It's finally coming together
Hello everyone. I'm new to the site. I found it a couple of weeks ago and was immediately astounded by the quality of the breads and the advice that was here. I've been baking bread for around 7 years. I started with a castoff bread machine, graduated to pan breads and then one day about six years ago I was eating a piece of store-bought sourdough and thought "I wonder how hard it would be to make this." I ordered a sourdough starter from Sourdoughs International in Idaho and it's been percolating along ever since then. I tried Carl Griffith's starter and even made my own, but I kept coming back to the San Francisco starter I purchased from Ed Wood's company. I spent a lot of time on the rec.food.sourdough newsgroups and subscribed to Mike Avery's mailing list before I found this site. I've made a lot of bread in the intervening years, most of it good-flavored but mostly uninteresting pan breads. Don't get me wrong, my kids don't eat store bought cardbread unless we're really in a pinch and I haven't been able to bake in a while. My standard daily bread for the past few years has been good, just not great. My baking road has been long and bumpy, and several times I almost gave up altogether. Finally, a few weeks ago I caught the bug again and I'm proud to say that everything seems to be coming together this time.
For a long time I was really nervous about degassing my sourdough. Somehow I had it stuck in my head that a sourdough starter just couldn't produce the kind of oomph a yeasted loaf could, so I resisted handling the dough very much, mixing it until the gluten developed and then letting it sit until risen. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a method on Mike Avery's website to let the dough do all (well, most) of the work in developing the gluten. He mixes the final dough together until it's a very rough mass, then lets it rest for a couple of hours, stretching and folding the dough two or three times during the rise. I know I've read similar techniques elsewhere, but for some reason his explanation stuck with me. I decided to give it a try and immediately noticed a huge improvement. The other things that have greatly helped in recent weeks are the addition of split firebrick as my baking surface and the purchase of the SuperPeel from Exo Products.
I've always baked primarily for myself, but if my family and friends didn't enjoy the fruits of my labors, I'm sure I wouldn't be nearly as motivated to continue and improve. In the past couple of weeks, I've received three compliments (unsolicited, of course) that have each made my day. A coworker said "This is just like something you'd get at a bakery." A lady at a neighborhood party said "I pay good money for bread like this," and this morning I presented my wife with the best looking baguette I've ever produced and she responded with "I've had baguettes in France that weren't this good."
I obviously still have a lot to learn, but there's just something about finally reaching a goal that has taken so long to achieve that makes me want to shout about it from the rooftops. All day long I've felt like a kid at Christmas, and I keep sneaking downstairs to cut another slice. It's amazing that something so fundamentally simple can be so universally fulfilling. I feel like today's batch of bread was finally good enough to photograph and post for all of you to see. Any comments, suggestions, or questions are welcome. Happy baking!