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.
Four Basic Ingredients (Besides Time)
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.
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'.
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".
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.
Inside a Professional Artisanal Bakery
Inside an Artisanal Bakery
All artisanal bread takes time.
According to Andrew O'Hara, the head baker and co-owner of Phillippa's Bakery in Melbourne, their ciabatta is made from a sponge starter left to sit overnight. The following day, the sponge is mixed with an equal amount (by weight) of flour, water, milk and oil (of varying proportions) and then allowed to sit for an hour and a half before it is finally cut up and baked. Without the benefit of time, this deceptively simple Italian-style bread would not have the correct flavour, texture and chewiness.
So too for real sourdough bread, time is again the indispensable ingredient. It takes time and care for the bacterial fermentation to develop the intense complex flavours so characteristic of sourdough. The starter has to have three to four periodical feedings (to add more flour and water) over 24 hours before it can be used. Then, more time is needed in the actual making of the bread.
The making of Phillippa's pane francese is an example of the lengthy painstaking process involved. O'Hara will start the sourdough at around 9.30pm one evening, give it a feed at 11.30pm, and then another feed at 2.30am with a final feeding at around 4.30am. The starter is then left to sit until the following day when an equal amount (by weight) of flour is added. After mixing and kneading, the dough is left to rest for another 4-5 hours, cut up, shaped and left to rest again for another 1-2 hours before it finally goes into the oven.
But not all the dough ends up in the oven. A proportion of the evening's mix is held back to form the basis of another starter the next evening. It is this holding back of a proportion of the sourdough day after day, week after week, that builds up complexity and depth of flavour no commercial bakery could ever rival.
Another form of starter called a lievato naturale (often referred to as levant ), is a soupier, more liquid sourdough. But instead of incorporating all of the starter into the mix, only a proportion is taken to form the basis of a separate dough. Whatever is removed from the levant is replaced with equal proportions of flour and water.
In essence starters are living entities and unless they are well cared for will cease fermenting and effectively die.
The Difference Between Levain and Sourdough Bread
It is this long fermentation period that provides that very special flavour, texture and wonderful crust of the true sourdough. But the time, loving care and skill involved all clearly have their cost.
Downes deplores the practices of unscrupulous bakers jumping on the sourdough bandwagon with cheap sourdough surrogates. In his aforementioned article, he notes that "throwing in a piece of yesterday's dough does not a sourdough make". Worse still are those that pass off 1-4 hour yeasted bread with souring agents added as sourdough bread.
It's not mandatory for a bread based on a sourdough to be 100% natural levain (sourdough starter). Depending on the type of starter and style of bread, the addition of commercial yeast is possible.
But as O'Hara states, the yeasted artisan loaf employs the minimum amount of yeast, time doing most of the work. The yeast content of Phillippa's breads would probably be about one-sixth of that used by hot bread shops. As long as the dough is allowed to develop at its own speed and the baker adheres to the time-honoured principles aforementioned, the end product will be flavourful and wholesome. And this principle applies to all breads, be they sourdough or yeasted.
Commercial bakeries add copious quantities of yeast in order to speed the whole breadmaking process up. They can get bread into the oven within as little as one to one and a half hours of mixing the dough. This is less time than even a very simple bread such as the baguette which would take four hours, at the very least.
In France baguettes are made simply with the four basic ingredients and would be eaten within three hours of baking. Being a relatively 'quick' bread, it does not keep well and thus in France, it is common practice for baguettes to be made several times a day. However, in Australia, to extend the keeping life of baguettes so that they still taste fresh at 6pm when they are served up at the restaurant tables after being baked at 3am, O'Hara uses a 'sponge' which sits for three to four hours before being used in the dough.
It is important, therefore, to recognise the difference between a natural levain bread and a sourdough. Much confusion has resulted in consumers believing one and the other to be the same. Both are made using a sourdough starter, but the latter, unless stated as natural levain, more than likely contains a small amount of baker's yeast.
It is also important for consumers to realise that there is no such thing as an unyeasted sourdough. All sourdoughs have yeast in them of one kind or another (otherwise we could use them for bricks).
So now you know the real story. For bread that satisfies the tastebuds and the soul, why would you eat anything else but artisanal bread? Real bread.
Acknowledgements: This article would not have been possible without the help of Andrew O'Hara of Phillippa's and Ian Bamfield of Fruition to explain the craft of bread to me.
- There's an international sourdough community for bakers of all levels at http://sourdough.com
- The book Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson is an excellent reference, with great instructional photos. This has been my guide in my sourdough bread making journey, and is where I learnt how to use Dutch oven to simulate professional baker's oven at home.
- Another classic is The Italian Baker by Carol Field.
- The Handmade Loaf: Contemporary European Recipes for the Home Baker by Dan Lepard is inspirational.
Making Sourdough Bread at Home
Making sourdough bread is a real art. I've still got a long way to go mastering the art of the artisanal loaf but dealing with the alchemy of flour, water and time is totally fascinating. I'd even say addictive.
The challenge is in learning how to understand what's happening with the dough. And there are many variables that will affect how the dough behaves: the flour(s) used, the leaven, temperature etc. Time is the most important ingredient for sourdough: the dough will do what it wants to do in its own time. But you can make that time work for you.
I had Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread beside me all the time in the kitchen when I started. He sets out detailed instructions (text and photos) as well as in-depth explanations of the processes. That didn't prevent the early disasters but it helped me figure out what was going wrong. And I also had the benefit of advice from friends who are chefs and bakers.
My sourdough bread-making technique is still evolving. It's a really rewarding craft to master. The results, even the disasters, are delicious.
Here are some notes from my experience to date and I'll keep updating it as I try out different flours, techniques and so on.
Establishing and Maintaining a Starter
The starter is essentially a culture of wild yeasts and bacteria. When flour and water are combined and allowed to ferment, it provides food for naturally occurring wild yeasts and bacteria.
Having lively bubbly starter is vital. It can take anywhere between 6 - 14 days, depending on the flour(s) used and the room temperature. It took me nearly 14 days to establish my first starter using only bakers' flour.
With the benefit of hindsight, I should have included some rye in the flour mix when I was trying to establish the starter. It would taken less time.
I now maintain several starters—each has a different flour mix and they are fed with their respective flour mixtures. I have observed that the 50/50 baker's flour/rye flour starter almost triples in volume and is much frothier than the others.
How to Establish the Starter
- Mix 50g of flour(s) with 50g (50ml) lukewarm (around 25C) water. You should have a very thick, almost paste-like batter.
- Put into a clean glass jar and leave aside for 2 - 3 days. Check to see if any bubbles have formed on the top or along the sides. If nothing has happened, leave it for a few more days. A dark crust may form on the surface by this stage. That's ok. Just remove it. The mixture underneath should be bubbly by now. It will also have a very sharp sour smell.
- Discard around 80% of this mixture. Mix 50g of flour and 50g lukewarm water to a smooth thick batter and add this to the remaining starter. Stir to combine well. Clean down the edges of your jar.
- Repeat the process each day: discard 80% of the mixture and add a fresh amount of flour/water mix. This process is called "feeding" the starter.
- Repeat this every day until the starter rises and falls consistently. (I was impatient when I first started and didn't wait for this consistent behaviour before I used it for my first loaf. I ended up with bread that could have been used as a spare tire for the Flintstones' car!)
I use a rubber band around the side of the jar to mark the starter level immediately after feeding. As it's been cold, I put my starter(s) into a small wooden box with a small hot water bottle and cover with a thick towel. In this micro-climate in the box, it takes about 4 hours for my starters to rise and they hold the rise for a good few hours. In summer, I may be able to just leave it at room temperature.
When the starter is at its peak, it will have very sweet ripe smell—almost like overripe bananas. This is what Chad Robertson describes as a "young" starter and it's best to use it at this stage. As the starter subsides, it becomes increasingly acidic. Temperature also plays a role: warm temperatures favour sweet lactic-acid producing bacteria whilst cooler temperatures are preferred by sour acetic-acid producing bacteria.
How to Maintain the Starter
I leave the starter in the fridge and give it a weekly feed. My feeding routine is as follows:
- Discard approximately 80% of the starter.
- Mix up 30g flour: 30 ml warm water into a thick paste and add it to the jar.
- Mix it well with the starter that's still in the jar. Then clean down the sides of the jar.
- I put it into the wooden box with the hot water bottle and leave it to rise overnight.
- Next day, I put it back into the fridge.
If I am planning to bake, I feed the starter the day before I need it (or in the case of the white leaven, I start the feeding at least 2 days before).
How to Make the Bread
The process is basically as follows:
- Prepare a leaven from the starter mix and allow it to ripen. To test if the leaven is ready to be used, drop a teaspoon of it into a bowl of lukewarm water. If it floats, it's ready. If it sinks, it's past peak ripeness or it hasn't sufficiently ripened.
- Make up the dough with flour(s), water, ripe leaven and a small amount of salt.
When I started, I followed the "2 step" method in Tartine Bread which involves stirring the leaven into lukewarm water to disperse. Then flour is added and the dough is left to stand for around 20 - 30 minutes for the autolyse reaction to take place. Then salt and a bit more water is worked into the dough and that marks the start of bulk fermentation stage.
I now do the 3-step process: I mix flour with water and leave it to stand for around 20 - 30 minutes before adding the leaven. Leave it to stand for another 20 - 30 minutes. Then add the salt and a bit more water.
- Bulk fermentation. This is when the dough is left to develop with intermittent kneading.
Instead of kneading the dough on a bench, I follow the method in Tartine Bread, where the dough is "turned" in the bowl at regular intervals. The "turning" process involves using a wet hand to grab the dough from the bottom of the bowl and pulling it upwards. This approach is perfect for a small kitchen like mine as there's no mess on the bench.
The feel of the dough will change progressively from heavy and sticky to light and silky, with lots of bubbles in the dough and on the surface as well. That's when it's ready to be divided. Learning how to judge whether the dough is ready or not takes practice.
- Initial shaping. When the dough is ready to be divided, I tip it out onto the bench. Lightly dust the top of the dough with flour. (It's vital to minimise the addition of flour to the dough at this stage.) Divide it into two with a dough blade.
Then using a dough blade, I flip one portion of the dough over and fold the dough into itself so that the floured side becomes the outside.
Using the dough blade, I shape it into a ball. Using my hands, I cup it around the dough and pull it towards me. Then I give it a couple of twists so that it's quite a tight ball. The "drag" of the dough against the bench gives tension to the dough.
The dough ball is lightly dusted with flour and covered with a tea towel to prevent drying out. Repeat the process with the other half.
- Bench rest. The dough is left to rest for about 30 minutes (but lately I've been stretching this out to an hour.) By the end of the resting time, the dough ball will have flattened out into a thick disc.
- Structural shaping. This is the process of stretching and folding the dough in layers to create tension points in the dough to achieve a strong "oven spring" when the bread first goes into the oven.
Structural shaping needs a LOT of practice to get it right! I have tried out various approaches.
The one that seems to work best for me at the moment is the method that Sardinian chef Pietro Porcu of Da Noi restaurant in Melbourne showed me. (The house-baked sourdough at Da Noi is fantastic.) With his method, the dough is stretched length-wise and rolled up like a Swiss roll. Then turned 90 and stretched and rolled again. Then I shape it into a ball. (The loaves are Da Noi are shaped like oval footballs.)
- Final proofing. Turn the ball over so that the seam underside is upwards and place into baskets lined with tea towels that have been dusted with rice flour. I put the baskets into large plastic bags and tie them up with wire twist ties.
Sourdough is proofed to 75% risen rather than fully risen before baking. The way to check whether the dough is ready to bake is with the indentation test. Push the dough with one finger. If it bounces straight back, it's not ready. If it comes back up about half the depth of the indentation, it's ready. If it doesn't come back up, it's fully proofed (possibly even over-proofed). Again, it takes practice to learn how to judge when the dough is ready. It can take anywhere between 2 to 4 hours or longer, depending the ambient temperature.
This final proofing can be retarded for up to 18 hours in the fridge. But it's best to allow it proof for at least an hour before putting it into the fridge.
- Baking. The dough is slashed with a very sharp blade just before it goes into the oven. The slashes dictate how the dough expands in the oven. The way the slashes are made also dictates the final appearance. To get very pronounced "ears", the slash is made almost horizontal to the dough.
Believe it or not, slashing is an art in itself. I'm still practising.
To get a good crust, the dough needs a lot of steam in the early stages of baking. The method in Tartine Bread where the dough is baked in a cast-iron pot with a tightly fitted lid allows the steaming effect in a domestic situation. It works a treat!
Basic Recipe for Sourdough
All you need is flour, water, leaven and salt . . . and time!
Bakers work in terms of ratios, with flour as the reference point. There is a lot of flexibility in terms of the proportions of water and leaven to flour. I've noticed a pretty wide range of water and leaven proportions. It's up to you to decide the style of bread that you like.
- Flour 1,000g (100%)
- Water: from 55% (550g or 550ml) up to 80% (800g or 800ml)
- Leaven: from 15% (150g) to 50% (500g)
- Salt: 2% (20g)
I make up the exact amount of leaven required for that specific baking session by mixing flour equal to 50% of that required weight of leaven and mix it with equal weight of water. Then I add an amount of starter equal to 20% of the weight of flour used for the leaven.
So for 200g of leaven, I mix 100g flour with 100g (100ml) water and add 20g starter. I put this leaven mixture into a glass jar and place it in my make-shift proofing box for about 4 to 6 hours by which time it will have at least doubled in volume and developed a very sweet overripe banana fragrance.
Recipe for My "Daily Bread"
This is the recipe for the "standard" loaf I keep on hand . . . at the moment, anyway. I like my breads at 75% hydration (ie 750ml water for 1,000g flour). I use semola in my flour mix. Semola is coarse grain flour made from the very hard durum wheat and used in Italian pasta. The addition of honey was inspired by chef Cheong Liew: honey and rye are a match made in heaven. I prefer dark honeys and at the moment, I am using this amazing Buckwheat honey that I bought at the Farmers' Market at Old Ferry Terminal in San Francisco.
- 700g bakers flour
- 150g semola
- 150g light rye
- 200g leaven
- 650g + 50g + 50g lukewarm water
- 1 tablespoon dark honey
- 20g sea salt
I am still playing around with time. but here are diary notes from one of my recent baking sessions to illustrate how you can make the timing work around you.
- 9.50am: Start leaven using 50/50 bakers flour:light rye flour)
- 1.30pm: Check progress of leaven. It has doubled in volume.
- 3.10pm: Mix flours with 650g water.
- 3.25pm: Completion of mixing of flours and water. Set aside to rest. [Temperature in kitchen: 22°C. ] Check leaven: it is now very bubbly and smells very ripe.
- 3.50pm: Mix 50g water with leaven. (Leaven by this stage is still very fruity but slight hints of acidity are coming through.) Work the leaven into the dough.
- 4.10pm: Completion of working of leaven into the dough. Set aside to rest.
- 4.40pm: Add honey, salt and 50g water to the dough. Work these into the dough thoroughly.
- 4.55: Mixing completed. Leave dough to rest.
- 5.30pm: Turn the dough vigorously.
- 5.45pm : Leave the dough to rest. [Temperature in kitchen: 20C ]
- 6.50pm: Bubbles now forming in dough. Do vigorous turns of dough.
- 7.10pm: Leave dough to rest.
- 8.15pm: Dough shows bubbles on surface and visible on sides of bowl. Dough is now lighter, starting to become silky and pulling away easily from side of bowl. Do series of gentle turns.
- 8.20pm: Leave dough to rest.
- 9.30pm: Do another series of gentle turns. Dough is silky with bubbles on surface.
- 9.35pm: Leave dough to rest.
- 10.30pm: Transfer dough to bench. Divide and do initial shaping.
- 10.45pm: Shaping completed. Start bench rest period.
- 11.30pm : Do structural shaping (using Pietro Porcu's method). Place into bannetons. Put bannetons into large plastic bag, tie up and leave to proof. [Temperature in kitchen: 18°C ]
- 3.00am: Put the bags into the fridge. [I was working late that night.]
- 7.00am: Take 1 of loaves out of fridge to bring to room temperature.
- 9.15am: Uh-oh....think I left it too long. Dough looks over-proofed! But bake it anyway. 25 mins with lid on the pot at 220°C. Another 20 minutes with lid off at 220°C.
- 10.05am: Take second loaf out of fridge.
- 10.30am: Second loaf into the oven.
Fruit Loaf With Raisin and Candied Peel
This is a really lovely raisin loaf (even if I do say so myself). The candied peel, particularly the candied lemon peel and candied citron, added a beautiful distinctive spiciness to the bread. I've made this twice so far—once with black raisins and another time with green raisins. For these loaves, I used the coarser-grained Moretti semola and you can see flecks of it in the bread. I also used the 2-step process for the dough.
For the leaven:
- 100g bakers flour
- 25g semola
- 25g rye
- 30g starter
For the dough:
- 1 kg flour (85% bakers flour, 15% semola)
- 650g + 50g water (ie 70% hydration)
- 280g leaven
- 20g salt
- 1 tbsp rosemary honey
- 450g raisins (soaked in hot water for 30 minutes and drained)
- approx 150g mixed candied peel (orange, lemon and citron), coarsely diced
- Stir leaven into 650g lukewarm water to disperse. Add flour and mix.
- After 30 minutes, add salt, honey and water. Knead into dough.
- Bulk fermentation for around 5 hours, giving the dough "turns" every half hour for the first 2 hours and then hourly.
- Raisins and candied peel were added at the second "turn".
- Divide and shape after 5 hours of bulk fermentation.
- Bench rested for about 1 hour.
- Final proof for 2 hours on the bench and then placed in fridge overnight.
- Each loaf taken out of fridge about 30 minutes before baking.