So… You Want an Ear… There’s More To It Than Just Shaping and Fermentation

Of course, if you don’t get those right then you’ll never be able to achieve an ear. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself…

The pictures of the loaves above and the one below were made using the exact same formula (85%/15% Bread/Rye flour, 75% hydration, 2% salt), processed and fermented in the same way, and shaped using the exact same technique. They are all 1-kilo loaves. The crumb of the loaves in all three pictures looks similar to the picture below. They are all moderately open with a complete rise throughout the interior. They were also scored using the same lame and same scoring technique.

But as you can see in the top-right picture above, my loaves didn’t form ears. Most people would immediately say that I needed to create more skin tension. Sorry, that’s not it. Others would say I didn’t let the loaves ferment long enough. Sorry, that’s not it either. Still, others would say that I didn’t have enough steam, and the crust hardened before it could form an ear. Nope. So what’s the answer?

The loaves in the top picture were made from the same batch of dough, but the loaf on the left was part of a batch that was baked after the two on the right. What happened was that my stone had not come to temp, thus the ambient temperature was higher than that of my stone. As a result, the bottoms of the loaves did not expand as fast as the rest, and the exposed surfaces literally ballooned during baking, destroying any chance of forming an ear.

What also led me to this conclusion was that since the bottoms of the loaves were not as hot as the rest of the loaves, the yeast activity took longer to come to a close on the bottoms of the loaves. As a result, the exposed crusts set before the bottoms were done and one of the loaves literally sprung a leak as dough burst through a crack in the crust! Now THAT was funny!

When I removed the loaves from the oven, I laughed out loud because the loaves were HUGE and as I mentioned above, one of the loaves had leaked and a rather large protrusion was sticking out the back! On the other hand, the loaf at the top-left and the other in its batch came out as expected because my stone had come up to temp by then. Ugh! So I’ve learned my lesson and have an infrared thermometer on its way to me so I can ensure that my stone has come to temp.

The point of this is that as with other things I’ve written about in the past, there are several variables that will affect the outcome of a bake. Even in a commercial bakery, though conditions tend to be much more consistent than in a home kitchen, there’s variability in the environment. So you have to take the time to know your environment so you can achieve consistent results from bake to bake.

This is why I get a little irritated at some YouTubers who entitle their videos, “The Last _________ Recipe You’ll Ever Need,” or some nonsense like that. Though there are helpful tips in those videos, the vloggers invariably fail to mention their kitchen conditions and talk about how to deal with variances. For instance, baking bread on a hot day versus a cold day in a home kitchen, or failing to mention what their optimal dough temperature is!

Look, I realize that processing and shaping dough is challenging, and mastering just those things are probably the first things you need to accomplish to become proficient in bread baking. But as you get deeper and deeper into it, you realize things like temperature, or in my case, the stone equalizing with the oven affects the dough and the outcome of the bake.

As for developing an ear, I hate to break it to you, but that is NOT a sign of mastery. It is a sign that your loaf expanded, but don’t think that just because your loaf didn’t form an ear, you somehow failed. There are lots of gatekeepers in the home-baking world, especially in sourdough circles who believe that these things are important. They’re not.

But here are some rules of thumb that you can follow:

  • You don’t have to make a super-deep cut into your loaf when scoring. It’s more important that you maintain a shallow angle with your lame. For the loaves above, my cuts were about 1/2″ deep.
  • Also, understand that the purpose of scoring is NOT to make an ear. The purpose of scoring is to control where the loaf expands. Otherwise, your loaf will expand unevenly.
  • Make sure your dough is fully fermented. And no, it’s not just bulk fermentation. Yes, you want a thorough bulk fermentation, but you have to make sure there’s food left for the yeast for final fermentation. This is why Chad Robertson only takes his loaves out to about 30%-50% volume expansion in bulk fermentation. With his long, cold, final fermentation, he needs to make sure there’s food left for the little beasties.
  • Of course, shaping is absolutely critical. But you don’t have to get super-tight skin to get an ear. And though others may stress the importance of tight skin, the purpose of shaping is to orient the gluten strands.
  • Speaking of orienting the gluten strands, in order to orient them in the first place, you need to build strength in the dough but make no mistake, depending on the flour, the amount you stretch and fold will vary wildly. I use bread flour that is very high in gluten content (>13.5). Though I usually cut it with some other kind of flour, if I bake with it as the only flour, my dough only takes two stretches and folds before it has built up strength. On the other hand, if I use pastry flour that is made from soft red wheat, I have to do 4-6 stretch and fold sessions before it has built up strength. The point of this is that you should never overdo your folding. Fold until the dough can hold its shape for a while before it relaxes. Then leave it alone!
  • Finally, especially if you’re using a baking stone or steel, make sure your surface is equalized with the ambient temp of your oven. This is much less of an issue if you’re using a Dutch oven, but even when using a Dutch oven, you need to preheat it. That said, I saw a video where Chad Robertson was giving a master class and was using several Dutch ovens. He was popping them in the oven cold! But he was using a commercial convection oven to bake, so it’s likely the Dutch ovens came up to temp pretty fast.