Tag Archives: flour

Wild Yeast 101

6 Mar

I’ve got to admit, I’ve been pretty unproductive lately in the bread-making department. I don’t think I’ve actually baked a loaf since before Christmas. I see where you think this is going. I’m  losing interest/motivation/the will to bake… well, just hang on a second, don’t go rushing to conclusions like a half price Selfridge’s Sale!

The fact is I was backpacking in Europe for three weeks. Anyone’ll tell you that youth hostels aren’t really conducive environments to home baking, or cooking full stop. I mean, I think a lot of the people I met really pushed their boundaries by tossing a jar of pesto with some penne. That’s great. I didn’t.

Getting back home and actually cooking again, like really cooking, was heavenly. The same would and could be said for baking, no doubt, but other than making a mean pizza (if I do say so myself – part of the secret is a dusting of polenta or semolina flour on the bread stone/pan) last night, I haven’t actually made any bread.


But, then there was Jim. Jim is my starter, and he is precisely 6 days and 4 hours old. Why Jim? I don’t know. I thought I should name my starter at any rate, seeing as I put in at least as much effort into feeding him as any (negligent) mother would her own baby. And true to negligent mother form, I picked the first monicker that came to mind, a name that I don’t even particularly like. Jim. But it sort of stuck regardless.

So yeah, I’ve finally kicked off my starter, and wow, it really is like a tiny slice of motherhood, less the crying, teething, crapping et. al. What’s not to love? Every single morning when I come downstairs to find that it’s still bubbling away, I feel a little burst of pride. The only awkward thing is I’m going to have to get my brother to babysit Jim while I’m away in France later this month. He’s been tending to his own starter now for a few months, so at least he won’t accidentally chuck Jim in the bin. Nevertheless, it’s always going to be hard to entrust my culture to someone else!


Anyway, Jim started off as a mixture of 100g dechlorinated, tepid water (if you have mains water, just let it sit, or simply use bottled water) and 100g flour (25g wheatgerm, 50g wholemeal, 25g plain). I’ve been working off Wild Yeast Blog’s great step-by-step guide, but subbed in a little wheatgerm just to give Jim a healthy kick start. Apparently the wild yeast in question is found in the unrefined wholemeal flours and wheat products. As for my feeding process, just check out the blog for a rough guideline.. But don’t worry: I haven’t been religiously using 1:1:1 ratios of starter to water to flour – sure, I approximate the weight with scales, but as long as the quantities aren’t wildly out, then you’re probably good to go.

For what it’s worth, my starter’s been incredibly well-behaved. We’ve had no false starts. What can sometimes happen, apparently, is that within a couple of days the starter can enthusiastically double in size, suggesting a miracle growth. It doesn’t actually mean that the starter’s ready to bake with, though, or even that the yeast is necessarily activated. It’s bacteria called Leuconostoc that’re responsible, providing the sudden rise and the subsequent collapse, making the starter appear to die. Which would put me in a bad mood for a good hour at any rate.


Other than an initial burp of alcohol on Day 2, Jim has been a pleasure. In fact, I reckon he’s almost ready to bake with. My starter’s moving on up in the world! By tomorrow, I think I’ll only be feeding him plain white flour. Oh my, how they grow.

So call me a crazy starter lady, but I genuinely like caring for my colony. Plus, I think it’s already helping me to understand the dynamics of yeast a bit better, if my pizza dough was anything to go by.

Anyway, leave a comment if you want to share your own experiences with starters, or want to test my limited knowledge with a question or two!


If Bread Were Dynamite…

18 Jul

The day before yesterday I gave my hybrid starter a go. In English, I made an incredibly wet dough, bunged it in the fridge overnight for a chilly prove, and next day I added more flour to lend it some much-needed surface tension (it barely had enough to rise the night before: it groaned itself upwards a little but swiftly resigned itself instead to bubbling as proof of… well, proof).

In any case, as before, following the first prove, and adding the extra flour, I shaped the dough and gave it some privacy for its second prove on a sheet of oiled greaseproof paper. The dough looked a little lethargic if I’m honest, so when I returned from the gym to see this an hour or so later, I reeled in disbelief:

It went from this:


to this:


Needless to say, it had exploded. If there’s one thing I’m learning – other than how to treat burn wounds – no two loaves are alike. Never a dull moment, eh?

It was messy, too, though. It was like the new Spiderman flick. No, really: the focus is on this monstrous lizard wreaking havoc in an otherwise functional and pedestrian city, and of course Peter Parker as he saves the day. But the real nightmare involved with a rampant giant lizard, or indeed an excitable wodge of dough, is the resulting clean-up operation.

The dough really bonded with the greaseproof paper, and believe me it took some doing to tear the two apart. My irritated wrangling paid off for the most part, but I couldn’t help noticing a sliver of paper while chewing on a slice post-bake. Hopefully I was alone in that experience. The fusion of stationery and food should be left to fortune cookies. They’re the experts.

Anyway, I reshaped the dough as gently as I could, hoping against hope that the crumb wouldn’t suffer too much at my hand. I mean, I couldn’t very well bake bread’s answer to a giant reptile, even though the crumb may well have been a sight for sore eyes.


Apparently undeterred, the loaf rose spectacularly in the oven. Half an hour’s baking at full whack was enough to slightly char one side of it, but I’m resigned to this as a side effect of a stupid oven. It’s what’s inside that counts, after all.

For all its showiness, however, the bread ultimately let me down. Once cooled, it was my brother who eagerly sliced into it. The intersection revealed an underwhelming crumb, reminiscent of the Funeral Bread. Moreover the flavour wasn’t as nutty or as full-bodied as my previous sloppy dough, probably because the more recent addition of flour didn’t have time to truly meet and greet the yeast. The shape, however, was a marked improvement.

This compromise between surface tension and crumb is so tricky! But I won’t say impossible, nothing’s impossible. Perhaps a good starter’s the answer, but I have yet to actually start one. I need to do some research first, but I’ll get there.

For the time being, I’m thinking a good supportive container (like a mould, à la Jim Lahey’s no knead bread – http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/081mrex.html) coupled with sloppy dough. Except I’m still planning on kneading the dough. Perhaps that’s the answer to my surface-tension related prayers. Or perhaps a therapist is. Who knows?

Anyway, in the meantime sink your teeth into the recipe for the above hyperactive bread. As usual, it’s solidly based on a basic French bread dough, and only one variable’s been fully played with. I’d attach a warning, but I think it’s just a misguided dough with a penchant for greaseproof paper. Perfectly innocent.



400g strong white flour and a good deal extra

c. 200g wholemeal flour

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp dried yeast

tepid water


Sift the 400g flour, and combine with the salt and yeast. Make a well in the centre.

– Add enough of the water to form a wet dough, bordering on batter consistency.

– Knead (I had to effectively stir it, in the bowl, with my hands) until you feel the dough starting to strengthen and fuse.

– Place the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with clingfilm and put in the fridge. Leave for at least 12 hours.

– Once the mixture is peppered with little air bubbles, remove from the fridge and work in the wholemeal flour, and enough of the extra flour so that it forms a dough that is just stiff enough to sit up on its own, and not so sticky that you’re afraid to touch it. Basically, it’s dough’s answer to a teenager.

– Shape into a long oval, leave to prove for a second time, and (all going well) pop into a pre-heated oven at top temperature (mine reaches 250°C). Bake for approx 30 mins (perhaps 5 or so minutes more) with a smouldering pan of water at the base of the oven to crisp up the crust.

Et voilà! Tune in next time for yet another yeasty tragicomedy, folks.

Wet, wet, wet

15 Jul
This bread (baked on Friday) is, as promised, a wetter dough. I have a confession to make, however: I said I would play with one variable at a time, being all very scientific. This bread, though, differs from the last in a couple of ways: the dough was moister; the proving was time much longer (about 19 hours including the second rise); and, of course, the oven time was, necessarily, much shorter.
I did not wish for a repeat episode of the Cremation.
The thing about a longer proving time, as I’ve mentioned before, is that it works in opposition to yeast quantity and temperature. So I bunged in a mere half a teaspoon of dried yeast (need to get my hands on some active yeast at Lettercollum, a local organic food store here in Clonakilty). On top of that, I let the dough prove overnight in the fridge, much to my father’s consternation.
The second thing about the longer proving time is a more complex flavour, brought about by the development of the starches in the flour… I think. It’s a bit like sauté-ing onions. For maximum flavour, a slow, yawning sizzle that massages the flavour out of them is best. And bread, fussy and difficult as it is, needs to be spoiled and coddled in much the same way. At least, that’s the impression that yours truly, amateur baker extraordinaire, gets!
Other than that, I didn’t deviate from the previous recipe.
I’ve devoted a lot of TLC to this loaf, and I think the affection would be mutual if the bread had a frontal lobe. But, oh dear, once again trouble comes knocking on paradise’s door. You see, the compromise I made in wetting my dough (which helps with a fine, irregular crumb), was reducing surface tension. In layman’s terms, trying to get the dough to stay in a nice oval shape was a little like trying to get Flubber to stay still. My sloppy dough refused to be compliant, and, despite my best efforts, stubbornly oozed its way into a flatbread shape.
The pizza stone had turned into an effective chez longue for my lazy, lazy dough.
I remained hopeful that the hot air in the oven would give it a vertical boost. The result? Well, suffice to say that it didn’t rise as much as I’d hoped. Not that I was feeling particularly optimistic. It ended up looking like a flat bread, a lip-smacking and artisan flat bread, perhaps, but a flat bread nonetheless.
Happily it was decimated by the family – who were perhaps so relieved that it didn’t taste like cinders that they praised the flavour mightily. And, I admit, it was good, which bears testament to a nice, lethargic proof.
The crumb was pretty good too – certainly better than my last attempt: springy, more irregular and with a couple of satisfyingly gaping holes. Perhaps the lightness of the crumb had something to do with the dough being vertically challenged: the glucose bonds had less downward force to battle with. One thing I did notice was temperature’s effect on the crumb. My oven, unfortunately, heats in a non-uniform fashion, the back being hotter than the door at the front in general. This much I could gauge from the slightly charred half of my loaf.
But that same half also had a better crumb consistency. It’s obvious when I think about it, but more hot air equals a better rise in the oven.
(On a side note, the predominant oven rise takes place in the first ten or so minutes of baking – which, annoyingly, is also when the oven needs to regain heat lost through the oven door aperture. I wish there was a way of sneaking my bread in without having to open a great big door!)
As for crust, well, I think I’ve cracked it. In professional bakeries (such as the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC, who offer an interesting “no knead” method) steam injection coupled with insanely high temperatures is common practice to achieve that no-nonsense, crunchy crust that, I suggest, makes bread sing. I just use a baking tin, heat it up to a smouldering temperature at the base of the oven, and tip in a little water. Trust me, it’s foolproof.  For further textural adventures, I sprinkled my dough with polenta (for want of semolina flour) after the second prove. That was a tip I learned at a pizza party last summer – there, the dough was rolled out using semolina flour instead of traditional plain white to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter. It really does boost the whole chewing experience.
When working the dough, I worked with sunflower oil instead of flour, not wanting to meddle too much with my moist consistency. In hindsight, perhaps it could have done with a little meddling after all, but then again, the experiment would then have been void. I think the oil may have had a part to play in the complex flavour of the loaf, too. The reason I didn’t add any lipids to the actual recipe is simply that they can interfere with the crumb. No fear, I will try a buttery loaf once I’ve found a strong foundation to work with.
Anyway, enough analysis. Here’s the basic recipe:
500g strong white flour
c. 200g wheatmeal flour
1.5 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried yeast (from one of those 7g sachets)
hand-hot water (half boiling, half cold)
1. Sieve white flour into bowl. Combine remaining dry ingredients (including yeast).
2. Add enough water to make the dough sloppy.
3. Oil surface and hands. Knead the dough by gathering it all in hands, and rhythmically tugging at it from both sides in a cross-chest motion. Do so for about 10 mins, or until the dough is more supple and elastic.
4. Place in bowl, cover with cling film and pop in the fridge overnight. Next day, place the dough in a pan or on chosen baking surface. Shape (or try to) however you want. I warn you, this dough won’t allow you to be very adventurous in this regard.
5. Pre-heat oven to max temperature. Leave the shaped dough to double in volume.
6. Bake for half an hour.
Note: once the bread is shaped, I find it pretty awkward transferring it from one surface to another. But I like to use a hot baking stone, and since I obviously can’t let the bread go through its second prove on that (it would cook!), the risky business of moving the dough is necessary.
So I devised a little something something yesterday – I turned a baking sheet upside down, coated with oiled greaseproof paper, and slapped the dough onto that before shaping. That way I had an elevated surface (the tin) which I could carry as near as possible to the baking stone, and a means of shifting the dough slightly more effectively (the paper). It worked reasonably well, though I still have my sights on a pizza paddle.
And there we go!
As for my next loaf, I was just thinking this morning how a moist dough results in a better crumb than a dry dough. And how the first proof seems to be the most significant. Then I got to thinking about starters, about which I don’t know a huge amount. What I do know is that they’re sloppy at first, but then you add some flour to form a proper, pliable dough.
Deduced from all of this positing, I propose this as my next experiment: a wet dough (as above), allowed to prove overnight in the fridge, with flour added before shaping and the second prove. I’ll keep you posted.


10 Jul

Call me a bread-head, but I’m on a personal quest to bake the perfect bread.

Yeah, I know. I’m devoting a blog to that predictable hunk of flour and water that occupies a 30×10 patch in your fridge, cupboard or parlour. That dehydrated, pre-sliced white pan that must, must be made of reconstituted plastic because it’s unchanged after several weeks.

But bread is amazing: it’s been a staple of our diets for millenia. I won’t go into the history, but it’s undoubtedly been a steadfast companion to the human race over the years. It’s also the friend of innumerable dishes – curries, boeuf bourgignon, koftas – and serves as the basis of others. Even the term bread covers all manner of different types: it’s incredible the diversity that can be achieved working from such a narrow base of ingredients.

Plus, it’s got to be the most moreish foodstuff I can think of. I hate myself for it (and my hips hate me more), but I turn into a complete pig when presented with a pre-dinner basket of bread. Forget dessert, primi, secondi, cheese and wine: bread is the star of my show.

Good bread, that is.

I’m pretty into my food in general, but The Sound of Music taught me at a fairly young age to start at the very beginning. And perfecting bread seems obvious as the first port of call. I mean, it’s got to be incredibly simple, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. There are an overwhelming number of variables – if you want to learn about them in depth, I suggest you take a peak at The Fresh Loaf – not to mention a certain skill involved.

Nevertheless, my current inability to defeat Waitrose’s finest rather warms my cheeks. Right now, I aim to conquer our familiar, Western  loaf or baton. So, what do I seek? An open and moist crumb; a caramelised, crunchy crust; a nutty, full-bodied flavour; a firm shape.

Easier said than done. But when did that stop anybody?