thing in the morning, then check it after a few hours. If it shows signs of activity, I’ll feed it again.

Update 4/17/2021: Since I’ve been baking with my botanical starters for a while now, once I chuck the fruit and strain the liquid, I feed it with a tablespoon of honey, let it sit at room temp for a few hours, then I pop it into the fridge. When I’m ready to use it again, I just add it and an equal amount of flour to my leftover flour starter and make a levain. It’s so active now that even cold, the levain triples in just a few hours!

Also, as above, once I’ve exhausted half the liquid, I feed it again by mixing a tablespoon of honey in some warm water, then fill up the container, let it rest for a few hours, then pop it back into the fridge. There’s no fruit left in the liquid – it’s purely yeast water now, but that stuff is active! 🙂

What About After Botanical Water Has Been Used Up or Expired?

Someone on a forum had mentioned that it bothered them that this technique didn’t perpetuate the starter like a regular starter. That’s totally understandable. After all, I’ve spent the whole time talking about making a starter culture using the botanical water as the liquid for the levain. But think about this: When botanical water is added to flour what is essentially happening is that the flour is getting inoculated with yeast and microbes. So as opposed to cultivating the yeast that’s on the surface of the flour, we’re giving the yeast that we’ve developed in water some food. In other words, we’re creating a culture. And once that culture is established, it will thrive as long as it’s fed.

I just snapped the picture to the left. This is my culture from my apple starter. After I used up most of it for yesterday’s bake, I was left with only 50g that I put in the fridge the other day.

Yesterday evening, I pulled it out of the fridge, and I didn’t even let it come to room temp. I added some lukewarm tap water and some flour (about 300g each) and mixed it all up. Mind you, I was testing out how the remaining starter would work without being fed botanical water, and also, I didn’t let it warm up because I was thinking it would just take a long time to expand. Those beasties in the culture are ravenous! That culture is thriving and the microbes are incredibly active – even without using a booster of botanical water!

And to be completely honest, part of why I did this was because my botanical water started smelling a little funky with sulphur notes yesterday afternoon. I aired it out and fed it and the smell is gone, but I didn’t want to chance introducing offputting notes into my dough. Needless to say, I’m pretty amazed at how well the culture performs!

New Horizons in Baking

Using botanicals like this is opening up whole new horizons in baking for me! I love fermenting all sorts of fruits and veggies, but I have a real passion for fermenting hot peppers from Habaneros to Carolina Reapers. I’m looking forward to fermenting my next batch of hot peppers and using the fermentation water in my dough! It’s time for fiery sourdough!

HAPPY BAKING!

Roasted Garlic Rosemary and Cheese Bread

There’s something ethereal about biting into a slice of garlicky, herbacious bread. But add a sharp cheese like Asiago or Parmesano Reggiano, and the bread goes to another level! This is a bread that I don’t make too often simply because it’s an incredibly caloric bread. My family requests it quite a bit, but I usually end up making my Garlic-Rosemary sourdough bread and citing health reasons.

This bread, on the other hand, is made from a straight dough. I developed it more out of convenience and ease because it’s a same-day bake. However, I have made it with a levain made from 20% of the total flour.

No matter what you use to raise the bread, this is a great recipe for learning how to incorporate cheese into your bread. When I first made it, I used nothing but shredded cheese. Unfortunately, cheese melts, which means it liquifies! I’ve had a few collapsed loaves from only using shredded cheese. But I’ve learned to use a combination of shreds and predominantly chunks. Even with chunks, the cheese will melt, but it will melt in pockets rather than shreds that will melt into the dough.

A Note on Ingredients

For the cheese, I use a combination of Asiago and Parmesano Reggiano cheeses. The cubes are folded into the dough. Depending on my mood, I use different shredded, sharp white cheeses such as Gruyere or Grana Padano Parmesan or a four cheese Italian blend that I sprinkle on top of the loaves during the last 10 minutes of the bake.

I only use very good extra virgin olive oil. There is a lot of shit olive oil on the market. Most California olive oils from independent producers are pretty good. It’s a bit of a crap shoot with Italian olive oil which I love. For Italian olive oils, I use oils produced by the Frantoi Cutera brand; specifically, their Segreto and Primo types. These oils can be pricey, but they’re really robust. I always have a bottle of one of these on hand. For Italian oil, though it’s not a guarantee, look for the “DOP” or “PDO” badge on the bottle. Also, check the bottling date. It should be less than a year old.

For California olive oil, I absolutely adore anything made by Sciabica Family California OIive Oil. I was first introduced to their oil at the annual Dominican Sisters Christmas Fair. Sciabica harvests, crushes and produces the olive oil for the sisters, and they also sell their own oil at the fair, which I bought and absolutely love! But you can get it online! You can order a 1.5L “oil in a box” for $36.00. They use flat rate shipping. For me, it was $5.00. So it’s high-quality but very affordable olive oil!

Let’s make some bread!

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water65.00%
Olive Oil5.00%
Salt2.00%
Yeast1.00%
Garlic6.00%
Fresh Rosemary0.25%
Cheese (cubed)20.00%
Total Percentage199.25%

Final Dough

Yield: 4 X 700g loaves

Flour1,419.32
Water922.56
Olive Oil70.97
Salt28.39
Yeast14.19
Garlic85.16
Rosemary3.55
Cheese283.86
Total Dough Weight~2828g
Yield4 X 700g loaves
Optimal Dough Temp76°-78°F

Prep the Garlic. Peel and measure out the garlic you’ll need (I buy peeled, fresh garlic from my local produce store). If you’re over a few grams, it’s not a big deal. Place the garlic on a piece of foil, and drizzle a little olive oil to coat the cloves. Wrap the garlic in the foil, then roast it for 35-40 minutes at 400°F. Set aside and let cool for at least a half hour before mixing the dough.

Prep the Rosemary. You can use dried rosemary, but there is nothing like the aroma and flavor of the oils from fresh rosemary. Though I listed 0.25%, you can use more or less. I actually use a little more than called for.

Prep the Cheese. For the chunks, I like to use a combination of Asiago and Parmesano Reggiano. Cut the cheese into 1/2″ – 3/4″ cubes.

Mixing. Mix the flour, salt, and yeast together until fully combined. Gradually add the water. When the ingredients just start coming together, add the olive oil, garlic, and rosemary, then mix until all the ingredients are fully combined with moderate gluten development. You do not want to knead this dough!

If you use a mixer, mix only on low speed, just to bring the ingedients together. If you find a lot sticking to the sides, go to the second speed for a few seconds, then go back to the lowest speed.

Bulk Fermentation: 1 1/2 – 2 hours until almost doubled.

Incorporate the cheese and folds. After mixing, let the dough rest for 30 minutes to get fermentation started. Spread the cheese cubes evenly over the surface of the dough and press them into it. The dough will be a little puffy even after 30 minutes. Once you have all the cheese pressed into the dough, take the dough by the long end, stretch it up and fold it back about 2/3 over the dough. Turn your container around, then do the same on the other side. Turn the container 90° then repeat the letterfolding process. Make sure to give the dough a healthy stretch without tearing it! Roll the dough onto the seams. Rest another 30 minutes then repeat the process.

Lamination. After another 30 minutes, you’re going to laminate the dough on a board. It’s basically the same thing as the folds in the container, but stretching it a bit more as the dough should be more extensible by then. Lightly flour your board so the dough doesn’t stick, tug the dough into a rectangle, then stretch and letter fold the dough. Be VERY gentle with this to avoid tearing, but give it a good stretch. There will be a little tearing due to the cheese chunks, but don’t pull too quickly or violently. Once you’ve folded over all four sides, roll it over onto its seams then form it into a ball. You could try using your bench scraper, but it’s actually easier to do with your hands. Return the dough to your container seams-side-down then let the dough rise for another 30 minutes or until it has about doubled.

Divide and shape. Divide into four equal pieces. Ideally, based on the formula, the pieces would be 700g. But… sometimes I use a little more garlic or cheese, so I scale out to four equal pieces. Once scaled, pre-shape into rounds, being careful not to let the cheese tear the skin (lightly dust the tops with a little flour to help with this). Bench rest for 15-20 minutes, then shape into batards or rounds.

Final fermentation. 30-45 minutes. By now the yeast will have really propagated, so this final rise will be fairly quick. Just do a poke test to see how the loaves are doing.

Bake. Bake at 500°F for 15 minutes with steam, then 30 minutes at 435°F. 10 minutes before the bake is done, sprinkle a healthy amount of shredded cheese over the top of the loaves.

If you bake on a stone, I highly recommend lining it with parchment paper as the cheese will ooze out of the loaves – which is a good thing. It will prevent your board from staining.

If You Want to Use a Sourdough Starter

I’ve made this with sourdough starter as well. The only difference in the development is that things go quite a bit slower. The mixing and initial folding stays the same, but bulk fermentation will take longer to get the dough to double, and final ferment can take a couple of hours at room temp. You can also pop the loaves in the fridge overnight.

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water65.00%
Olive Oil5.00%
Salt2.00%
Yeast1.00%
Garlic6.00%
Rosemary0.25%
Cheese20.00%
Total Percentage199.25%

Levain

Preferment Flour %*20%
Hydration %100%
Flour283.86
Water283.86

As I always state, build up a levain that’s more that what you need, so in this case, make a 600g 100% hydration starter.

Final Dough: Yield 4 X 700g loaves

Flour1,135.46
Water638.70
Olive Oil70.97
Salt28.39
Yeast14.19
Garlic85.16
Rosemary3.55
Cheese283.86
Preferment567.73
Total Dough Weight2,828.00
Total Flour1,419.32
Total Water922.56

The Real Bread Campaign

The Real Bread Campaign is a UK organization dedicated to promoting the production of real bread, that is, bread that is free of additives such as baking powder, xantham gum, addd enzymes, or any other artificial processing aid. The thinking is that “Real Bread has nothing to hide. It is made with simple, natural ingredients and NO additives.” I’m a proud supporter of the Real Bread Campaign and though there is no US-based arm, I firmly believe that what they’re doing in the UK to promote naturally produced bread is absolutely important.

Though I’ve freely admitted that my foray into artisan bread making was the result of trying to find something worthwhile to do during the pandemic lockdown last year, a big reason for making bread myself was for nutritiononal reasons. From the get-go, I wanted to use ingredients that were wholesome; that didn’t contain a bunch of added chemicals. My ingredients didn’t necessarily have to be organic, but I wanted them to be free of chemical additives. As the primary cook in my family, I believe it is important to be as nutritionally sound as possible with the things I cook.

But let’s face it: Homemade bread is WAY better than the stuff you get at the store. So why not kill two birds with one stone? Make great-tasting bread that’s also nutritious and free of chemical additives!

Months into my quest for creating natural bread, I started searching for organizations that aligned with my own sensitivities and I ran across the Real Bread Campaign. Their simple ethos of “real bread has nothing to hide” resonated with me. So I joined the movement and recently became a paying subscriber. Though they’re based in the UK, they’re doing great work promoting producers of natural bread. I guess it boils down to the fact that I don’t care where they’re located in the world. I believe in what they’re doing and I want to support them.

A benefit of membership is that I can use the Real Bread Campaign logos on the packages of bread I sell or donate. Also, for the formulas I provide here, they’ll have one of the logos attached to them. So if you see one of these logos, it means the recipe follows a certain set of criteria:

Real Bread

When you see this logo, it means that the bread is made without the use of any processing aid. It may be leavened by baker’s yeast or a sourdough starter. Other natural ingredients may be used in addition to the flour, water and salt, but excludes the following:

  • Flour containing any additive, other than any added as so-called ‘fortificants’ if their addition is mandatory where you make and sell your loaves.
  • Chemical leavening e.g. baking powder / soda.
  • Ingredients that have been produced with the use of any additive or processing aid.

Sourdough
Sourdough is “Real Bread” but is leavened only by a starter cultured from natural yeasts and lactic acid bacteria naturally present in flour and without the use of:

  • Any souring agent or sourdough flavoring such as vinegar, yogurt, lactic or acetic acid, or dried sourdough powder.
  • Commercial yeast.

If you yourself want to use these logos – whether you sell your bread or not – I encourage you to go to the Real Bread Campaign website and become a member. You don’t have to make a donation, but as a member, you can put your “bakery” on the the Real Bread map!

Using The Best Ingredients

My favorite brand of olive oil: Frantoi Cutera. I use the Primo (above) and the Segreto.

In both Italian and French provincial cuisine, as opposed to making elaborate presentations with a complex mixture of ingredients, simplicity is the key. The rule of thumb is to use as few ingredients as possible and let them speak for themselves as opposed to hiding them behind a lot of spices.

Now, the real trick to pulling that off is to use the best possible ingredients and be uncompromising about it. The thinking is that if you use high-quality ingredients, you don’t need to “make up” what they might lack.

Take olive oil for instance. When I bake Italian bread that calls for olive oil, I don’t just use any old olive oil. I use DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) or PGI (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) oils from Italy. These designations ensure that the olive oil is not only sourced from a specific region but also that they meet the highest quality standards. In other parts of Europe, the top olive oil is designated as PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).

In California where I live, our olive oil grading is based on quality as opposed to geographic region. There’s less protection of origin, but extra-virgin is pretty high-quality stuff and meets fairly exacting quality standards. However, small producers do exist that sell olive oil from specific regions – they’re absolutely excellent.

The same goes for the flour that I use. I pay a bit of a premium for the high-protein flour I use, but it’s certified organic and it produces absolutely wonderful bread. The same goes for my Azure Standard flour. And even though I use King Arthur AP flour, there’s no argument that it’s very high quality.

You see, the thing about bread is that there really are only three basic ingredients in it: Flour, Water, and Salt. You can add yeast as an ingredient if you’re using commercial yeast, but if you’re using a natural starter, that’s just flour and water. And of course, some recipes call for olive oil. But the point is that bread is already simple with respect to its ingredients. So why not use the highest-quality ingredients to make our bread even better?

For me, that means using certified organic flour and other ingredients when called for. The fruit I use for my botanical starters are all organic or wild fruit. When I add parmesan cheese, it’s always Parmesano Reggiano. You get the picture.

Granted, using high-quality ingredients isn’t going to make me a better baker. I have to develop my skills. But using great ingredients does make the process easier. Moreover, the consistency they bring helps ensure I’ll make great-quality bread consistently.

Making a Dough You Can Call Your Own

In “Flour Water Salt Yeast,” Ken Forkish includes a section about creating a dough that you can call your own. When I first read that section, I was still very new at making artisan bread and to be honest, I was fairly skeptical about getting to the point of making a dough I could call my own. I was still completely overwhelmed by the process and couldn’t fathom having “my own” dough recipe.

So I followed Ken’s advice and made the recipes strictly according to how they were written – probably about 20 times. Then I started to get a feel for working with dough and started experimenting with hydration levels and flour blends and such. Some folks might think that that’s not much practice before experimenting, but I’m fairly experienced in the kitchen and once I did it about 20 times, it was enough repetition to start exploring.

Fast-forward a few months later, and I think I’ve found my “master” flour blend which is an 80-20 bread/whole wheat flour (fine ground) combination. I’ve made several loaves with this combination over the last couple of weeks, and I absolutely love the results I’m getting! I moved to including more whole grain into my diet because of health reasons, but the texture that whole grain brings is magnificent.

The cool thing is that my 20% whole wheat portion is like my joker card. I can use it in a straight dough, or I use it to make a poolish.

I’m not going to stop tweaking; in fact, Ken Forkish promotes this. But I’m very jazzed that I found a foundation!

Update 6/21/2021

That “master blend” that I talked about in the article is now more of a reference blend. The reason is that since I wrote that, I’ve tried out different kinds and brands of flour. For instance, I based that blend on a mix of 20% Hudson Cream White Whole Wheat flour and 80% Azure Standard Unbleached Bread Flour (High-ExtractionUltra-Unifine). But since then, I’ve learned to change up flour blends based on the loaves I make. In fact, depending on the loaf, the flour and the percentages I used could be completely different!

Was I full of shit in my original post? No. But I was only baking a couple of different types of bread at the time, so my blend was valid for that time.

Welcome!

Featured

This is the official blog for my little micro-bakery, Dawg House Bakery that I run out of my home. As I’m not a professionally-trained baker, I originally started this blog as a diary to document things I’ve learned and recipes I’ve developed. But it kind of took on a life of its own with folks from all over the world visiting the site. So welcome!

Helpful Posts

Baguettes

Ciabatta

Sourdough

Ancient Italian Bread

My Master Pizza Dough

Za’atar Flatbread

Though I haven’t ever posted anything about pizza dough, I actually make pizza or flatbread a couple of times a month. I just haven’t posted anything about it because I’ve been working on my formulation as well as my dough development technique. But I finally developed a formula and method that I’ve been using the past few times I’ve made pizza and as I’m getting consistent results, I thought I’d share it.

This dough may not be for everyone, especially those who like a thin, crusty crust. I like a crust that’s similar to baguettes: A crispy exterior and a chewy, toothy crumb. If you like a crust like that, this dough will fulfill that!

One thing I love about this particular dough is that it’s highly extensible due to the olive oil. But what I discovered is that you can’t add the olive oil too early as it inhibits gluten formation (I actually had to do some research on that). So the olive oil is always added last, after the dough has been worked a bit.

Contributing to the dough’s extensibility is the use of a stiff biga. But it also lends a very nice, slightly sour flavor profile from the long, slow fermentation. That, combined with a cold final fermentation makes this dough very tasty! Let’s get to the formula!

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water68% – 70.00%
Salt1.80%
Yeast1.30%
Olive Oil5.00%
Total Percentage178.10%

Biga

Preferment Flour % of Total17%
Hydration %60%
Preferment Yeast %0.20%

Final Dough

Flour430
Water299
Salt9
Yeast7
Olive Oil26
Biga138
Yield909.00 / 2 X 450g pieces
Total Flour510.39
Total Water357.27

For both the biga and the final dough, I like using a high-protein flour. Something in the range of 14-17% protein content. You can use King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill bread flour and add a bit of vital wheat gluten to get you over the 14% mark. I wrote an article on upping the protein percentage in your dough using vital wheat gluten that you can use as a reference.

Biga. As I make a lot of Italian bread, I usually have a couple of different biga formulations in my fridge, so when I need some, I just scale out what I need for a particular bake. For this, you want to make a 60% hydration biga. Most folks won’t have a 60% biga on hand, so you should make it the day before you mix. So for this recipe, take 100 grams of high-protein flour, 60 grams of water and a half-gram of yeast. Mix it all together then form it into a ball. Place it into a lightly oiled bowl and cover tightly with plastic. Let it begin to ferment at room temp for an hour, then pop it into the fridge. It will be ready when the surface is riddled with holes and the center is ever-so-slightly recessed.

While I recommend using a mixer to mix, you can do this by hand. It’s just a little harder.

Mix. Measure out the water to 68% (the final dough indicates what you’ll need for 68%). Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl except for the biga and the olive oil. Thoroughly mix all the ingredients together. As the ingredients start coming together, add the biga in chunks, then mix until fairly smooth. Once everything has been incorporated, the dough should be sturdy, but still pliable. If it seems a little dry and stiff, add a few grams of water to correct the hydration. Work the dough a little to start developing the gluten, then once you’ve got some gluten development, add the olive oil. At this point, I usually squeeze the olive oil into the dough with my hands. To use the mixer would mean to mix at a higher speed, and I don’t want to tear the gluten strands to incorporate the oil.

Bulk Fermentation. 1-2 hours or until the dough has doubled. It was 83°F in my kitchen yesterday when I made the dough and the dough doubled in 45 minutes! So in warm weather, keep an eye your dough!

Folding. If you mixed by hand, you can optionally fold after an hour. But I never fold if I use a mixer. I get good enough gluten development with it.

Divide and Shape. Scale the dough into 450g pieces. These will be big enough for a 16″ peel. If you want smaller pieces, then just half the halves again. Form the pieces into rounds (it’s not important to form a super-taut skin), then place on a floured surface, seam-side-down. If you plan to bake them the same day, let the balls rest for 20-30 minutes then they’ll be ready to press out or thrown. Otherwise, sprinkle the tops with flour, then wrap each piece individually with plastic then place them in the fridge. Alternatively, you can place the pieces unwrapped in a sealable container. Store in the fridge for up to 24 hours. That said, with this amount of yeast in the final dough, I’ve had the most success with a 12-hour final ferment. If you rested your rounds in the fridge, allow them rest at room temp for an hour before baking and shaping into flats.

Note: If you want do an even longer cold fermentation, use 25%-50% of the prescribed yeast. Depending on how cold your fridge is, you could take a two or three days.

To shape, press the ball into a flat circle or a rough oval if making flatbread. Stretch the dough with both hands on the backs of your knuckles, rotating often to ensure an even thickness. As the dough thins, it will tear, so be careful not to tear it! These particular dough balls will make 16″ pizzas. Once finished shaping, place on a peel that has been well-dusted with semolina or coarse-grind cornmeal (my preference), then add toppings.

There’s technically no final fermentation step unless you count the bench rest after shaping into rounds or resting in the fridge. .

Bake. This is where it kinds of gets tricky. And as much as I’d like to say you can bake your pizza or flatbread on baking trays, you get the best results with a stone or steel. Even though you can’t get the high 700° temps of a wood-burning oven, you can still get pretty good results. So bake at 500°F dry for 10-12 minutes. The crust will be golden brown.

Bread Baking “Soft” Skills

I was on an online forum and someone made this post (paraphrased):

Can someone please tell me why I can’t seem to make a decent loaf of bread? It seems I’ve made hundreds of loaves, tried dozens of recipes. I’ve tried wheat gluten, different kinds of flour, kneaded for hours, and resting at different temperatures. I’ve tried less sugar, more salt. But every loaf I make comes out the same: Cakey and totally lacking in flavor. Please help!

Several people answered the person’s plea for help with some very sound advice, albeit technical. I read through all the answers and figured that any specific technical advice I’d add to the thread might be a little redundant. On the other hand, it did occur to me that that person was lacking in what I call the soft skills department.

Soft skills are those skills that everyone assumes one should have, but no one really talks about them. But they are absolutely critical to success – in practically anything. Unfortunately, so much of our society focuses on technical acumen and ability that we end up completely missing or misunderstanding the critical nature of those soft skills.

Every discipline has an accompanying set of soft skills. In my professional life as a software engineer, much emphasis – and quite rightly so – is placed on technical aptitude. In fact, early on in my career, before it became popular to go into software engineering, if you had the skills, you got the job. But as the wold evolved, soft skills such as teamwork, initiative, persistence, and even compassion became important factors in hiring. After all, who wants to work with an asshole? And at my level now, it’s assumed I possess the technical knowledge and recruiters are more interested on how well I can integrate into their team.

Such is the case with baking. Like many, I’ve picked up techniques from blogs, cooking sites, and books. All of them focus on technical stuff. And mind you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But non-technical or “soft” skills are also critical to baking success. So I thought I’d talk about a few of them in this latest post.

Patience

In his book, “Flour Water Salt Yeast,” Ken Forkish has a section that calls time and temperature ingredients. In that section, he shows how those two things can affect how dough behaves. But after doing several bakes, I realized that even more so, patience is even more important.

Dough takes time to develop. Full stop. Let me say that again: Dough takes time to develop. How much time it takes to finish a particular step is dependent on a variety of factors: temperature, hydration, humidity, etc. It could be a short period of time or it could take seemingly forever to develop. But no matter whether it’s short or long, when you’re dealing with anything that takes time, you have to have patience. When instructions tell you to wait until the dough doubles, wait until the dough doubles!!! It may come up in half the time the baker lists, or it may take two or three times as long. But whichever, have the patience to wait it out!

Adaptability and Flexibility

As a corollary to patience, because dough takes time to develop and that time is variable, we have to be able to adapt and be flexible with our process. The same goes for temperature. For instance, as I write this post, I’m in the middle of a big bake for a luncheon tomorrow where I have to provide garlic bread for 100 people, so I’m making Pane di Como Antico to pair with the Italian menu. Normally, the hydration for this bread is 73%. But today, it’s warm in my kitchen, so I lowered the hydration to 71%. Lowering the percentage also allows the gluten to form more easily, so instead of the normal four folds that I do, I only needed to do three sets as the dough strength developed earlier.

Also, because it’s warm, rising times significantly decreased. The basic recipe calls for a final ferment of 1- 1 1/2 hour. But with the ambient temp in my kitchen at 78°F, I’m thinking it’ll take about 45 minutes to do the final proof.

The point to this is that though the original recipe states specific times, you have to remember that those times were based on the author’s kitchen conditions at the time. I need to be flexible and adapt to the conditions in my own kitchen. If I stuck with the original prescription of an hour to an hour-and-a-half, my dough would overproof. Not good.

Also, as being dogmatic can be problematic, tweaking a recipe on the fly in response to something not happening according to some condition the author lists is just as bad. You’ll be forever chasing after one bad situation after another!

Tidiness (read: Having Your S$%t Wired)

Having been a longtime home cook, and having worked in food service in the past, I’ve learned the very important lesson of mise en place, or “everything in its place.” I have a few chef and cook friends and one thing they always talk about is their “meez.” Their most commonly used items and seasonings are right within reach. Chopped veggies and herbs are prepped well before service. And most importantly, they keep their stations clean! And as one chef friend said to me once, “I know a line cook has his or her s%^t wired just by looking at how they’ve arranged their station and how clean they keep it during service.”

As for me, whether I’m cooking or baking, I prep EVERYTHING I need first, and I wash every pot and pan or scale or bowl as soon as I can after I’m done with it. My counter is kept scrupulously clean. And woe the person that comes along and leaves crap on my counter when I’m cooking. They get an earful till it’s cleared.

The point to this is that an uncluttered space means you have an uncluttered mind. It also requires immense focus to maintain the cleanliness of your space that just aids in keeping you on your A-game while baking. For instance, if you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I bake a lot of baguettes. When I do, I have my board and couch conditioned, all my scrapers lined up and all my ingredients weighed out and in containers before I even consider mixing stuff together. When I started being disciplined, the quality of my baguettes went through the roof as did the consistency of them from bake to bake.

Geeking Out

If you want to bake with any proficiency at all, you have to have to do a bit of studying. As they say, knowledge is power, that couldn’t be more true than with artisan bread baking. And there is nothing wrong with that. When I first started baking, my wife would tease me that I study more than bake. She was actually teasing me, and I knew it, but I did respond by saying that just as with the great Nancy Silverton, I was obsessed with dough. I wanted to learn all I could about it.

I woudn’t expect others to be nearly as obsessive about baking and dough as I am, but it’s never a bad thing to gain knowledge. Never.

The Importance of Breathing: In Other Words, Chill Out!

This might not seem like a skill, but it requires a lot of practice to be relaxed and chilled out when baking. When we’re nervous, we tighten up and we constrict our breathing. This slows the oxygen to our brains and we become muddled, which in turn makes us even more frantic. It’s really a vicious cycle that we get ourselves into.

But if we’re breathing and relaxed in our actions, we breeze right through everything. Everything is clear because our brains are getting oxygen. And though I’m speaking within the context of baking, it applies to everything in life.

But as far as baking is concerned, we also have to do – or not do – things that will trigger our nervousness. That whole mise-en-place discussion I had above contributes to our relaxations, whereas the lack of it creates chaos. So breathe. Relax. It’s good for you!

Mindfulness

I’m Catholic and one year at Lent, as opposed to giving something up like candy or booze, I instead decided to be more mindful; that is, be more aware of what I was doing and doing my best to see the interconnectedness of my life and world around me. While I didn’t necessary dive down into the depths of the details, I made sure I was at least always aware of what those details were.

Practicing mindfulness during that time became a habit, and I learned to apply it to my baking. At least to me, being mindful is that extra insurance for a successful bake as mindfulness prevents me from skipping steps or taking shortcuts. It keeps me aware of what’s happening with a dough that I’m working on.

For instance, as I write this section, I have a flatbread dough that’s going through its bulk fermentation. On normal days when it’s 72-75 degrees in my kitchen, that dough takes 2-hours to complete bulk fermentation. But it is a VERY hot day today and it peaked at 102 degrees. I had my are conditioning on, but my kitchen was still a balmy 84 degrees. So I’m being extra-mindful of my dough.

Whew! I kind of wrote a novel this time! But this was as much for myself as for sharing it with others.

Happy Baking!

Ciabatta with Biga

Like the humble baguette, a ciabatta is the model of simplicity when it comes to its ingredients. But also like the baguette, if you don’t bring your A-game to this bake, it’ll bite you in the ass! The dough is so wet that you have to use quick movements when working with it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up with my hands covered with dough (more like batter). I don’t want to discourage anyone from making this, but just be prepared.

Speaking of preparation, I’ve adapted this recipe from a few sources, but mainly from what I learned from Carol Fields’ book, “The Italian Baker” and her Ciabatta Polesana, which she in turn adapted from former race driver Arnaldo Cavallari who quit racing and started baking the flour from his family’s mill. In her recipe, she recommends using high-gluten flour. I’m not sure just how high of protein content she was talking about, but the high-protein flour I use is 17% protein. At 88% hydration, it’s like working a regular dough. So I upped my hydration to 93% when using this flour to get it to a looser consistency. But I do recommend bread flour or a mix of bread and AP flour at this hydration.

Ms. Fields also recommend using a mixer. I usually use one if I’m making a larger batch of ciabatta. But when I’m just whipping up a couple of loaves, I just mix by hand. But as I often recommend, a Danish dough whisk really comes in handy. That said, let’s get to the formulas!

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water88.00%
Salt1.80%
Yeast0.75%
Total Percentage190.55%

Biga

Make a 75% hydration biga from 35% of the flour you’ll need (we’ll get into that in just a bit). Whatever that weight comes out to, make a bit more than what you calculate. For this particular recipe, our yield will be 2 X 500g loaves and I always add a percent or two for process loss, so about 1010g total dough weight. The biga formula is as follows:

Preferment Flour % of Total35%
Hydration %75%
Preferment Flour Weight185.52
Preferment Water139.14
Preferment Required325

As the table above shows, to make the total dough weight, we need 325g of biga. I made 350g and just measured out what I needed the next day.

To figure out how much total flour you’ll need for ANY recipe, take your target dough weight (this recipe is 1010g) and divide that by the total percentage (in this case 190.55% or 1.9055). That will give you about 530g. So, for the biga, you’ll need about 185g of flour as that is 35% of the total flour.

Final Dough

Flour345
Water327
Salt10
Yeast4
Biga325
Total Yield1,010.00
Total Flour530.04
Total Water466.44

Biga. The night before, mix the flour, yeast, and water you’ll need for the biga. Form into a ball, cover with plastic and let it rest. The next morning, it should be covered with bubbles and slightly domed. For my kitchen, it took about 10 hours to get to this state. It will be shorter in warm weather and longer in cold weather. Carol Fields recommends putting the biga in the fridge after an hour. But be forewarned that it will take 18-24 hours to get to the proper state. This is NOT a bad thing as it will develop the flavors of the organic acids.

Mix. In a large bowl, mix biga, yeast and water. Break up the biga (it will not completely dissolve. Add the flour, then sprinkle the salt over the flour. Mix until well incorporated and get the mixture to be as smooth as possible. Adjust hydration so that the dough is loose, but not quite a batter.

Bulk Fermentation. Approximately 1 to 1 1/2 hour.

Folding. After mixing, let the dough rest for 20 minutes then stretch and fold the dough.

Be sure with your folding that you do not tear the dough! However, do plenty of stretch and folds and feel the gluten strands develop. You will not get a lot of resistance at first, but you will feel it build. Also, don’t be afraid of wetting your folding hand often to prevent the dough from sticking.

Laminate. Pour the dough out onto a well-floured surface (be generous with the flour). Using wet or well-floured hands (and I also use my bench scraper), gently tug the dough into a large rectangle about 3/4″ thick. You don’t want to pull it too thin because you want to retain the bubbles as much as possible. Gently stretch out one of the short sides of the dough then fold it 2/3 over the sheet, then repeat with the other side. Do this again with the short sides of the dough until you’ve completed a north-south-east-west pattern. Gently pat the dough a little flatter, then repeat the NSEW pattern two more times, with a light pat-down in between. The dough will build up after each lamination, so be careful not to flatten it out too much. After the third lamination, gently roll it over onto the seams – no need to seal. Move the dough ball to a lightly oiled bowl for the final stage of bulk fermentation. Let the dough almost triple. This will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. At this point, we’re after bubble production!

Do yourself a favor and use really good olive oil. While you can use the standard stuff you can find in a grocery store, I’ve found that even the small amount that’s used with this bread makes a huge difference in the taste. I use Frantoi Cutrera Segreto Degli Iblei cold-extracted extra-virgin olive oil from Sicily.

Dividing and “Shaping.” At this point, you can be pretty generous with the flour you put on your board. Slide your dough out onto a well-floured work surface and tug into a rectangle about 3/4″ to 1″ thick. You’re going to divide it along the length, so try to make the rectangle as even as possible. Placing your fingers under the ends of a piece, quickly bring your hands together to scoop up the dough and transfer it to a very well-floured couche, or well-floured baking pan. Do some final arrangements to evenly distribute the dough across the flat loaf. The loaves will not be of even weight, though you can get pretty close. (Update: I scale out to 500 grams pieces – I like ’em even)

You will also notice bubbles just under the surface of the skin. Do not pop them!

Note: If you use a baking pan, use a mixture of flour and course-grind cornmeal or semolina. You won’t be transferring the loaves to a stone.

Final Fermentation. This is a little tricky because all you really want to do is let the dough reset from dividing and shaping. Chef Markus Farbinger only waits 10 minutes for this final stage. I go from 15-30 minutes. The poke test will not work here. What I look for is if the dough has puffed up a bit and the sharp edge of my cut is all but gone.

A good ciabatta will be riddled with holes!

Bake. Transfer the loaves to a transfer board. For added texture, I sprinkle a generous amount of cornmeal on my transfer board to give the bottoms of the loaves a nice crunch. Lightly spray olive oil on the tops of the loaves. Bake with steam at 485°F for 12 minutes. Remove the steaming container, turn the oven down to 435°F and bake for another 20-25 minutes until the crust is a deep golden brown. Cool for 30 minutes before cutting.

Fully baked, a ciabatta will feel a lot lighter than what its size may indicate. My ciabatta are 22″ long, but they feel light as a feather. If your loaves feel a little heavy, bake them for a few more minutes. It’s the water that makes them heavy.

Happy Baking!

What About Using Sourdough?

That is entirely possible, though I’d change the formula a little to use a hybrid starter/commercial yeast method of rising as indigenous yeast tends to make finer holes. You’ll use half the yeast prescribed in the original recipe and cut the starter’s flour percentage to 20%.

Furthermore, I recommend building a levain from AP flour to keep the flavor mild. Or if your starter is based on whole-grain flour, I’d recommend a grain that has some gluten in it. If you want to use a rye-based starter, then knock the hydration down a couple of percentage points.

Given all that, here’s what the adjusted formula would look like:

Overall Formula

Flour100.00%
Water88.00%
Salt1.80%
Yeast0.30%
Total Percentage190.10%

Starter

Preferment Flour % of Total20%
Hydration %75%

Final Dough (Yield: 2 X 500g loaves)

Flour425
Water388
Salt10
Yeast2
Preferment186

Notes

  1. Though I mentioned using a hybrid rising technique you could still go with using nothing but a levain to raise the dough. But if you do, I highly recommend doing a long, cold bulk fermentation for at least 12-16 hours to ensure good bubble formation. Also, after you remove the dough from the fridge, you’ll need to give it a couple to a few hours to come up to near room temp before proceeding with the rest of the processing.

Janie’s Mill High Protein Flour

When I first started making high-hydration loaves (75%+), they were disastrously flat. And since I was baking on a stone, I didn’t have the luxury of the sidewalls of a Dutch oven to save me. So I had to learn how to build structure into my dough.

And I learned all sorts of techniques, from proper folding to shaping method and even getting a better sense of how my dough was fermenting. And as a result, my loaf height seriously improved.

But I had run across some posts online where people had made beautiful high-hydration loaves and mentioned that they were using high-protein flour – almost to a person. And that got me thinking that if I could combine my development and shaping techniques with good, strong flour I could improve the structure of my loaves even more.

So I went on a quest for high-protein flour and that first led me to Azure Standard Unbleached Bread Flour Ultra-Unifine. This is my #1 flour, and I absolutely love it. At 14.7% protein, it develops plenty of strength and my loaf structure immediately improved as a result. But as a it is a high-extraction flour, it has a very grain-forward flavor profile. Mind you, it’s not a bad thing, but too much of a good thing can be bad as well. So I always cut it with a little King Arthur bread or AP flour.

But that kind of bugged me because I knew that was reducing the protein levels in my loaves. Look, they still came out great, but I’m the type of person that doesn’t just want to get the job done, I want it done right and with no compromises in quality.

It’s how I approach music and performance. For instance, when I first took on the role of musical director for the youth and young adult Mass at my church, the musicians initially balked at me requiring a two-hour rehearsal prior to service. But I explained to them that even though we were volunteers, that didn’t exempt us from providing a high-quality product that enhances the prayer experience. Mistakes and misalignment would only serve to detract from that. And after seeing the results of that kind of commitment, they got it. Now, twenty-five years later, we’re still going strong – a bunch of old farts rocking with God! 🙂

Sorry for going off on a tangent…

Anyway, I wanted to find a high-protein flour that had less of a grain-forward flavor. So after trying a few different ones, I ran across this wonderful flour from a small mill in Illinois called Janie’s Mill. They produce a high-protein flour from Glenn wheat, which is a hard spring wheat. And at 17% protein, it was sure to provide plenty of structure – even up the protein levels of my high-extraction flour!

The flour arrived about a week ago, and I’ve baked a few loaves with it. This is wonderful flour to with which to work. And the bread that I’ve made with it has a gorgeous, nutty flavor profile and the crumb is pleasingly chewy. Notice how dark the crumb is in the picture to the left. That actually surprised me because the flour is very light in color, as is the dough. But it browns with baking. VERY cool!

My next test will be to cut it with my high-extraction flour to see how that performs. I’ll probably start with a 50/50 blend, then go from there.

I’ve included the nutrition information card to the right. When I saw the 6g per serving size of 35g, I nearly flipped! Just on that number alone, I knew I had to try it. And now that I’ve baked with this flour a few times, it’s going to be a regular part of my flour blend.

Mind you, this flour is NOT cheap. Actually, it’s pretty expensive at $48 / 25lb bag. I bought two bags, plus a small bag of Red Fife flour and it set me back over $100. But it’s great flour, totally organic and GMO-free and most of all, it’s produced by a small, independent mill. I think it’s important to support the little guy.

For more information, go to the Janie’s Mill website.