Shock and Awe – a Baker’s Perspective

The 'Magical' Whole Wheat Sourdough Loaf

Don’t know about other bloggers, but as soon as I’m done with a post, I’m thinking about the next.  As you may have noticed, I’m not into minimalist blogging – which is in a way to say, I’m not in the mainstream of bloggers, most of whom adhere to the Twitter type of content, short, sweet, and mostly incoherent.  I personally don’t care much to read or to write this style of blog post – I’d like to think, even if I don’t always hit my mark, that I need some kind of significant content before I can do a post.

I love the Mark Twain snippet out of a letter he wrote to a friend once – it goes something like, “… Please forgive the length of this letter.  If I had had more time, it would have been much shorter.”  Mea maxima culpa.

It also takes me time to do what I feel is the necessary prep and research for my posts – I’m a bit obsessed, I know, about getting things right, and I hate the idea of going to post with an uneasy feeling that I’ve left questions unanswered, or worse, gotten my facts wrong.  All of this means even more time.  So, as Mr. Twain knew well, at some point you’ve just got to say ‘To hell with it’ and post anyway.

Yesterday, in the midst of an interesting but time consuming blogging research effort, my next post rudely forced itself into my face and announced its presence.  As in any other day, the normal activities of daily life were occurring, even as I was engaged in gathering my needed blogging data.  I was in fact working my way through Mick Hartley’s splendid bread book, ‘Bethesdabasics’, and I had convinced myself the loaf I was working on would probably not make a good subject for a post, since it was a Whole Wheat loaf, and I would be using my own freshly ground whole wheat rather than a normally aged commercially milled whole wheat.

Why would this fact make poor posting material?  Because I assumed that I’d have trouble with this loaf, and ‘problem’ posts are not my favorites – and even less when those problems are occurring because I’m using ingredients that are not in common use by others.  Additionally, I knew that because I’d be using fresh ground wheat, I was going to have to change a few of Mick’s instructions, making the replication of this process even less likely.

But my cautionary attitude was to prove ill timed, and in fact, I think I may have learned at least one new sourdough secret that may be universally useful, whether one uses aged or fresh whole wheat flour.

One of the things I like about Mick’s process is that all his breads use two 12 hour builds of the sourdough starter – I think this is a better way to approach a loaf than simply dumping in a cup of starter to create the dough.  Some may disagree and say there is no difference, but I think there is.  Essentially, you are forced into using a very active starter in its third consecutive 12 hour refreshment – and I’d be willing to bet that few of us would subject our regular starter to this same process regimen each time we planned to bake.  The difference, to me at least, is that most of us use our starter at the top or after it has peaked, and Mick’s process forces the starter into 3 quick partial refreshments, which may simply be a better prep for the big job ahead.

Mick’s second loaf in his book he calls, Mick’s Classic Sourdough, and he says it’s the loaf he identifies most with – and he tells us that he’s done more developing with this loaf than any other he bakes.  He describes the dough as ‘very gentle and forgiving’, but I knew I’d be giving it a challenge or two to deal with.  Why?  Read on.

I was eager to try Mick’s Classic loaf with my freshly ground whole wheat, but from experience I knew that would change Mick’s process – fresh ground whole wheat introduces changes in the enzymes available in the flour, and the fact that it is not aged (oxidized) yet would mean a few adjustments were necessary.  One thing I knew from experience was that the proofing time may well increase significantly, and I needed to be ready for that.

I’m really bad about trying to gauge the times of necessary phases of baking – seems like, no matter how hard I try to schedule, I’m always having to make adjustments before it’s over.  Mick tries to help by providing a suggested two day schedule which starts in the morning of day one – I did this.  And by evening, you put together ‘build 2’ of your starter, which you leave for an overnight rest.  Next morning, he suggests you put the dough together bright and early, but of course, I didn’t do that until close to noon – then, my 3 or 4 hour fermentation period extended to about 6 hours (just didn’t look like it was doing anything yet).  When I finally put the fermented dough into my proofing basket, I knew I’d either be baking real late that night, or I’d be making another adjustment.

Round about 9pm, I took a peek at the rising bread – no way that baby was going to be ready to bake before I went to bed, and so I shifted to Plan B.  I’ve always heard about bakers who had given their breads long, cool, overnight proofs in a refrigerated environment and baked the loaf right out of the refrigerator, but I’d never tried it myself – until now!  Yup, that’s what I’d do with this loaf.  I knew there’d be no room in our refrigerator, but my trusty deck-side BBQ is my proven overnight fermenting cabinet (about 40F), and would be perfect for this purpose too.

In she went, and I went to bed.

I rise early – usually by 4 or 5am – and as soon as I was up, I turned the oven on to 450F, for an hour’s preheat.  At 6am, I went out and got my overnight loaf out of the faux proofer – it was not much larger than when I had put it out there the night before.  Kinda discouraging.  I almost changed my mind and toyed with the idea of giving it another several hours at room temp, so it could put on a little more size.  But then, how would I know if baking immediately out of a cold proof would work?  No, I had to do this.

I added a cup of water to the bottom of the oven for initial steam, scored the loaf as Mick had suggested he does, and slipped it onto the oven’s hot stone.  I immediately lowered the temp to 425F and determined to not peek for another 10 minutes – When I did next open the oven door, I couldn’t believe my eyes!  That loaf had experienced what we faux bakers call oven spring, and it is a much sought after phenomenon.  My loaf had magically expanded by some 50%, maybe more.  Wow.


Oven Spring Having its Way - Bloom of the Loaf

Now this is an amazing thing, my friends – and I’m not sure I can explain why this happened.  It certainly wasn’t expected – after all, I had, by all accounts, over-proofed it (which is usually a recipe for a shrinking loaf, not an expanding one).  Additionally, I knew from my previous but limited experience with fresh ground wheat that I’d have issues with slow, weak rises.  What then can explain this amazing result?

Crumb Not as Dense and Tight as Expected

I’m afraid I can only offer a few wild ass guesses – maybe someone reading this will provide a better answer.  My first guess is that the fresh ground wheat flour does in fact slow down the rise, and therefore, the dough had something left when the intense shock of the sudden oven heat occurred.  My second guess -and this may well be more on target- is that to bake out of a cold overnight proofing is simply a damn good way to go.  I certainly shall be applying it to many more of my breads in the coming months.

Unique Large Hole Aided By Oven Spring - Classic Sourdough Sheen

This, however, is all I really do know about this loaf – this morning, when it had cooled down, we ate almost half of it.  And it was delightful.  The 50/50% white wheat/whole wheat, gave the loaf a wonderful rustic heartiness that made you know you were having a special experience.  And I must thank Mick for his well developed formula for this Classic Sourdough loaf – for all I know, it may well be his recipe that’s the reason for this loaf’s exceptional success – after all, he did say it was a ‘forgiving’ dough, right?


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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21 Responses to Shock and Awe – a Baker’s Perspective

  1. Frances Quinn says:

    Does this sound good!!!! I am so impressed with your expertise, your writing skills and your blog. Wish I had half the persistence or deep interest in baking, cooking, whatever that you have. Once again, thank you for all the info.

  2. What impresses me the most, Doc, is that you had such a wonderful oven spring without the loaf exploding! Plus the grain, even though you think it’s not as tight as expected, is still quite fine, and not huge and open like some sourdoughs – probably a testament to the slower proving fresh ground wheat perhaps?

    I was told by a baker friend just a couple of days ago that the sheen in the holes is an indication of good gluten development!

    • drfugawe says:

      Quite the mystery loaf, Celia – I’m going on to Mick’s blog and ask him for his opinion – but whatever I discover, I think I’m going to do more of these overnight cool proves and see what happens.

  3. joanna says:

    Magnificent and Mysteriously Mountainous Bread – maybe it’s volcanic dust from Mount Hood? Maybe it’s Mick, maybe it’s something else? Can’t wait to hear what happens next… My friend Mercedes who has just started out with her sourdough journey made Mick’s bread at a friend’s house in an Aga, she said she wasn’t expecting it to work, but it did!

    Hats off to you and that loaf Doc !

  4. Is it OK to comment on something else? I noticed that an advert for WordPress’s Food press had appeared at the bottom of the post but now it’s gone and a little ad free thing has appeared in your sidebar. I followed the link that clicking on the owl led to and was very interested in what they had to say about advertising on blogs. It’s such a fine line isn’t it between writing about things that interest us, that give us pleasure, food for thought (and stomach!) and promoting things like books, films, places to buy stuff and so on. Officially on WordPress one is not supposed to ‘drive traffic’ to a third party site for the purposes of commerce unless it is for something that you yourself have written, made, and so on. If one’s not sure then one is supposed to email them to check. I’ve been told that it is probably ok to review books, films, restaurants etc, but the review must be ‘original content’ i.e. in our own words. Phew, that’s alright then 😉 The problem comes when the materials are ‘free’ sent out by the publishers in the hope of favourable reviews from bloggers and so on. I responded to a request from a publisher about a bread book recently, I got a review copy, read it, tried making the bread, didn’t like it and have sent the book back to the publisher, not wishing to be beholden in any way. What would you have done? I feel better buying the book myself and then I am free to write what I want. I never thought blogging would entail all these moral issues, but they do seem to come up!

    • drfugawe says:

      I guess I have mixed emotion on these things – I like the idea of a blog with no ads, but I also appreciate that WordPress gives me quite a lot of free service, and they need some ways to make their investment back – and if one of WP’s goals is to motivate me to start a ‘commercial’ blog, then they must, I guess, insist that I not put ads on here, but that they can.

      I really don’t have a purist attitude on this (I think), since I am still being paid about $60 a month from Demand Media for some articles I did sev years ago for eHow. And I am constantly amazed at how much $ can be made on the internet. But when I started blogging, I just got bad vibes from blogs that had so much advertising that you had to question the rationale of the blogger – so I decided early on that my blog would be ad free, but then I realized that WP was putting ads on my blog that I didn’t even see – and I had to feel OK about that – so that’s why I added the note at the bottom of the ‘owl’ logo.

      I do adhere to the maxim that real happiness is based in being honest to oneself first – and it really does bother me to think that I’m being a hypocrite about these things. I still do a lot of hotel and restaurant reviews for Trip Advisor, mostly because I believe in customer reviews over professional ones – I was recently contacted by a restaurant owner who felt I had given his place a bad review (I simply said it wasn’t my kind of Italian) – he offered me a voucher for a free dinner for two, if I’d re-try his restaurant again. I was tempted, but I declined and told him instead that I’d give his place another try as a paying customer and if I noticed a change in his food, I promised to amend my review – I did what I promised him, but came away with the same impression, so haven’t done a thing to my review – And I feel OK about the experience.

  5. Tupper says:

    Love your bread Doc- absolutely love it.

    As for ads- when I first started I put ads on, then I realized that I didn’t have the time to devote to developing the blog to the level where I could actually generate revenue. Maybe in the future.

    At this point I’m happy with what I got- It is what it is. An amateur posting about whatever the heck he feels like. And you know that’s mostly pizza!

    • drfugawe says:

      I hear you, my friend – and I’m with you. There’s a certain virtue in a clean, honest, ad free blog – and although some would say such virtue is its own reward, I still think it is a very valuable one.

  6. Interesting post Doc. Now I want to read Mick’s book even more and I’d love to know what your usual format for a standard Dr loaf would be to. The way you did this loaf sounds similar to how I quite often do mine, (although I do generally bring it back to room temp- (if there is time) after the long fridge sleep.
    …and I love how versatile sourdough is.

    • drfugawe says:

      I think Mick is very correct when he says that his dough is very forgiving – but I think that character is owed to the sourdough starter itself – I used to think that my starter was fragile, but now I know that was because I wasn’t maintaining it well – once I got over that, I now realize that a sourdough starter is actually almost impossible to kill! In fact, I think once man is gone from this planet, yeasts and bacteria will still be going strong.

  7. Mariana says:

    Congrats. I look forward to your next results after a cold overnight proofing. Exciting. I wonder if you’ve uncovered the baker’s secret.
    Your bread looks too good and I can’t believe you only ate half. I would of polished off the lot.
    I got my Bethesdabasics book earlier this week. Personally signed by Mick too. hehe. He emailed me to say I was the first person in Australia to get it. Wow. I should feel privileged. At a glance I cannot believe the ‘starter’ business. It almost seems too easy. I’ve shelved it at the moment, much to my son’s disgust. He wants me to get cracking. Now. But I’m not really in a bread baking mood. Our weather is still hot and humid in queensland and any kind of baking is far off the radar for me.
    Im sure though when I get the baking bug, I’ll revisit this post and those of Joanna’s to get all the tips Im sure that Im overlooking right now. Your post was most interesting.
    Oh. And I can most certainly relate to the getting things right before you post. These days, I’m more of the post it and what the heck kind of blogger.

    • drfugawe says:

      Hey! How come my copy of Mick’s book doesn’t have the author’s sig? That’s just wrong!

      On a serious note, if you’re saying that you don’t yet have a sourdough starter going, I’d encourage you to get it going while it is still nice and warm – it’ll be much easier now to do than when the weather turns cooler. As for baking itself, yeah, I’d hold off too.

  8. Pingback: A Question from the Doctor | The PArtisan Baker

  9. bethesdabakers says:

    Dear Doctor

    Sorry about the time it has taken to respond. On top of things being hectically busy I had to (long pause for dramatic effect) go to Dublin for a conference with my illustrator.

    The simple answer to your question is, I haven’t got a clue. I am just a practical baker – my technical knowledge is zilch. Someone once explained to me what an enzyme is but I’ve forgotten again. Plus I’ve never baked with fresh ground flour. I read somewhere that fresh flour is described as “bucky” i.e. lively and unpredictable – so I was surprised when you said it was likely to slow fermentation.

    I deliberately tried to keep the book simple because a lot of writers don’t seem to be able to describe the basic methods clearly. But I suppose we are lucky in the UK, temperatures are generally moderate, humidity pretty constant, flours consistent. I use Doves Farm Organic flours – not very sexy to trendy home bakers but easy to get delivered in quantity and a pretty reliable product. I don’t have the knowledge to advise people about the flours in their parts of the world, or about coping with temperatures, humidity, altitude. Except I know sourdough is very flexible and there are experienced bakers on the net who do work in more difficult climates.

    A couple of points. I wasn’t trying to say that 12 hours is the optimum period between starter refreshments (that might be eight hours depending on temperature). More that the long development times with sourdough can be used to your advantage, e.g. you can refresh your starter in the morning, go to work, and refresh it again before you go to bed, mix dough when you get up next day. A few hours either way won’t make a lot of difference (so long as the temperatures are fairly moderate).

    Because I am doing between 50-60 kilos of dough to order on a bake day in circumstances not much more advanced than the average home baker, my schedule works like this: morning, final refreshment (previous starter refreshments will have been as much about producing volume as strength), prepping (soakers, etc.) during the day, mixing in the evening. So the bulk of my doughs are mixed the day before and ferment overnight in the fridge for a minimum of nine hours (say, last in 8.00 p.m., first out 5.00 a.m. = 9 hours. But the last dough for loaves out may be 10.00 a.m. = 14 hours. Plus the baguettes probably not out until 2.00 p.m. = 18 hours).

    On bake day I shape the loaves in batches of 6 large (any combination of 12 small) because that is the oven capacity, at intervals of 50 minutes because that’s how long it takes to bake a loaf. The first loaves go in the oven after about three and a half hours proof and, ready or not, the next goes in 50 minutes later. I totally leave out of the calculation the fact that any 2 kilo loaf is going to take 65 minutes to bake which gives subsequent batches an additional 15 minutes proving time. It all works out.

    I very rarely do it the other way round and prove in the fridge – just occasional overnight baguettes which are only out of the fridge for the 20 minutes or so it takes for the oven to come up to temperature.

    I have heard of a French baker who proves a high hydration dough in the fridge for a couple of days, simply tips out the dough, cuts it into strips and bakes it straight away.

    All I can imagine is that the yeasts in your dough were getting on for dormant and went a bit berserk when they hit the oven heat.

    • drfugawe says:

      I think what I really love about the avocation of bread baking is that every time I do a loaf, there’s something new to be learned, or at least experienced. I think if this weren’t true, I’d be bored quickly and find another avocation. But for a real baker, consistency is the goal – in fact, without that, you’d soon have nothing to do. As you say, you are a ‘practical’ baker. And if that’s true, then I guess I’m an ‘accidental baker’.

      I think there are many more ‘surprises’ in store for me as I do more cold proofing, and that shall be my enjoyment – I thank you for your insight and perspective, and I appreciate the idea that sometimes, flours and yeasts may just do unexpected things.

      Your comment about the French baker doing the ‘ciabatta’ type dough who ferments for 2 days and bakes right out of the cold proof reminded me of a Pierre Nury Rustic Light Rye he does with a near 80% hydration and a long cold proof, but he then has the dough sit at room temp for 2-3 hours before baking. Good to hear that this method is not reserved to us ‘accidental’ bakers.

  10. really interesting read Doc…love the quote.

    I always worry my post are too long and spend a lot of time cutting things out..I also don’t conform to snappy posts.

    Reading detail of Mick’s baking schedule I know I’m never going to be a commercial baker 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Azelia,
      I think you and I are convinced that ‘detail’ is important, and therefore if one is to err, it’s better to err on the side the side of excess. Perhaps a really good communicator would say that there was a fine line between too much and too little.

      I remember reading that Hemingway said that when he was in Paris early in his life, Gertrude Lawrence told him that he’d never be a good writer until he learned to write without using adjectives – he said he never forgot that, and that it was the turning point in his writing.

      Yeah, if you’re like me, I can respect someone doing what Mick has done -and is doing- but if that was my schedule, I may last only a few days before renouncing my dream – I’m much happier being an accidental baker.

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  12. ash says:

    I have noticed that every time I put cooler dough into the oven I get more oven spring. EXCEPT: when it has been too cool throughout and never got going properly and never ‘lifted off’ at all in which case even going in the oven doesn’t quite seem to do the trick.

    So perhaps all it is is that certain yeasts don’t thrive below X temperature and thus are more or less dormant during the cool proofing/fermenting stage and as the loaf warms (it is not sudden in the interior of the dough I suspect, only on the outside), those yeasts, suddenly released from dormancy, and perhaps even sensing their immanent demise, go into a veritable orgy of exuberant fertility, doing their gas-producing bio-bifurcational two-steps to the hyper-max, and we call it oven spring.

    But oven spring is not all. If your dough isn’t sufficiently developed, you can get great spring but it still hasn’t quite fluffed out softly enough. It can spring but remain too tight and dense.

    Ripeness is all.

    As to the fresh flour business, I was EXTREMELY impressed with you crumb and that pic is going to send me back to the drawing board. I get great flavour but rarely can my crumb bubbles hold together so smoothly. Taste is terrific but texture suffers. Not in your case. I’ll have to try harder! Thanks.

  13. drfugawe says:

    Hope you get a chance to try this, and that your baking continues to improve. Thanks for stopping by.

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