from one generation to the next
If you read my In My Kitchen post earlier this month you’ll know that I’ve begun baking 100% spelt sourdough bread. It’s been a very rewarding bread baking month, especially after a frustrating 6 months in 2014 trying to achieve loaves exactly like those now coming out of my oven. I give full credit to the starter gifted to me by super sourdough baker Celia @ Fig Jam and Lime Cordial. Celia mailed me some flakes of dried wheat flour starter which I have successfully converted to spelt.
I’m not going to post a recipe for the “best sourdough bread ever”, you can visit Sarah @ Say! Little Hen for the formula I use, however, as handling a bowlful of dough can itself have challenges, what I am going to contribute is a bunch of tips I wish I had been able to find in the one place when I was muddling my way through my first bread baking sessions.
Before going any further I should say that I’m not the kind of cook who has single function pieces of equipment in my kitchen, but I have made an exception for bread baking. My aim was to make sourdough spelt flour bread that looked as if it had been bought from an artisan baker, bread that would not compromise my diet…I’ll get there.
Firstly I recommend a set of electronic scales, I couldn’t function in the kitchen without them, I use them every day, and they certainly help with accurate measurement of starter, flour, salt and water.
After only a bake or two I decided I needed some proving baskets, bannettons. Through eBay I bought a pack for two baguettes and a set of two oval shapes bannettons of different sizes . Romantic visions of Parisian bakers raising dough for baguettes in folds of heavy unbleached linen influenced me to choose baskets with linen liners. I know a linen tea towel would do the same job, but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. The liners were included in the price.
It’s true my baked loaves proved in the lined baskets don’t bear the distinctive marks of the bannetton, but the upside is that I’ve had no issues tipping the risen dough onto a sheet of baking paper. They have consistently released cleanly, aided by a dusting of rice flour applied to the linen. Rice flour dusted into baking tins and moulds of various materials will ensure the easy release of any bread dough. Semolina has the same properties if you are wheat tolerant.
It’s taken me quite a while to master slashing the surface of ready to bake bread dough. The dough when proved is full of air. It’s stretchy and beneath the surface, sticky. The blade can easily get bogged and tear the loaf. I’ve found that a serrated edged knife works best, something like a steak knife with a slick of oil on the blade works best for me on loaves and for bread rolls snipping with scissors is the simplest. After a struggle with loaves spreading I read that the slash should be made with the blade held at a 45 degree angle to the surface of the dough. That tip definitely helped my loaves retain their shape, and to quote Celia, you need to “slash with panache.”
For most bakers, bread with a thin crunchy crust is the difference between success and mediocrity. I’ve tried three methods. In order of good to best-
I felt quite anxious about my kneading, stretching, folding and shaping technique initially. Many published sourdough bakers describe the process in an intimidating way. They use technical language, not words that relate to cooking. I have decided to ignore those books for now, I’m treating the bread making process as food preparation. I’m using my senses, letting them judge the kneading and proving time, because I know my dough needs to be smooth, elastic and resilient when poked. I know the fermentations needs to slow before baking, I know the loaf needs to be shaped so the outside surface is taut. I’m in charge here!
And speaking of shaping, I have always found flattening the dough into an oblong and rolling it very tightly Swiss roll style the best method of shaping. It’s simple and it’s foolproof.
We love the crunch and flavour of toasted sesame seeds on the outside of a crusty loaf of bread. The only way you can make seeds stick to you bread crust is misting the surface of the proved dough lightly with water before sprinkling on the seeds and baking the loaf. I bought a cheap pump spray bottle for $2.80 for this job. It works perfectly.
There is a lot of pedantic information out there about activating your sourdough starter in preparation to bake. The starter determines the real success of your loaf and it needs to be fed to get it going. One feed may make it bubbly and vigorous but if it needs two or even three feeds before it’s ready then that’s what you need to do. I find my spelt starter is much much better if I give it three feeds. That may be the nature of spelt flour. I begin with 160g stored starter then feed it 1/4 cup each spelt flour and water. After a couple of hours I repeat this step, then after another few hours I feed it with 1 cup each flour and water. The starter is super vigorous after following this regime.
The frustrations of baking sourdough bread with 100% spelt flour are now behind me. I believe the starter I used initially, the activation instructions and the proportion recommended were to blame.
Whether you choose to use commercial yeast or sourdough for breadmaking, just remember it is not a mystical art. It’s simply adding a controlled quantity of ferment to your flour, a quantity to raise the dough so it doubles in bulk. The kneading process is to stretch the gluten and warm the dough. The remainder is just aesthetics.