I’ve been obsessed with making bread lately. Ever since I realized just how easy it was to make a sourdough starter, I’ve been constantly whipping up batches of naturally leavened bread (no literal whipping involved). I like my bread with a chewy crust, an open crumb, and a light sourdough flavour, so I’ve been on a mission to create just that: my favourite form of carbs.
After doing some research, I learned that the large irregular holes are created with a high hydration, or ‘wet’ dough. Working with a baker’s percentage, this means that the 100% flour is mixed with about 75-85% water by weight. A lower hydration dough would be something more like 50% water to 100% flour, and would produce a finer crumb (think sandwich bread).
The only thing about working with wet doughs is that they are very sticky, and I mean very sticky. But, with the right techniques, they can be easy to work with. No knead breads are also very wet doughs, and are made with very little handling (and therefore, very little sticking to your hands). But there are also ways to knead wet doughs that help to minimize the sticking.
Here is an absolutely stellar video demonstrating the French folding technique, sometimes referred to as the “slap and fold” method. Though you can get basically the same end results with just a gentle stretch and fold of the dough in the bowl (great example here), I actually really enjoy kneading dough. No knead breads may be easy, but for me, it also takes away all of the fun! I’ve recently been making my way through all the QI episodes, and kneading dough has been the perfect accompaniment.
I started out with this recipe, which made the boule pictured above, and started experimenting with the ratios in subsequent batches. I’ve since omitted the sugar and wheat germ, so I’m only working with flour (mixes of white and whole wheat), water, salt, and starter. I baked 4 mini baguettes this morning (one is pictured at the head of this post) with the following formula:
425 g white bread flour (I’ve also had success with all-purpose)
75 g whole wheat flour
375 g water
75 g whole wheat starter (100% hydration)
10 g salt
This bit is potentially just confusing, but since I’m not following any particular directions, here is something of a general outline of how I’ve been working with this dough:
Mix the flour and water, and leave at room temp for 1 hour in a covered bowl. Then, mix in the starter and salt using this pinching technique and let that sit for about 1 hour.
Knead using the slap and fold method outlined above. This takes me about 30 minutes with my slow and unexperienced technique heh. Whenever you’re done kneading, plop that into a bowl (don’t grease it!) and cover it with a damp towel. Let it rise at room temp until it grows about 50% larger, then put it in the fridge overnight. Now clean up and go to bed!
In the morning, take it out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter for an hour or so. Divide and preshape the dough. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise about an hour until it’s looking poofy again. Then, do your final shaping and let it rise covered for another hour.
Preheat the oven to 450F with an empty pan on the bottom rack. When the oven is ready, score your bread, slide it into the oven, and pour a cup of hot water into the empty pan on the bottom. Close the door quickly so the steam doesn’t escape! Baking time will depend on the size and shape of your bread, but you’ll know it’s done when it’s got a nice browned crust and sounds hollow when tapped. Mine usually takes around 25 minutes. Let it cool before you break in!
I don’t feel qualified enough to be handing out tips, but here are some things I’ve seen come up again and again through my internet musings that have been helpful to me and may be helpful to you:
STEAM: Professional bakery ovens have some sort of fancy steam business going on. Basically, they inject steam in the first third of the baking time, and this helps the bread to rise sufficiently before a hard crust forms. This is appropriately termed the “oven spring”. To achieve a similar effect at home, simply place a pan in the bottom of your oven while it’s preheating, and pour a cup of hot water in it when you slide your bread in for baking. This will produce a big burst of steam and your bread will be happy in its sauna for at least a few minutes.
STICKING: Through the different shapings and proofings, try to avoid adding any additional flour to your dough. To manage a sticky dough, wet your hands and bench scraper with water instead of using flour to prevent sticking. The exception to this is when you’re doing your final shaping, when you’ll want to dust your bench and your hands with flour. This helps to make sure it keeps its shape and doesn’t stick to anything before it goes into the oven.
SCORING: Scoring, slashing, beautifying, whatever you want to call it, cutting slits in your bread right before baking is very very important. When your bread goes into a hot oven, it is going to expand. A lot. Think of scoring your bread as a means of controlling this expansion. If you don’t give it a way out, it’s just going to explode whichever way it pleases (but if you forget even after reading this, don’t worry, it’ll still be tasty). You’ll want to do this scoring with a very sharp blade so you can get em in one swift go.
PRACTICE: There is no magical recipe that will work for everyone. The temperature and humidity of your own kitchen will change the results of any formula you see online. Apparently the altitude also makes a big difference. It’s annoying to hear when you’re starting out, but you really do just have to play it by ear. Once you’ve had some successes (and some failures), you’ll learn what the dough should look like, and be able to adjust accordingly to its needs.