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2020-03-31 It's NOT that hard!

Reflections on baking and Pastabilities

Hi Bread Heads!

This one is going to be a little long. I'll start with an overdue rant and then talk about sourdough pasta dough.

An overdue rant!
Sometimes I get frustrated when I read newsgroups, mailing lists and Facebook groups. Sometimes, I want to scream. Sometimes, I do. Some questions I've seen....
"I don't have a Dutch oven, can I still bake bread?"
"I want to bake commercially, but how do professional bakers get that many Dutch ovens into their ovens?"
A come on for a video that promises to show you how to shape sourdough bread.
"I don't have much time, can I bake sourdough bread the same day I make it?"
"I don't have a mixer, how can I make bread?"
"Can I use this flour instead of that flour to make bread?"
"The store is out of bread flour, can I use all-purpose flour?"
"I can't afford scales, can I still bake bread?"

*SIGH* The simple answer is, we have been baking bread for between 6,500 and 10,000 years, depending on which food anthropologist you believe. So many of these questions just weren't issues then, and aren't now. Baking is easy, all you really need is flour, water, salt, yeast, a mixing bowl, and an oven Further, except for flour, you can work around the rest, and you even get wiggle room with the flour.

When someone says "flour" we tend to think of wheat flour, usually bread flour or all-purpose flour. However, people have used almost anything they could grind up to make bread. Barley, corn, chestnuts, chick peas, and beans are just the starting points.

Water is the most commonly used ingredient to change flour into dough. However, you can use many liquids to accomplish this. Beer, milk and whey are commonly used in many breads.

Most bread is considered a salty food, but there is a long history of salt free bread in Italy, and many people make salt free bread for health reasons. It isn't easy to make a good salt free bread, but it can be done.  In the USA, we typically use 2% salt as a baker's percentage.  In Europe, concerns over sodium intake have mandated lower salt amounts, around 1% if memory serves.  A little tricky, but it can be done, and done well.

Yeast is a commonly used riser, but there are options here also. Sourdough, salt-rising, trapped air, baking powder, baking soda, wild yeast and more.

Most of us like to use a mixing bowl to mix up our doughs, but pasta makers use what they call the fountain method where they put the flour on a work surface, make a well in the center of the flour, and pour the liquids in the well. We do that for our pasta recipe, but more about that later.

Many people are married to an electric mixer, but it's easy to develop dough by hand. We have a page on kneading, another on stretch and fold. We used our stretch and fold technique to make as many as 250 loaves a night when we were baking for farmers markets. Since we wrote the stretch and fold page, we've encountered at least four other approaches to stretch and fold.

We tend to think of an oven as an essential thing, but the first breads were probably baked on flat rocks, and most cultures have flat breads that are cooked over flames or on griddles (the modern "flat rock"). Breads can be fried or boiled as well as baked. Dutch ovens are a relatively modern convenience, but they are used to emulate a commercial deck oven and are hardly essential.

While measuring with scales is more consistent than other ways of measuring, in the end the sense and sensibilities of the baker are more important than the scales. Bread isn't always consistent so even a carefully measured dough can be too wet or too dry. With experience, you learn to trust your feelings about dough.

Baking is much simpler than many people want to make it seem today. Many people are afraid to try to make changes to a recipe. So, you don't have any bread flour, just all-purpose flour. Give it a try! Experimenting is inexpensive - if you can afford a computer and internet connection, you can afford an experiment!

One recurring theme is that people seem to think that sourdough bread is different in ways that it really isn't. If you know how to shape a loaf of bread, you know how to shape a loaf of sourdough bread. If you know how to bake a loaf of bread, you know how to bake a loaf of sourdough bread. There ARE some added wrinkles. A poorly maintained sourdough starter can weaken your gluten and make it hard to get a decent loaf. Sourdough takes longer to rise than a yeast bread. You have to maintain the starter. But, the fundamentals are the same.

The last thing I'll bore with you in this rant is the idea that when someone becomes arbitrary and tells you that THIS is THE way to make and bake bread, you should mentally edit their statement to read, "this is the way that I make bread, you may want to do it differently". There are MANY ways to make good bread. Remember, your kitchen is not like their kitchen. Temperatures, water, flours, sourdough starters, and yeast are all different from kitchen to kitchen and batch to batch. I talk about this a good bit in an earlier newsletter.

I should have probably stretched that out over a large number of newsletters.... but the pressure had been building. Hope I didn't offend anyone, any more than usual anyway.

Endless pastabilities! OK, enough of a rant, let's get to something more palatable, pasta. OK, this isn't baking related, though some pasta dishes are baked. It's here because I've been making sourdough pasta.

When I first heard about sourdough pasta I thought it was absurd, after all, pasta is an unleavened dough. However, there are reasons to do this, and they go beyond just using excess starter.

When I make pasta, I try to make enough to be worth the effort. My standard recipe is enough for twelve servings. I refrigerate the pasta dough I don't use and use it another day. Sadly, regular pasta dough discolors in a day or two. Sourdough pasta dough doesn't. It stays fresh and lovely for over a week!

Rather than repeat the ingredients and instructions, here's a link to our sourdough pasta recipe.

If you haven't had fresh pasta, give it a try - I'm sure you'll love it! It is a different experience than dried pasta. For the cook, one big difference is cooking time. With fresh pasta, dump it into boiling water. When the water returns to a boil and the pasta floats, it is likely to be done. Give it a taste test and see. You don't want to over cook it.

And that's a wrap! While baking is easy, it reminds me of what a friend told me. He is a sixth or seventh degree black belt in a hard edged form of Karate. In a fight, you want him to have your back, not to be opposed to you. One day we met up with him in a park where he was going to give our son some personal training and we found him doing Tai Chi forms. I was blown away. I just couldn't imagine him doing something so soft. He told me it helped him with some physical ailments (hint - aging is not for sissies!). He went on to say you can learn it in an afternoon, but it takes a lifetime to master. And that's the way it is with baking. There's always more to learn, always a better way to do something. Mastery comes from practice.

Until next time, may your dough always rise, unless it's pasta dough!
-Mike

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