A Dozen Beginner's Problems in One Recipe!
Newbie baker here, been lurking for a while and just encountered a problem that I think I can learn a lot from if someone just tells me what exactly went wrong. Which is going to be tricky, since I think the answer is about a dozen things. I've had a handful of successes so far and only three failures, but this latest one captured every issue I've had and rolled them all up into one.
In case anyone out there is familiar, I was trying a recipe from Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads for "Pain de Campagne Poilane." Below, I'll outline the steps in the recipe and what I think went wrong/my question(s):
1) Make a starter w/ 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1 cup nonfat dry milk, 2 packages dry yeast, and 1 cup hot water. Cover tightly w/ plastic wrap and let sit for 1 day.
- Problem: starter more than trebeled in size, so I had to transfer it to a stainless steel bowl part way through (the only bowl big enough to contain it)
2) Make a sponge by adding 2 cups hot water, 3 cups all-purpose flour. Let sit for 1 day. (I had no problems with this part)
3) Acquire 3 cups of flour (3 pts all-purpose, 1 pt bread). Mix 1 Tbsp salt into your sponge and then, 1/2 cup at a time, add the flour. "When the dough becomes dense and difficult to stir, work in the flour with yoru hands... While this is an elastic, soft dough, sufficient flour must be worked into the mass to enable the shaped loaves to rest on the baking sheets without slumping..." This is where my problems really began.
- After only adding about 1 cup of flour, the dough wasn't taking any more up no matter how violently I stirred (and I'm a pretty strong guy). So I threw some flour on the table, dumped the dough, and started kneading.
- After about 3 minutes, the dough became sticky enough that it was like working with rubber cement, so I added another 1/2 cup. 5 minutes later, it was slightly sticky, i.e. a film had accumulated on my hands and if I left my hand on the dough for more than about 1 second, it would stick. Added more flour. 5 minutes later, it was back to where it was. Added more flour. 5 minutes later it was back where it was before in terms of stickiness. Kept kneading, hoping the stickiness would go away.
- At this point, after about 30-35 minutes of kneading, I poked the ball. Indents remained, but sprung back somewhat. If I poked it too hard, I had a lump of dough stuck to my finger. Also tried the window pane test. Dough tore in half instantly without stretching much at all. Finally, the ball had a tendency to slump down to the counter. So I started adding handfuls of flour and kept kneading.
- I continued this process for another HALF HOUR. Eventually, exhausted and realizing how ridiculous this had gotten, I turned to the internet. Discovered that one reason the window pane test might not work is not enough water. And that, as a whole, slack dough is better than a "cannon ball." So... I started working water into the dough a bit at a time, as per Mr. Clayton's recommendation. Add water, knead, add water, knead...
- Eventually, I got a moderately sticky mess that would window pane for me. Given that it was now 1.5+ hours after I had started kneading, I decided to call it. Grease a bowl, let it rise in the oven with the oven light on for 1.5 hours.
4) Punch down (a light fist to the center, let it deflate), split into three loaves. Form each into a ball. Let rise again for 2 hours covered with wax paper (I used parchment accidentally) on baking sheets (I don't have a banneton at this point)
5) Bake at 425 degrees F, 35-40 minutes. "Loaves are baked when a light golden brown and are hard and crusty when tapped with a forefinger."
- Curiously, unlike my past loaves, a dry skin had formed on all three
- Brush tops with water, slash with a razor
- Have the oven preheated with broiler pan in the bottom, right before baking add a cup of hot water to pan, spray tops of loaves, etc. to create moisture
- I checked them at 25 minutes and discovered them a dark brown, rock hard to a tapping fingernail, so I took them out and let them cool on the metal stove (don't have a wire rack). I figured the smaller loaves (recipe was for one giant one) required less oven time.
After cooling, I cut one, anticipating the rich flavor of my first loaf of bread made with a starter. I barely had time to note that the crust had softened somewhat and that the bread was awfully dense and difficult to cut before a pungent odor assailed my nostrils. It smelled like alcohol. And I'm not talking a nice pale ale, I mean sharp, rubbing alcohol or cheap vodka. The bread tasted ok for about a second, but it was then followed by an intense, nasty aftertaste. The inside was moist, but very dense.
So, thinking it was underdone somehow, I popped the two intact ones back in for 13 minutes, covering with aluminum foil to prevent more browning. Let cool. Cut into the next largest and... same smell, only this time the inside was much dryer. I let the loaves sit overnight, thinking maybe somehow they'd offgas, but the next day they were just as bad. They wound up feeding the birds and squirrels.
Now I have come to the community for forensic analysis in the hopes of preventing such a fiasco from occurring again. I'm sure there were quite a few mistakes I made in this whole mess, but my biggest difficulty is related to hydration. Did I add too much flour? At what point should I ignore the recipe and go by feel? How do you define "sticky?" How do I add more flour before kneading when the dough just kind of sticks to the spoon in a giant ball and swirls around the bowl without picking more up? And how, how, how do I tell when I'm done kneading? What if some of the tests contradict one another (e.g. window pane vs. stick-to-hand vs. poke the ball vs. slumping)?
Please help me put this disaster behind me. I'm sure I made enough mistakes that the larger beginner community could benefit too.