Here’s a Little Acid Test…

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on various online bread forums and have seen many pictures of bread people bake from around the world. There’s LOTS of talent out there! And today, as I was perusing a forum, I saw a picture that someone took of a half-dozen boules they made today. They were gorgeous!

And they were perfectly round and all the exact same diameter. When I zoomed in on the picture, I noticed that the bottom sides of the loaves were just a tad bit flat, which told me one thing: The loaves expanded outward to the sides of the Dutch oven.

Look, I don’t want to take away from how beautiful the loaves were. But it made me ask the question: What if they didn’t use a Dutch oven? Chances are, those loaves would be a LOT wider in diameter and not nearly as tall.

I don’t use a Dutch oven. I bake all my bread on a baking stone with a pan of water at the bottom of my oven for steam as shown below.

That doesn’t necessarily make my bread better or make me a better baker. But baking on a stone has forced me to constantly think about the strength of my dough and really hone my shaping skills. If I mess up, I get results like this:

That was not amusing. Those loaves were made with 40% Kamut, 30% Organic Whole Wheat, and 30% Bread Flour at 88% hydration. I knew I was in trouble after final proof. Though the loaves were perfectly fermented, there just wasn’t enough dough strength and they collapsed under their own weight. The lack of strength wasn’t due to kneading – or lack thereof – either. I used too much of a fairly acidic starter, and the hydration was simply too high for the flour I used. Both the Kamut and Whole Wheat flour from this supplier just don’t develop enough strength. Combine that with a low pH and well… you see the results.

As for the title of this post, here’s an acid test: For those of you who bake with a Dutch oven, try using a metal pan or a pizza stone to bake your next loaf. Instead of covering your loaf, put a cast-iron skillet on the bottom rack of your oven and put some hot water in it to generate steam. If you’re building up good strength in your dough, your loaf should rise up nicely. But if it spreads out, chances are you’ll need to work on building up your dough strength and shaping.

When I personally moved to a baking stone from a Dutch oven, I made several flat loaves until I learned how to get great gluten development, and learned how to create a taut skin during shaping; that, and studying my flour’s capabilities. In fact, with that brand of flour, I rarely take it above 80% and usually stay around the 78% hydration mark.

And when I saw the flatbread I had created, I have to admit that it was pretty humbling because I thought I was the bee’s knees with my perfectly shaped loaves! 🙂 Little did I know that my skills needed A LOT of development.

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!

Consistency Is Important

Call me anal retentive but to me, especially with baking, if I’m going to do the same thing a number of times, I need to be consistent with how I execute; otherwise, I’ll get different results from instance to instance. Over the months I’ve developed my process and I do specific steps in specific ways. And it has been important to learn to do this because now, not only can I be confident that I’ll get consistent results, those steps have become second-nature and I just do them automatically.

Even with something as simple as washing my fermentation tub… As soon as I’ve dumped my dough out onto my board following bulk fermentation, I immediately rinse out my tub with hot water. The reason for this is that it is a total pain in the ass to clean off dried dough from anything. It’s like cement! Plus, once I rinse it out and put it away, it’ll be ready for my next round of baking.

And of course, the obvious candidate for consistency is shaping. I now do five different kinds of loaves on a fairly regular basis – though I probably do three of those much more frequently – and I’ve learned different shaping techniques for each that I do over and over again. And it has been comforting know that I can produce repeatable results.

But with respect to my batards, even though I’ve shaped them all the same way, for months I’ve been using two different bannetons which has meant that even though they come out looking nice, you know they’ve come from different proofing baskets. Well… I know because I see them side-by-side. And I have to admit that that difference has bugged the shit out of me!

It finally came to a head last week and I vowed that I wouldn’t make another set of batards until I had a matching pair of bannetons. So last week, I ordered a match to my favorite banneton and yesterday, I made a couple of sourdough batards that are shown above. No, they’re not exactly alike but they are consistently shaped in the right way to me.

The ears came up pretty much the same, the width of the loaves was generally the same, and they both sprung up the same. When I was using two different bannetons, one loaf would always be wider than the other because that other banneton had a wider base. Like I said, that bugged the shit out of me!

But now I’m a happy man. I feel that with respect to batards at least, I’m complete. Consistency is a good thing!