Recap of the May 2011 "Taste-and-Tell," Focus: Cold Fermentation

On Sunday evening we had our May "Taste-and-Tell" with the Chicago Amateur Bread Bakers. After each "Taste-and-Tell" I like to write an informal (often rambling) recap like this one, to journal my experience of the evening, with emphasis on what I learned from my fellow amateur bakers.

About the "Taste-and-Tell"

The "Taste-and-Tell" is a monthly event, to which each baker is required to bring his/her own freshly baked, yeasted bread. "Bread" in this context includes baguettes, boules, batards, pizza, focaccia, rolls, challah--in short, anything made by fermenting grain with yeast.

We suggest that each baker bring, for example, a new creation on which she would like feedback or something delicious he enjoys baking. We sample each bread, ask questions, and learn. Bread "failures" are encouraged: they are often the best teachers.

Each month we introduce a topic related to baking bread with yeast. By "yeast" we refer to both wild yeast (present on the surface of grain and often cultivated as sourdough) and commercial yeast (e.g., the active dry yeast available at supermarkets, and the instant yeast often used by professional bakers).

Our Focus Topic for May: Cold Fermentation

Our focus for the May "Taste-and-Tell" was cold fermentation of dough (also known as retarded fermentation). We suggested that bakers bring bread whose dough had risen in a cold place--for example, in the fridge, in a basement or unheated entryway, or outside on a chilly day or night.

Bread rises because yeast fermentation is taking place in the dough. The colder the dough, the slower fermentation progresses, and the longer it takes the bread to rise. Slower fermentation may allow more flavor molecules to develop in the dough, which may result in tastier bread. Moreover, dough that has fermented slowly produces bread that stays fresher longer. This is because the long, slow fermentation encourages the yeast to produce lactic and acetic acids, which act as natural preservatives.

Experience with cold fermentation can make one a more versatile bread baker. Getting a feel for how changing the temperature of the dough slows down or speeds up fermentation may help one better control the final bread outcome. One may also begin to develop an awareness of ambient temperature and how it affects the dough. This is especially relevant now, as we move into warmer weather. Lastly, cold fermentation can be a convenient technique to know, when one has a last-minute change of plans and would like to coax the dough to follow one's schedule.

Structure of the Evening

5:30 pm -- Welcome. 15 minutes to greet one another. 
5:45 pm -- Taste-and-Tell round #1 (45 minutes). Each baker has 5 minutes to introduce his/her bread. Others listen and taste the bread. We stay on schedule, so each baker may have an equal opportunity to present. Time permitting, we open the floor for questions. 
6:30 pm -- Taste-and-Tell round #2 (30 minutes). Unstructured time to continue discussions, enjoy more bread, and get to know one another. 
7:00 pm -- Conclusion. The official part of the event is concluded. Bakers are welcome to stay as late as they wish.

What Breads Did Bakers Bring to the Taste-and-Tell?

Cold fermentation was not a requirement for this event, simply a suggestion to inspire baking. Nonetheless, all nine bakers in attendance took up the challenge of experimenting with cold fermentation. To boot, six of the nine participants took a scientific approach, baking two identical batches of bread--and subjecting one of the batches to cold fermentation. We all benefitted from tasting, in turn, a bread made with cold fermentation, followed by the same bread made without. In each case, the former loaf sang with subtle notes of complex sweet and savory flavor, while the latter, in comparison, seemed more simple, perhaps even dull.

Sourdough continues to be of great interest to our bakers, and we are always fortunate to taste many sourdough loaves at our events. On Sunday evening we tasted eleven sourdough loaves (by bakers G.D., M.R., M.S., N.D., P.C., and husband, respectively). One of G.D.'s loaves was made of 100% spelt flour, which was a treat.

We also tasted J.H.'s whole wheat pizza, into whose dough had been kneaded raw garlic and fresh rosemary, before being topped with parmesan and capers; N.B.'s whole wheat boule; and my sourdough crumpets made with whey.

As at the April "Taste-and-Tell," this month I was again so engrossed in listening and tasting and learning, I neglected to take photos of any of the breads presented. To compensate, below are some photos of a former batch of my sourdough crumpets. Here they are still wrapped in their parchment-paper collars:

I bake each crumpet in an aluminum ramekin (shown on the left, below):

Once the crumpets have cooled, I slice them in half (or sometimes in quarters), and serve them toasted with butter and strawberry-rhubarb preserves.

An Aside About My Sourdough Culture Gone Awry

Inspired by all I had learned about sourdough cultures at April "Taste-and-Tell," I spent the past month cultivating two sourdough cultures of my own. They were both smelling wonderfully fruity and healthy, their aromas increasing slightly in complexity each day, until that lovely spell of +86 F (+30 C) days we had last week. I spent those three days outside working from my hammock and--as often happens when seasons and habits change--I forgot myself and also forgot to feed the sourdough cultures for more than 72 hours. This neglect, combined with the rise in ambient temperature, must have disturbed the balance of the yeast and bacteria multiplying in the culture. Despite plenty of remedial attention, I haven't been able to get either of the cultures back on track. (I fear I may have to discard them and begin afresh.) So, for my sourdough crumpets, I worked with the discard from husband's healthy sourdough culture.

Various Skill Levels Present

As always, the amateur bakers who participated in this month's "Taste-and-Tell" possess a range of skill levels, from nascent and tentative, to proficient and confident, and everything in-between. The more expert among us did a great job of supporting those newer to the craft--by listening intently and asking questions--and we would like to thank them for their mentorship.

New Vocabulary

The "Taste-and-Tell" is a great place to expand one's knowledge of words used in bread-baking. As the evening progressed, I began to jot down the more obscure words and phrases uttered by the more experienced bakers among us. In the unstructured discussion time during the latter half of the event, we were able to define these new vocabulary words:

Autolyse -- This is a French term for a technique in which flour and water are gently mixed together and then left to rest for approximately 20 minutes. It promotes passive development of the dough's gluten network (as opposed to kneading or other types of mechanical mixing, which promotes active development of the same). According to master baker and author Jeffrey Hamelman, "Extensibility, dough volume, and potential improvement in aroma and flavor result from the autolyse technique" (p. 393, Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes).
Banneton -- A basket made of spiraled or woven cane, steam-treated and formed into a round or oval bowl. It may be lined with linen. Dough is placed in the basket during its final proofing. The pattern of the basket may lend an impression to the dough, which manifests as a subtle pattern on the crust of the baked loaf.
Cloche -- French for "bell," a breadmaking cloche is a dome-shaped, clay oven in which a loaf of bread is baked. A cloche may be placed inside a conventional oven.
Poolish -- A type of pre-ferment in which a small amount of yeast is mixed with equal weights of flour and water. (Pre-fermentation is a technique whereby some portion of a dough's overall ingredients are combined and allowed to ferment for some time, before the remainder of the dough's ingredients are added.) Other pre-ferment techniques are biga and pate fermentée.
Refreshing a sourdough culture -- To "refresh" a sourdough culture means to feed it flour and water. This is typically done by first discarding half or more of the original culture, then adding to the remaining culture some amount of flour and water. For a stiff sourdough culture, a feeding of two parts flour to one part water is common. For a liquid culture, a feeding may consist of one part flour to one part water. These parts are measured in weight.
Windowpane test (aka, the membrane test) -- This is a test bakers use while kneading bread dough, to determine if the network of gluten in the dough is well developed for bread baking. To conduct the test, take a small piece of dough and stretch it as thinly as possible. If you can stretch is so thin that it becomes translucent, the dough has passed the windowpane test.

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