The Fresh Loaf

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Improving My Sourdough Technique

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Rosalie's picture
Rosalie

Improving My Sourdough Technique

I baked some wonderful sourdough herb bread from Ed Wood's book.  I was not entirely happy with it, however.

It started when I decided it was time to refresh my starter.  I like to start with my 4 oz (approx) of starter (maybe I should go to 2 oz) and double it with feedings over a period of days.  When I have two cups I find a recipe that calls for two cups sourdough.  The problem, as in this case, is the timing.  Everything was going great with the starter doubling in size despite my "room temperature" of the low sixties.  But in the end I maybe was premature in sticking the loaves in the over because I didn't want to be up until midnight.

Actually what happened was a bit of a mystery.  I slashed the dough before I stuck it in the oven, expecting oven spring to open the loaves up wide.  They did eventually get opened, but not in the first few minutes as I'd expected, and not as wide as I'd hoped.

Well, I'm getting better with my sourdough.  As I said it's quite flavorful.  I always say that even the worst failures with bread tend to be better than storebought.  But I'm wondering what's going on with my bread.  Should I have, for example, slashed my loaves when I turned the oven on rather than just before putting them in the oven?  Does sourdough behave differently in the oven?

Rosalie

Correction:  I do start with 2 oz (1/4 cup) starter already.

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

Hi Rosalie,

First, excuse my semantic nit picking: "Oven spring" is the overall increase in volume of a loaf during baking. "Bloom" is the widening of the gap where you have slashed or scored your loaves.

Spring and bloom are related, of course, but yet not the same.
Now, your questions: 

Less than expected oven spring, as I understand it, can be caused by over-proofing your loaves, so they cannot expand further. If sufficiently over-proofed, in fact, they will deflate when slashed and will just lie there, exhausted.

A well-heated oven, particularly a well-heated surface under your loaves will increase oven spring. (I think pre-heating my pizza stone for a full hour rather than 30 minutes was the biggest factor in increasing my breads' spring.)

Good dough kneading to develop the gluten and good shaping to construct a gluten "container" for the loaf will improve spring.

A moist oven environment early in the bake will keep the surface of the loaves soft, allowing better expansion.

Good scoring that allows easy expansion in the directions you desire will help spring.

In addition to these variables, bloom is enhanced by how deep your slashes are. (1/4 to 1/2 inch is usually recommended).

How much the loaf expands horizontally as opposed to vertically, which depends on optimalo proofing, how the loaf is formed and how slack (wet) the dough is, impacts bloom.

I find that my sourdoughs often continue to expand for 15 minutes into the bake, at least.

You are slashing your loaves at the correct time - just before putting them in the oven. I would expect slashing them earlier might increase bloom, but at the expense of oven spring.

I hope this gives you some variables to play with. I'm sure if I forgot (or am ignorant of) other important factors, others will add them.

David

Rosalie's picture
Rosalie

I proofed according to the timing dictated by Wood, though the temperature was lower.  He does not give guidelines, only a time and a temperature (actually a choice of two).  The dough would double and then hang there.  Others talk about tripling.  I don't know how that fits in.  But, as I said, I used his timing and a lower temperature.  How can that result in overproofing?

I kneaded extra because I am always dissatisfied with the firmness of my crumb (I use 100% whole wheat).  But then I get concerned about overkneading.

What to do???

Rosalie

PS While I'm at it - I baked mini-loaves.  Does the 1/4 to 1/2 inch slash recommendation stand?

umbreadman's picture
umbreadman

In response to your concern about proofing, I feel like going by someone's time and temperature guidelines will always yield inconsistent results, especially with sourdough, because the activity of any one person's sourdough is different from another's. So, use it simply as a guideline, nothing more.

To see if it has proofed enough, my preferred method is to make an indentation in the dough with my finger, and watch to see if it springs back. If it does quickly, it has not proofed enough. If it does not spring back at all, it is nearly, if not already, overproofed. What you're looking for is a slight, slow spring back which may not make it all the way back. This shows that the dough has been rising, but still has some potential that will be unleashed in the oven heat. It may take a little while to figure out about how long it takes to achieve this state with your starter, but after you do, then you have your guidelines.

Don't be too concerned with kneading. if you feel like you may be doing too much, then stop. you can always fold later if you feel like its not strong enough. 

-Cyrus

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Rosalie,

Here's a way of doing a WW herb bread like Ed Wood's recipe on pg 72 of his book. It's a way of doing it that can help you figure out the rise times and also soaks the whole grain, which can make a real difference with a WW version.

1) starter conditioning: Take 1 tsp (5g) of your storage starter, mix with 3.5 tbsp (28g) WW flour and 1.5 tbsp (22g) water, into a thick paste or a soft dough, more or less. Let this rise until it just stops rising, about 8-12 hours. Repeat this feeding one more time. Save this starter in the refrigerator and use in the levain below. It's OK to use it shortly after it has doubled up until it has peaked in the levain, without putting it in the refrigerator. It will keep for a day in the refrigerator, as well.

2) Make a "levain": This is just building the starter to a bigger size, but do it as specified because noting the rise time on it will help you know the timing for the dough. Mix 1 tbsp (15g) of the starter from step 1 with 1/2 cup (75g) WW flour and 3.5 tbsp (48g) water. Place it in a transparent container with straight up and down sides, like a glass jar, and mark the level of the levain in the jar with tape or a marker. You will want to measure how long it takes to rise by double in volume. Allow to rise, leaving it in the same spot the dough will be rising, until it has doubled.

Note how long it takes to double in volume.

3) Make a "soaker": At the same time you make the levain, as follows. Mix 2.5 cups (370g) WW flour with 1.5 cups (320g) water and 1 tsp (8g) salt. Let sit at room temperature while the levain is rising.

Note that once the levain has risen, you can refrigerate the levain and soaker until you are ready to mix the dough, as long as you don't leave them there too long, maybe about a day is fine. If you have refrigerated the levain and soaker, it may help to get them out of the refrigerator about 1 hour before you start part 4, to let them warm up. However, the dough should warm up from being spread out on the counter so thinly. Then, it will warm up more as you knead it with your hands. You could also heat up the milk in the dough before you mix it in, if you want to add a little warmth to the dough.

4) The final dough: Mix the levain, soaker, 3/4 cup (170g) milk, 1.5 cups (220g) WW flour, 2 tbsp (30g) softened butter, 1 tsp (8g) salt, 1 tsp each of dried basil, thyme, oregano, 2 tsp honey. To mix, spread the soaker out like a big pizza on a wet counter (wet the counter by wetting your hands and rubbing all over the counter). Cut levain into marshmallow sized or smaller pieces and spread like topping over the soaker. Mix the milk, flour, and all the rest of the ingredients into a thick paste or shaggy dough and spread thinly over the soaker, either chopping or just spreading it over the soaker.  Roll it up and fold it.

Note the time now.

5) Kneading: Then squeeze the dough through your wetted fingers all up and down the dough to knead it. Stretch and fold it periodically. Let it rest a minute or two and rewet your hands if it gets too stiffj or your hands get too sticky. Do this for about 1/2 hour, but do it at a leisurely pace, letting the dough and your fingers rest for a minute or two as you go. The dough should start to come together.

6) Bulk fermentation and periodic folding: Fold the dough every 45 minutes for next 2-3 hours while it rises, but don't fold too aggressively if the dough seems stiff and resistant and doesn't want to fold. If it seems really loose and spreads too easily, fold it more aggressively or more often.

Let it rise, hopefully at the same temperature the levain rose at earlier. Count the time starting from when you noted the time above after step 4 and before step 5. Let it rise the same amoutn of time it took for the levain to rise by double in volume in step 2 above when you made the levain.

7) Shape two loaves and place in pans. The total flour in the dough is about 1.5 pounds, and the dough will be about 1.5 pounds for each loaf.

Still counting the time starting from when you noted the time above between step 4 and 5, bake the loaves when the total time is 1.65 times the doubling time of the levain in step 2. For example, if the levain rose by double in 6.5 hours at 70F, you would want to bake the loaves 10.7 hours after you first mixed the dough.

8) Bake at about 400F, maybe dropping temperature if necessary later in the bake. The dough has fats and sugars and WW in it, so don't bake at too high a temperature.

What I did is made the levain something like a "test dough" for your starter. The proportion of "storage starter" in the levain is set so that it is a little less than the proportion of levain in the dough itself. So, the doubling time of the levain should be about the same as the bulk fermentation time of the dough, if you let them both rise at the same temperature. Also, the total mix to bake time should be about 1.65 times the doubling time.

Don't hesitate to still do a poke test and whatnot. However, the timing should be about right if you are reasonably careful to note the time it takes for the levain to double in volume. You have to guess to some extent what a doubling of volume is for the levain if it has a "crown" on top. Imagine what level it would be at in the jar if the crown were flattened out.

I won't be offended if you don't try this, but let me know if it works if you do try it.

Bill

PS

If you want to do this with 1 pound of flour per loaf instead of 3/4 pound as above, then the list of ingredients would be:

Levain:

  • 1.5 tbsp (20g) starter conditioned as above
  • 3/4 cup (100g) ww flour
  • 1/4 cup (67g) water

Soaker:

  • 1.5 tsp (10g) salt
  • 3.5 cups (930g) ww flour
  • 2 cups (436g) water

Dough:

  • 1 and 1/4 tsp each of dried oregano, basil, thyme
  • 1 tsp (8g) salt
  • 2 tbsp (2g) honey
  • 2.5 tbsp (36g) softened butter
  • 1 cup (220g) milk
  • 2 cups (300g) ww flour

Use the same rules for the timing.

Rosalie's picture
Rosalie

Bill, your post is fascinating.  My biggest concern is with timing.  If I never had to go anywhere, including to sleep, it wouldn't be a problem.  Thus the backup of the refrigerator.

I'm going to try your plan, but not right away because my freezer is currently full of bread.

And my eye is on George Greenstein's Jewish Rye.  That will present its own problems, as, unless I go completely with his method that creates a rye starter in three days with a touch of yeast, I will have to convert my ww starter to rye.  The starter contains all the rye that goes into the bread.  I'll use ww flour instead of first clear, and probably a couple of other adaptations.

But I'll see if I can apply your method to it.  It's all printed out for reference.  Thanks.

Rosalie

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Rosalie,

I wouldn't count on the method I'm mentioning working with rye. I don't have much experience with rise times and inoculations that would work with rye.

With the method I'm describing, you could condition the starter by feeding every 12 hours or so, so you could probably feed it once in morning, once in the evening a day before you want to make the levain and the soaker.

The helpful thing about this method is that the levain's doubling time is the same as the time from mixing to shaping of the dough itself, if the temperature is the same for the levain and the dough. So, if you can be around to catch the doubling of the levain, then you can refrigerate it and the soaker at that point. The levain should probably rise by double in something like 4.5 hours at 76F or 6.5 hours at 70F if the storage starter going into the levain is conditioned as described.

The dough will take the same as the levain to be ready to be shaped if at the same temperature, and the proofing would take about 2.25 hours at 76F and 3.25 hours at 70F. The nice thing is that you can use the levain's doubling time to tell you how long the dough will take.

So, it depends on if you can be around at about the right times to mix the levain and soaker and then around to catch the doubling of the levain. You can refrigerate the levain and soaker once the levain has doubled. You can refrigerate the starter once it's ready, too. So, it really is a matter of being able to be around at the right times for the mixing, the doubling of the levain, the shaping of the dough, and the baking. Admittedly, that does mean being around quite a bit to work on the bread, but at least you have flexibility with when to mix the levain and soaker, and when to mix the dough, since you can refrigerate in between.

Bill

sphealey's picture
sphealey

I have two starters, one fed with a white/wheat mixture (started from a King Arthur Vermont Sourdough sample) and one fed with a rye/white mixture (started from scratch with organic whole wheat and whole rye). The Vermont is more overtly sour, the homemade less so. I have started ryes with both starters using both 50/50/50 (starter/rye/water) and 50/150/150 mixtures. The final outcome is about the same except that the one that begins with the Vermont starter is more sour (natch).

I am starting to think that a strong starter producing a lot of acids and complex organic compounds is its own substance, not really related to the flours that feed it after it processes them. And when I start with 50/150/150 mixture I can't see that the 20 grams or so of white flour/gluten that went into the 50g of starter make any real difference in the 300-650g of rye that are added throughout the process.

Just my 0.02.

sPh

Rosalie's picture
Rosalie

Bill, I'm trying your approach.  The problem has to do, maybe, with "room temperature".  My thermostat stays at 60 degrees, although yesterday was a very nice day and room temperature was in the high sixties.  I made the levain from your step 2 at 2pm yesterday, and 21 hours later it still hasn't quite doubled.  I fed the starter three times in step one (instead of your two).  I hadn't (near as I could tell) got any volume increase the first time, but I did in subsequent times.

Looking at the rest of the steps, I'm thinking my best bet will be to come back around 4pm, after a meeting this afternoon.  Top question is whether to refrigerate it.  It's been working for 21 hours, and it would then be 26 hours.

Rosalie

Rosalie's picture
Rosalie

It's refrigerated.  I'll be back around 4pm to continue this, make the final dough etc.  I figure it's going to sit out overnight, but I have all day tomorrow until evening.

Rosalie

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Hi Rosalie,

Sorry it's not working for you. I've done some tests at lower temperatures, and I would expect the levain to double in roughly 14 hours at 60F. I guess it's true that things can change a lot as you drop below about 70F. Even so, I'd expect if I did this at 60F to have a doubled starter in something like 14 hours using whole wheat flour. However, starters do vary in how fast they rise.

The typical flour I use would be either hard red winter wheat from Kansas or hard red spring wheat from Montana, and the protein level would be above 14% up to about 16%, depending on the flour. So, it's possible that if your flour is much lower in protein, that it wouldn't be able to tolerate the very long rise times. Those are just some ideas of what might account for the difference.

The other thing that would change if you get down to lower temperatures than around 70F is that the conditioning of the starter would be different. At 60F with the feeding I mentioned (5g starter, 22g water, 28g flour), it should rise in about 15 hours. So, it wouldn't work to feed it every 12 hours, as it wouldn't have had time to fully rise and ripen in 12 hours. You would have to extend the time between feedings to 24 hours to make up for the lower temperature. By feeding it every 12 hours, you would be effectively overfeeding the starter, which would dilute it and throw it out of balance.

If the temperature is more like 65F, the conditioning of the starter would be just on the edge of working right for an every 12 hour feeding, but it would really be better to let it ripen a little more than 12 hours between feedings. At 65F, I would expect the doubling rise times to be about 9.5 hours.

If the problem has been caused by a weakening of the starter because of feeding it every 12 hours at too low a temperature, then by letting the the levain fully double, even if it takes a long time, you may get a reasonable result anyway, and the final dough would probably rise in more like 14 hours at 60F or 9.5 hours at 65F. However, it may unfortunately not work if the starter was thrown too far off course. If so, the only way to really fix it would be to go back to the beggining and condition the starter using a feeding every 24 hours until you see it rise in a reasonable amount of time, which would be to double in about 9.5 hours at 65F or about 14 hours at 60F.

Again sorry if it didn't work. The temperatures are lower than I would normally use, so the instructions for the starter conditioning would be a problem at the lower temperature.

Bill

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

Hi, Rosalie.

Converting some WW starter to rye sour is not a problem. I've done it many times.

Just pretend your current starter is Greenstein's rye sour starter snd go through the 3 Stage build he describes in Chapter six, "Sourdough Breads." You can use about a cup of your current starter for Stage one. You will end up with very little WW flour in your total sour.

I've been making a lot of ryes the past few months, so I keep rye sour along with my wheat starter. When I am making rye bread less often, I just plan ahead 2 days before I plan on baking and build up some rye starter from the wheat starter.

David

Rosalie's picture
Rosalie

Well, yeah, I basically go through the building procedure starting with a small amount of starter and using only rye flour.  But here's a semi-esoteric question.

Is a converted starter the same as a starter that has been rye all along?  I would think that the different flours would make for a different flavor.

I would maintain a rye starter in addition to my ww starter only if I found myself using it a lot.

Rosalie

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

Well, by Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish. Otherwise, you have to convert. Once converted, it's all the same as far as rights and responsibilities go.  

I assume this applies to Jewish Sourdough Rye as well.  

 I assume a quantitative chemical analysis might find interesting differences, at least interesting to a quantitative chemist. I doubt they would impact the taste so you or I would notice.

David

woefulbaker's picture
woefulbaker

Bill,

Thanks for posting this but I'm a bit confused.

Could you explain the use of a flour-based soaker? I half-understand (from an enzymatic and textural viewpoint) the purpose of soaking whole-grains, but I don't understand why you would create a flour/water/salt soaker..is this for encouraging gluten development?  Is it a conscious effort to separate the addition of 'enriching' ingredients until the final build? I'm curious.

Thanks

Toby

 

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Hi Toby,

Soaking whole wheat flour seems to be very helpful for gluten development, softening the bran, and for enzyme action. I've just had better results with long soaks on breads with a lot of whole grain flour in them. Lately I've done it using most or all the water, flour, and salt in the recipe, and maybe the sugar too, but not including oils. I guess it seems to me that oils are naturally not good to mix in, if the purpose is to get the flour fully hydrated. The salt may be somewhat at cross purposes to full hydration but it slows the enzyme action, which might be good given the soak is so long. What this points out is that at some point, I gave up trying to understand it fully. Maybe I'll try going back and reading all the stuff about soakers again, but in the meantime, I've had good results from soaking the flour, water, salt, and maybe sugar in whole grain recipes, while at the same time building a levain for inclusion in the final dough along with the soaker and any oil.

Bill

Rosalie's picture
Rosalie

Well, the bread is baked (in eight mini-loaves instead of two regular loaves).

 Rosalie's Very Sour and Flat Mini Sourdough Loaf

During the kneading and folding, I couldn't get a cohesive dough.  I've had this happen before.  If I'd put it in my mixer, the "dough" would just break down, as it has done in the past.  I noticed when I cut the starter to mix with the other ingredients that it didn't have the expected glu-ey texture.  So I'm going to have to study Bill's recommendations for lower temperature kitchens, or try a heating pad and a styrofoam box or something.

I gave up on Bill's timing recommendations and for the bulk rise stuck it in the oven overnight with the light on.  It more than doubled.  The mini-loaves rose, too, but the final baked products had flat tops.

Oh, and it's very sour.

And, Bill, I wonder if you inadvertently had me add two teaspoons of salt instead of just one.

Rosalie

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Rosalie,

The timing in the method I posted depends fairly heavily on using the same temperature for both the levain and the dough. Also, as I mentioned previously, the conditioning of the culture in the way I described wouldn't work at the lower temperatures unless you allowed it to rise for more like 24 hours between feedings.

I suspect that the starter may have been weakened by overfeeding at the low temperatures, which is why the levain took so long to rise. Then, the dough itself might have risen overnight at 65F in 9 hours and been ready to bake in 15 hours if the levain had ripened fully, which it sounds like it did. However, by putting it in the oven with the light on, the temperature was probably much warmer, like 78F. If so, the bulk rise would then only be about 4 hours and proofing time only 2.5 hours. So, an overnight rise in the oven would result in way overproofed and overly sour dough that wouldn't respond well to shaping, i.e. "gone to rags".

Do you know what the protein content of your flour is? It's also possible the flour is not high enough in protein for this recipe.

Anyway, sorry it didn't work out. My suggestion would be to do the whole thing in the oven, where you have a reliable temperature. However, the timing for all the steps will be much faster, so you probably would want to time them such that you can refrigerate in between the various stages. I don't know if that is really convenient. The other thing to do is to extend the time between the stages at the warm temperatures in the oven to make the breaking times more convenient, which you could do by reducing the inoculation amounts at each stage to be much smaller. Or, you could do a long one-step method overnight at the warmer temperatures by building the final dough with a small inoculation of the conditioned starter, omitting the intermediate levain build. It might be possible to put a small enough amount of starter in it to allow the final dough to rise overnight or duing the course of the day in the oven that way.

Bill

Rosalie's picture
Rosalie

Sorry, my overnight bulk rise with without the light on.  I just wanted a chamber that would provide me with a consistent temperature.  I used the light for the final rise with the loaves.

I don't know the protein content of my flour.  I only know that I have hard red wheat, probably winter.  I'd bought 50 pounds through my local store, and the package didn't indicate anything else useful.

Rosalie

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Rosalie,

Hard red spring or winter wheat from the US ought to work fine. If the temperature was down in the 60s in the oven, then I'm stumped as to why the dough would have more than doubled in any less than about 10 hours.

I guess this all takes me back to doing a really basic test on the starter and flour, i.e. measuring the time to double at a known constant temperature of a feeding along the lines of 1:4:4 by weight. However, I know you have a hard time arranging for a constant temperature somewhere in your kitchen this time of year.

Bill

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Rosalie,

I think WGB uses about 8 grams per tsp of salt. So, 2 tsp in the recipe is about right although maybe a touch heavy, depending on what volume to weight conversion you want to use on the salt.

Also, one comment you made makes me think your flour may not have enough protein in it. I'm surprised you would be having problems getting the dough to develop properly at the early mixing stage. It shouldn't have much to do with whatever recipe you use. As long as the hydration is about right, the dough should come together regardless of whatever else is going on before that with the starter or the levain. It could also explain why the levain isn't rising and why the results are so sour.

One other thing that could affect the dough at the point you are mixing it is the fairly large amount of milk and butter. You could try reducing those. They might cause some problems with the gluten, although I wouldn't expect it would be as big of a problem as you describe.

Bill