Where am I going wrong? (white sourdough)
I've recently started baking sourdough and while I'm generally happy with my bread, there are definite areas for improvement - and I could do with a few pointers, please...
I made a starter following a method I found online (using white bread flour, water and an apple from my garden). I keep it in the fridge during the week, then take it out on Friday morning and give it a fresh feed (1:1:1 ratio) ahead of starting the breadmaking process on Friday evening, baking on Saturday afternoon. The starter seems fairly active and reliably increases significantly in volume within a few hours.
For the bread, I've tried a few different recipes but this is the one I use most:
To save you reading through the whole article, here's the ingredients list:
For the sponge
About 150ml active starter
250g strong flour (white, wholemeal or a mixture of the two)
275ml warm water
For the loaf
300g strong bread flour (white, wholemeal or a mixture), plus more for dusting
1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
10g fine sea salt
I make the sponge on Friday evening and leave it overnight, covered at room temperature. On Saturday morning, I add the rest of the flour, knead until it passes the windowpane test, prove for 3-6hrs (how long exactly depends on whether I'm busy doing other stuff, and how long it takes to rise, but I let it get to at least double volume on the first prove). Knock it back, shape it, put it in a bowl lined with a floured cloth (yet to get myself a proper banneton), and leave for a second prove, usually at least 90 minutes. I bake it on a stone at 250C (450F) with a tray of boiling water on the shelf below, turning the temp down to 200C after 15 minutes, as per the recipe instructions.
The first time I made this recipe, it turned out very well, which is why I've stuck with it. But I've had mixed fortunes since, and I've been trying to work out why, tweaking the recipe and method to test different outcomes (though I've not been very scientific about it and haven't kept notes).
The main problem is that the dough doesn't hold its shape very well, generally resulting in a very wide, flattish loaf. When I slash the top prior to putting it in the oven, that just exacerbates the problem and allows it to spread out even more. I do generally get good oven spring though.
Could it be an overhydrated dough? By my calculations, the recipe is 50% hydration, which doesn't sound very high compared to some of the recipes I've read here and elsewhere. The dough does tend to be fairly soft and sticky - though not too sticky to work with easily. I tend not to flour the surface while kneading to avoid introducing excessive flour to the dough. For the loaf I made this morning, I tried reducing the water by 25ml but it didn't make a noticeable difference. Maybe I need to reduce it by a lot more to make a difference.
Maybe it's the flour? I tend to use whatever white bread flour I can pick up in the supermarket. Could it be that this cheap mass-market product is simply not of a good enough quality?
I did once make the same recipe using 'malthouse' flour (containing 15% malted wheat 3% rye, 3% barley malt flour), without adjusting the hydration, and that resulted in a much stiffer dough which held its shape well, even after slashing. It also seemed to rise quicker during proving, which surprised me.
Is the problem under-proving? For the second prove, I tend not to let it rise too much - I never let it go all the way to doubling volume - because I'm worried about it collapsing when I turn it out, rarely more than 90 minutes at room temperature. Should I leave it longer? How do I do that while avoiding the risk of collapse?
I did also wonder if the problem was over-proving, but one of my experiments was to significantly reduce the proving time and I ended up with a brick, so I'm pretty certain it's not that.
Could it be down to the shaping? I understand there needs to be good surface tension in the dough for it to hold its shape. I use a method I learned from a Patrick Ryan video, where he forms the dough into a ball, then kind of pinches it out at the sides and tucks it under, thereby stretching the top surface. For the loaf I made yesterday, I took extra care over the shaping, trying to give it as much surface tension as possible, and it did seem to hold its shape slightly better but was still a bit too slack for my liking.
I have loads more questions about different aspects of the process, but that's enough for now. I shall focus on getting the dough to hold its shape before moving on to the next set of questions...
Here are some pictures of the loaf I made yesterday - as mentioned, this one held its shape a bit better than most, but then it didn't rise evenly in the oven, so came out a bit misshapen. Flavour is excellent though: