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.

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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.

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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)  

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)  

Spraying Rye Loaves? Be Careful.

Most home bakers spray the tops of their loaves during the first five minutes of baking. Now with rye loaves this can create problems.

Rye flour, though having a great taste, is not very big on gluten, so it is quite often mixed with white bakers flour so there is some rise and openness to the crumb of the loaf. The rye loaves usually don’t rise as much as a white loaf due to the overall weakening of the gluten structure from the rye flour.

In the following two pics of two loaves made with 1/3 rye flour,you can see the loaf on the left has opened up nicely, it was not sprayed.

The loaf on the right was sprayed with water three times in the first five minutes of baking. You can see a tear in the left hand side of the loaf that occurred very early in the bake. This was due to the already weak skin being further weakened by the water spray. As a consequence the gas, which would normally raise the loaf, escaped, and the softened loaf spread.

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Published in: on June 28, 2006 at 6:11 pm  Comments (2)