Cracking the sourdough code

How can a home baker get both great flavor and that incredible crust?00100dportrait_00100_burst20200216234632483_cover2-01

It’s the holy grail of amateur baking. A really beautiful, shatteringly crisp bread crust, covering a pillowy sponge of irregular air pockets. I’ve mastered sourdough pancakes (feed the starter the night before, don’t add too much flour to make the batter, and cook on a medium-high heat), but sourdough bread has been harder. I’ve had some success with bread that rises well as has a good crumb, but I’ve never gotten that nice crust to go with it. And since moving to California and making a new starter, I haven’t been able to get big, uneven bubbles. Ironically, I’m unhappy with perfect bread – regular texture and a soft exterior. But while that might be good for peanut butter and jelly, it’s just boring, and not nearly as impressive as the high contrast of a dark and craggy exterior to a pale and pockmarked interior. But I think I’ve made some progress lately. It’s too early to say that I know exactly how to make that perfectly imperfect bread every time, but I think I’ve figured out the key elements.

  1. Start with an extremely wet dough. Normally, home baking implies hand-kneading, and kneading by hand implies that you can remove your hand from the dough. But I’ve found that the best loaves come from doughs so wet they start out as almost batter, and even fully kneaded they don’t hold their shape fully. My current recipe is something along the lines of 1 cup of starter, 1 tbsp. salt, 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (for insurance), 1 cup flour, and 1/2 cup water. I used to use some olive oil, but I realized it was impeding the creation of big bubbles, so I’ve nixed it. Because the flour that’s already in the starter has been in contact with the water so long, it’s fully hydrated and ends up being wetter than just mixing the same ratio of flour and water at the start of the dough. A good sourdough bread dough should start out so wet and sticky that it is basically impossible to knead with your hands and needs a utensil. I’ve been using a metal-handled rubber spatula and kneading in a wide bowl – I spread the dough out to the edges of the bowl, and then scrape them back to the middle. The action of kneading needs to stretch the dough. But because there’s so little flour in this ratio, it takes a very long time to develop enough to hold the dough together. At first, the dough looks rough and forms broken strands and lumps. Even after the dough is fully hydrated (about 2 minutes into kneading) it looks messy. After about 5-10 minutes of kneading, it starts to seize up as the gluten really activates. And then as the gluten relaxes, the strands become smoother and parts of the dough look soft and even. At around the 15 minute mark, I start throwing the dough against the counter a bit, shocking the gluten activation from both the impact and the stretch that results from trying to lift the sticky dough back off the counter surface. At this point I can finally use my hands, but even then, I have to make as little contact as possible or I’m going to lose a finger. I knead for another 10 minutes by picking up the far edge of the dough with my fingertips, stretching it over the near edge, and pushing away with the backs of my middle knuckles. Only for the last minute or so of kneading can I even begin to touch the dough with the heels of my hands, but never my palms.
  2.  Go for a very long, cold rise. I’ve known this one for a long time – hot rises make bad bread. Even though most bread recipes will tell you to let the dough rise in a warm place, this is bad advice. Heat does get yeast moving, but you don’t want your yeast going quickly. A slow rise allows the dough to continue to stretch slowly and develop more gluten as the yeast releases carbon dioxide. More gluten means that the dough can stretch farther and farther, allowing bigger bubbles to form. A warm rise produces lots of bubbles quickly but without much support, so you end up with mostly small, regularly-sized bubbles and the occasional honker that takes up way too much space. Sometimes I let my dough rise in the fridge for a few days and then come to room temperature overnight before baking, but I don’t normally have that kind of patience.
  3.  Bake the bread in a pie plate on top of a stone. The starting point for a good crust at home is using a baking stone, which heats up in the oven and conducts heat into the dough throughout the baking process. But the problem with a baking stone and a wet dough is that the dough loses its shape when it’s transferred to the stone and it doesn’t get good lift. After trying the famous no-knead recipe (which involves baking the bread in a heavy pot with a lid) and discovering the great crust that my brother always raves about from it, I tried baking inside a dutch oven. But I found that even though the lid of the pot trapped moisture nicely to make a good crust, the pot was actually too thick and heavy, and that even with the stone it took too long for the interior to get hot enough. I also found it difficult to get the bread out at the end, since it would stick in the corners of the pot. But a ceramic pie plate is heavy without being as dense as metal, and it has sloped sides, which makes for easier unsticking and a nicer shape at the end. It easily conducts heat from the stone without locking out the hot air of the oven. But it doesn’t trap moisture, which leads me to:
  4.  Drop some ice cubes onto the floor of the oven. Commercial bakeries are able to do a technique that involves spraying the inside of the oven with water to maintain a moist environment – that water forms a thin layer on the dough, which cooks unevenly and results in a crisp crust. But I can’t do that at home without immediately losing the steam and heat every time I open the oven door. Baking books I’ve read have typically suggested leaving a pan of boiling water on the bottom of the oven, but I’ve found that these either produce too much steam or immediately evaporate and dissipate. But if your oven has a solid floor (i.e. the heating element is not on the bottom), an ice cube will vaporize relatively slowly on it, allowing for a gradual release of steam that has time to circulate before escaping through the cracks around the door. If the heating element is on the bottom of the oven, you can probably get away with leaving an empty pan on the bottom shelf and putting the ice cubes in that.

These methods have resulted in the best bread I’ve ever made, coming very very close to high-quality commercial bakery products. I’m still working out a few features though. The first is easing the rise. I’m finding that when I bake on a stone the bread wants to rise quickly from the bottom, so it splits and cracks right above where it makes contact with the pan. I’m hoping to figure out how I can slash the dough in a way that will encourage it to expand up from the top. The second feature I’m still working on is bubbles. Mine are still on the small side. I think the issue is with the starter itself – it’s very weak. I must need that East Coast yeast to really get a stank in my dough.

Owl timer is concerned by the dearth of cornmeal in this pan.

I also have a few pointers for myself for future loaves. I’ve reached the point where I don’t feel the need to hand-knead every loaf of bread, since I know what the process is and I can recognize sufficiently-kneaded dough by sight. It also doesn’t help that I’m developing an occupational injury in my hands from all the things I do with my fingers, and they could use a break. I don’t have a stand mixer (why? the short version is they’re bulky, expensive, and unnecessary for 99% of baking) so I’m going to start making this dough in a food processor. The other major point I realized is that I need to have way more flour or corn meal lining the pan to prevent sticking, but I’ve overdone it in the past to the detriment of flavor, so I’m not sure what to use as a guide. I also wonder whether stone-ground vs. coarse (polenta) cornmeal would make a difference, since I’ve seen that it’s totally different in cornbread. Puzzles, puzzles.

I’m looking forward to my next loaf, and I’m excited that I’ve gotten this far!