Last Wednesday we had our April "Taste-and-Tell" with the Chicago Amateur Bread Bakers. After each "Taste-and-Tell" I like to write an informal recap like this one, to journal my experience of the evening, with emphasis on what I learned from my fellow amateur bakers.
The focus for the April "Taste-and-Tell" was basic bread shaping. To "shape" means to arrange the dough in the manner in which one intends to bake it. As well as functioning to arrange the dough in the desired shape (e.g., baguette, boule, batard), shaping may serve to remove excess gas from the dough; break up and distribute gas bubbles in the dough--helping to create a more uniform crumb; create a beautifully shaped loaf whose crust has uniform texture; and produce bread that expands upwards (rather than outwards) in the oven.
We chose shaping for this month's focus because one's shaping skills contribute to the success of one's scoring (the focus of March's "Taste-and-Tell"). Shaping tightens the gluten network on the surface of the dough. The taut surface facilitates clean cuts as one scores.
Shaping will be a new topic for many of us. A good first introduction to shaping is in Emily Buehler's book, Bread Science. A big thank you to Dr. Buehler for granting our bakers permission to read an excerpt from her book in preparation for this event.
Each month we choose a new topic as our focus. It's not required that each baker incorporate the focus topic into his/her bread; rather, the focus may be thought of as an opportunity to introduce oneself to a new idea, and perhaps as an inspiration for one's baking.
Seven bakers attended the April "Taste-and-Tell." Among the breads presented and tasted were focaccia with potato and rosemary, Portuguese sweet bread, and a variety of breads fermented with either wild yeast (sourdough) or commercial yeast.
Interestingly, the evening's discussion returned again and again to the vagaries of sourdough cultures. This was a satisfying continuation of February's "Taste-and-Tell," at which sourdough cultures were a hot topic.
When beginning a sourdough culture at home, one customarily mixes 1 or 2 parts flour, with 1 or 2 parts water. Then one waits a day or so, and expects to observe evidence of fermentation beginning--for example, the appearance on the mixture's surface of bubbles (which contain carbon dioxide, a by-product of yeast fermentation) and/or a slightly fruity or alcoholic smell.
Baker P.S. described how a new sourdough culture may fool one's senses: Certain bacteria present in the flour-water mixture can also produce bubbles, and in a home kitchen there may be no way to determine whether the bubbles are a by-product of yeast fermentation (which we wish to encourage) or bacterial fermentation (which we wish to keep in check). Moreover, if certain bacteria multiply too quickly, they may raise the pH of the flour-water mixture until it is no longer a habitable environment for yeast, which prefer a neutral or slightly acidic environment. The result: One's sourdough culture may never "take off" the way one wishes.
Baker P.S. suggested forcibly lowering the pH of the flour-dough mixture by spiking it with acid, to create a more suitable environment for yeast fermentation. I was eager to test this idea. As soon as I arrived home from the "Taste-and-Tell," I mixed up a starter of:
100% rye flour (100 grams)
100% bread flour
20% apple cider vinegar (the acid to lower pH)
For the past eight days, I've kept the starter at room temperature. Every other day, I've discarded half of the starter (160 grams), and added 107 grams of bread flour and 53 grams of water to what remains. My plan is to keep this up for the next month, and then try baking my first sourdough bread with this starter.
My starter is pretty stiff, at least immediately after I feed it. (A day or two after feeding, it has become a soft putty.) I decided to work with a stiff sourdough starter after tasting baker T.We.'s deliciously chewy and tangy sourdough bread and listening to him explain that, the stiffer the sourdough culture (i.e., the less water in it), the more likely it is to produce a chewy sourdough bread with a distinctly sour taste. The drier conditions encourage the activity of acetic-acid producing bacteria, and the acetic acid helps give sourdough the sourdough texture and tang that I enjoy.
As an endnote, baker P.S. mentioned that whey, when added to bread dough, affects caramelization of the crust and deepens its color. This is something to try, as we have whey in the fridge right now, leftover from making homemade yogurt.