Tag Archives: sourdough

All about the crust

I make bread almost every day. I put it in for final fridge-proving overnight and get up early (with the oven on a timer so it is up to temperature by the time I get up and a baking tray in the oven so that the raw dough goes onto a hot tray) to bake it.

I know. How lucky is everyone in my house.

There are many great things about baking your own bread but you can also custom-bake the crust so it suits you/what you’re going to use the bread for.

I usually bake sourdough bread at 220C for thirty minutes. This is how I’ve been doing it for years and it affords time for the bread to bake, and cool, in time for making sandwiches for packed lunches. And the first packed lunch leaves the house at 7.30am so you can perhaps work backwards and work out how early I get up.

(No-one makes me. I like to get up early and as the bread bakes I tidy up and get ready for the day.)

The crust on a 30 min loaf is quite thin, golden brown, it wouldn’t stop the room at a party but it’s good for anyone who can’t, or doesn’t like, very crusty bread.

But lately I’ve been craving really thick, dark, chewy crusts. To do this you need to bake for about 45 mins minimum but the longer you go the thicker the crust.

Of course if your oven is too hot it will also be too burned so you need to play with the temperature. However, what works for me is this:

250C ten minutes

220C twenty minutes

down to 200C for another ten if it’s looking too burnt, if not keep it at 220 for another ten minutes.

Yes I know this is 40 mins but timings are really tight in the morning which is why I blast it with a 250C heat to begin with.

My shelf is on middle and my oven is on normal oven (not fan) setting

The crust is amazing. I love it with butter and apricot jam.

I also stick an ice cube on a tray under the bread to allow for maximum oven spring (rising). Nothing beats the bread when it’s first baked – but cooled as I hate hot bread – and I will fight anyone for the crust-end, or ‘il culo’ (the bottom) as we say in Italian.

Back to retarded proving with sourdough

Like so much of my sourdough bread making, this reminder of how delicious a long prove can be, came about by accident. I’d started that day’s bread and had to go out for the day so I had to stick it in the fridge and pick up where I’d left off the day after.

Although the resulting bread was over-proved (see pic) the taste was sensational. You can tell when the bread is over proved because it has that ‘false ceiling’ look (I don’t know if that’s an accurate description but it is what I call it..), where the bread has risen up and can’t sustain its own, early, promise.

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Super delicious but over proved sourdough

I’ve been baking sourdough for over a decade now and, as Dan Lepard so brilliantly put to me one day, sometimes we let success hinder progress. I know my shaping could do with (more) work, but I’ve grown lazy. And because I can make bread, now, I haven’t experimented much. And whilst my sourdough tastes good, a longer prove really improves the flavour.

I don’t do it very scientifically. Sometimes I start the bread with starter/water/flour/salt and leave it, unmixed, for a few hours. Sometimes I’ll take it to the first one hour rise phase and then put it in the fridge overnight and carry on the next day. Sometimes I start it, mix it up roughly and leave it til the next morning (in the fridge) – but if you rest if for a long time and the dough isn’t totally smooth, make sure it’s well covered, otherwise, as per point 2 below, you can get hard bits.

There are no hard and fast rules, but a few things to remember:

  1. You need a good starter to do prolonged proving, so one that’s been refreshed in the last twelve hours.
  2. Don’t leave it at the first (unmixed) stage for too long as hard lumps will form that will be hard to eliminate. Ask me how I know.

But other than that, just experiment. What can go wrong? Put it in and out of the fridge over a couple of days, see what happens. When I’ve finally shaped it, I leave it at room temperature for a few hours before putting it (back) in the fridge for its final rest. I tend to try to always cook it from fridge cold as it’s easier to handle and slash.

The mixture I’ve used recently has been 425g white bread flour with 75g rye. I had previously shied away from prolonged proving with white flour but it seems to be okay. If you need more information about sourdough do a search for sourdough in the search bar or select it in the drop down category menu on the right hand side of this page. If you’re new to it here is a step by step guide I did some years ago.

And if you’re totally new to it and fancy a try, do what I did many years ago: buy Dan Lepard’s excellent The Handmade Loaf. In terms of bread-making it changed my life.

Fresh sourdough, from frozen

Making sourdough, once you know what you’re doing, isn’t laborious. Sure, I hate the beginning part: all that measuring out and refreshing (I am so lazy) – and have to gear myself up for it. But once the dough is formed, it’s just a matter of revisiting it for a little fumble every now and again. Until you need to shape and put it to bed in the couche cloth or banneton, for the final prove.

That said, there are some days when you just don’t have the time to do it. And often it is the days when you are the most busy, that you need to be eating good, home made food – but you don’t have time to make it.

I’ve long thought of experimenting with sourdough, to see if you can freeze it after final shaping. And you can.

Straight after final proving, flour it well, and freeze it. Your exact method may need some tweaking. I tend to make baguettes, so I shape, put on a tray, flour well, open freeze for a couple of hours then transfer into a plastic bag. If you have a boule shape you can freeze it in the banneton (well floured) but do set a timer to take it out and put it in a plastic bag – your bannetons probably won’t like being frozen.

The night before you need your bread – or a few hours before – take the shaped dough out of the plastic bag and transfer either back into a well floured banneton or a well floured couche cloth. Just as if it were ‘fresh’. I put it in the fridge to defrost til morning and have it’s final, final prove. You can leave it at room temperature if you are in more of a rush.

Remember that frozen and defrosted dough is far stretchier, so handle it as little as possible (hence all the flouring). You then do everything as per normal – heat up the oven with a tray in it, transfer the dough when it’s time to cook, slash, ice cubes, bake. This is where my flipping board, or planchette, comes in really handy for transferring it to the baking tray as the dough is harder to handle than fresh dough.

The one you see here suffered all sorts of indignities – I didn’t flour it, it was so stretchy I had to peel it off the planchette, it went into the oven full of injury and I didn’t hold out much hope for it. But sourdough is a miraculous thing and as forgiving as the best mother can be: 10 mins at 250C, 10mins at 220C and out it came: a perfectly wonderful loaf of bread, with an excellent crumb and a great taste.

Adding kefir and oats to sourdough

Last year I was given some kefir from my friend Becky. Don’t ask me too much about kefir, cos I’m still learning about it. It’s basically something that looks like a small, glutinous brain, which you put in milk (I have milk kefir you can also get water kefir) and it does something to the milk after a day or so which you can then drink or put in smoothies and it has magical qualities.

Something like that.

Every day, however, I fear I am going to poison everyone with sour milk, which is what it tastes like. This isn’t helped by my partner saying “What IS this stuff? Are you sure it’s safe?”

It doesn’t really taste great on its own. I originally started it because my eldest has eczema and it’s a battle to keep her probiotics/prebiotic level high (this is another, long story). But we channel Gwynnie whilst we imbibe it.

The thing with kefir is that you get lots of it to use up. We can only use so much in smoothies so I started thinking what else could I do with it? And then I decided to put it into my sourdough. Not loads, but about 60g (that’s all I get per yield) of it which I used as part of the ‘water’ element (I add 335g of liquid to 500g of flour so my kefir takes up some of the 335g, make sense?) And it works really well. It gives the loaf a lovely rise and you get a wonderfully moist crumb – less air holes I find (see photo below, the main photo shows the crumb after the first slice when there are more air bubbles), but a really nice sourdough for making sandwiches. And it’s tasty. Really tasty.

(I’m not pretending that any of the nutritional qualities of kefir are kept during the baking process.)

The other thing I’ve been adding is oats. I grind them up in my Nutribullet to make oat flour, and I don’t add more than 10% of the total flour content – so no more than 50g of the 500g of flour. (Oats don’t naturally contain gluten, but if you are coeliac do read this.)

Again this adds a lovely dimension to the bread. I made some the other day with oats and my children said the bread was “particularly delicious”.

I’ve also used kefir in place of buttermilk in my prune and almond loaf to great success.

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Sourdough rolls, or panini

Having a bread roll always seems a bit luxurious. Whereas a slice from a loaf is all about sharing, a panino (panino is the singular, panini the plural) is all about you: it’s all yours; from beginning to end.

I only started making rolls last year, when I got a couche cloth for my birthday (I felt lucky). They are so easy to make and I want to encourage you to give them a try, and here’s why:

You can keep the rolls proving in the fridge for days. A batch of dough made using 500g of flour yields about 12-16 rolls, depending, obviously, on how big you make them. This lasts us, on  average, three days. The longer they’re left, the tastier they become.

Thus, you can cook up just how much you need. This is really useful if you struggle to get through a whole loaf in one day. With the rolls, once you have a batch in the fridge, you can have freshly baked bread in less than 20 minutes (cook straight from the fridge) and you can cook up just one or two, or the whole lot depending on how many you want to feed that day/moment.

The longer-proved rolls do deflate when you slash them however, so don’t try – just nip at them deeply with a very sharp pair of scissor (you can see the effect in the pic above), they still rise beautifully in the oven, but you want to be quick and definite with the cutting so don’t faff around with a grignette.

They’re really, really tasty.

With rolls that have only been proving overnight, I do slash at them with a grignette, usually making four little slashes all the way around. This helps keep the round ‘boule’ shape. If you don’t mind about this, two or three slashes with a sharp bread knife is slightly easier, but the dough will expand to give you a more oval shaped roll.

I bake mine for anything from 14-20 minutes, divided up half at 250C and half of that time at 200C, but obviously a bit more or less depending on size of rolls or finish of crust that you want. (I still use ice cubes though.)

If you like to give bread as a present there is something really nice about giving a ‘bag ‘o’ rolls’. I mean even the phrase is great. Buy some brown bags (I get mine from the dreaded Amazon, sorry), because I do love a brown paper bag.

They are easy to shape and it’s also a really good way to practise shaping because if you get one a bit wrong, you have another 11 or so to practise on. Do shape them all up at the final prove stage, don’t be tempted to keep the dough to shape up for later. I can’t find the shaping video I watched now (it was by the people at King Arthur Flour), despite looking for it. But if you put ‘shaping bread rolls’ into You Tube you’ll get a few vids which will give you an idea.

You can bake them longer for a crustier crust, for less time to make a softer one for children/old people with no teeth. Whilst I love a deep, dark crust on a big loaf of sourdough, because the ratio of crust to middle is low, with a roll, I prefer a softer bite.

Have a go, and have fun with it. Just use your regular recipe for sourdough but shape them into rolls. This also means you can make the fabled ‘sourdough burger bun’ (basically a sourdough roll into which a burger has been put) which people queue for in London’s Hackney.

For the rolls with a lesser proving time you will need a planchette, but with the rolls that have been proved for a longer time, they are less frisky, drier, and you can, if you’re quick and confident, lift them off the couche cloth and onto a hot baking tray by hand. But given that a planchette is vital for baguette baking, treat yourself.

Couche cloth proving

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A couche cloth is a specialist piece of heavy linen cloth, made especially for the final proving of sourdough bread (couche = ‘laying down to sleep’). I’d wanted one for ages but for some reason never got myself one. Isn’t it weird how there are certain things that are perfectly affordable and yet they are regarded as luxuries and we never buy them for ourselves? The couche cloth came under this category for me, even though it only cost a tenner and I’ve easily wasted ten pounds on loads of other crap.

You can of course use a dish cloth in a bowl for proving sourdough, and lots of people do. But, for me, it’s not really the same as it’s clumsy and the dough can stick to a dishcloth, no matter how dusted with flour. I have umpteen bannetons now – hence why the couche cloth seemed like a luxury. But I sometimes wanted to make sourdough baguettes and rolls, just some different shapes occasionally, and I couldn’t do those in the bannetons, because the shape of the banneton determines the shape of the final loaf. And most bannetons are round or baton shaped. Here is a pic of my sourdough rolls, after they’d been proved in the cloth, and on the flipping board about to be flipped onto the baking tray, to go into the oven.

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Then one day, I was talking to my mother and she told me about how she and my grandmother  used to make bread when she was a girl, and she was telling me all about how they used to lay the shaped dough down in a piece of linen cloth and pinch the cloth up so that the dough held its shape. And I recognised that of course, she was talking about a couche cloth.

Well. Now I knew it was part of my heritage, I knew I had to get one. And with a couche cloth you need a flipping board or planchette. So I put both on my birthday list and I got both. They were bought from the fabulous Bakery Bits.

I got my couche cloth by the metre, going for the 60cm by 1m length, which, weirdly, ends up cheaper (£10.14) than the pre-cut cloth of the same size (£14.40).

I immediately realised that I’d got my couche cloth too big, but that’s no biggie as I cut it in half. The thing with couche cloth proving is that you then either need to keep the dough out for proving or put it in the fridge. And if you put it in the fridge you need to make sure you have a tray big enough to hold your shaped dough AND that, then, your fridge and your oven are big enough to hold the bread when you prove and then cook it. No point making a 3ft long baguette if you then can’t get it into the fridge to prove and then the oven to cook it.

Here are two great videos, that Joanna from Zeb Bakes put me onto, ostensibly to help me with shaping my baguettes (more about baguettes another time). This one shows you a couche cloth in use and this one shows you the flipping board in action.

I dust couche cloths with rice flour. I find it much better than the usually recommended rye flour – my loaves never stick – and also it gives a lovely contrast on the crust of my cooked loaves. And when I’m done, I brush the cloth with a grouting brush which I keep just for that job (being a grouting brush it has stiff bristles). Then I hang them out in the glorious sunshine to dry.

Over proving

Can you hear the quiet?

This is the special bit between handing in a big piece and waiting to hear if you have to make huge changes with less than three hours until it has to go to press.  Or, if the whole thing will pass smoothly by, slipping into production with just a few waves of tweaking by me.

And as such, there is very little I can do right now but wait, and listen to the birdsong in my garden and wonder when the sun will appear from behind the thick kapok of cloud.

This part of writing is like the period between O and A’levels, such as they were in my day. I’d done my O’levels, I was waiting for my results, but my A’levels hadn’t started yet so there wasn’t anything else I should be doing but lie, tummy down, on the big window sill at home and stare up the road dreaming of what my future would look like.

So I’m going to do a gentle post today, whilst I sit and wait. And it’s about over proving.

Here are two pictures of the same loaf. I left it out of the fridge, by accident, so it had a 14hr prove at about 20degrees. I note in Paul Hollywood’s book How to Bake, he tells you to leave the sourdough out for what sounds like too long – something like 22hrs – at a warm room temperature, with the dough wrapped in plastic. But his method is all different to the Dan Lepard one I use anyway (has anyone used the Hollywood method for making sourdough? Be keen to hear how it went, I just can’t fathom how the bread wouldn’t over prove, being out for so long).

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The first picture was the first slice. I feared the loaf had been over proved, but it looked okay at first. Great even (the taste was good), and I thought I’d caught it all in time. But look further into the loaf, at the second picture and you’ll see that great cave of air at the top, which is a sign of a sourdough that has been over proved.

Because I had divided up the loaf into two loaves, I had put the other one in the fridge. Four days at 4C, later I cooked it and this is what it looked like:

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See the difference? It had good airholes, but nothing like the ones in the first picture.

I’ve discovered the really perfect way, for me, to make sourdough is to put it in the fridge for a period of time, so the flavour can develop without the dough exhausting itself, and then taking it out for a good few hours so the crumb can develop large air holes. But it takes planning and time.

ps: I didn’t need to make any changes at all. 🙂