Friday, August 1, 2008

And lo, there was bread, and it was good

Back in May I reported that one of my culinary goals for the summer was to learn how to bake good bread. I nourished a sourdough starter weekly, but for the most part it just sat in my fridge unused (with the notable exception of its inclusion in these sourdough pancakes). But the good thing about goals is that we usually get around to them, even if it takes a while. And so over the weekend I finally made a loaf of sourdough, and I couldn't be more pleased with how it turned out.

The reason I finally got around to baking bread was that I bought a bread stone, which I had been meaning to do for a long time. I had originally intended to just buy one or two saltillo tiles, commonly used for flooring, because Alton Brown of the Food Network show Good Eats said that that was the thing to do. But I don't live near any big home goods stores, and when I checked with my local hardware stores they didn't carry the tiles. So I just bit the bullet and purchased a bread stone at Williams Sonoma--for $35. I think that price is a little exorbitant, but luckily I had a long-unused gift card from my brother lying around (thanks, Eric!) I can't stress how much of a difference baking with the stone makes. I am not a skilled baker, and this bread turned out phenomenally well. That's because the stone preheats in the oven and gets scorching hot, drawing out all the moisture in the bread and producing a crackly crust that comes close to approximating the texture of bakery loaves.

So I'll walk you through the process. It's a long one--you have to have a deep reserve of patience to be a baker because you can't speed things along. What you do first is mix your starter with water, a little sweetener, and the flour to form a dough. You knead it--an infinitely satisfying process--then let it rest a while. Then, you knead it again, adding the salt. That's it; you have your dough. All it has to do now is rise. This step actually proved to be a minor problem for me. You see, although my starter is by all accounts active and alive, it wasn't sufficiently raising the dough. When I noticed this, I quickly took action, mixing up 1/2 tsp. of instant yeast with some water and flour to form a paste, and then kneading it into the dough. Problem solved--the dough quickly started to behave as it should. Purists might frown upon this step, but I think it was necessary. The dough rises at room temperature for 4-6 hours, and is then punched down and allowed to rise in the fridge for a second period of 8-12 hours (as I said, patience is key!) Here's what my dough looked like when it came out of the fridge the morning after its second rise:

After the cold dough comes to room temperature, about 2-3 hours, you shape the loaves. I only made half a recipe, which yielded one large loaf. What you do is flatten the dough into a large rectangle, fold each long side into the middle, then fold that completely in half to create tension in the dough, which will cause a nice springiness as the bread bakes in the oven. Then you let the loaf rest, yet again, for 1 hour. At this point you should place your bread stone on your oven's middle rack and start preheating the oven to 500°. You should also place a heavy pan full of water in the bottom of the oven to generate steam. Here's my loaf after 1 hour of proofing, almost ready for the oven:

Next I slashed the bread lengthwise, and then it was time to bake. I quickly slid the loaf from a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet directly onto the stone, splashed the floor and walls of the oven with water for more steam, and closed the door. Within the first five minutes of baking, I splashed water twice more (you can use a spray bottle, too). After that, I lowered the oven temperature to 450° and left the oven door closed for 20 minutes. Then I opened it up and rotated the bread, closed it, and baked the bread for 15 more minutes. The bread is done when the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. I removed the bread to a cooling rack and waited (more!) until the bread was completely cool before cutting into it--you must do this, or else you'll mess up the bread's texture by releasing all the steam still in the bread. And here's my gloriously crusty brown loaf (can you tell I'm a little bit proud?):

And here's a peek inside at the bread's crumb. As a novice baker, I was very pleased with the bread's texture: it was chewy but not too heavy, with a wonderfully crisp crust. But I think that ideally the crumb should have larger air bubbles; maybe my technique will improve with time:

I loved the taste of the bread, too. What the sourdough starter adds is an intense, highly developed sour tang; I've made regular yeast breads a few times before and they just don't have the depth of flavor. Even though I had to boost my starter with a little yeast to get it to rise, it was really instrumental in creating a finished product that tasted (dare I say it?) almost as good as something you buy at a bakery. The best way to enjoy this bread? Spread thickly with good butter, and even sprinkled with a tiny bit of salt, if you dare. The creamy richness of the butter offsets the sourness of the bread in a most satisfying way:

French Country Sourdough White Bread
Adapted from The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen by Peter Berley
Yields 1 two-pound loaf

* Note: This recipe will take 2 days from start to finish. It's most convenient to do steps 1-6 on the first day, and steps 6-16 on the second.

3/4 cup white sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups lukewarm (70-80°) non-chlorinated water
1 1/2 tsp. sweetener (honey, sugar or molasses)
1/2 tsp. instant yeast
3 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp. salt

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the starter, water, sweetener, and yeast. Stir until starter is dissolved.
2. Add the flours and mix to form a ragged mass of dough. Cover the bowl and allow dough to rest for 5 minutes.
3. Scoop the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface. Wash out the bowl and thoroughly wash and dry your hands. Knead dough for 10 minutes. Invert the bowl over the dough and let it rest for 15 minutes.
4. Uncover the dough, add the salt, and knead for 5-10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Avoid adding extra flour as you knead.
5. Lightly grease the inside of the bowl. Add the dough and turn it over several times until it is well-coated. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature until dough has nearly tripled in volume, 4-6 hours.
6. Gently press on the dough to deflate it. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8-12 hours.
7. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle with a little flour. The dough will be very cold and stiff. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and set aside for 2-3 hours, until the internal temperature of the dough is about 68°.
8. Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface. Press the dough into a 1-inch-thick rectangle. Fold one long end in to the middle of the rectangle; repeat with the other long end. Then completely fold in half to create surface tension over the dough. Pinch the seam to seal underneath.
9. Place the dough seam side down on a floured cloth. Sift a light veil of flour over the loaf. Cover with a clean cloth and let sit for 1 hour.
10. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 500° F (at least 45 minutes before the dough is ready to bake). Set a heavy pan filled with water on the floor of the oven. Set a baking stone or inverted baking sheet on the middle rack. Dust a peel or baking sheet with cornmeal.
11. Press the dough with a fingertip. If the dough springs back quickly, it requires more time. If it springs back slowly or holds the indentation, it is ready to bake.
12. Gently transfer the loaf onto the peel, seam side down. Slash the dough length-wise, making an incision 1/2-inch deep and stopping 1 inch from the ends.
13. Open the oven and slide the dough onto the baking stone or baking sheet. Heavily mist the floor, sides, and ceiling of the oven with water, or splash some with your hands. Shut the oven door. Mist 2 more times during the first 5 minutes, taking care not to mist the loaf itself.
14. Turn the oven temperature down to 450° F. Do not open the oven door for 20 minutes.
15. Open the oven and rotate loaf for even browning. Continue to bake for 15-20 more minutes. The bread is done when the internal temperature reaches 210°, or when a loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
16. Cool the loaf on a wire rack for no less than 1 hour before slicing.


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