I have recently started baking sourdough bread, and have thoroughly enjoyed the process. Each loaf has been a "success", but each loaf has been very different from the others. My wife and I have very different opinions about whether or not a loaf is a success. For me, the crust should be a beautiful brown, and very crispy/chewy. The crumb should be open, with some large, irregular holes. My wife, on the other hand, prefers a bread with a golden colored, soft, delicate crust, and a finer crumb.
I have been able to achieve the bread I prefer by baking boules in a cast iron pot. My wife's favorite loaves were achieved by baking batards on a pizza stone (although I was honestly trying to bake bread the way I really like it!). I have posted about a couple of my previous loaves on TFL, and a number of you have responded with comments and suggestions about each loaf. One suggestion that was made more than once was retarding the dough after shaping. So this time, I decided to give retarding in the refrigerator a try. Of course, I was hoping to end up with a loaf with crisp crust and a really open crumb.
I used Mike Avery's basic mild sourdough recipe again, only modifying it by adding a tablespoon of Bob's Red Mill vital gluten, as the organic AP flour I get from my local co-op is lower in protein than the KA flour I was previously using. Lacking proper bannetons, I used a couple ceramic bowls from the china cabinet. They measured 5 1/2 inches in diameter by 2 1/2 inches deep. The dough had been kneaded a bit in my Kitchen Aid mixer, then stretched and folded three times at 45-minute intervals, and finally formed into round balls and placed in the ceramic bowls. The shaped dough was put into a cold refrigerator (actual temp unknown, but a lot of things freeze in the darned thing) overnight. Total retard time was about 12 hours.
On removal from the fridge, the loaves were nearly completely risen. They had risen enough that the portion above the bowl was at least as large as the portion in the bowl. Rather than chance disaster by removing them from the bowls to bake, I opted to bake them as "pan" breads. Fortunately, I had buttered the bowls, rather than lining them with floured cloth, so I was able to just pop them in the oven after a 2-hour warm-up period and scoring them. I spritzed them with water and placed them in a 375 degree farenheit oven directly on a baking stone for about 45 minutes. At that time, they were golden in color, but sounded hollow and had an internal temperature of 202 degrees. They were removed from the ceramic bowls and placed on cooling racks.
The results were somewhat surprising, although maybe they shouldn't hve been. The upper sections (above the bowls) had crunchy, chewy crust. The lower sections (baked in the bowls) had soft crusts. The crumb was light and open, moist but not wet, and the flavor was less subtle than previous loaves, with a more pronounced sourdough flavor.
Overall, this baking was a "success" for both of us. My wife had her soft crust, and I had my crisp and chewy crust. The crumb didn't have big, irregular holes, but it was open and delicate. Retarding the final dough paid off in flavor, but the baking method undoubtedly affected the crumb and crust. Overall, though, I'm certain that more bread will be baked this way in our house.
Feel free to weigh in with comments and suggestions.