After incubating nearly twelve hours overnight, the sponge had more than doubled in volume, yesterday morning, and was rich in gassy bubbles. I stirred it down with a fork before adding flour and salt. Doesn’t it look alive? You should see the bubbles popping and burping.
Mixing the dough
At first, Dickey recommends adding honey and oil to her dough mixture, but in her 2009 update, she tells us she no longer adds them. Her bread consists solely of freshly ground whole wheat flour, half a teaspoon of salt, and her sourdough starter.
We have sugar issues at our house, so I decided to omit the honey and oil as well. To the sponge, I first whisked in the salt, then one cup at a time, stirred in the flour until I had a dough that looked something like what Dickey showed in her photographs.
Dickey’s knife-kneading method surprisingly easier than it looks
Dickey kneads her bread unconventionally, and I quickly discovered why. The dough is too moist to knead the old-fashioned way. She pours the dough onto a bed of flour lying in a wide bowl.
My two-year-old granddaughter, whom I care for three days a week, likes to bake with me. She helped me measure and dump a cup of flour into our widest stainless steel bowl.
Following Dickey’s photographs as a guide, we dumped our moist dough onto the flour in the bowl and kneaded it with a table knife. Dickey isn’t too specific about this method. I used my other hand to guide the dough into quarter turns as I would if kneading by hand.
After just a few turns with the knife, and a little help from my other hand, the dough absorbed enough flour to remove it from the bowl and finish kneading by hand.
Turning it out on a lightly floured board, I kneaded a few minutes more.
Dickey doesn’t say how long we should work the dough. I kneaded it on the board about five minutes, for a total of about eight minutes with both methods. I suspect now, that I should have kneaded longer.
Switching to the bread scientist’s kneading method
Earlier, while I waited for the sponge to develop, I had discovered baker-scientist Jonathan McDowell’s method of baking sourdough bread. Like Dickey, he used an unusual folding method to knead his dough.
After giving the dough ball a 30-minute rest under a sheet of plastic, I used McDowell’s method and laid the dough out in a 9×13 Pyrex pan.
The two-year-old and I gently eased the dough into a fairly uniform layer covering the bottom of the pan. She had a great time learning to pat the dough just gently enough to ease it to the sides without crushing it. I’m always amazed at how eager little ones are to learn, and how well they can take instruction, when we tutor them with good humor and plenty of patience.
We covered the dough loosely with plastic and set it in the oven to rise.
Three hours later, the dough had doubled in volume. Time to do the first pan knead, following McDowell’s method.
First, using our stainless steel dough scraper, we loosened the dough around the edges. Then we folded it almost in half, once each direction.
Time to shape the loaves
After kneading it, I cut the dough in half with the dough scraper, formed two loaves, and set them to rise in oiled loaf pans.
It turns out, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the instructions in the Mother Jones article. My bread did not rise as high as it should have.
After a long rise, we finally get to bake the bread
After six hours rising, the dough had risen, but not nearly enough. I’ve had bad luck in the past letting dough rise overnight, so I decided to bake it anyway.
Following Dickey’s method, I baked the loaves at 375 Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, then reduced the temperature to 325 and baked about ten minutes more to get the hollow tapping sound. I tapped the bottom, though, not the top, as Dickey suggests.
Unlike Dickey’s loaves, mine did not “pop” up in the oven, even though I spritzed them with water once just before baking and again five minutes into the bake.
Dickey didn’t mention adding moisture for steam, but every other sourdough recipe I’ve used has specified moistening the dough prior to baking, as well as either spraying it a few times in the first 5-20 minutes, or setting a pan of hot water in the oven with the bread.
Supposedly, the steam causes the gas bubbles in the bread to expand, giving it an extra rise in the oven. I’ve tried all the methods and have yet to get anything more than a slight additional rise, if any.
The loaves turned out short in stature, but filled with lots of airy bubbles that made for some very good buttery morning toast as well as tasty sandwiches.
The sourdough flavor was just right–neither too sharp nor too faint.
From this experiment, I’ve learned not to try to mix two different methods, even if it seems they are similar, especially when both are unfamiliar.
I’ve read and re-read Dickey’s pages, and I’m going to try her method again, building on what I’ve learned. For one, I don’t think I added as much flour to my dough as she does. Next time, I’ll make just one loaf and see whether I get the high rise along with the gassy bubbles.
I’ll also knead longer each time, in hopes of developing that gluten more. If Dickey’s method doesn’t work for me this next time, I’m going to experiment with McDowell’s method, following his steps from start to finish.
This experiment is more encouraging than any I’ve done to date. One of these days, I’ll get the hang of making bread using live cultures.