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)