Sourdough Bread

I recently read an article about how and why most of us resorted to baking during quarantine. Whether is it anxiety baking or procrastibaking, as the article states, it is an activity that we enjoy to let time pass during confinement and have a good delicious product, that is usually more delicious because we made it ourselves.

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I was never really into baking bread. I LOVE eating bread, but when it comes to making it, whether it is our local thin chewy pita bread or a good crusty loaf, my motto was (a literal translation of an Arabic saying) buying it rather than raising it. That was until confinement hit us and I decided to start raising my bacteria pet: Quarant7ino (the 7 reads as the other H sound in Arabic, and t7in/t-hin means flour)
Yes, I started a sourdough starter from scratch.
I did a lot of research and checked out different sources, watched videos, read articles, asked people, got helpful replies and tips on instagram, looked into different flours and methods, and now I am finally able to say
I MADE A GOOD LOAF

Sourdough baking is a very precise skill. Everything is technical and calculated.
First of all, you have to understand the method, and approach it confidently. (this video with Kim Possible working the mixer sums up my whole experience with sourdough making)

If you’re anything like me, I really wanted to know what every element does and how each process affects the outcome. Geeky stuff. So after researching and going through different opinions and processed, I approached the dough last time with confidence and showed it who is the boss. And that yielded a gorgeous loaf with a GREAT crumb, a crunchy blistered crust, and a good sour flavor.

It took me a while. I didn’t bake a lot. On average, I made a batch of two loafs almost once a week. The first few time it was very rough to work with the dough, especially a high hydration one. Even with different trials, things were only slightly working out.
I had a dry dough. A wet dough. A sticky dough. A runny dough. An over-proofed dough. A dense dough.
I got a heavy loaf. No crust. Dense small crumb. No browning. No oven spring. A pale loaf. But the flavor was ok.
But it only worked once I switched to a good type of flour.

DISCLAIMER: This might sound like one of those infomercials with people doing stupid things to emphasize on the need for a useless product. This is not a sponsored post but an appreciation for a product I received and really enjoyed working with. This is not an infomercial material.
This is exactly what I went through.

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I received two boxes of the Bakalian Home Baker Collection: The Lebanese Selection and The Sourdough Baker. They came just in time after I was struggling to get a decent loaf with a good crumb, a nice oven spring, a beautiful crust, and most of all, an easy to work with dough.

The good things that I appreciate the Bakalian flour for is the details and specificity of their flours. The packs are labeled with a breakdown of the content, in terms of name and type of flour, its description, ingredients, nutritional facts, and recommended uses. That was very helpful in getting the right flour for the sourdough loaf, since supermarket flours aren’t that specific and mostly they are all purpose flour that is not specifically the best for sourdough.

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Most home bakers use a dutch over or a cast iron post with a lid. I had neither. So I kept playing and experimenting with different items I had in the kitchen until I found what works best for me. I have to note that having an oven thermometer (and a kitchen scale) is a must since everything is very technical. The best tools that I had were two aluminum cake pans acting as a pot and lid with enough room for the loaf to rise, and a tray (sometimes I’d use a heavy-bottomed stainless steel sautéing pan with an oven safe glass bowl on top. Covering the loaf as it bakes is essential as it creates steam which prevents the top of the loaf from drying and allows it to rise to create a lighter loaf and an open crumb. Some advise using a pan of boiling water at the bottom of the oven or throwing ice cubes, but those didn’t work for me.

With the last few batches I made, I am very satisfied with how much I learned about sourdough bread making and about flours. And I was happy to get a good loaves of bread. With this newfound confidence, I will try making bread with the regular type of flour just to test out which ones would work and which ones wouldn’t.

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Some terms to help you get around if you are new to this:

Hydration: it is the amount of water added to the flour to make the dough. Usually is is measured by percentage to the flour used. On average, 60-70 percent is a good hydration level
Starter/Mother: it is the natural leavener or yeast made from fermenting wheat flour with water and the bacteria from the air. It is slow acting and requires more time for the dough to rise compared to regular dry instant yeast. It has to be fed regularly to remain alive and usable
Autolyse: it is the process of hydrating the flour with the liquid and giving it time to absorb it. I sometimes skip this step and mix everything together
Stretch & Fold: instead of kneading, this method is employed to stretch the gluten strands. It is achieved by loosening the dough from the bowl and then, as the name implies, you stretch one part of the dough and fold it over. It is repeated with turning the bowl 90º so that all sides are stretched
Crumb: it is how open or tight the holes inside the loaf. Usually we’re looking for medium sized ones. Too small and the loaf is very sense, too big and a slice is just a bunch of holes that cannot hold butter or jam on it
Oven Spring: it is the way the bread rises in the oven and the stretched breaks that happen at its top.
Ear: it is the tear or break that is caused by the oven spring

Below is what worked for me. I advise you to try it and work based on what would be good for you, since so many factors can play a role in the final product, like the type of flour, starter strengh, temperature in your house/kitchen,… and even though I am no expert, but feel free to ask me and I’ll help you up to my knowledge.

Here are a few links that helped me a lot in learning about this, including some geeky stuff.
Making your sourdough starter https://foodgeek.dk/en/make-your-own-sourdough-starter-recipe/
Sourdough starter maintenance https://foodgeek.dk/en/sourdough-starter-maintenance/
Baker’s Math Explained https://foodgeek.dk/en/bakers-math-explained/
Sourdough mistakes
Over-proofed dough

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Sourdough Bread from Scratch

Ingredients

Makes 2 loaves

  • 1000g flour* (this is the initial amount)
  • 700g water** (70% of the flour amount)
  • 200g active sourdough starter (20% of the flour amount)
  • 20g salt (2% of the flour amount)

Procedure

  • Start by feeding your starter a ratio of 1:2:2. This means 1 portion of the starter, 2 portions of flour, 2 portions of water. This is a starter at 100% hydration, which is what is required for this. A good amount to start with is leaving 45g of starter and feeding it with 90g flour and 90g of water. Leave it to rise and at least double in size. This process depends on the temperature of your surrounding/kitchen. Nowadays, in the middle of July in a coastal city and no air-conditioning, it takes between 3 to 5 hours during the day
  • You can mix the flour and water to autolyse (check the keywords above) and set aside, covered, for an hour until the starter is ready. Sometimes I skip this and mix things all at once when the starter is ready.
  • If you didn’t autolyse, mix the flour, water, salt, and 200g of starter in a large bowl and mix well with your hand until the dough starts pulling from the sides of the bowl. It won’t be a clean pull, but more or less comes together. Cover and set aside for 40 to 60 min in a place with no draft, to keep the temperature stable. I usually put it in the oven, but a cabinet or the counter can work too.
  • Now we begin the stretch and fold. Wet your hands well and using your hand like a scoop or a spatula, release the dough from the sides. Wet hands make the dough stick less. Wet them again if needed and pull one side of the dough as much as possible without it tearing and fold it onto itself. Turn the bowl 90º and repeat. Turn and repeat 2 more times until you did the stretch and fold on all 4 sides. Cover and return to its place.
  • We will do 3-4 stretch and folds in total, separated by 20-30 min rest periods, based on the temperature of your workspace, and based on the flour you’re using. This process is to stretch the gluten. Gluten is our friend here. This is what creates a good loaf and the crumb/openings in the bread. It is like woven fabric that will hold the bread together.
  • After the 3rd stretch and fold, pull a part of the dough with wet hands and let it stretch to see how thin it gets before breaking. This is the Window Pane test. If the dough breaks rather quickly, cover and repeat a 4th round until the dough stretches well, then it is ready for the bulk fermentation. Cover and return to its controlled temperature spot for an hour, or until doubled in size. Be careful not to leave it too much and it over-proofs. This will turn your dough into a gooey runny mess that adding more flour will only make the end loaf a heavy dense one.
  • Now, pre-shaping. Lightly flour your surface and flip the dough over. Cut the dough into two portions and shape into a boule (or ball, excuse my fanciness) using a wet wide bench scraper by pressing it from the furthest side of the dough and pulling it against the counter towards you to create surface tension on the boule.
  • Lightly sprinkle the top with flour, cover and rest for 20 minutes
  • Prepare the “bannetons”, which are the molds (a basket with a cloth in it) for the dough. I use a bowl with a thin kitchen towel or cloth napkin. Dust it with a mix of flour and rice flour (1/3 to 2/3) as rice flour is not going to be absorbed by the dough thus not sticking as much.
  • Flour the top of the dough again with regular flour, and using the bench scraper flip the dough. Flour your fingers and stretch the sides of the dough. Now fold the dough like an envelope; stretch the side that’s the furthest away from you and bring it towards 3/4 of the dough. Repeat the same motion with the 3 remaining sides. Flip to have the initial floured side facing up. Using the same scraper pulling method, press the scraper underneath the dough against the counter to create surface tension. This will help in creating a better crust and achieve a good burst and ear when baking
  • Flip it into the prepared bannetons, seam side up, and dust with more of the flours mix, cover with a plastic bag and put it in the fridge between 2 to 5 hours, or more to let it to slow ferment more and acquire the siganture sour taste. I sometimes do a 14 hour fermentation (overnight, and bake in the afternoon) but that is up to you.
  • Once ready for baking, heat the oven to 250ºc. I turn on the oven on max with the broiler for 30-40 min to reach that temperature, and sometimes I use the time to bake something else first. Once the temperature is there, I take the bowls out of the fridge, flip the dough into a baking paper, score by running a sharp knife across the middle, and put into my baking pot/tray and cover and bake for 20 min at the highest temperature with the broiler off. This step traps the steam inside the covered pot and allows the bread to have the oven spring before the top dries out
  • After 20 minutes, I uncover and lower the temperature to 200º and bake for another 20-30 minutes until the loaf gets hard and acquires a great caramelized brown color, with maybe some darker edges, and is hollow when tapped
  • Turn the oven off, and you can leave it to cool as the oven cools, with the door slightly open. It is tempting to cut it while it is warm, but leave it to cool before slicing into it
* I used 600g Farine De Tradition, 200g Strong Bread Flour, 200g Whole Wheat Flour. Note that whole wheat flour absorbs more water than other flours. You can use rye flour instead.
** I usually use something between 70 and 75% for a manageable dough when using a good flour

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