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2020-08-16 - Starters, Dutch Ovens, Knives and maybe more

Hello Bread Heads!
Here we are at last! I've been doing lots of baking, trying lots of interesting things, and ignoring my sacred obligation to keep your email in tray filled up.

Sadly, the Introduction to Sourdough class didn't have enough people sign up, so we didn't hold the class. We suspect that wanting people to sign up at least 10 days before class was part of the problem. And, now, with all the excitement with the Post Office, we aren't sure that mailing out supplies is a good approach. So, we're thinking about what's next. We'll have more here when we figure it out.

Our classes need significant preparation. If you don't have a sourdough starter, you need one. It's easier for us to mail one so all the students have to do is feed it. But, we can only play the cards we're dealt, so we are redoing our class design. Since we aren't mailing ingredients or other things, we'll reduce the class costs. We're still arguing about what a good price would be. Good means reasonable for the students, but enough to make it worthwhile for us. More as things develop.

Speaking of sourdough starters, how often have you heard it takes weeks and weeks, maybe even months, to start a starter? I hear that online all the time, but I've never understood the concept. When you use the "Starter My Way" approach, the starter is ready to use in less than a week.

I suspect that many people who have trouble starting a starter don't have a plan. They think, "Gee, if people a thousand years ago could start a starter, and they were ignorant bumpkins, I should be able to start a starter without having to actually think about it."

OK, our ancestors didn't understand what was happening under the hood of sourdough. It wasn't until Pasteur that the role yeast played in making bread, beer and wine was understood. Despite that, reliable baker's yeast wasn't available until the mid to late 1800's, and it wasn't until the 1960's that San Francisco Sourdough French Bread began to be well understood. But people have been making bread for at least 6,500 and perhaps as many as 10,000 years.

Despite that lack of biological knowledge, bakers of yore were hardly ignorant bumpkins. They had a keen understanding of what worked, even if they couldn't name Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis or Saccharomyces cerevisiae. They understood fermentation on a very practical level, including measurements of ferment, water, flour and salt. They understood changing a formula to accommodate the time of year. And they produced consistent products that not only nourished people but made them happy. If they needed a new starter, they had a plan, they didn't just throw some stuff in a bowl and hope.

And that brings is to Professor Calvel. Professor Calvel was the person who revitalized the baking industry in France. The baking industry in France had lost its way as bakers seemed to care more about a thin profit margin then producing quality breads. Bread in France were as bad as in America or England, and that was something Professor Calvel could not accept! He was a cheerleader, a teacher, and an author. His "The Taste of Bread" remains a classic. If you read French, get the French version - the English Translation is frightfully expensive.

One of the things Professor Calvel invented was the Autolyse. It came from Latin words meaning "self" and "digest". By mixing water and flour the enzymes on the flour would be activated, helping bread down starches into sugars and proteins into simpler proteins. Protein development began, and the dough became more extensible. The autolyse made mixing the final dough easier.

Many contemporary bakers use the autolyse without really understanding it. At the time, French bakers had been using a high speed intensive mixing technique. This oxidized the dough and broke down the caretenoids in the flour so the dough became bleached. All this led to a bread lacking in flavor due to the abuse of the dough in the high speed mixer. By slowly pre-mixing some of the flour and water Professor Calvel felt a less intensive mix could be used, sparing the dough the oxidation, damage and flavor loss from intensive mixing. If the caretenoids are still in the dough, the dough should have a creamy color, rather than a bleached white color.

The autolyse process became so popular and wide spread that the Acme bakery in San Francisco makes a large vat of autolyse at the start of the day to add to many of their doughs. I've seen a number of Internet bakers recently running tests and deciding that the autolyse really doesn't help. Even a cursory look shows they are mixing by hand and doing gentle stretch and folds, which is good, but not the sort of bread making paradigm that the autolyse was intended to address. It's like trying to use Premium Fuel in your Tesla.

One of our best breads uses an autolyse, which we developed it when we were using large mixers. Now I'm wondering if autolysing the flour when I was hand mixing was a waste of time. All this has led me to want to try some of my own experiments. Autolyse with hand and machine mixed doughs and white flour, and another set with whole wheat flour. Rye is a different kettle of fish, and I doubt an autolyse would do any good. (Feel free to give it a try and get back with me. I love to be proven wrong - when I'm shown I'm wrong, I learn things!)

Worse, there are two sets of tests for each kind of flour. One is to determine the optimum amount of autolyse to use. When I learned about autolyse people told me to bring about 1/3 of the flour into the dough through the autolyse. Many people now are autolysing all the flour, which actually makes mixing harder. Barb Alpern at King Arthur Baking had trouble getting dry yeast to dissolve in the dough when all the flour had been in the autolyse. The next test is to determine how long the autolyse should rest before it is used. Different bakers like different lengths of time from 30 minutes to 8 hours. We'll unravel this together.

Speaking of Professor Calvel and sourdough starters, he shared a method for creating a sourdough starter in 2 1/2 days. I've used it a number of times, and written it up on the sourdoughhome web page. One thing I hadn't done is to take pictures of the process or publicize it enough. Over the past 2 weeks we've filmed videos of Professor Calvel's method. I had planned on baking bread with the new starter, and did. However, I either failed to film that or lost the files. Worse, I managed to fumble the dough when I put it into the Dutch Oven. It crumpled and deformed. Despite that, it puffed up nicely when baked, even if it was still sub optimum. So, back to the drawing boards.

Put another way, I'm starting a fresh 2 1/2 day starter so I can film baking bread with it.

Despite that fumble, the videos - up to the baking - are on YouTube, available at our channel on YouTube.

Dutch Oven? Did Mike just type "Dutch Oven"? I bet you thought I hated Dutch Ovens. Well, kinda. I see so many stylized loaves with bulletproof, colorful crusts that are all but identical that I just wasn't impressed. So many people seem to think you can't bake bread without a Dutch Oven. As I may have previously ranted, I saw a new baker wondering how professionals got all the Dutch ovens into their ovens. (They don't. The Dutch oven is used to emulate the effects of a good bread oven.)

Still, I had to try it for a recipe. And, WOW! Yeah! Oh BOY! The loaves had explosive oven spring! The crusts were thick, crunchy, crisp and blistered - just like all the "Perfect Sourdough" pictures on Facebook.

The crumb was amazingly soft! For the curious among you, I preheated the oven at 500F for an hour, dropped the dough in the Dutch oven, covered the Dutch oven again, and put it back in the oven. After 20 minutes, I took the top off the Dutch Oven, dropped the oven temp to 425F, and let it bake for another 25 minutes. Easy peasy!

But be careful - handling a heavy dutch oven at 500F is not something to undertake carelessly. One slip, and the glass window in your oven is a goner! A sub-optimum oven mitt or a careless twitch means you will be burned. So, if you want to do this, be careful. I didn't steam the oven because the oven trapped the moisture given off by the loaf. While I call this a Dutch oven, it is actually a Lodge Combo Cooker. It is, for me, easier to use that a true Dutch oven.

Many bakers warn you that when you work too hard on oven spring, you are short changing the dough's fermentation time, and that means the bread will have less flavor than it could have. The French consider excessive oven spring to be a flaw for this reason. And, so far, I am tending to agree. Beth commented that the bread had no flavor. It was beautiful though, what car nuts call a no-go showboat. However, three days later, the sour we expected was coming through, though the integrity of the crust had suffered.

The wildly crisp crust and insanely soft crumb made slicing the loaves something none of our bread knives could handle. They balked at the crust, and once they made it through, they shredded the crumb. I've ordered the Victorinox bread knife that The Wirecutter recommended and which hasn't yet arrived. Beth heard me grumbling as I was slicing bread and ordered a knife we've used in the past. It is a Rada 10 1/2 inch bread knife. We used to have one, but it got lost in a move. It wasn't a big deal as those knives are SO inexpensive. This one was something like $12.60 at Amazon. 15 years ago, they were just $11.00.  Inflation!

It must be said that the Rada knives are ugly, and the best thing you can say about the handle is that it is functional. However, the knife went right through the crust of our bread and delivered cleanly cut slices. The Rada knives are made in the USA, hand sharpened by a craftsman, and they have a lifetime guarantee. We'll see how the Mercer does when it shows up, but I can, and do, highly recommend the Rada knife. (If you love tomatoes, their tomato knife is also a treat!)

We have more excitement waiting in the wings. Years ago I found an article by Dr. Sugihara and his team on San Francisco Sourdough French Bread. They were the people who discovered the underlying principles of San Francisco Sourdough. They were able to convince the bakers of the time that they weren't going to steal their secrets and open a competing bakery. As a result, Dr. Sugihara's team got samples of starter and documented how they made their breads. They wrote up a process that was the common elements of how the bakeries made their breads.

I've wanted, for years, to try the recipe. However, the recipe called for patent flour which I've never seen in a store. On a recent trip to Restaurant Depot I saw 50lb sacks of King Arthur's Special Patent flour. A bag followed me home and now, it's GAME ON!

We'll talk about this more next time.

Until the next time we bake, may your dough always rise, no matter how you got your starter, or how you mixed your dough,

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