I've been baking bread for a year or two now. This site has been a great resource and although I haven't commented very much I have absorbed a great deal of knowledge from many of the posters here.
I've made a few nice loaves recently, so I thought I would share some photos. More importantly, I'm starting to feel more confident in my ability to produce consistent results, which is a great feeling. I'm starting to understand how the dough is supposed to feel, and what to expect at various stages.
I've been baking boules almost exclusively, and using a Dutch oven to bake in, so as to eliminate as many variables as possible as I practice. I started out just wanting to make a good baguette, which is an ambition many of many novice bakers before they realise the deceptive magnitude of the task! Making boules and using the D.O. allows for simpler shaping and a consistent oven environment, so I know that if my results vary, they can be attributed to the dough itself.
There are two important things that I think I have learned recently:
Firstly, it's remarkable how little mixing you actually need to do. Even having read books like Hamelman and Tartine, which advocate folds over intensive mixing, and the use of autolyse periods, it's not until recently that I really tried testing the limits of how little you can get away with. I've been touching, pulling and stretching the dough to see how it feels at various stages (I used to be afraid to 'mess up' the dough by playing with it too much!) and have been amazed at the difference after an hour of autolysis. It goes from tearing easily to being able to form a damn good attempt at a windowpane. It still tears eventually, but the difference is huge.
Knowing that, I started to worry much less about getting enough gluten development. After autolysing, I mixed this bread for just 2-3 minutes at a low speed (I use an old bread machine for mixing most of the time, on the speed for incorporating ingredients rather than the faster 'kneading' speed). I also did a full stretch and fold on the counter, folding the dough up into a tight bundle, and finished off by sort of shaping it into a boule for practice. But I only did the one fold (recipe says one or two), because the dough seemed to hold its shape well and I wanted to see how it turned out.
Secondly, proofing. During bulk fermentation, the dough didn't rise that much, because I wanted to follow the time and temperature guidelines from the recipe and see how it worked out. It didn't get close to doubling, but I could tell that the dough was active by looking at the bottom of the (clear) container and seeing the well-aerated structure of the dough. Also, after shaping the dough had that wonderful bounce-back upon being gently prodded or poked. From experience, that's when I know things are on the right track (the first time this happened was with a Tartine loaf a while back - I immediately said to myself, 'oh, so that's what it's supposed to feel like!' and spent the next few minutes prodding the dough with a stupid grin).
Anyway, I've been struggling with the final proof for a while now. It is a mysterious thing. Descriptions in books are rarely adequate, because it is a difficult thing to describe. You really need to touch a lot of loaves before you start to get a sense of how they look and feel as they rise. The finger-poke test is commonly recommended, but really, what is a 'slow bounce'? When does the dent 'almost remain?' Sometimes the dent would 'almost remain' in some parts of the loaf but not others, like when you poke what feels like a big air bubble close to the surface and get a misleading impression.
I was making a recipe from www.weekendbakery.com (another very good site) recently and liked their description of the poke test: "use your finger to carefully make a very small dent in the dough. If the dent remains, the bread is ready to bake, if the indentation totally disappears, the dough needs a little bit more time". I took two things from that: one, to make very small, gentle indentations. And the other, that if the indentation remains, I haven't necessarily gone too far. That was partly what used to scare me. Also, I remember reading descriptions on this site of the poke test being a test of the potential of the loaf's gluten network to hold on to the developing gases; so now when I poke the loaf and there is some bounce back, however small and slow, I think of the dough as still 'having potential' to rise further while retaining its shape and strength, and feel reassured. All this has allowed me to feel more confident and comfortable in assessing when the dough is ready to bake, and I think I've been proofing more fully than I used to when I was always afraid of 'going too far'.
Back to the Vermont Sourdough. The moderate hydration meant it was a joy to handle after dealing so often with higher hyration doughs. Just a little flour, and no sticking! It felt moderately firm, and not excessively full of gas, which made it easy to shape. I used the method when you up your hands around and pull the dough to tighten it, after doing a series of folds. I baked it in a preheated Dutch oven at 240-250c with the fan on, took the lid off after 25 min, and baked for another 20 min with the fan still on but reducing the heat a little based on how the crust was developing.
(edit to add: I forgot to mention that this particular loaf was retarded overnight before baking. In the morning it looked fairly well expanded, but I gave it some more time at room temp since it spent only around 10 hours in the fridge compared to the recipe's time of up to 18 hours, and the poke test showed it still had some bounce to it. The cold dough made for nice and easy scoring.)
It turned out better than many breads I've made in the past with more mixing / more folding. Often I get a dense, even crumb, especially in the middle of large boules, and a slightly rubbery, chewy texture. This had a nice irregular structure throughout, and was light and moist. I like the hint of grey and the small specks of rye you get with this loaf. The flavour was subtle and subdued, with only a hint of acidity, which is fine for its use as an 'everyday bread' as Hamelman describes it. The flavour of this bread doesn't hit you so much as it gently prods at your senses. The smell was pleasant, the crust crisp and crunchy. I've made it before but not as well as this.
Oh, and this was made with an 11% protein white flour (Allied Mills Superb, an Australian flour, unmalted I believe) and some local rye flour (Eden Valley mills). I'm English but currently living in Perth, Western Australia.
That's all, I think. Here's some more pictures: