The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

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Almost 9 months since I began my sourdough starter, and I finally feel like I'm getting a teeny bit of a handle on this, which I say joyfully but cautiously.

My bread is still more or less the Norwich Sourdough that so many have found success with, with some occasional flour tweaks. I went through a long "wilderness" period of upping the hydration to 76% or so, but it gave me so many problems that I was eventually forced to confront the fact that I was playing with such a wet dough purely because I felt I had something to prove. I scaled back down to Susan's original quantities and am still getting a nice open crumb, but with a dough that I can actually work with, and that doesn't stick to bannetons like cement.

I keep my starter at about 25% rye, which (rightly or wrongly) I feel gives it more vitality in the fridge, and also gives my breads a nice extra bit of flavor dimension.

These days I'll make 2 kilos of dough, shape them into 2 equal-sized boules, bake 1 straight away, and give the other one a good long retard in the fridge. That way I end up with 1 good but fairly neutral loaf, and one with really rich flavor. I enjoy using each kind for different things.

Some observations on scoring, which was my bugbear for several months. Many people on this forum continually told me to score more shallow, more at an angle. Nothing helped. Then I came across this blog post, which recommends

"once you've shown restraint in hydration [which I did when I reverted to Susan's original Norwich proportions]...score DEEPLY. and score TWICE. that's my secret. yes, twice. you score the pattern that you want, then you go back in and cut through the dough again, deeply."

This seemed to go against everything I had been repeatedly told, but I wasn't getting anywhere with my shallow curved-lame slashes, so I thought, what the hell.

The result was my first-ever ears!

Now I have so much fun playing with new patterns.

No great crumb shots, unfortunately, but you can get a bit of a sense from this pic of my garlic bread stash. This is the blander of the two boules that I make; I prefer to save the sour, richer one for plain eating:

Final note/plea for wisdom: lately I've been enjoying baking my boules in an enameled cocotte, which is so much easier than those crazy lengths we all go to in order to "create steam," but I am finding that the bottom of the bread gets a bit too black. Not to the point of burning, but it's problematic if I want to make toast. Does anyone have a way of getting around this? Here is a shot of a blackened bottom (I'm holding the bread upside down):

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About two months after baking my first-ever loaf of bread, I'm posting my first blog entry here. From raising my own sourdough starter to learning to handle ever wetter and slacker doughs, it's been a fun and action-packed couple of months. I've been edified and consoled many a time by this site, and I'm finally feeling confident enough to say hello.

At the moment, I have two major challenges. The first is learning to work with my cane banneton, which only seems to want to release my loaves 50 percent of the time. (The other 50 percent of the time, I am forced to tug at the dough until the loaf comes out warped.) I've read that some people use rice flour and others use semolina, but I haven't yet found time to experiment.

My other big struggle is my sourdough starter's newfound rye addiction, which I can't get it to kick. I originally started it on whole wheat flour before converting it to white, and all was going smoothly until I refrigerated it. When I tried to bring it back to life a week later, I found it sluggish and unresponsive. Well, a friend suggested I revitalize it with some whole rye flour, which worked like a charm (instead of doubling like it used to, the starter now nearly triples in 4-5 hours), but ever since it's tasted rye paradise, it doesn't want to go back. I keep trying to gradually wean it off rye, which seems to work, but the moment I cut it off cold-turkey, it goes on strike and stays that way for multiple feedings. I'm interested in solving this problem, of course, but also in understanding--if anyone has an explanation--why rye is so much more conducive to yeastly activity.

This past month I've been exclusively practicing variations on this Norwich Sourdough. I want to get all my basic techniques down before I branch out and play around. Still, I've made a few adjustments (halving the quantities and upping the hydration), and this is my current default formula (which produced both the loaves pictured in this post, the first one being my most recent effort):

510g white flour (I use about half AP, half bread flour)
350g water at about 74F
180g mature 100% hydration whole rye sourdough starter
12g salt

Mix/autolyse: 35 minutes
First fermentation: 2.5 hours, s&f every 30 minutes
Proof: 2.5 hours, retard overnight
Bake: 35 minutes at 475F on preheated baking steel

The original recipe calls for whole rye flour, which I don't add since it's already in the starter. I am quite happy with the flavor (the sourness is quite pronounced) and the crumb that I achieve with this method, but would prefer to get my starter back to an all-white state so that it's more versatile.

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