Bits ‘n Pieces.

I’m talking about the early stage of a dough right after mixing.

“Help! The dough is sticking to my fingers, what do I do?”

This is often accompanied by things like, “I’m frightened to use too much flour for fear of altering the hydration”, or something similar.

When I read something about sticking/fingers I feel like screaming out “Well so it bloody should!”

Unless you are using the oil method a la Dan Lepard, or are using a dough so low in hydration that it probably won’t rise for a week, it should be sticking to your fingers. When rye flour enters the equation it gets even stickier.

Touching the dough is an important part of the process (more later) and if you touch it without using a horrible amount of flour, IT’S GUNNA STICK TO YOUR FINGERS.

I don’t quite know why this bothers people so much, and without going into why it sticks to your fingers, I offer the following advice :-

1. Make use of what you are feeling.

2. Learn to live with it, s..t happens. 🙂

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I’m talking about home baking.

Mixers, I don’t have one, and I don’t want one, and I don’t need one, and I have enough money to buy the best there is if I did. The reason I don’t is that I like to feel what is happening with my dough, and at times I like to use some lower hydration doughs that most home mixers can’t handle. On the subject of the mixers themselves, if you do buy one, then make sure it is the most powerful one you can get, and don’t overload it. On a forum recently a baker posted that he couldn’t get his dough to rise, what was eventually found to be the problem was that his mixer was working so hard that it was heating his dough to the point where it was killing the yeast in his starter!

Anyway back to touchy feely. The sense of touch is one that a lot of bakers overlook, but it is this very sense that, with experience, tells you when a dough is developed as you knead. Touch tells you when a dough is proofed ready to bake, touch will tell you if something is different to the last time you did the same recipe, and may help you correct a mistake in ingredient quantity. I had a recent case where I had previously done a recipe twice, and on doing it a third time something felt a little different at the shaping stage. The ingredient quantities were correct and it didn’t feel over/under hydrated, just different. It turned out that the starter I had used on the third batch was based on a completely different yeast variety than that present in the starter used in the first two batches.

So what I am saying is “Listen to your hands” they can tell you a lot. Now if I could just get my ears to listen to what the dough is talking about, I might improve my loaves. 😉

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I have in the past posted in a forum about how different slashes can control not only the shape of a loaf, but to some extent the texture of the crumb. I may repeat it on this blog at some stage but for the moment I just want to talk about the actual slash.

All sorts of things are used to slash a loaf, knifes, scalpels, cut throat razors, craft knives, razor blades both single and double sided, and just about anything else with a sharp edge. Now with a lower hydration loaf you can slash it with just about anything, not so with a higher hydration loaf as I expect many people have found out.

My preferred blade overall is a double sided razor blade, it is very sharp and very thin. It is about the thinnest readily available blade and is a damned sight sharper than all but a cut throat razor or a scalpel. The cut throat razor is too thick and it drags, and strangely enough the scalpel drags too, due to the way it is sharpened. This is referring to high hyd of course.

This is my weapon of mess distraction.

new_lame-002.jpg

Now we all know to what I am referring when I use the term “Slash” don’t we? Then why do so many of you try to “Cut” instead of “Slash”? Slash means, imagine you are trying to cut a new mouth in your worst enemy, not delicately cut Grandma another slice of cake!

It should be a really fast SLASH!!! Try it and you may find some of your problems have been overcome.

Wash your blade immediately after use, the acid in sourdough will take the edge off very quickly, and don’t be stingy, change your blade as soon as slashing becomes difficult.

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A proofed loaf ready for baking should, in most cases have a light “skin”, that is, a layer on the surface which has had some of the moisture removed so as to form a thin support structure to help stop the loaf spreading all over the place, sort of like what lips do for our mouth. Also during proofing most sourdough needs some support, and this can come in various ways, some better than others.

In my opinion the ideal way is in a cane banneton, either lined or unlined, and I’m sure you have read elsewhere about the difference and the techniques of each of the ways. Bannetons, while the best way, are not the cheapest things to buy so most of us look for alternatives, some good, some just so-so.

The most ready to hand is usually a cloth lined mixing bowl, either glass or plastic. Now if a decent non-synthetic cloth is used, this method will give a bit of a skin, but due to the lack of air getting to the surface of the dough the optimum skin does not form. However I must add that I would like 10 cents for every loaf proofed this way. 🙂

Another, and better way is to use a cloth lined colander which lets air to the loaf. You can use cheap baskets from the markets as another alternative, until I went mad and made some bannetons (never again) I used the cheap basket option, not perfect but better than a bowl.

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Mixing by hand, what do you use, wooden spoon, plastic spoon, metal spoon (Yuk) or what.

I don’t consider myself old, I just happen to be older than 75% of the general population, and my hands have a few problems, so I needed a mixer that worked for me, not against me like most thin handled spoons do. I made my type of mixer out of timber, which by nature is antibacterial, and with a wider handle for leverage, flat surface for easy scraping off the dough, and a face that was not too wide so that it wouldn’t try to move the dough rather than mix it. The end is beveled off to give a slightly blunt edge, and the edge is angled slightly so you have a bit of a point if you need to do some serious scraping.

new_new_gear-005.jpg

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Apart from Bannetons the most expensive piece of equipment, unless you really feel the need for a probe thermometer (I never have), is a really good set of digital scales that weigh up to 5Kg in 1g increments, and have the function to set to zero after you add an ingredient.

After that most things are pretty cheap. For mixing bowls I use $2.00 plastic salad bowls from the local “Cheapie” shop. For large batches of dough I use 11 Litre plastic dishes, $3.50 from Coles. My bench knife is a piece of metal with one edge folded over with a hammer for strength. You’ve seen my mixers. A lame for slashing can be as simple as a razor blade held in your fingers. Proofing cloths can, at a pinch, be linen or cotton tea towels. Baking stones can be an unglazed unsealed quarry tile from an odd batch at a tile supplier, I got my last one free simply for passing on to the woman behind the counter how much using one would improve her bread.

Most of your equipment does not have to be expensive, save your money for good ingredients.

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A “Laminex” type bench-top is great for kneading on, but a wooden breadboard that has had a small amount of flour rubbed into the surface is better for shaping your loaves on.

EDIT, Just checked the blog, I have already done the bit about different slashes, I must really be getting old. 🙂

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Published in: on July 7, 2006 at 5:23 pm  Comments (3)  

Myths, Methods & Narrowmindedness.

With the advent of the WWWeb, there has become available to us a wealth of information regarding the subject of sourdough. A great deal of the information is valid, but some of it only applies in special circumstances, some of it is dogmatically presented as “the only way”, some of it is just plain bullshit, and some is a mix of the lot. I don’t claim to know enough to tell you which is right and which is wrong, that is for you to decide as you gain experience, and this leads me to the subject of “Narrow-mindedness”.

There are many methods and choices for doing the various stages of making sourdough, starters, recipes, choice of flour, methods of mixing and kneading, proofing times, etc etc. There may be as many variations as there are bakers, because we all invariably put our own personal touches on things.

Now if you have found a method that works for you, great, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it is the only way, especially if your way has come about because “Xavier Flurtberger said this was the only way to do it”. If you have this attitude then that is your choice, but you may be missing out on some good advice that will improve things for you.

A case in point is the use of ascorbic acid aka, Vitamin C, that I’ve noticed quite a few US bakers add to their flour, now I’ve never tried it myself so I can’t give an opinion on its use, but I’m open minded enough that one day I will try it. It’s only quite recently that I tried and have started using Diastatic Malt (in the form of light dried brewers malt) in some of my recipes. I read about it on the web and tried it, and I’m very glad that I read quite a few articles on it because apparently the secret of its benefit is in the minimal amount required for a beneficial result. The recommended amount suggested by a particular flour miller is no more than 1/2 of 1% of the total flour weight, I use a lightly heaped teaspoon to a 1Kg loaf. Unfortunately I have seen cases where people may have not seen the recommended dosage and have worked on the theory that if a little is good then a lot will be very good, wrong, too much is far far worse than none at all. Still and all, by being open minded enough to try, they have learned something.

Another fixation that some people have is that high hydration is the only way to go, best expressed by a statement attributed to some well known baker, words to the effect of “The more water in a dough the better the bread”. This statement in my opinion falls into the category of “bullshit”. Some recipes are high hydration recipes, and some are low hydration recipes. I would hate to try and reproduce the characteristics of a high hydration loaf with a low hydration recipe and vice versa.

The same applies, in my opinion, to the attitude that a particular way of kneading is the only way to knead, more on this later. The final quality of a given loaf has more to do with the experience of the baker than whether it is a high or low hydration loaf. The high/low fixation makes as much sense as trying to make a sponge cake with 12% protein bakers flour, or trying to make a chewy crusty sourdough loaf with 9% protein cake flour. Mind you a small amount of soft flour in a loaf does tend to soften the crumb if that is to your liking.

As to methods, well what a minefield, as I said earlier, “as many methods as there are bakers”. Detail aside, and without getting into machine mixing with which I have no experience whatsoever, I will be speaking about hand mixing/kneading and what I feel are the two main methods, appreciating that individual bakers will have their own variations of these.

Before getting to the meat of the matter please allow me a little ramble. Dough sticking to fingers seems to bother some people a great deal, and to some extent I can understand that. It runs contrary to most of our ingrained habits of cleanliness and tidyness, and some people may just have an aversion to the stuff hanging off their fingers for other reasons. Provided you have washed your hands properly and are not a carrier of some horrendous disease, there is no real harm being done. Just scrape it off and put it back in with the rest.
Further ramble, last night I watched a show on TV in which, under laboratory conditions, they took a swab from the belly of a cockroach and from a human hand, and then proceeded to prepare a culture of each. The result was that the belly of a cockroach has less bacteria on it than a human hand. Don’t even think about the bacteria on your face or in your mouth! Did you know that the bite from a human mouth can be as deadly as that from a rabid dog or a Komodo Dragon lizard. You’ve heard the expression that somebody has a “poisonous mouth”, don’t laugh.

OK, back to methods. For either method I have found that a 10 minute “Autolyse”, technical term for letting the dough sit there and sulk so the flour can absorb some moisture, between mixing and whatever form of kneading that you use, is very beneficial to the formation of gluten.

A certain baker, for whom I have a great deal of respect, is a fellow forum member of mine, and over time it would appear that, without either of us being narrow minded or dogmatic about it, we tend to favour what one might say are the two ends of baking. Without either of us limiting our choices of recipes, I tend to be a lower hydration/longer kneader type, while he tends to favour the higher hydration/ short knead and fold method developed by the highly respected baker Dan Lepard.

I like quite a few high hydration recipes, a couple are in the 80-85% range, and there is not one of them that I would consider doing using the traditional long knead method, that would just lead to disaster. My fellow baker has tried one of my lower hydration recipes with his higher hydration method and, while achieving quite a respectable result, has admitted that it was not quite the result that I manage to get. So here we have two basic methods, one that is pretty well limited to a lower range of hydrations and suits them very well, and another that is extremely well suited to higher hydrations and can work on lower hydrations, but may be not quite as good as the other. Then again, if you refined your technique maybe it would be as good, who knows until you try.
So basically what I have been saying in a long winded sort of way is, you may benefit by being open minded and adaptable. If you have a recipe and a method that you are happy with and have no reason to seek further then that’s fine, enjoy your baking.

The importance of water quality, particularly when making/cultivating/capturing a new starter, is a much discussed topic. I must be fortunate where I live to have good water as I use it straight from the tap for everything, despite the fact that I know what chemicals are in it, my son is one of the water control people who regulates the machinery that puts them in it! 😛
I’ve often read that you should use one form or another of bottled water, particularly for a new starter, but do you realise that, at least in Australia, health regulations require much of the same treatment for bottled water as they do for mains supply water?

If you are concerned about the quality of your water regarding a new starter, then go the whole hog, capture rainwater directly into a plastic dish, not runoff from a roof, directly into the dish. Atmospheric junk aside, this is as pure as it gets. Apparently an established starter can handle quite a variety of water impurities, and if what I’ve read is to be believed some of the impurities are beneficial to breadmaking.
Oh and on the subject of myths, I have found that I don’t need to wear a garlic necklace when baking during the full moon. 😉

Published in: on July 4, 2006 at 4:14 pm  Comments (1)  

Impatience & Excitement.

Too many times I see newcomers to sourdough baking charging about trying quite a variety of different loaves. Now this is very understandable, as in the excitement of a new hobby they wish to explore as much as possible as soon as possible. However, one of the more desirable traits in a sourdough baker is patience, as some of the newcomers will learn when they come to 3 day and 4 day recipes.

The two worst scenarios for a first time baker are, 1. a complete disaster and 2. a perfect loaf. In the first case the baker may become disheartened to the point of not trying again, in the second case the baker has not learned anything, and when the inevitable flop happens will not know what to do to avoid it next time. The ideal situation is for a first loaf to be reasonably edible, sufficient to encourage, but bad enough to try for better.

The best advice I can offer a newcomer is to get hold of a simple uncomplicated recipe for a white loaf of about 62% hydration. Join a forum where you can get advice, and don’t feel bad about asking questions and showing your mistakes. A recent newcomer to baking and a forum I am a member of, is having a problem. He posted full details of his recipe and the method he is using, and a couple of photos. It just made it so much easier to offer advice.

With the selected recipe, do it and ask questions, do it again, and again and again, untill you think it is as good as it’s ever going to get. Then do it again a couple more times and I’ll bet it improves even more.

Hopefully along the way some things have needed improvement, and by the time you have baked the “Perfect” loaf you will know how dough feels when it is properly developed, how to judge when the first proof is enough, how to handle dough and shape a loaf, how to tell when a loaf is proofed ready for baking etc etc, and how to adjust things to get everything right.

If you do this then you are ready to tackle anything, because you will know how things should be and how to adjust things to get them the way they should be.

In spite of my years of experience it still usually takes me two or three tries with a new recipe to get it right. So don’t give up, be patient, and hopefully you will get the enjoyment out of your baking that I do.

Published in: on July 2, 2006 at 2:08 pm  Comments (4)