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Did you know Mike sends out a newsletter (almost) every week? It's filled with news about bread or whatever Mike is excited about this time. It's "Mike's (more or less) Weekly Baking Tips"!

Mike's Bread Blog, 2010

Saturday, December 25, 2010 - The end of 3/8 cup! For some years I've suggested feeding a starter 1/4 cup of water and 3/8 cup of flour. I also mentioned that the flour and water should be the same amount by weight, and to get there you should scoop the flour from the sack. *SIGH* Too bad that the volumetric and weight measurements don't coincide. So, now it's time to return to reality.

If you check flour sacks you'll see that flour companies feel a cup of flour is 120 to 130 grams. The way to make a cup of flour weigh that is to sift the flour, spoon the flour into the cup until it is overflowing and then to use a straight edge to scrape off the excess flour. This will consistently deliver a cup of flour that weighs around 120 grams. No other way of filling cups delivers a consistent weight. If you scoop the flour out of the sack, your cup will weigh between 170 and 200 grams. Worse, you'll have as much as a 25% cup to cup variation.

I talk about this at some length on the "what's a cup" page. I know better. And my suggestion that people weigh was right on. My suggestion to use 3/8 of a cup of flour was not. A cup of water weighs about 240 grams. So 1/4 cup weighs 60 grams. Since a cup of correctly measured flour weighs 120 grams, 60 grams of flour is about 1/2 cup. This is both simpler and more accurate. So, hereafter I'll suggest using 1 part water to 2 parts flour by volume, or equal parts by weight. I hope this change will help people get their starters started more reliably and maintain them better. However, weighing is still easier and more accurate.

Now, if you'll excuse me I have a lot of pages to change.

December 18, 2010 - A reader has trouble with starters (imagine that!) - (Semi angry rant about people who don't read the website and think they'll convince me that they will read my answer omitted) And now, to the reader's question. "I made some starter out of grapes growing in my back yard and boy is it tasty! The only problem is that the bread is super dense and very heavy. It seems to be rising nicely. How do I get a lighter, airy bread?"

Well, to start with, there's not much to go on there. It's like asking your doctor, "My arm hurts, what should I do?"

If you ask me a question, the more you tell me about what you did, the better a chance I have to be able to help. How do prepare your starter for use? How often, how much, and what do you feed it? What kind of bread are you making? What's the recipe? What did you do? Did you change the recipe? With as little to go on as I was provided, I have to give rather general answers. So, here goes....

My first suggestion is that he needs to ask whomever he got the starter recipe from for help. It wasn't one of my recipes because I not only don't suggest using grapes, cabbage leaves, yogurt or anything other than flour, I strongly suggest not using them. Everything you need to start a starter is already on the flour. The yeast on grapes is best suited for fermenting grape juice. The critters on cabbage leaves are best suited to making Kim Chi. Using some of these things to start a starter will get the starter off to a rip-roaring start, but then it usually falters. During this period, the yeast from the grapes or cabbage leaves is being killed off by the sourdough bacteria and the yeast from the flour is taking over. In fact, you don't have a sourdough starter until this happens. It's easier to just start a starter with flour and water. Also, you'll enjoy the grapes, cabbage leaves, yogurt or whatever more than the starter.

I don't use a starter until it is at least a week old and it is vibrant enough to double in size between feedings. A thinner starter can't double in size, which is why I call for using equal weights of water and flour.

I have three golden rules for handling starter. I have found over the past 15+ years that when someone has trouble with sourdough, there's a greater than 90% probability they violated one of these three rules. In the upcoming rewrite of the sourdough starter pages, I am going to be very explicit about the three rules.

  1. Sourdough starter at room temperature must be fed no less than twice a day. If you feed it less than twice a day, it will lose vitality and eventually become useless and die.
  2. Each feeding of the starter should be enough to double its size.

    Some people keep feeding the starter the same amount each time they feed it. That's like feeding a puppy 1/2 cup of dog food a day. Even when he's as 120 pound Great Dane. How much organisms should eat depends, in part, on their size.

    If you keep doubling the size of your starter, in 10 days you'll have enough to fill a swimming pool. And 12 hours later, you'll have enough to fill two swimming pools. So, before you feed the starter, take half of your starter and set it aside. You may discard it, or you may save it for other projects like making biscuits, pancakes, cakes, pizza shells. But even throwing it away is less wasteful than continuing to double the size of your starter.

  3. Each feeding should be equal amounts of water and flour, by weight. You can use about 1 part of water to 2 parts of flour by volume as an approximation. (A cup of water weighs 240 grams, give or take a bit. A cup of flour, measured properly, weighs about 120 grams.)

    Some people prefer a thicker or thinner starter for various reasons. I find a thinner starter works too quickly, is too fussy and apt to go bad, and deprives the beginning sourdough user of the indication that the starter is ready for use of the starter doubling in size between feedings. A thicker starter often delvers better flavor, is apt to have more power and a few missed feedings isn't apt to be a crisis. But thicker starters are much more difficult to mix, The equal parts by weight of flour and water is a compromise. As you gain experience, please try thicker or thinner starter to see what you think.

For a while I was a systems analyst, and one of my mantras was, "it takes a consistent process to produce a consistent product". In sourdough, that is largely how you prepare the starter for use. I want to see my starter doubling between feedings and smelling tart, fresh and good before I use it.

Using too sour a starter will cause the rising ability of the starter to be impaired. Sourdough doesn't add flavor to bread through simple addition the way adding chocolate chips to cookies makes them chocolate chip cookies. Sourdough starter develops flavor by acting on the bread's ingredients over a period of time. You can change the flavor profile of your bread by changing the amount of starter you use and varying the length of the rise.

In the "Introduction to Sourdough" book, which I use in the Introduction to Sourdough class, I give three variations on a white bread recipe. One uses 4 cups of starter, one uses 1 cup of starter, one uses 1/4 cup of starter (as near as I remember). One rises in an hour, one rises in 4 hours, one takes 12 to 16 hours to rise. One tastes pretty much like a yeasted white bread, one has some tang, and the last one sings with sourdough flavor. Flavor comes through the action of the culture. What you want is another matter. All three breads are good, but very different, breads.

Baby steps - one of the things I see fairly often in my emails is someone gets bitten by the sourdough bug. That's a great thing! Really! However, they want to start their own starter and start baking their own bread from grain they grind into flour. And.... they've never baked so much as crescent rolls from the refrigerated dough at the grocery store. My strong suggestions for these people are, first learn to bake with white flour and yeast.

I have what I've been told is a great tutorial on baking at Sourdoughhome.com. It's called "An Introduction to Baking" (catchy name, huh?) and it takes you through three yeasted breads. You can go through the course in an afternoon. Next, I recommend people get a good starter from someone rather than trying to start their own. If you've never used sourdough, you don't know what a starter looks like, smells like, or how to handle it. You might have a great starter and throw it away because you don't think it's right. Once you are familiar with sourdough, it is pretty easy to start your own starter. Finally, it is easier to work with white flour than with whole grain flours. And it is easier to work with store bought whole grain flours than home ground flours. I strongly suggest people get some experience with baking, sourdough and whole grains before they switch to grinding their own flours.

Are there people who have made this leap - from no baking experience at all to starting their own starter and baking sourdough bread made with flour they ground themselves in one step? I'm sure there are. But I don't get many emails from them. So I am inclined to think that there aren't that many of them. The longest journey begins with a single step - a baby step. And is carried out one step at a time. Jumping to the finish line usually doesn't work all that well.

Once we take care of the mechanics of kneading and having a viable starter, the next biggest issue is most beginners tend to use too much flour when making dough. This is doubly true when dealing with whole grain flours. Whole grain flours absorb more water than refined flours, but they do it more slowly. Which causes problems. Weighing your ingredients helps a lot. You don't want your dough to be sticky, but you do want it to be tacky.

I have some very good recipes on the web site. Click on the "recipes" link on the left side.

A final suggestion - I have a great troubleshooting section on the web site. Several other sites have copied it. One has my permission to do so. It is under the "Tips and Techniques" section. There's a lot of great information in that section! You can also find the troubleshooting page by using the search box at the top of every page at sourdoughhome. Just enter "troubleshooting" and you'll get a link to it. Interestingly enough, if you search for "sourdough troubleshooting" at Google, we're usually the first site in the list.

I hope this, rather long, note was of help to the people in the list, and especially to the person who posed the question.

December 10, 2010 - An anecdote, rife with morals - Last week it seems we had an extended and intense visit from Teena the Typo Faery who blessed my note with a vast amount of magic typo dust. I've been trying to clean out the computer this week, and have been trying to banish Teena. Or at least make it harder for her to gain access to my work.

You know, we all make mistakes. Well, I know I do. And we all have our baking disasters. However, as I found out again this week, it isn't a failure unless you give up. AND you may be surprised that not everyone sees things the way you do.

One of my favorite people is Daisy Chow. She is a baker for The Clear Flour Bakery in Natick, Massachusetts. I met her at the Bread Baker's Guild of America Camp Bread back in 2007. She is a great baker, a lot of fun, and the star of an online comic strip found at http://www.chowtimecomics.com. Every Monday Josh, her husband, added a few new pages (though the last addition was years ago and I miss the updates), and more often than not, the last two pages of each update are a recipe. Last week's recipe was "Reverse Chocolate Chip Cookies" which are a rich chocolate cookie with white chocolate chips in it. It sounded really, really great!

At work, we've started our annual daily feast leading up to Christmas which we call "The Twelve Days of Feastmas". Every day, someone brings goodies for breakfast, for lunch and for snacks. I decided to bring, among other things, some of the cookies from Daisy's recipe. I went back to chowtimecomics and printed the recipe. As I always do when I use cups, I scooped the flour out of the sack.

And the cookie dough was really, really dense. It was a bit too late when I started wondering, how does she measure cups? Does she sift, spoon and scrape the flour for a 120 gram cup of flour? Or does she scoop for a 150 to 170 gram cup of flour? Did I just use something like 1/3 too much flour?

I used a disher (chef talk for a little ice cream scoop) to measure the dough into cookies and baked the first batch. The cookies didn't spread out! They were way too tall! So, for the second batch, I mashed 'em down with a serving spoon I kept wet so it wouldn't stick to the dough. The cookies were all different shapes, not a consistent thickness and the surface looked like someone had walked on them with golf shoes. But they tasted good!

Of course, I had made a double batch of cookies, so now I was too low on all the ingredients to make another batch and it was late enough that the stores were closed, so there wouldn't be another batch. The cookies did taste very good though, and they were nice and soft without being too soft. My options were to take the cookies to work or not take the cookies to work. So, in the morning I put on my happy face, bundled up about 5 dozen cookies and other treats and took 'em to work. Beth, my beloved wife, took another 2 dozen to work with her.

Beth's co-workers sent me love notes! My co-workers weren't quite so forward but they really liked them also.

Too late - after the coworkers had weighed in - I asked Daisy how she measures cups. As a professional baker, she usually weighs ingredients. But at home, she sifts, spoons and scrapes they way I describe at the sourdoughhome web site. The way I encourage other people to do it. (Maybe there is a sub-text of "do as I say, not as I do" running through today's baking tip.) Which explains why the cookies were denser than they should have been.

So, the morals ... errr baking tips.... for today are, we all make mistakes, when we make mistakes sometimes carrying on is the best option, and just because we made a mistake doesn't mean the results will be bad.

Have you made kitchen mistakes? Any real doozies you'd like to share with other people? Send 'em to me. The most amusing story will be featured in an upcoming Mike's Weekly Bread Tips and get a free subscription to one of my cookbooks. If you'd prefer, I can change your name when I share the story.

Until next week, remember - Poppin' Fresh was half right - nothin' says lovin' like somethin' from the oven!
-Mike

PS - The stories you share will remain yours, I won't use any of them except the winner's story, and that one I'll only use here, and only once. -Mike

PPS - A followup August 13, 2018. The Reverse Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe is no longer on the Chowtimecomics web page, but Daisy was able to find it. Here it is.

A quick warning - with the amount of cocoa in the cookies, you can't tell they are done by their color. Pull them out of the oven when they puff up and are still slightly soft to the touch. They'll set as they cool and will still be softish rather than hard and crunchy.

This makes 5 dozen cookies.

Ingredients:

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 cups cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 20 TBSP (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 10 ounces solid white chocolate, broken into 1/4 inch chunks (or 8 ounces white chocolate chips)

Method:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350F(180C).
  2. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda.
  3. In another mixing bowl, using an hand-held electric mixer or stand mixer, cream the butter and sugars until the mixture us light and fluffy.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time and continue to beat the mixture until the eggs are well incorporated.
  5. Mix in the flour mixture until well mixed.
  6. Fold in the white chocolate chunks with a rubber spatula.
  7. Lightly butter several cookie sheets, or line them with parchment paper.
  8. Use a tablespoon of batter for each cookie, depositing them on the cookie sheet with about 2 inches between them.
  9. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the cookies are puffed up, on the middle rack of the oven.
  10. Let the cookies cool for 5 to 7 minutes before carefully removing them from the cookie sheet with a spatula. (If you used parchment paper, you can slide the parchment paper off the sheet tray.)
  11. You may immediately reuse the cookie sheet for the next batch.

December 3, 2010 - Wettah is bettah! - It was the fall of 1973. I'd returned from a hitch in the Army spent in Germany, spent a summer living with my parents, saving money, working in a motion picture lab, and getting ready for college. In the fall, I went to college.

When in college, I quickly learned that the bread in the grocery store in Huntsville Texas wasn't as good as the bread my mother had made while I was growing up, and it wasn't as good as the bread I'd enjoyed in Germany either. So, I decided it was time to teach myself to bake.

So, I opened my still cherished copy of "The Joy of Cooking" and read about bread making, and decided to make their "Whole Wheat Bread Cockaigne". They use the word "Cockaigne" to show this is one of their favorite recipes. I was all over that. Today a bakery couldn't call that a whole wheat bread because it was half white flour and half whole wheat flour. Still, when I learned to make it, it was 100% delicious! I still make it, more moons later than I care to consider.

In any case, the instruction told me to add flour and knead until the dough was smooth and no longer sticky. 45 minutes later my arms were killing me! I'd add some white and whole wheat flour and knead... and the stickiness would go away, but the dough wasn't smooth. I'd knead until it was smooth - and it was sticky again! I finally gave up and went ahead with rising and baking. And had a lovely brick for my efforts. I got better over time, but my bread remained, well, dense. On the other hand, I'm German and we Germans like denser bread, so I was happy.

Years later, Suzette, then one of my girlfriends, bragged about her mother's biscuits. My attempts at biscuits never delighted me, so I was curious to see how her mother's were. Finally we visited Isla, her mom, and Homer, her dad. Isla made biscuits. And they were the best I'd ever had. I told her so. "What, these?" she replied. "These are just made from a mix - I gave up on making 'em from scratch. Bisquick, pioneer, whatever's cheapest when I'm shopping." I commented that I'd had a lot of Bisquick biscuits and none were as good has hers. She told me she added about 1/4 cup more liquid than the recipe called for. They rose better and tasted better that way.

And so it goes. Many moons later, the most common comment I hear in my baking classes is, "I've been making my dough to dry. I need to make my dough wetter!"

Yeah, there IS a point where wetter isn't better. But most new bakers seem to be afraid to handle wet doughs. It sticks to their hands! So they make their doughs too dry. Yeast has trouble with too dry a dough - it's too dense to raise. And it won't taste very good. Floury, cakey and dry. Making the dough wetter helps a lot.

Since dough is just flour, water, salt and riser it won't hurt you. Kneading with a quick light touch helps. Using wet hands helps. Kneading with a baker's knife helps.

You might try adding a bit more liquid, or a bit less flour, than your recipes call for. I think you'll like the results!

November 24, 2010 - Quick and easy lucky cloverleaf dinner rolls

I've been late so often with my baking tips, I thought I'd be on time for once. Maybe even early, In honor of the Thanksgiving Day celebration in the United States, here is a recipe for

These rolls are pretty quick, especially of you use a mixer. Just a few minutes of interaction here and there. However, they are very nice rolls, better than you'll find in most fancy restaurants. They are modeled on the Parker House Rolls, as served in the Parker House. In a week or two, I'll resend this with pictures and some other options for you. This will make a bit over two dozen two-ounce rolls.

We'll start by making a sponge. Mix together:

Volumetric Ingredient Grams Percent
½ cup Warm water 120 grams 25.00%
2 cups Warm whole milk 480 grams 100.00%
1 / 2 stick Butter 65 grams 14.00%
2 TBSP Instant dry yeast 19 grams 4.00%
1 TBSP Sugar 18 grams 3.80%
2 tsp Salt 9 grams 2.00%
3 cups All- purpose flour 480 grams 100.00%

Make sure the liquids are under 100F, add the solid ingredients, mix until smooth, cover and allow to stand until it has more or less doubled (until it is nice and foamy), about an hour. This really helps revitalize the yeast and develops the flavors of the roll. A straight dough just can't compete!

Yes, you can use low fat milk, skimmed milk margarine, soy milk or whatever. Just don't tell me they didn't turn out well. Butter and whole milk give you the best rolls. It's Thanksgiving day for crying out loud! Go work off the excess calories tomorrow when you're shopping.

Add:

Volumetric Ingredient Grams Percent
3 cups All-purpose flour 480 grams 100.00%

Mix this in, then knead until the dough is nicely developed, smooth and very lively. This will be a soft dough. If you have trouble with wet doughs, you might use a stand mixer for this.

Cover and allow to rise again.

When the dough has risen, fold it down, cut into 27 pieces for two ounce rolls or 54 pieces for one ounce rolls. Roll the pieces into balls, and put each ball into a cupcake or muffin tin. Brush the tops with butter and then use a pair of kitchen shears you have cleaned and dipped in melted butter to cut each ball into 4 pieces. This is BY FAR the fastest way to make cloverleaf rolls.

Cover the rolls, allow them to rise. Preheat the oven to about 375F, and bake for 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them if you make smaller rolls – the cook faster!

Serve with jam or ham, honey or gravy, or whatever you want to have these with. They'll pull apart easily and you and your guests will be delighted!

Sure, you can make these with sourdough. But they won't be the same rolls, and these rolls are pretty wonderful the way they are!

Best wishes to you and yours for the Happiest of Thanksgivings from all of us at BakeWithMike, Sourdoughhome and TheNewBurgundians – or
Beth and Mike

November 20, 2010 - Christopher Columbus, the "great navigator" - or - know where you're going - Christopher Columbus is often referred to as "The Great Navigator." This is despite the fact that on his great voyage he didn't know where he was going, when he got there he didn't know where he was, and when he got back he didn't know where he'd been. He thought he'd been to China.

Sometimes, as bakers,Village baking at the Coppell Farmers Market we're like that. We see a recipe for a bread we've never tried to make before, and which we've never tried at all.

So, at the end of the bake we know if we like the bread, we know if our family likes the bread, and we may know if our customers like the bread.

What we don't know is, is this a good specimen of that type of bread? This isn't always bad. A true German Pumpernickel is a dense, dark bread that is full of grain kernels. It's color comes from a long, slow and low bake. Around 250F Village baking's fine breadsin a boiling water bath for 18 to 24 hours.

Samartha talks about this on his website. A quick warning, Samartha has a true evangelist's devotion to true pumpernickel. And justifiably so - his is the best pumpernickel I have had in the United States, and rivals any I have enjoyed in Germany. His rye breads are an inspiration to me.

However, when German and Russian immigrants tried to get American bakers to make breads like they were used to, the American bakers just didn't get it. So, the American pumpernickel is a mix of rye and wheat flours with molasses, cocoa and coffee added to give it color. Some bakers use baker's caramel (a very dark caramel that is more a burnt sugar than a caramel). American Pumpernickel is not anything like German or Russian rye breads. However, it can be pretty darn good.

Still, if we want to be true to a bread's style, it helps to know what the style should look and taste like, and that's where your local artisan baker comes in. We made a trip to the Coppell Farmers Market today and enjoyed some breads and pastries from the Village Baking Company. If you can, you should look around for an artisan baker in your area. Get some breads, maybe some you've never tried before. And then learn by enjoying!

So, today's tip is, know where you're going!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - Herringbone? It was only two days after I put the Bread Slicing Tutorial on line when I learned a new way to slice bread. It really helps resolve the question of rapidly changing slice sizes when slicing a boule. By cutting at an interesting angle, I have learned I can get more, and more consistent, slices per loaf than before. Just visit my Bread Slicing page and look around!

November 14, 2010 - Our third newsletter - Get Some Scales! -

The first tip was, remember to breathe and don't obsess.

The second tip was, because it takes a consistent process to create a consistent product, track your temperatures, which was perhaps a slight step back from my suggestion that you not obsess.

The third step is another step back from my overall mantra of remember to breathe, don't obsess. It is,

Pitch your cups and start weighing your ingredients.

This is a very hard step for many Americans to take. Cups are as American as apple pie and baseball. My mother used cups. Your mother used cups.

However, they slow you down in the kitchen, they are yet another thing to clean up, and - most importantly - they aren't accurate.

In one of the baking newsgroups people who had both scales and cups were asked to weigh a cup of flour the way they usually filled a cup. The range of weights was from under 100 to over 200 grams, using conventional all-purpose flour.

The lightest weights were from people who sifted their flour twice, spooned it into a cup and then leveled the cup with a straight edge.

The heaviest cups came from people who scooped flour out of the sack with the cup. Some people were more conscientious about leveling their cups, others had peaks of flour well above the cup. Worse, the scoopers had as much as a 25% cup to cup variation.

In general, people who use cups are far more convinced that their flour varies from day to day, batch to batch and as it ages than people who weigh. Yes, flour DOES change from batch to batch and brand to brand. However, the differences are in the single digit percentage range, not in the double - or triple - digit range. People with cups are heard to say things like, "I dunno, I cut back on the amount of flour I used and dough was even drier than last time! I guess the water wasn't as wet today."

If you look at a flour sack's nutritional information box, you'll see that a cup of flour weighs about 120 grams. And, interestingly enough, whole wheat and white flour way about the same amount per cup. To make your cup weigh 120 grams you need to sift the flour once, spoon it into the cup until the cup is overflowing and then scape off the excess with a straight edge. It will usually be within about 5 grams of that weight.

When you use a cookbook, it helps to look around to see if they mention how they measure cups of flour. Yeah, it's that important - one popular cookbook insists that a cup of flour weighs 150 grams. I don't know where they got that number.

There are two purposes for recipes, or formulas. One is so you can make the same dish, or bread, again. The other is so you can share your recipe or formula with other people.

Cups do a fairly good job of letting you make the same recipe again, although there is still that 25% cup to cup variation I mentioned.

However, cups do not do a very good job at communicating recipes. If I tell you "4 cups of flour" do I mean 400 grams? Or 480 grams? Or 600 grams Or 800 grams? The differences do add up.

One baker I know never measures. She does everything by feel and her family loves her bread. Which is great. All the commercial bakers I know carefully weigh their ingredients. Then the feel the dough and adjust it until it feels right. They weigh because it gets the dough closer to where it needs to be faster and more consistently than using cups or doing it by guess and by gosh.

The last promise I made about weighing is that it is easier and faster and there is less to clean up. I weigh all my ingredients into the mixing bowl, liquids first. Between ingredients, I hit the "tare" or zero button. So, first there is 600 grams of water, than 1000 grams of flour, then I make a well in the flour and add 20 grams of salt, put another well in the flour and measure 3 grams if instant dry yeast. Now the bowl goes onto my mixer. If I put too much of something in, I can always take it back out. The only thing I've dirtied is one mixing bowl!

While weighing does seem like obsession to some, I feel it frees from a lot of worry and hassle. You can get a decent set of scales for $20 to $50. Look for one that will go up to 10 or 15 pounds. I like scales called "candle makers scales" as they can hold enough to be useful. Make sure it has a tare button. I've been very happy with the "My Weigh" brand, though there are many good brands.

November 06, 2010 - It takes a consistent process to make a consistent product -

Last week, the first tip I gave out was, “Don't obsess, remember to breathe”. Now I'm going to reel you back in a bit. While obsession is not helpful, it does take a consistent process to make a consistent product.

In that vein, I suggest you buy two thermometers. One is a quick reading chef's thermometer, the other an oven thermometer. You should be able to get both, if you don't already have them, for around $10.

The chef's thermometer is useful for checking the temperature of ingredients, including the temperature of your water. You see, dough seems to develop best at a temperature of about 78F, and the way to get it there is to adjust the temperature of the water you are using to mix the dough. I talk about it in the Yeasted English Muffin Bread recipe page, which is part of my “Introduction to Baking” pages. You can also use the chef's thermometer to check the temperature of bread to see if it is done baking. If you use and proof yeast, using a chef's thermometer can help you keep your water temperature in a range where you aren't killing your yeast.

The oven thermometer is also important. Many ovens, some say most, have inaccurate thermostats. If your oven is off by 50 or more degrees, which is not at all uncommon, it will be difficult to bake your bread correctly - you risk underdone or burned bread. Having a thermometer in your oven can help you understand what your oven is doing.

Monitoring the temperatures of your baking process is the first big step in gaining control of the process. Without obsessing.

October 29, 2010 - Our first newsletter! - It's time for the first, the inaugural, email to the Weekly Baking Tip from Mike email list.

First, a big THANK YOU to all of you who have signed up! 15 people have signed up in the first week we've had the form on our web site! I am delighted, and hope you will be too.

I've thought about the first baking tip a bit more than I usually think about things. I want this to be a very important bread making tip.

And I think that this will be the most important tip I'll ever share.

"Remember to breathe. Don't obsess."

Years ago my son was taking martial arts classes, and the time came for his first sparring match against another student. My son was creamed.

His teacher told him, "Remember to breathe". Many times when we're uncertain, when we are doing something we haven't done before, or when we push the envelope, we tense up. In David's case, he literally held his breath throughout the match. Which led to him panicking and doing other stupid things in the match.

I get emails all the time from people who, figuratively speaking, aren't breathing. They're obsessing. They touched their starter with a metal spoon and want to know if they should throw it away. (No, it's fine. Really.) They missed a feeding, will the starter be OK? (Yes. Are you OK if you skip a meal?) They're starting a new starter and it isn't behaving the way my web page says it should. (Your starter hasn't read my web page. Put the starter bowl on your lap and read the pages to the starter aloud. It'll hear and start behaving better.)

People have been making bread for something like 6,500 to 10,000 years, depending on which culinary anthropologist you believe. Before there were standardized flours. Before there were scales. Before chlorinated water. Before people understood why bread rose. In the middle ages a commonly held belief was angels made the bread rise. And you slashed the loaf so the angels could get out instead of being baked in your loaf. You wouldn't want to bake ANGELS, would you?

If they can make bread, not understanding anything about what they are doing at fundamental levels, you can make bread too!

As Brother Dominic used to say, "It's only bread, it will forgive you!"

So, baking tip one is, "Remember to breathe, don't obsess."

Until next time, remember the Pillsbury Doughboy got the first part right - Nothin' says lovin' like somethin' from the oven!

Sunday, August 15, 2010 - PIZZA! PIZZA! - We had a sourdough class yesterday and it was great! One thing that was especially good this time was the pizza! We make sourdough pizzas for lunch in the sourdough class. We made a number of the classic class pizzas - shrimp, asparagus and mozzarella cheese; smoked salmon, thinly sliced red onion, marscapone, and capers; the pesto and mozzarella cheese; and a few others. They were great! However, ever since I'd seen Michael Ruhlman's blog I'd been itching to try the bacon, asparagus, egg and cheese pizza that Michael Ruhlman talks about in his blog. It was a major hit. I'm making another one for breakfast this morning, and will post a picture if we can get a picture before we dive in. It's a great breakfast pizza, and it was pretty amazing for lunch. One thing he stresses that I appreciate and try to teach in class is that the recipes are not carved in stone, changing them is fine, and that you NEED to change them to make them yours. Thanks for sharing Michael!

Saturday, August 14, 2010 - It's just a matter of taste! One of the bakers in today's class had asked if she could bring her starter in for me to smell and evaluate. The only real test of a starter is in the baking and tasting, but I told her to bring it in. When she came to class, she commented that her starter made bread that was too sour. Several students commented they wished they had that problem. I sniffed the starter and said it needed to be fed but was basically fine.

Since her starter wasn't ready for use, we set it aside and made bread with my starters. After hours of work, the whole wheat sourdough came out of the oven. In class we take some shortcuts in making bread so that the classes will be only one day long, and the whole wheat sourdough was a very nice, but mild, whole wheat sourdough bread. She commented that was how her bread tasted and she had thought it was too strong. The other students all commented that the bread was pretty mild.

It's a pity but so many of the things we want, or don't want, don't have absolute references. One person's too crusty is another person's wimpy downstream crust; one person's too sour is another person's mild bread; one person's lethal hot sauce is another person's amusing little garden sauce. I wonder how to develop any sort of real standards so people can more effectively communicate tastes.

Sunday, August 08, 2010 - Videos gone! But returning! - We've been using Google videos to host the videos on our site and they've been doing a great job for us. However, when they bought Youtube they let users of their video service know they were going to stop hosting videos and that we needed to go to Youtube, or somewhere. Of course, we ignored the message. (Are we not MEN?) At some point in the fairly recent past, it seems they stopped hosting videos. Our pages with embedded videos have large white spaces where the videos belong. This took us by surprise, to say the least! (Mostly because we were ignoring the emails from Google. See "Are we not MEN?", above.)

We are in the process of re-doing our videos, uploading them to Youtube and updating our web pages. We hope that everything will be taken care of in the next few days.

Saturday, July 24, 2010 - Good bread found! Since I've been in Dallas, I've been looking for a great bakery. Now, to me, a great bakery is one that sells great bread. I'm not after a sandwich, I'm not after a cake, and I'm rarely there after pastry. I've been to Empire Baking Company, which D-Magazine's annual reader's poll proclaimed to the best in Dallas. It was good. But not great. If it was closer, I'd go there for bread, but it's not worth the 40 mile drive to me.

This weekend, Beth and I went to the Coppell farmers market and there was a booth from the Village Baking Company. I've met Clint, the owner, twice and he's a very nice guy. His bakery smells awesome and I love the facility. But by the time the bread is sold at Sprouts, which is where I'd found it, the magic had leaked out. So, I wasn't expecting much.

However, the smell drew me in, even though I'm still on a crazy low calorie, low carb and low satisfaction diet. And I bought two loaves - a New York Rye and a Country Olive with Kalamata olives. Both were exceptional! Right now, for my money, Village Baking Company is the king of the heap, the best in Dallas, and it could hold it's own where ever it was. If you're in Dallas or Austin, check out their web page and face book page and then visit the farmers markets they sell through. You won't be sorry!

Sunday, July 11, 2010 - More Rambling, More Subversion - It's odd how things come in sets. I was talking to a co-worker about the changes in the American diet and lifestyle since the Second World War. Next I found an interview with Andrew Whitley, the author of "Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own." Andrew talks about why bread just isn't what it used to be, why it has no taste, why it isn't good for you, and why it does aggravate health conditions. Luckily, he offers answers. Answers which sourdough lovers and slow food aficionados should love. I expound at some length over at my Food Philosophy page.

Sunday, June 20, 2010 - Whoda thunk it, we added site search For some time I've wanted to add a site search capability. Many people seem to have trouble navigating our (to me) intuitively obvious and (to me) simple site navigation. So, I wanted to add a site search capability. About 20 minutes at Google and 20 more editing the site, and it's here. At the bottom of each Our Search Bar page, you'll find a box like something like the one to the right. If you don't see it, you might have disabled active content, pop-ups or tracking code. If you want to use the search bar, you'll need to allow those things. While we don't use cookies or tracking codes, Wibiya does. We think they offer a good service to you, and us.

Just enter what you're looking for and Google will search Sourdough Home for you, returning all the cool stuff you're looking for. I'm jazzed! I hope you're delighted! If you find a page without a search box at the bottom, please let me know, just copy and paste the address of the page and we'll jump right on it!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - (Simulated) starter emergencies and a killer pizza recipe - Our recent trip to Alaska taught us two things about Alaska. It is against state law for a tourist to ever be more than 15 feet from a souvenir shop in a city, and 50 feet in the wilder parts of the state. Also, tourists must be offered Salmon or Halibut at every meal. Preferably both. I loved that part of it. So, that brings us to the pizza recipe. At the Nenana View Grill in the McKinley Chalet Resort we were served a salmon, red onion, capers and marscapone pizza. You could probably substitute crème fraiche for the marscapone. (Follow up comment a few weeks and a pizza later - crème fraiche was too runny, though the taste was fine. Stick to marscapone.) Use each to taste, though a sparser pizza is probably a better pizza here. It was so good my toes curled! (As were the ones we made at home later on. And I'm not even all that fond of capers!)

While we were gone, I received a few emails asking about what to do if you discover you just baked all your starter. Wow! Bummer dude! Ahhh - be more careful next time? More seriously, don't send me an email. It's not that I don't care, it's that your starter crisis will more than likely be over before I have a chance to answer you. However, I'd heard about an emergency recovery technique for this situation that sounded promising, so I simulated the crisis and gave it a try. It worked, and I documented it with two movies. Next time, we're going to rehearse before we use up all our starter. No, really.

Sunday, May 30, 2010 - I'm easy but I'm not free! - As long as there has been a Sourdough Home web page, I've answered questions from people having trouble with baking. And I've taken no small amount of pleasure from this. I've met a lot of great people, and made some wonderful friends. Over the years, the number of emails has continued to grow and grow. This morning I sat and answered questions from web site visitors for four hours and at the end, I was still woefully behind on answering questions.

It has become painfully obvious that things have gotten out of control.

I need to recertify in several computer areas, I need to work on the web redesign, I need to publish new books, and there isn't enough time. And that doesn't address the important areas of my life, things like staying connected to my family.

If I don't answer my emails, I feel guilty. If I do answer my emails, I fall behind on other things, and feel guilty.

I've reached a point where SOMETHING needs to be done. A number of web sites have stopped taking questions. If you send them emails about their site, you get no answer. I don't think that's fair. If you're going to be on the web, you shouldn't create an ivory tower with a moat around it. The only real answer I can come up with is that it's time for me to stop answering questions for free. I've been looking at how much time I spend answering questions, and how much my time is worth. So, beginning today I will charge $10 per question I am asked. Whether this reduces the number of questions I see, or enhances our cash flow, I can live with the outcome. I'm not really happy about the idea, but it is time.

Saturday, May 08, 2010 - Some vendors who have been recommended to me - I've had a few vendor recommendations in the past few weeks, I haven't done business with them, so this isn't a full endorsement. I'm just letting you know the sound interesting. On the Useful Tools page, I mention that I like wooden kneading troughs. Fall Creek Woods sells a wide variety of wooden bowls, some of which are intended for use as kneading troughs. The bowls I saw on their web page are beautiful, they are works of talented crafters, works of art even. Which is to say, some of them are a bit pricey but beauty has its price.

I've been asked more than once where to find affordable bannetons and brotforms. Lucky Clover Trading has a great price on bannetons. Use their search tool to look for Rattan Coil Items or bread. The rattan coil items are brotforms, just dust them with flour and use them for rustic rye breads. You may also line their bowls with a floured linen liner to use them as bannetons.

Friday, April 30, 2010 - Meditations upon a soup Not too long ago my wife and I attended a dinner sponsored by our favorite wine bar, Wine Squared. They work with a local chef to produce a lovely tasting menu paired with really nice wines. The chef comments on the food, the sommelier, Brook, comments upon the wine. The food and wine are exceptional. And the company is just great! It is so rare to fall into several different groups and have pleasant, stimulating civilized conversation. At a recent dinner, one of the entrees was a lettuce soup. It had a lovely Israeli olive oil and a grind of Egyptian pepper on it. I'd heard of lettuce soup, but had never had it. I was expecting something bland and yucky. Chance, the chef, made something lovely.

And that inspired me. I wanted to do something similar. So, I searched the net until I found an interesting sounding recipe. It was on a San Francisco area foodie blog. It was a nice recipe, and I think it is better now. It has sparked musings in my food philosophy page, and I hope you enjoy my spin on the recipe. It's a fast, easy and very tasty soup!

Sunday, March 21, 2010 - It ain't what you eat, but the way that you chew it! I've been doing a lot of non-bread stuff lately, which has really given me an itch to bake again! Of course, working on financial documents always makes me itch. Today my documentation is in an envelope ready to be mailed to my tax preparer! So, it's time to focus on bread again!

Why that Delbert McClinton quote? In my web site, I strongly favor one way of handling sourdough starter. Enough so that when people ask me questions about a technique they picked up at another web site, I suggest they try my way or ask the other web site's author. There are, in truth, a lot of reasons for this - it's not (just) ego. I strongly believe if you're going to put something on the web, you should answer the email it generates. I answer all my email (eventually - I'm 5 weeks behind but I'm catching up!) and I feel answering the email you get is part of the price you pay for being on-line. Also, it's not fair of me to comment upon someone else's technique. If I had a nickel for every time someone in a newsgroup, blog, mailing list or other online forum comments that this or that way of doing things can't work - without knowing a thing about it - I could retire. I do believe that if someone puts a recipe or a technique online, it has worked for them. At least once. And they are the best person to answer questions about it.

But back to the Delbert quote. I just ran across the Farine web site, which is a real treat. I need to add her site to my links page. In particular there is a series of articles about Gérard Rubaud, a classically trained French baker who wound up in North Carolina. A North Carolina based baker friend whom I greatly respect commented, "I gave a friend a loaf of my bread and after trying it he commented, "I really like Gérard's bread" which I took to mean I need to work on my own bread more." I was curious what could inspire such devotion to M. Rubaud's bread.

M. Rubaud's work is a labor of deep-seated love with a singularly French focus. His treatment of his levain, or sourdough starter, is intended to control the acidity of the levain, to make sure the natural flavors of the grain shine through into the bread. A traditional San Francisco Sourdough Bread has the opposite focus, with the goal of maximizing the expression of the sourdough starter in the bread at the cost of the wheat or rye flavors. M. Rubaud starts a fresh starter every 4 to 6 weeks in the summer, every 3 months during the winter months. He feeds it every 5 hours (which must really limit his social life, not to mention his sleep), he makes sure it never gets below 46F, and makes sure it is no more liquid than 50 to 60% hydration. He also feeds his starter a mix of freshly ground red wheat, white wheat, spelt and rye flour mixed with organic all-purpose white flour. In contrast, I suggest beginners keep their starters around 100% hydration, and some other sites suggest around 170% hydration. I suggest feeding twice a day, others as little as once a week or so. I suggest using white flour to feed the starter, as do most web pages, unless they have a strong whole grain focus.

The moral is one I've known for some time but haven't stressed enough. There are many ways to start, maintain and use sourdough starters. None of them are wrong if they help you make the bread you want to make. None of them are right if they stand in the way of you making the bread you want to make. "To a man who has only a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail."

So - what's the take home message for you? If you're a sourdough beginner (you have NO idea how much I wanted to type "If you're a sourdough starter"), I still suggest you pick a guru, be it a book or a web page, and work with one approach until you understand it and it works for you. Then branch out and look at other ways of handling sourdough. But most of all, have a good time doing it!

Sunday, February 14, 2010 - Valentines day and a discovery! - Long time site visitors, and those who are obsessive about looking at every page here (thank you!) know I really liked using Saran Wrap's "Quick Covers" to protect dough and I yalked about how the large ones were big enough to cover almost any bowl. In fact, I covered 5 gallon buckets with them. However, Saran Wrap didn't sell enough of them, so they discontinued the pack of large covers, and then dropped the line altogether. A correspondent suggested I go to Sally Beauty Supply and check out their disposable shower caps. Sally is a chain of beauty supply companies that sells direct to the public. When I was dying my beard, I got my beard coloring there. (Hint for Mr. Grey - the stuff in the grocery store is not as good as the professional products!)

The shower caps are just $1.99 for 10 of them. I was intrigued and went off to Sally. As soon as I entered a friendly sales lady jumped forward to help me. She suggested that I might want to look at the "very similar" processing caps also. The processing caps are used in beauty shops to keep the strange chemicals they put on clients hair from dissolving the paint on the walls and triggering asthmatic attacks. The caps looked very similar to the shower caps. The helpful sales lady smiled and told me she uses the processing caps as shower caps (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). And the processing caps are $1.99 for 30 (YES - THIRTY) caps. We had a baking class this weekend, and the caps were just great! I hate throwing away plastic wrap. These reuseable shower caps are *SUCH* a step up from plastic wrap! Reuseable, and the elastic band keeps them where you put them. I haven't tried putting them on a 5 gallon bucket yet, but I think they'd fit.

Friday, January 01, 2010 - A long awaited change to Mike's Sourdough Calculator - in 2001 I wrote a calculator spreadsheet to help scale and convert recipes. Since shortly after that, I have not used it. I use other spreadsheets and don't go back to that one. I've gotten a number of improvement suggestions. And I really should put them in place. But - how would you like to update a spreadsheet you haven't even looked at in something like 6 to 9 years? Jean Symes made the reasonable request that I add a grams function. I did that and cleaned up a few other issues. If you haven't used the spreadsheet, or if you haven't looked at it in a while, you might go ahead and download it. I think you'll find it is easier to use. (Addendum November 7, 2011 - I was wrong, The spreadsheet was pretty awful. I've removed it. I may fix it, but I'm not really inclined to do so.)