This week picks up where I left off in the last Scoutin’ it Out as I made the transition from a morning of flatbreads to an afternoon of sourdough! After a small lunchbreak navigating the long lines of the King Arthur café, I returned to class that afternoon ready to up my natural yeast game. While my loaves have come out tasty enough and had undergone a lot of improvement over the course of my sourdough career, I still felt like the dough was more in control than I was, and the deeply brown, beautifully slashed and well-risen loaf of my dreams had still not been achieved. And while a naturally risen bread will never be an exact science like the world of commercial yeast, I was ready to get the tools to better understand my variables and how to adjust them.
As sourdough is not a one-day process in the least, let alone five hours, it played out similarly to the pita. We practiced shaping the already proofed dough balls first so they had time for a final proof, then mixed our own dough that we all eventually took home in bags that could either be turned into more sourdough loaves, or frozen for future use as a pizza crust or flatbread. And before any of that there was the technical talk. Ingredient and room temp, starter care, and equations on equations. While we were coming at the process a little out of order no base was left uncovered.
But while all the technical discussion was certainly valuable, the most important lesson was in the kneading and shaping – the nitty gritty hands-on work. It is the feedback on such inextricably tangible things that makes in-person classes so valuable. Having someone else see where you need an extra flick of the wrist. Getting that second eye to gauge how rough you’re really handling your dough. Someone there to give all the tips and tricks that don’t necessarily come up in a google search. I’ll admit, I had usually let the stand mixer do any kneading before the long ferment and fold process, and messily handled the shaping process hoping that the second proof in the cloth-covered bowls would save me where I could not save myself. But everything in class was done by hand, and it was because of that I learned the joy to be found in handling a high hydration dough. Just as Julia Child flips in a frying pan, the foremost key to the process is confidence. Quick, decisive moves that minimize contact with the dough but work it how it needs to build gluten and increase tension. Approaching it without visions of sticky fingers in your head, but instead with the sense that you are in control. And if things do get sticky? A little flour to help clean it up isn’t the end of the world.
The next most important thing was technique. My hand kneading technique previously had been, essentially, nonexistent. I didn’t really think there was much need for specificity in my kneading style. I simply worked the dough with the knowledge that it needed to be stretched and beat into a state of smooth elasticity, so any movement that gets that done – typically the heart-shaped push with the heel of the hand – would suffice. But not so, at least in the world of high hydration dough, where such gusto-filled attacks will be met with lots of stickage and mess. The first kneading technique learned was actually less kneading as it was cutting. With the mixed dough flopped on the workbench, we took our bench scrapers and quickly cut into it multiple times working from top to bottom, then gathered it all together again with the help of the bench scraper and did it again. I was mystified. How was breaking the dough up a whole bunch going to get me gluten? Evidently, when the dough is ripped apart and then brought back together, it comes back stronger. So, with every cut and reformation, the dough gradually grew in strength enough that it was less of a lumpy mass, and more like a mass one could feasibly handle.
Once we got to that point, we embarked on kneading technique two. Approaching the ball as if it was a cat, we grabbed what would be the front two legs with our thumb and two fingers, lifted it up, swung its rear end back on the bench, stretched the head towards us briefly, then folded it back over onto itself, quickly releasing our fingers by using the bench to break free.
The difficulty in describing it is case in point why there is no other way to get it down than seeing and doing over and over (and over and over and over).
Despite coming at the dough with decisive movements, I still found myself struggling with the release, taking more dough with me on my fingers than I would have liked. Seeing this, the instructor came over and showed me that while I was mostly releasing quickly, I spent a little too much time with the dough and didn’t use a firm enough press away on the bench. A quick demonstration in front of me and a talked-through attempt had me going ahead in my own rhythm with no stickage to be seen, and a silky smooth dough ball ready to be shaped. I got into such a rhythm with it that I didn’t want to stop even once the sought after state had been reached!
With our dough masses now strong and full of gluten bonds, they were ready to gain the next key descriptor: tension. Without enough surface tension, the dough would not come out looking like the beautiful bulbous boule it was meant to be, but a misbegotten lump, unable to be scored and unable to rise to its fullest potential. And so, we took our lightly floured hands and created a plow-like wall with our hands, cupped the upper portion of the dough, and slowly dragged it towards our bodies. As we dragged the dough towards us we could see the surface stretch like canvas over a frame, getting shiny and taught. This motion, too, was repeated a number of times, moving the dough back up the bench again with the bench scraper after every drag to come at it from the other angle. If it began to stick to the bench a touch of flour was thrown. If was so loose it wouldn’t properly drag, merely get pushed to the end of the bench, as much flour was wiped away to get back on track. Always we were balancing levels of flour on the bench, on our hands, the strength with which we came at the dough, and amount of time spent handling it. It truly takes as many senses as one can muster to get a feel for the dough and tuning into them as actively and attentively as possible. I remembered that while, yes, there is a joy in multitasking a loaf, a dessert, and a meal all at once, coming at it all through the mind and a delight in the sheer work of production, it all stems from this simpler joy of singular focus and full-bodied listening.
A number of good drags and a couple of playful taps of the delightfully tight ball with my finger later, we dispensed our dough into well-floured brotforms – one unlined to get the beautiful circular ribbing, the other lined with floured cloth. These proofed for a couple of hours as we continued working with our other doughs, and were eventually turned out into long wooden peels where we learned to score them. I had only done a simple single, or cross score before, not confident enough to try getting fancy. But with a well-formed and well-proofed dough and a swift slash with a sharp lame, there was nothing to worry about when going for a wheat berry pattern or even potentially tricky crosshatches. And with the scoring done all that was left to do was slip them in the magical steaming ovens and wait.
After about ten minutes of question answering and discussion, the instructors brought our attention to the ovens where we saw how successful the oven spring was. Whatever rise there was at this point was what we were going to get for the most part, and no one was disappointed. Each level was filled with bursting boules just beginning to find their way towards coloration. After a full 35 minutes they emerged, one by one, a deep hazelnut and crackling audibly when pressed. The ideal of a crusty loaf.
And while my post-class pita has not been filled with consistent success, my sourdough is a whole new ball game. Not a bad, or truly, even mediocre, loaf has emerged from the oven since. With a sensory knowledge of the feel I need to seek at each step, and a deeper understanding of each elements part to play and needs to play it, I can confidently turn out crusty, flavorful, and well-risen sourdoughs as my heart desires good enough to be gifted.
But there was still more crusty bread to tackle. For my weekend of bread-ucation would culminate the next day with an afternoon learning the beauty of the baguette!
A recent post-class round of sourdough. Polka dots on the right courtesy of using a towel-lined colander as a proofing basket.