What big ears you have!

Published August 23, 2011 by livinggraciously

New breadmaking experiments. Including a very excellent suggestion for better baking conditions by baking the bread in a Dutch oven (thanks belong here: http://fitfool.livejournal.com/261756.html). The result? The most beautiful loaf I’ve ever baked:

The bread has lovely “ears,” the little curled up bits of bread at the edges of the cuts. It’s risen beautifully, and I can’t wait until it’s cool enough to cut.

What you can’t see is the lovely sourdough scent that wafts from the loaf. I am beyond tickled by this scent and hope the bread lives up its aroma.

One of the things that is difficult to find here in Ohio is the kind of sharp-flavored sourdough bread that is associated with San Francisco and the West Coast. The sourdough starter I cultured last winter was fine for rising bread but lacked that wonderful kick. So this time I decided to start with real San Francisco sourdough starter. The directions for incubating the sourdough aren’t difficult, but it’s rather like a baby: you have to keep it warm and feed it regularly in its infancy.

After the first couple of days, I thought the baby wasn’t going to make it. The starter batter looked funny, smelled funny, seemed way too runny, and wouldn’t stay incorporated. Since I’m pretty much incapable of following directions that I doubt, I increased the flour and decreased the water for a couple feedings, and things started looking up. Then when I stirred it this morning, I got that distinctive sourdough smell off of it.

It’s still a couple days too young to be considered a full-grown starter, but I couldn’t resist making bread with the part of the starter I was supposed to discard. It took more flour that usual, and though the dough was nice and pliable, it was really soft and wanted to spread, so I proofed it using a towel-lined bowl as a makeshift brotform, which worked reasonable well.

The real trick, though, is the dutch oven. What home ovens lack is a way to keep the baking bread nice and steamy through the first part of the baking. Steaming prevents the outer layer from gelatinizing too quickly so that the bread can benefit the most from oven spring and the crust can be thin and crisp instead of tough. A dutch oven solves much of this problem by holding in the steam released from the bread and keeping it nice and moist.

The trick is preheating a 17-pound, 7-quart dutch oven to 450 degrees and then getting the proofed dough into it without incurring third degree burns. An extra-large piece of parchment paper allowed me to lift the bread in, a quick spritz with a squirt bottle assured enough steam, and silicone gloves got the whole thing in and out without burns.

Loaves of artisan bread like this cost $5 or more at the market. I will more than pay for the dutch oven in less than a half-dozen loaves of bread. And now that I’ve sliced off a sliver, I can report that the crust is crisp and the crumb tender. The sourdough flavor is not quite the strength of a good San Fransisco sourdough, but I’m hoping that it will develop.

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