Slicing into the loaf, I knew something was Not Quite Right. The knife seemed to catch as I drew it back. I’d felt that before, slicing into some early efforts at Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread. It was the feel of gumminess. Sure enough, the bread had that ineffable gummy quality that I generally have managed to avoid. Could have been that the dough was just too wet, and so didn’t bake for long enough. It had cooled properly, so it wasn’t that. Strangely, though, it tasted really rather good. A bit sweet, and the cranberries are a nice tough. I had no problem finishing the loaf off over the subsequent week, and it kept very well indeed.

Would I make it again? Probably not, because I have a really great sultana durum loaf that I make fairly often, and cranberries are not that easy to find in Rome. But I might be tempted to try again taking more trouble to get a hydration around the 65% mark.

Saveur magazine’s May 2012 issue promised that I could “learn to bake like a pro,” and had a bunch of interesting sounding recipes. Interesting, and weird. For all kinds of reasons. So I thought it would be fun to, er, reinterpret them for people who were reasonable bakers, and had no desire to bake like a pro. I decided to start with Apple Cider Levain Loaf. Big mistake.

The two weird things about the Saveur recipes are the amounts and the instructions, especially with regard to their “levain”. They start with 1/4 teaspoon of dried active yeast, and feed that each day with equal volumes of “all-purpose” flour and water. Helpfully, they do the math: “4 ¾ cups plus ⅔ cup and 2 tbsp. (1 lb. 9 ⅓ oz.) all-purpose flour”. I think 2 tablespoons of flour is 1 fluid oz. So the total volume of flour is 44.4 fl oz., and the total weight 25.33 oz. and a Saveur cup of AP flour weighs 4.6 oz. In which case, given equal volumes of flour and water in the starter, the hydration of the start is 174%.


More to the point, how much else is going to be in there apart from commercial yeast? Is it really worth 10 days of buggering about if all you probably have is commercial yeast?

My Starter

So the first thing to reinterpret was the starter. Saveur builds 1/4 cup of its levain with 1/3 cup of water, 3/4 cup bread flour (a cup of which, confusingly to me, weighs 5 oz. rather than 4.6 oz.) and 1/4 cup apple cider. I’m assuming they mean apple juice. Ignoring the 1/4 cup starter, the hydration of this build is pretty close to 125%.

OK! That bit was easy! Not surprisingly it smelled faintly fruity, bubbled a treat, and was ready to roll this morning.

To about 70 grams of 100% hydration starter, add 75 grams of water, 57 grams of unsweetened apple juice and 107 grams bread flour. Stir to mix, cover, and leave for 12-24 hours.

The Dough

Back to those dumb volumetrics; Saveur calls for 2/3 cup water, 3/4 cup “cider,” aka apple juice, and 3 1/4 cups bread flour, which translates, at their rate, to 16 1/4 oz. I decided to go metric now, rather than later, at 28.8 rather than 30. (Why? Because it gives 150 gm of water and 175 of apple juice, as near as makes no difference.) Plus 50 gm of dried cranberries (because I didn’t have the 2 oz. the recipe calls for) and 15 grams of salt.

The whole lot is allowed to autolyse for 20 minus, and although it looked pretty gloopy, I thought it might just thicken up a bit.

No such luck. Knead for 10 minutes, the recipe said, which I dutifully tried to do, although to tell the truth I was really just using my dough scraper and one hand to move a very thick batter around on the countertop. Somehow I scooped it all back into the bowl and cleaned up, leaving the goop to bulk ferment for one hour.

At which stage, after an interminable time washing up, I came to write up my notes. And discovered that on Saveur’s own recipe page, people were not happy.

“Just forget it. Avoid this recipe. It’s just plain wrong,” said Mr Mambo. His math differs from mine, but I feel his pain. “I’ve now wasted a week and a half of prepping a starter and too much flour to count…all for nothing. I hate you right now, Saveur. I really, really do.”

LKYMOM didn’t follow the recipe too exactly (no apple juice, raisins instead of cranberries, and an unspecified amount of additional flour). “I just figured I’d bake it and have an ugly loaf. But to my surprise it rose quite a bit and was very moist and tasty ( although the loaf itself is like five pounds).

“I will not, however, make this recipe again.” Nothing daunted, though, she says she is “moving onto the Filone”.

And the final commenter, Kclement, asks “Was anyone successful following this recipe as it was printed?! I followed it as written and was totally unsuccessful. I would hope that all Saveur recipes are tested before they are run in the magazine.”

Scrape all of the starter into a larger bowl and add 150 grams water, 170 grams apple juice, 470 grams bread flour, 50 grams dried cranberries and 15 grams salt. Stir to make a dough, and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Turn onto counter and knead for 120 minutes. the original recipe says “until smooth and elastic,” but that’s never going to happen. Return to bowl, and allow to ferment for one hour. Stretch and fold in the bowl, and allow to ferment, according to the original recipe “until doubled in size, about 3 hours”. That’s probably never going to happen either.

Me too

I would hope so too, but I’m not encouraged. The recipe says that after a bulk ferment of one hour I should do a fold and return the dough to the bowl, “seam side down”. that was never going to happen. Seam, what seam? I did 20 quick stretch and folds in the bowl, and I’m still not too impressed.

Now what? The recipe actually calls for it to be baked in a greased tin. That makes sense, given how slack the dough is. I think I’ve still got a tin somewhere. Or should I add flour to being it back to a reasonable hydration? I’m somewhat inclined to the former. In any case, I have about 2 1/2 hours to decide.

In the end, not adjusting the recipe seemed fairest. Not having a tin, I had to improvise with barking parchment, which was fine as long as it was held up in a plastic food box. The blob rose pretty well, I have to admit, but as soon as it his the stone in the oven spread out with a vengeance. Just a couple of minutes now before I test to see whether it is done.

And it was. A thick pancake-like object. Now cooling down. Taste test later tonight.

Originally posted 28 November 2007

The blog has taken a back seat of late; we moved, we have no internets, we are tired, we have no time at work. But the whole chaotic jumble is beginning to sort itself out, witness the loaves.

I cannot actually remember when I first started to bake sourdough bread. I know that it was a long time ago. The Independent newspaper published a recipe which it then had to retract and correct. I took the correction as forgiveness for my lazy ways – I had meant to try the original version – and permission to just do it. I know it was before 1999, which is as far back as the Independent online seems to go. And I’ve been baking it, on and off, ever since.

We’ve been through it, my sourdough and me. I brought it to Italy, where it learned to cope with hard water and soft flour. I put it through the mortification of no-knead bread. I ignored it, breathed new life into it, had flings with other recipes and the pleasures of finding fresh yeast in every little supermarket. But I always come back.

This time was no different. When the move was mostly over, the new oven installed and inspected, the kitchen worktop erected, I sought out the little plastic tub that had lain, guiltily uncared-for, in the back reaches of the fridge. I popped the lid and nearly fainted. Man but the bitch reeked. Almost enough to make me retch. That was one powerfully evil aroma. A less experienced, less dedicated, less committed, less biologically savvy individual would have thrown it away and asked her friend for a fresh starter.1 I held my nose, scraped off and flushed the dark brown goop that had puddled on the top of my beloved and set to.

The result was the loaf on the left. all but unacceptable, and inedible to anyone not fully committed. Three days later the mother still smelled pretty bad, but already the good germs were getting the upper hand. The result you see in the middle. Much lighter, but still heavy. And then, a week after that, the loaf on the right. Almost perfect. Devoured far too much of it last night with some fine minestrone. And again at lunch today.

All this matters for two reasons. First, for me, a home is nothing without home-baked bread. There’s no fancy accounting for it, no justifications, nothing. It just happens to be so. I now have a home again and I bake bread in it. Secondly, the whole business of sourdough is a lesson in life. The way the flour ecosystem adapts to the prevailing conditions, changing its composition and the outputs of the system as a whole, fascinates me. I’d like to really study it, and the influence of temperature, humidity, flour and all that. There’s not a lot of point, of course, because it has mostly been done and I could just read it up. I’ve also discovered, these past three loaves, that the working of dough is as important to me as the eating of the resulting loaf. I’ll go back to no-knead some time soon, but it will never really be my staple loaf.

  1. If you’re reading this, you know who you are, and yes, you can have another starter. []

I know that everyone and her cat has already blogged Jim Lahey’s No-knead bread, as seen last week in the New York Times. That won’t stop me adding my take on the matter, late through no great fault of my own. That is, I’ve been snowed under at work, one reason why posting here has been slight of late, and when not at work I’ve been socializing conscientiously, leaving no time for solitary pleasures. Indeed, one reason I opted to try that bread is that I haven’t had time to make bread the traditional way for ages. So, last Thursday I threw the ingredients together, and on Friday I baked the loaf. I was working while it was in the oven, but in a manner of speaking live blogged the entire event in a series of one-line emails to a friend who shares my passion for good bread. Not that I’m going to resurrect those here.

The point is, it worked. and it worked amazingly well. The dough was incredibly loose, more like a biga or poolish than like a proper bread dough. And it slopped all over the shop. Instructions to form it into a ball I regarded as a joke. No sooner had I done so than it collapsed into a pancake. But I managed to get it into the heated casserole without incident, and then monitored its progress, and I was astounded. It sprang up beautifully. The crust hardened, but the crumb kept rising, until it broke through, resulting in those luscious crispy points. The crust was crunchy and chewy (the cornmeal doesn’t hurt on that score) and the crumb was light without being airy.

All in all, a miracle. And – like all miracles – a bit confounding.

I’ve learned a couple of things in a long history of baking. One, originally from Elizabeth David’s incomparable English Bread and Yeast Cookery, is that less yeast and more time invariably results in a tastier loaf. It’s obvious really that the longer the yeast has to work its biochemical magic, within reason, the more complex are going to be the results, and thus the better the flavour. The other, from experience and all the books, is that there’s no substitute for a good knead. Doesn’t matter whether you do it by hand or by machine, there’s something that happens to the dough that makes it elastic, maybe even shiny, and an entirely different beast.

Lahey’s method reinforces the benefits of a long, slow rise. But the fact that it rose so well and had such a fine crumb with literally no kneading knocked me sideways. Mark Bittman, for his article on Lahey , was similarly flummoxed and consulted the God of kitchen scientists, Harold McGee (who started blogging a few months ago). His response:

“It makes sense. The long, slow rise does over hours what intensive kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.”

Indeed, it does make sense.

Buoyed by the first loaf, I decided to try a second one with my sourdough, which has made my bread for more than a decade, on and off. Mostly off, lately. I just used Lahey’s standard quantities, but instead of a smidgen of yeast, dumped in the ragged old starter. If anything this mix was even wetter than the first. But the result was just as good. Better, in fact, if you really like sourdough flavour, and I do.

It didn’t rise as well, not surprising seeing as I hadn’t fed the starter in a couple of months. But the crumb was great, with the big holes that I personally really enjoy. and the crust was good and chewy. Next time, which may well be on Saturday, I’m sure it will be much better.

A few points in conclusion.

I’d like to have taken a photograph of the inside of the first, yeasty loaf. Unfortunately, it disappeared too quickly. By the time I realized that I had wolfed down the last bruschetta with fresh, fruity olive oil, it was too late.

Rebecca has links to the article and the recipe; go to her, and I guarantee you’ll find something else to like.

I continue to loathe and despise the American habit of measuring solids (and powders like flour are solids too) by volume. I know I read an article once by Raymond Sokolov on why they do this, but I’m blowed if I can find it now. Nor can I remember his answer. Anyway, it is dumb. For anyone who is interested, I used 480 gm of 00 soft flour. And if you know the article I’m talking about, tell me where I can find it.

All hail Jim Lahey.

The dough rose, was knocked down, rose again, and was baked. It was crusty. It tasted of sour dough. It was good. God, how I love practical biotechnology!

One strange thing; the dough seems to have become much more liquid as it proved. I’m guessing that this could be because I covered the bowl, loosely, with a plastic bag. Maybe in this heat the ferment generated a whole lot of water vapour that just couldn’t escape? I had to add at least a couple of ounces of flour to get it back into shape, and I know it was OK when I left it last night. Anyway, next time – which better be pretty soon to keep things bubbling along – I’ll try covering it just with a cloth.

A blasted car alarm has been screeching for over an hour. That’s going to make sleeping fun.