Friday, February 18, 2011

Thoughts on Failure: Sourdough Bread

So the last time I tried to make Pain au Levain (a few weeks ago) I failed rather spectacularly. It was very disappointing. I did not have the time to try again and my bread confidence was a little shaken. Today while I was taking a short break from reading Horace, I decided to investigate the problems. I thought I would share some of them, in case anyone has similar problems or would like to offer suggestions.

All my breads that I have made at home have had a good incorporation of air, but the crumb is doughy, flavorless, and gross. I could not figure out what the problem was until I read this prefect description:
"Hand mixing, whether it be by a slap and fold technique like the one shown here or by just a series of folds during the first fermentation, can produce a nicely developed dough which yields a loaf having the desired open crumb with many large air cells (alveoli).  However, it is a technique not without its own challenges.  If performed improperly, hand mixing can lead to a loaf with large alveoli embedded within an otherwise doughy mass." (from Bread Cetera).
The diagnosis was as follows: all of my Alma Mater bread, including my recent attempt, have not had the same problem, but everything I made at home has had the problem described above. However, this is clearly a mixing problem. I think the problem is that I am too impatient at home and I am not spending enough time mixing. Another related problem is that I have been varying the amount of water each time. I think this throws off the consistency of the dough. I often add more water if I had trouble getting the dough to form into a mass without lots of extra flour. I think this can be helped by simply using my dough whisk, which my parents nicely bought me as a graduation present.  I have to keep the hydration level consistent so that I can make sure that the dough develops nicely like shown in the video.

The second problem I had was the burning on the bread. This is an easy fix: I had the oven 25 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it should have been because I misread the recipe. Cooking at the proper temperature should provide the bread with more oven spring and should allow the crust to caramelize but not burn.

The last thing idea that I have for changing the bread comes from a book called Wild Bread. She explains that the activation times for different starters are different. My assumption based on the climate is that I need to let the bread rise for longer, maybe for a 7 hour total rather than (plus the autolyse) rather than the 5 hour total called for in the recipe. Back at my alma mater, I used to keep the apartment at high temperatures because it allowed the bread faster, but it is much easier (and cheaper) to heat up one room of a small apartment than it is to heat up kitchen in our house (partially because we have a rather open floorplan). We have been trying to put it in the oven after raising the oven to a low temperature and then letting it cool off but I think it may still need more time.
Wild Bread - Handbaked sourdough artisan breads in your own kitchen

I will try out the recipe again soon and see if I cannot make it work better this time.

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