Advice on wetness, shapelessness, guminess and self-critiquing
Hi fellow Fresh Loafers. I've been sponging info off this wonderful site for some time now and been baking my own bread for about 6 months. Recently I've had some trouble with my doughs (although to be fair these questions have always niggled at the back of my mind) and despite more and more reading, I seem to be getting worse and worse results. So finally I decided to post and ask for some advice.
Background - I tend to bake free-form lean loaves (no fats/sugars/additives) using instant yeast in an electric oven using a baking sheet (without stone or covering or loaf tins). I prefer a thin and slightly softer (but still crunchy) crust so I don't tend to steam too much and bake at slightly lowered temps. The first bread I made was from a post here titled "My Daily Bread" (MDB) and I have stuck to that recipe (with some variations of my own) for pretty much all the breads I bake. Most of the recipes here produce more bread than I can eat so I tend to scale down and bake single loaves that contain 250-300g of flour. At the moment, I yearn for soft, rustic style bread with a open crumb that I can reproduce consistently. I will concentrate on flavour later on as I plan to explore active starter/sourdoughs as I further my baking.
1) Wetness. I think I have always struggled with this to be fair. The recipe from MDB has quite a high hydration (>70%) and perhaps starting there as a complete novice was not a great idea. The first few loaves were so wet, sticky and shapeless I was unable to fold, shape, oven spring it. I dialed back the hydration to 65%-68% and immediately started getting better results. I experimented with adding a bit of spelt and had improved oven spring as well as texture. I was so happy with this I kept going with these hydrations and I did not go back and tackle my original issue with the wetness. However recently I noticed my crumb closing in (struggling with trying to add WW and rye to my breads - both of which I have always had problems with) so I did some more reading and decided I needed to up the hydrations. However this just got me back to where I started.
2) Shapelessness. I realise that I need to S&F in order to get gluten development. I seem to do ok with this doughs at 65% but at >70%, the more I S&F, the more the dough seems to lose shape. After autolyse, the dough seems pretty solid and has some structure so I start the S&F sets at 20-30min intervals. These go ok for the first 3-4 times - I generally S&F 2-4 times per set turning 1/4 turn. The first couple of times always show promise as the dough forms a ball well and is noticeably harder to stretch out offering more resistance. However the dough gets noticeably more fluid as time goes by and each time I look into the container, the dough is spreading out more and more. By the end, my dough looks like Peter Reinhart's starting dough that he uses to demonstrate his S&F technique on youtube. Mine is exactly like his wet glob that he starts with.
3) Wet S&F. I am thinking that this is because I am using a wet board (I just spritz it a few times), wet scraper and wet hands when I S&F because the dough starts to glisten from the water. Am I adding too much water to the dough? I didn't think I would be because I just spray a thin mist and then I shake all the excess water off my hands. This stems from the higher hydration doughs being too sticky and difficult to handle and my fear of adding too much flour to the dough if I dust with flour instead of using water. Is there a definitive S&F guide somewhere? (how many times, how long, how many sets, how much water/flour, when to know you are doing it right, when to know you have enough gluten formed etc). I also watched all of Back Home Bakery's shaping videos and I notice that at no point have I ever had doughs that look like what Mark is working with. Mine are never so puffy, strong and non-sticky. Mine are so sticky that I need to wet-shape most of the time because otherwise the shape would be destroyed by just sticking to my fingers or the board. I also find that sometimes when I am shaping the dough tears somewhat easily - obviously I am not getting enough gluten formation but this was already after multiple S&Fs and quite a long time so am I supposed to keep going until such a time that it no longer tears? It seems I must be doing it wrong.
4) Guminess. As I mentioned, I tend to prefer thinner softer crusts so I found that sometimes baking at recipe recommended temps yield crusts that are too hard or too brown so I just spritz the dough slightly and the oven once or twice when it goes in. I experimented with lowering the temperatures but extending the times. But I have found that most of the time, my bread is bordering on being undercooked and has a gummy texture. It would always leave a residue on the bread knife. Again I read TFL posts and tried methods such as extending the time a lot , leaving the bread in the open oven after baking for 10mins to let the water evaporate, leaving the bread overnight before cutting but nevertheless my breads turn out on the undercooked side. The knock test produces a hollow sound and it tastes like it's cooked but there is nevertheless some wetness in the bread. I am afraid that if I bake it any longer, it will produce a rock hard brown crust and turn my bread into a biscuit!
5) Finally I would like to ask how I should go about doing post-mortem analysis on my breads when sticking to 1 recipe. I understand the basics such as higher hydration and gentler handling if the crumb is closed, wet/gummy bread needs longer bake times etc. but it just seems to me like there are so many other variables (temperature, number of S&Fs, type of flour, how I absentmindedly handled the dough at any one stage etc. etc) that can affect the end result, it all seems a bit overwhelming unless I make each loaf like a robot (which I am incapable of doing!) it seems like even sometimes just browsing on TFL for an extra 10mins might make a difference to my bread! I realise I need to improve my consistency with regards to method and recipes also but any tips on things to look out for and any other tell-tale signs of things I am doing wrong in the final loaf would be extremely helpful.
I apologise for the lengthy and repetitive post but I am just having some frustrating experiences recently and it made me realise that perhaps I just settled for very edible loaves before but now I want to consistently produce high quality loaves and reduce the variability and frustration of baking pancakes out of my repertoire! Thank you for taking the time to read my post and any advice will be gladly taken!
I attach a photo of one of my "better" (IMO) results (a 40% spelt white at 65% hydration) and a WW rye walnut unintentional pancake/biscotti that I just baked this morning... =(