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The Secrets of Baking Real, Artisanal Breads

Foodstuff is a freelance food writer and published author who has been exploring various recipes.

One of the first of my home-baked sourdough loaf done around Aug 2012. Not perfect but delicious.

One of the first of my home-baked sourdough loaf done around Aug 2012. Not perfect but delicious.

Pain Cordon de Bourgogne baked in Sept 2014. What a difference two years of bread-making practice makes!

Pain Cordon de Bourgogne baked in Sept 2014. What a difference two years of bread-making practice makes!

Time Is the Secret Ingredient

Time is the key ingredient that separates the artisan's loaf from the cotton wool-like apology found in the franchise bread shop and supermarket.

In the baking trade, real bread is made with 'time' doughs whereas industrial bread is made from 'no time' doughs where time is substituted by a hotch-potch of additives such as improvers (often chemical rather than natural), stabilisers, emulsifiers, humectants, lubricants, protein conditioners, preservatives etc., etc.

Starting a dough: only flour, water, and leaven. Salt added later.

Starting a dough: only flour, water, and leaven. Salt added later.

The Other Four Basic Ingredients

The starting point for all bread is to make a dough by mixing together four basic ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt.

Water is the catalyst that activates starch enzymes in the flour that break down the starch to a variety of sugars including glucose and maltose which become the 'food' for the yeast.

Salt, apart from enhancing flavour, strengthens gluten, but because it inhibits yeast activity, the artisan baker only adds it in the last five minutes of the mixing process, thus allowing the yeast a head start.

My Sourdough Starter

A starter that I made with baker's flour, organic wholewheat flour, and light rye flour, and water. Took over 1 week to mature so that it rises (above rubber band marker) and falls reliably.

A starter that I made with baker's flour, organic wholewheat flour, and light rye flour, and water. Took over 1 week to mature so that it rises (above rubber band marker) and falls reliably.

Mature starter. Lots of bubbles indicate very active wild yeasts.

Mature starter. Lots of bubbles indicate very active wild yeasts.

Wild Yeasts vs Commercial (Baker's) Yeast

It is important to understand the basic differences between the wild yeasts of sourdough and commercial yeast (also known as baker's yeast).

Perhaps the first is the fact that sourdough yeasts grow best in a slightly acid dough, while commercial yeast performs best in a neutral or slightly alkaline one.

Commercial yeast is represented by a single species, Saccharomyces cerevisiae , while sourdoughs are usually leavened by multiple strains of wild yeast (of the genus Candida ) in the same dough, none of which are baker's yeast.

This mixture of yeast types contributes to the distinctive sourdough texture. The wild yeasts in sourdough are anything but uniform, and they can vary from country to country, indeed even from region to region.

Iain Bamfield, from Fruition in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, notes that both wild yeast and bacterial strains have regional variations and believes that no one can really call a sourdough made in Australia a 'San Francisco sourdough' [one of the world's most renown sourdoughs]. Rather, it should be a Sydney or Melbourne sourdough and accordingly, he labels his sourdough bread 'Yarra Valley sourdough'. Similarly, Richard Tollenaar, from Pandora Panetteria in Auckland, labels his sourdough bread 'Auckland sourdough'.

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My Sourdough Leaven

Leaven is made with a small "seeding" of flour and water with the mature starter.

Leaven is made with a small "seeding" of flour and water with the mature starter.

The same leaven left overnight to 'mature' at ambient temperature of around 17°C. It was still sweet smelling (as distinct from acidic) at this point.

The same leaven left overnight to 'mature' at ambient temperature of around 17°C. It was still sweet smelling (as distinct from acidic) at this point.

What Is Sourdough?

Sourdough is the product of not just one microorganism, but two. The wild yeast makes the dough rise and bacteria are responsible for flavour development. These bacteria are primarily lactobacilli, so named because they produce lactic acid, which contributes a mild sour flavour. They also produce a more vinegary acetic acid. The ratio of lactic acid to acetic acid production is influenced by a wide range of factors such as temperature, what the starter is fed with, the feeding cycle and so on.

Unlike most bacteria, lactobacilli thrive in an acid environment and produce a variety of mild organic acids, alcohols and countless additional compounds that are vital to flavour development. The organic acids produced by the bacteria play an important role in preventing spoilage. Lactobacilli 'feed' on maltose and it just so happens that unlike commercial yeast, wild yeasts do not 'consume' the maltose, therefore providing the bacteria with a perfect environment to flourish in.

John Downes, Australia's foremost authority on sourdough, makes the observation in his article in Pastrycooks & Bakers News (May 1996) that "these bacteria are also thought to 'pre-digest' the wheat matrix of the flour, thus making the bread more digestible as well as rendering the calcium content of wheat thoroughly assimilative which is not the case with commercial wheat bread".

My Dough During Bulk Fermentation

Start of bulk fermentation. The dough is dense and sticky.

Start of bulk fermentation. The dough is dense and sticky.

About 3 hours into bulk fermentation at ambient temperature of around 17°C. Dough has been turned several times inside the bowl. Becoming smoother and aerated.

About 3 hours into bulk fermentation at ambient temperature of around 17°C. Dough has been turned several times inside the bowl. Becoming smoother and aerated.

Side view of dough after 3 hours of bulk fermentation. Notice the formation of air bubbles in the dough.

Side view of dough after 3 hours of bulk fermentation. Notice the formation of air bubbles in the dough.

Time = Texture + Flavour

Once all the ingredients have been incorporated, the dough is kneaded to develop the gluten (which comprises two different proteins glutenin and gliadin) which, apart from providing the wonderful chewy texture, serves to trap the carbon dioxide released when the yeast metabolises the sugars (fermentation).

After kneading, the dough is rested to allow fermentation. Fermentation is the process whereby starch is converted into sugars which react with the yeast and release carbon dioxide.

If the gluten has been developed sufficiently the carbon dioxide gas is trapped, thus aerating the dough and causing it to rise. The dough is ready to be used when it has doubled in size, at which time it is knocked back (or degassed). It may then be shaped into the requisite loaves or rolls, or left for further fermentation.

In 'engineered' breads, improvers are added to reduce the fermentation time. Essentially these improvers are to provide 'instant food' to activate the yeast, rather than having to wait for the conversion of starch into sugar. Whilst there are natural improvers such as Vitamin C or ascorbic acid, rye flour, fava bean flour and levity (a type of yeast food composed of flour, salt, dry yeast, ascorbic acid and the starch enzyme amylase), industrial bread production tends to employ chemical improvers and such bread can be described as 'chemically fermented'.

Kneading also causes the dough to become very short (loss of elasticity). It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to shape the dough without tearing the protein structure apart. Kneading also affects the dough's extensibility (the quality important for expanding and trapping gases when baking). The artisan baker leaves the dough to sit for a long time to allow the gluten to 'relax', whereupon it regains elasticity and extensibility. In the industrial process fats or oils are used to lubricate the gluten strands so that it can be used immediately.

Flavour development is another factor that occurs during the resting time and the elimination of this important step greatly reduces flavour. To compensate for the loss of flavour industrial bakers add flavouring agents back into the dough.

The resultant increase in cost with the addition of all these extra ingredients also affects the mighty God of profit who rules industrial and mass commercial baking. To compensate, water is added to extend the yield and bring the unit cost down, but this practice only serves to further dilute what little existing flavour there is.

A Look Inside an Artisanal Bakery

Leaven ready for mixing. Note all the bubbles on the surface.

Leaven ready for mixing. Note all the bubbles on the surface.

Flour is added to the leaven.

Flour is added to the leaven.

A bench knife is used to cut the dough into portions.

A bench knife is used to cut the dough into portions.