What is this thing I have created?
First post here, have finally given up lurking and perusing the copious amounts of knowledge on these forums because there is only so much science you can internalize and still not have any idea of what is going on with your bread before you throw your hands up in the air in exasperation and scream 'someone help me!' Nonetheless, I would like to thank all the helpful people on this forum for so generously sharing their knowledge here; it is a veritable encyclopaedia! Skip to the last few paragraphs or so if you don't need context, this is going to be a long post..
Have been going at this sourdough thing for about two months now. After making every possible mistake known to man and two bricks optimistically made when my starter started bubbling, I finally figured out how one was meant to cultivate a sourdough starter in winter (spring forgot to come in London) with chlorinated tap water (thanks again London), figured out the basics of pre-fermentation, bulk-fermenting (in winter with a near-unheated apartment), shaping, and proofing (with no banneton) and baking (with no dutch oven) and got something half decent.
My method is adapted from Chad Robertson's Tartine combined with Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall's article in the Guardian about making sourdough, in that I use those as starting points then figure out what works for me based on the 10000 errors I have made, and the fact that I have next to no temperature-measuring equipment. I get my 100% hydration regular white bread-flour starter (out of the fridge) nice and active, and at some point when it's still growing or just about peaked, I throw a tablespoon of it together with 75g bread flour (I use the "strong white flour" from Tesco) and 75g water, and leave that overnight, or for a couple of hours. In the morning I find it nice and bubbly, at which point I add all the remaining flour (I'm using 554g) and all the water (I started with 330ml but have been working my way up) save for 50ml, which gets mixed with salt. This sits for about an hour or so, before I mix in the salt and work the dough until everything comes together in one cohesive mess - at that point I 'stretch and fold', working my way clockwise, and leave it to sit for half an hour, coming back to stretch and fold it for the next two and a half hours. That then gets pre-shaped (by this point the dough is very manageable), left to sit for 15 minutes, shaped again and thrown back into my mixing bowl, lined with a linen-like cloth dusted quite liberally with cornflour. After about three hours, I preheated the oven, threw my cast iron frying pan (student with no skillet or dutch oven) on the stove to heat it up, threw the bread on the pan, put water in the greasepan under my baking shelf, and hoped for the best.
I wasn't satisfied with the crumb yet (it was dry-ish and I had dropped the hydration to about 60% because following the Tartine Loaf recipe had resulted in the first brick), nor with the fact that I had underdone the bottom by baking in a cast iron pan which I had heated on the stove to save on electricity instead of heating it in the oven, so I baked again, and produced this.
I could clearly see that I had some shaping issues with this loaf, and figured maybe better shaping would distribute the holes in the bread more evenly.. At this point I also figured out, courtesy of crumb bum, that it was possible to bake in a non-preheated oven. I modified his technique based on how I understand my oven to work - I put the bread on a cookie sheet on the bottom shelf of the oven, non-preheated, and turn on the bottom element with a small metal muffin cup of boiling water sitting on the floor of the oven. The bottom element heats the cup, which generates steam, and also heats the bread from the bottom much like what an oven stone would do. This gets my dough rising (after about ten tense minutes wondering if I had failed *yet again*) and actually produced a very satisfactory oven spring!
But still, no dice with evening out the crumb. Here I wondered if the fact that I had slashed one side of the loaf (in a C-shape along the top) created the massive tunnels you see in the loaf..
So I went for a square-score instead, all the while slowly upping the hydration of my dough (I was at about 66% with this one), and changed my shaping technique. All the while the issue of massive holes in my bread alongside a tight crumb was plaguing me, and I was determined to get this right at some point.
I decided that heck it, maybe my previous nightmares with higher hydration (70%) were caused by improper technique when I had just started out instead of the fact that my flour was suspect and could not handle higher hydration, and now I am all ready to handle that higher hydration with my grown-up ways. I also figured that this issue looked like under-proofing to me, so I shot for a longer fermentation time and changed my method drastically. I got my starter active yesterday, and last night, I threw a tablespoon of it together with all the flour and left it to bulk in my 12-15C (though I am estimating here) kitchen overnight for about six to seven hours, figuring that the low temperature would retard the fermentation suitably. The next morning it hadn't even doubled, so I figured I was hardly in danger of over-fermentation. I started stretching and folding with much vigour, but the dough was tacky and stupidly unmanageable, reminiscent of my nascent days with trying to bake sourdough (while following the Tartine recipe with no proper technique). With 65% hydration or so the dough stopped being tacky by the second stretch and fold, but with this batch it never really came together. I gave up after 2 more hours of 'stretch and fold' with no noticeable change to the dough, and since I was passing the windowpane test pretty easily and it had easily been 9 hours by this point, I figured the gluten had developed enough and I could go on to shape it. I dumped it out, and with the help of some flour and a dough scraper cut from a milk carton, I managed to pre-shape it into a boule. I left it to sit for 15 minutes, by which time it had slackened and stuck to the sides of my mixing bowl overturned on it, and with the help of a bit more flour, folded it back into a boule, then tensioned the skin by shaping it much like this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEG1BjWroT0).
I left it to proof for 2 hours in a microwave oven with a cup of boiling water put in at the same time to prevent drying out and raise the temperature above the miserable 12C we were having today, came back and did the finger poke test - it sprung back slightly but the indentation remained, and so I figured hey that should be about right, I'll bake the thing. I dumped it out onto my cookie sheet, and unlike my other loaves, this one collapsed flat on me. I slashed it, saw no bubbles under the skin (there wasn't really even a discernible skin to begin with, had I not dried it out with cornflour), and figured I was going to be eating brick for the next three days (since I'm not one to waste my food), and that I had severely underproofed this,.
Then I threw it in the oven and.. weird lumps and bubbles started appearing all over my bread, like as if there was something alien itching to burst out of there and eat the man with the misfortune to make this. Aside from that there was hardly any 'rise' to speak of, and this was very much the space saucers I had been used to eating in my first few mistaken attempts. I gave up all hope on it, but decided to autopsy it anyway out of morbid curiosity, and found this:
The open crumb I had always been looking for! Albeit in a most ghastly fashion.. Note also that this flying saucer was ridiculously flat, I just slice my bricks at a bias in order to increase surface area so I don't eat biscotti-shaped pieces of bread.
Can anyone tell me what went wrong here, and how I can keep this nice open texture but still have the shape of my lower-hydration loaves? It really doesn't seem to be a gluten-development issue to me, since I gave up stretching and folding and started slapping and folding to kingdom come on this loaf, with no discernible developments..