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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A “New” Steaming Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Towels

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

Prep the Towels

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

Transfer to Loaf Pans

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

Place the Pans in the Oven

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

The Results

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

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

Recipe: 40% Kamut Flour Sourdough (Updated)

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

Overall Formula

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

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

Final Dough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basic Ciabatta

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Formula

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

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

Final Dough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Baking!

It’s All In the Shaping…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe: Baguettes de Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Formula

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

Final Dough

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

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

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

The dough is a shaggy mass after the initial mix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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.