To continue the story of #igbreadclub

A brief recap: each month we bake a loaf from Hamelman’s Bread and share our experience. Although this is filed under Recipes I’m not actually giving detailed quantities or method because I followed the original pretty closely and so don’t feel it is fair. The only difference is that instead of ordinary wholewheat flour I used whole farro flour, which scarcely warrants comment.

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote briefly about trying a new approach to my 50% wholewheat loaf. The results were good enough to make me want to try again, after having found some good strong Manitoba flour. And all I can say is, I’m impressed.

I’m not going to repeat the recipe here. All the details, and lots of explanation, are on Trevor Jay Wilson’s website, and I have little to add. The secret is the very long autolysis. The idea is to wet the flour before adding any leavening at all. There are lots of good reasons to do this. It fully hydrates the flour, which gives the process of gluten formation a headstart. It also gives some of the enzymes in the flour a chance to convert starches to sugars, providing more food for the leaven and a slightly sweeter crumb. But the real key, with wholemeal flour, is that it softens the sharp-edged bits of bran in the wholemeal flour, with the result that they don’t do nearly as much damage to the gluten network. And that means a better rise and more oven spring.

I’ve done relatively brief autolysis before — half an hour or so. But Trevor calls for an overnight autolysis. That’s the big difference. What goes into the fridge a shaggy mass is almost a fully fledged dough next morning. (You take it out of the fridge just before bed time to let it gradually come up to room temperature.) Then it is just a matter of working in the starter, doing a few increasingly gentle stretch and folds, shaping, proving and baking.

And the result, this time, was beyond my expectations.

The cross section doesn’t really do justice to the open, airy texture. And the flavour was good too. Not too sour, nor really sweet, but chewy and good.

I think I’m sold on an overnight soak now for anything that contains more than a smidgen of wholewheat flour, and am currently waiting for my standard 50% wholewheat with a multigrain soaker to finish proving so I can see whether it makes any difference to that loaf.

Over on Instagram I became fascinated by the bread videos of Trevor Jay Wilson, marvelling at how gentle he is with his dough and how wonderfully that dough performs for him. His website is a treasure trove of sound, practical advice that gives far more detail than the little clips on Instagram. I decided to follow his technique for a 50% wholewheat sourdough, with a twist. He uses bread flour; that is, strong flour, with a high protein content that builds a strong gluten network to support the heavier wholewheat. Strong flour goes by the generic name Manitoba in Italy, even if it doesn’t come from Canada, but for some reason stocks have dried up. Neither of my two regular suppliers have any at the moment. So I had to use ordinary flour, and it is undeniably weaker.

You can see that in the photos.

I won’t do a proper write-up here until I have cracked it to my own satisfaction. I will note that the rise was definitely less than I had hoped for, but that was not entirely surprising given the weakness of the dough. But the crumb structure was great, as was the flavour.

I’m definitely going to keep trying this method, once I manage to score some stronger flour. And I’m going to keep watching Trevor Jay Wilson as I try to improve my dough handling skills.

One tip I’ve picked up: use a wet hand, when necessary, to avoid stickiness.

One of the things beginner sourdough bakers worry about is the care and feeding of their leaven. That’s only right and proper; having received or created a culture, the last thing you want to do is neglect it. On the other hand, a good culture is a pretty resilient thing, so I always tell people at my workshops not to worry too much if they have not been able to bake for a while. Yes, the leaven may become a bit smelly. It may throw off some liquid hooch, or even be sporting spots of mould. No matter, it is probably OK and will respond to a little TLC.

I just had a chance to put my own words to the test.

Both of my leavens had been sitting quietly at the back of the fridge for around 7 or 8 weeks, and both had a bit of hooch and a bit of a pong. I tackled the 100% hydration starter first.

You can see the greyish hooch in the photo above. Oftentimes I’ll just stir it in, but this time I poured it off. Then I took a spoon of the culture — about 12 gm — into a clean jar, added 30 gm of water and 30 gm of flour, stirred them well together, put the lid on loosely and left it on the counter.

Twelve hours later, this was the result:

A classic active and lively starter. To put it to good use, I made a single loaf of Hamelman’s Whole-wheat Bread with a Multigrain Soaker, adapted to use a natural leaven instead of a preferment.1 It rose beautifully.

I baked in a cast-iron casserole, now much easier with my new method. Instead of just tipping the loaf from the banneton into the very hot casserole and hoping for the best, I now tip first onto a piece of baking parchment, score and then lower the parchment into the casserole. (You can see the fold marks on the side of the loaf.) Much easier and more controlled.

Good eating too.

The moral is, never give up on a neglected starter culture. A couple of quick builds will usually bring it back to active, bubbly life. Next up, I’ll repeat the process with my “ancient” 75% wholemeal starter.

  1. If there’s interest, I can post my version of the recipe.