Sourdough bread-making methods, The Sourdough Journals
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America’s Test Kitchen recipe, Loaf 3

This is my third try adapting the America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) white-flour 24-Hour Sourdough Bread recipe to whole wheat. I’ve had just enough success to encourage me to give it another go. The last loaf tasted really good, but the crumb was too dense. This time, I hope to get both the taste and the crumb right.

Refreshing the starter for next loaf

A little after midnight this morning, August 3,  I fed my starter and set it on top of the refrigerator to incubate. That’s a lot of starter, and I need to feed it twice more before I can make dough.  I had to find a use for this excess starter.

Refreshed sourdough starter, incubating on top of refrigerator

Refreshed sourdough starter, incubating on top of refrigerator

This morning, before feeding the starter a second time, I culled one cup starter and stirred up dough for pizza. This will be my second attempt at the pizza. We loved it last time–crispy crust on the bottom, thin with just enough tender dough on top to support the toppings. I’m hoping I can duplicate that success today. As soon as I’ve perfected my recipe, I’ll post it and add the link here. (Remind me if I forget!)

Meanwhile, I’m building on the tweaks that bear promise with the sourdough loaves, in hopes of getting a lighter, taller one. The first of those tweaks is to use starter I’ve fed three times, each of those feedings falling no more than twelve hours apart. Somehow, I missed that important instruction in my first few ATK loaves.

Since it’s plenty warm here in San Francisco today, I set this second batch of starter on top of the fridge to incubate. Four hours later, the starter has not quite doubled, and I must leave the house for an engagement.

24 hours after refreshing starter first time

Early the next morning, a little after midnight on August 4, I feed one more time. I’m about three hours over the 12-hour feeding limit. What can I say? Life happens.

Wow. After eight and a half hours, that bit of starter fills the jar. Looks like we have lots of yeasty beasties to make bread.

Overnight, the starter fills the jar

Overnight, the starter fills the jar


Tweaking the recipe for a better outcome

When dividing the recipe last time to make one loaf instead of two, I forgot to cut the sponge ingredients by half. Because the loaf turned out fairly well, and to reduce the variables I change this time, I decide to make that mistake on purpose. I hope the extra starter makes up for the yeast the recipe specifies, and which I am not using.

Right away, I run into the same problem I ran into last time. The water-flour ratio seems off. The sponge is thick and heavy. I work it with my hands and eventually get a very  moist dough, which I set in the oven to rise, warmed by the oven light. This time it takes  five hours to double. Is my starter not as strong as I thought?

Mixing the dough

Since I am making only one loaf, I cut the remaining ingredients by half. Following ATK instructions, I measure 6 ounces filtered water, add it to the sponge, then put the bowl on my mixer with the dough hook attached.

One half cup at a time, I add all 12 ounces of the flour. The dough appears quite heavy and fairly dry, but after several minutes kneading, it rises above the top of the dough hook wheel. A ball two inches in diameter sits above the rest of the dough, not incorporating.

According to my mixer’s manual, when dough does this, it is too wet, so I add two tablespoons more flour. Still the dough turns into a cone shape, with the uppermost two inches above the hook’s circular top. The dough is now so dry, I decide to let it go.

Turning off the mixer, I push the dough down into the bowl and give it another go. As soon as it makes a fairly smooth ball, I stop the mixer, cover the dough with plastic and give it a twenty-minute rest.

Following the rest, I make a pocket and add the salt, then set the machine to kneading again. After about five minutes, I do my first windowpane test. It tears.

Over the next ten minutes, I knead and test five or six more times, finally getting a windowpane that does not tear. The dough is rubbery, not sticky.  It does not have that alive feel. Have I kneaded too much? Is the dough too dry?

Setting the dough to rise

Once I get a decent windowpane, and wondering if I should knead longer anyway, because it is barely what I imagine I should see, I turn the dough out on my board and knead by hand about  a minute.

ATK advises kneading for 30 seconds, “until dough forms firm ball,” but everything seems to take longer with whole wheat. I could probably stand here kneading for a day and a half and not see the dough turn into a ball.

Concerned about over-working the dough, I shape the ball, pinch the bottom shut, grease it in the bowl and set the bowl, loosely lidded, in the oven with the light on. After the sponge rise, I forgot to turn off the light, and it is nice and warm in there. It is 4:30 p.m.

Three and a half hours later, by 8:00 p.m., the dough has doubled. Yippee! Stretching the dough as best I can without tearing it, I work quickly to form the loaf, aware that the dough still does not have that lively, yeasty feel.

Working under fluorescent lights, which turn all my pictures orange, I quickly shape the dough into a loaf

Working under fluorescent lights, which turn all my pictures orange, I quickly shape the dough into a loaf

When it’s ready, I place the loaf on a pizza peel sprinkled with corn meal, cover it loosely with plastic, and set it to rise in the oven until doubled. Nearly three hours later, it’s still not quite doubled, but I’m tired and want to get to bed, so I set the oven temp at 500ºF and the timer for 30 minutes, hoping it will finish rising in the warm kitchen.

The loaf rises in the oven, covered loosely in plastic, for about 2 hours

The loaf rises in the oven, covered loosely in plastic, for about 2 hours

When the timer goes off, I brush the top of the still slightly smallish loaf with water, slash it and slide it from the pizza peel to the oven-heated pizza stone. Immediately upon placing the loaf in the oven, I lower the temperature to 475º. Last time, the bread did not get done clear through, though I baked it 40 minutes on 450. I am hopeful the extra 25 degrees will be the sweet spot.

To give the crust that extra crunch we love in sourdough bread, twice in the first five minutes, I open the oven door and quickly spray the loaf, careful to avoid the edges of the pizza stone and the oven light.

After 30 minutes, I remove the loaf and check its internal temperature. Not even close. Back in the oven for ten more minutes. This time, the temperature registers nearly 205. The crust is quite dark. Rather than risk burning it, I leave it at that. The good news: This is a higher loaf than I have achieved in the past.

Sadly, most disappointing loaf to date

Next morning, August 5, another disappointment. While the loaf rose higher than any other free-standing loaf I’ve EVER made, it is so tough and heavy, I cannot slice it. Instead, I cut big chunks. As you can see, few air bubbles pock the interior, and those are small and few between.

The loaf is too hard to slice; I have to chunk it

The loaf is too hard to slice; I have to chunk it

This loaf tastes okay, but is too chewy to enjoy. I grind much of it in the food processor for crumbs.

Thoughts for next time

With the first two loaves made with this recipe, I followed ATK’s guidance and proofed them in the fridge overnight. In fact, I proofed them for 16 hours, due to my schedule that day. It took them another seven or so hours to rise, once I had them out the fridge.

The result was small loaves and a more sour bite than we would like. That’s why, this time, I decided to avoid the overnight refrigerator proofing. That didn’t go so well either, eh?

Next time, because I don’t mind the sour taste as much as I want a nice crumb, I will let the bread rise before proofing overnight in the fridge. Perhaps that way I can get a nice high loaf, and a milder sour taste.

How I wish I had someone from the 1850s to show me how to get a good whole wheat sourdough sponge and loaf. Not being a terrific time-traveler, I’ll just have to keep experimenting until I find the answers.

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