Sourdough bread-making methods
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Making the loaves: An unintended kneading marathon

Yesterday, I refreshed the starter, made the sponge and set it to incubate in the oven with the light on for warmth. This morning, following Helen Dickey’s process on her site, Soaked Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread Experiments, I planned to add the flour and knead as she does.

What I didn’t plan on was a marathon kneading session that lasted (blush) one hour and thirty minutes.

Here’s the story.

Making the dough

By 7:15 this morning, after incubating overnight for eight and a half hours, the sponge had more than doubled and fallen back on itself a bit.

After 8-1/2 hours incubating overnight, the sponge has doubled and is now falling back on itself

After 8-1/2 hours incubating overnight, the sponge has doubled and is now falling back on itself

In preparation for making the dough, I reviewed Dickey’s pages one more time. In her last post, titled 2009 update, Dickey says she omits the honey and oil, adding only salt and flour to the sponge the next day.

That’s good for us at Chez Grace, since we are watching both our sugar and fat intake, which isn’t easy, given how much I love to bake.

Dickey dissolves the salt in two tablespoons water and stirs it into the sponge, along with an unspecified measure of whole wheat flour, probably enough to make a very wet dough, given her instructions on previous pages.

Then she kneads the dough with a table knife until she’s incorporated enough flour to turn it out and knead by hand.

Kneading the dough

While Dickey doesn’t mention kneading the dough on this final page, presumably she follows a procedure similar to her earlier posts, as in How to make a whole wheat sandwich dough that rises well.

There, she folds the wet sponge into a wide bowl that is partly filled with whole wheat flour. Then she kneads the dough with the dull blade of a table knife until it holds enough flour to work with her hands.

We get a little more insight into her kneading process on her vinegar experiment page. There, she says,

I folded and pressed with a butter knife flat against the dough a few times for 10 cycles and then normal hand kneeded [sic] ten fold/pushes on top of ww floured surface.

After kneading, she lets the bread rise to double, punches it down, then shapes it into three loaves and sets it to rise again, as in traditional baking.

Let’s give it a try

Following Dickey’s very general descriptions and photographs, I dumped two cups flour into my wide-bellied stainless steel bowl. Because of our sugar issues, and because we have to track all our carbohydrates now, I measured the flour the conventional way. I need to know the exact ingredients so I can figure out the nutrition facts before we slice that bread.

Spooning the flour into the measuring cup, I leveled it off with a straight-edged metal spatula, not packed as Dickey does,

Forgetting that Dickey dissolves the salt in water before adding it to the sponge, I added a half teaspoon salt directly to the flour and whisked it well before pouring in the now ripe and bubbly sponge.

Thicker than pancake batter, but still quite wet, the sponge oozed into the bowl. Instead of a table knife, I used my spoon-shaped silicone spatula to knead the sponge, incorporating a little flour with each quarter turn of the bowl.

After about eight minutes, I had incorporated all the flour-salt mixture and turned the dough out onto a board to knead with my hands.

Still moist, the dough has incorporated enough flour to knead by hand without sticking

Still moist, the dough has incorporated enough flour to knead by hand without sticking

Before turning the dough out, I measured one-third cup more flour to dust the board and dough periodically, should they become sticky, which they did, in the beginning.

Kneading, and kneading, and kneading

I don’t know about you, but kneading dough is therapy to me. Before I retired, I got into the Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day book, without which we could not have had fresh-baked whole wheat loaves every day.

On that level–not having much time–I get the no-knead craze. But when it comes to joy in baking bread, well, kneading is one of my favorite things.

Ten minutes passed. Humming along with the rhythm, my hands, arms and body swaying in perfect syncopation, I turned the dough a quarter, pressed it with the heals of my hands, rocked it back just enough to lift the near edge a bit so it didn’t stick when I made the quarter turn, then lifted, stretched and pushed all over again.

Relaxing! After that first ten minutes, having gone way beyond Helen Dickey’s kneading process, I thought, “I’ll do the windowpane test. See if the dough is elastic enough to let light through.”

The dough tore, but it looked close. So close. I decided to knead for five more minutes.

The second windowpane test tore a little less and seemed even closer, close enough to call for kneading a little longer. I gave it another five minutes.

The next time, still just shy of getting there, or so it seemed, I kneaded for ten minutes. Darn! Every time I checked, the windowpane seemed nearly there. The holes that appeared when I stretched the dough grew smaller and smaller each time, until finally, I got only pinholes.

Determined now to reach that magic point when the dough would be elastic enough, the gluten stretched enough, I kept going. When I passed the one hour mark, I thought, “I’m so close now, why not give it ten more minutes.”

By the time I had kneaded for one hour and thirty minutes, I called it quits. Here’s what my final windowpane test looked like.

Finally, after kneading for 1-1/2 hours, I stretch a dough windowpane that, while still tearing a bit, lets light through fairly large spaces

Finally, after kneading for 1-1/2 hours, I stretch a dough windowpane that, while still tearing a bit, lets light through fairly large spaces

See those bright fields of light shining through thin membranes of dough? But then there’s that big hole in the lower right of the shot.

One thing I noticed during this long kneading session:  About one hour in, the sweetly yeasty scent intensified deliciously. The texture changed too, under my hands. The dough felt, well, a lot like a pregnant belly feels to the touch–full, alive.

When I turned, stretched and pushed it, it was both more whole feeling, like a rubber ball, and more pliable, like potter’s clay.

Having reached the end of my endurance, I quickly shaped a ball, stretching that last fold as much as possible, and rolled it around in my rising bowl, which I had greased by hand with a few drops of extra virgin olive oil.

The dough ball, ready to rise in an oiled bowl

The dough ball, ready to rise in an oiled bowl

See the slightly torn-looking spots on the top of the dough? Look closely. You will see the largest ones nearly in the center.

Those worried me. Would they expand as the gasses pushed from below? Would they tear the surface? One thing certain: I was about to find out.

The dough rises beautifully

After just two hours rising in the oven, loosely covered, and with the oven light on for warmth, the dough had doubled magnificently. Oh oh. The holes grew too. Lots of them.

2 hours later, the dough has doubled

2 hours later, the dough has doubled

Punching the dough down gently, then turning it onto the board, I kneaded it for just a couple of minutes before dividing it with my dough scraper and quickly forming the loaves. Here they are in their buttered pans–one cast iron, on the right, and the other so old I no longer remember what metal. One of these days I’ll spring for a second cast iron loaf pan. Cast iron makes the best breads.

Loaves ready for the final rise

Loaves ready for the final rise

No high-rising loaves for me this time

Well, bummer. The loaves rose fine–at first. At the two-hour mark, they were about half risen. At three hours, they were nearly to the top of the loaf pan, but the sides weren’t filled out. At four hours, the top of the loaves had just about reached even with the top of the pans, but the sides still weren’t filled out.

At five hours, the sides were beginning to fill in, and at six hours, the sides had filled in but the loaves had risen no further.

I went to dinner and came back at eight, hoping to find tall loaves, ready to bake. Instead, the loaves had shrunk back into the pan. My bad. I should have baked them when they still had the puffy, full look, and not waited for them to grow taller still.

Disappointed, as you can imagine, I set the oven temperature for 375 degrees Fahrenheit, as Dickey does. She doesn’t mention brushing the tops with moisture, but despite being covered with a slightly damp towel, the tops had dried out during the rising time.

Dipping a pastry brush in water, I coated the tops of the loaves lightly, slashed them with a knife which, unfortunately further deflated them, and popped them in the oven.

After thirty minutes, per Dickey’s instructions, I tapped the top of the loaves to see if they rang hollow. Decades ago, when I started baking breads made with fast acting yeasts, I learned to remove the loaves from the pan and tap the bottoms. This time, I decided to give Dickey’s way a try.

The tops were crusty-hard and rang hollow. Yay. One thing worked.

Again following Dickey’s method, I reduced the oven temperature to 325 and popped the loaves back in for seven more minutes. Before I did, though, seeing that the tops were rather pasty looking, I brushed them lightly with whole milk yogurt, hoping to help them to brown up nicely.

Unfortunately, the yogurt was too little, too late. The loaves did not have time to brown before I removed them to a cooling rack. They’re pretty weird-looking.

Two funky looking loaves of 100 percent whole wheat sourdough bread

Two funky looking loaves of 100 percent whole wheat sourdough bread

Next time, I must remember to slash them with the razor blade I bought for the purpose, instead of using a knife.

The good news: The bread is delicious, the flavor near perfect, with just enough sourdough tang to make it interesting.

Sliced, the bread doesn't look so bad, and the flavor is wonderful

Sliced, the bread doesn’t look so bad, and the flavor is wonderful

Sliced, the bread looks pretty good, with enough airy holes to allow butter to seep down in. They are wonderful with my morning coffee, toasted and slathered with butter and honey.

What kept them from rising taller?

With that first rise so quick and so high, I thought I had finally found the answer to making high whole wheat loaves with wild yeast starter.

The sponge incubated beautifully overnight. The dough rose more quickly than I’ve ever had a sourdough ball rise the first time. But those loaves pooped along for hours and hours, then fell in on themselves.

Should I have kneaded the dough longer before forming and proofing the loaves? Was there not enough flour to keep the yeasts multiplying? Is Dickey right about using less starter in the beginning so fewer yeastie beasties vie for food?

Next time, I’ll try her final method. Culling from all her posts, it goes like this.

  • 1 teaspoon starter
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 2-1/2 cups water
  • Enough flour to make a pancake batter consistency
  1. Set the sponge mixture to incubate in a warm place, away from drafts
  2. Add enough flour to the sponge to make dough
  3. Cover loosely and set it to rise
  4. Form into loaves
  5. Let rise again
  6. Bake at 375 for thirty  minutes, then tap tops to see if the loaves ring hollow.
  7. Reduce heat to 325 and return to oven for 7-8 minutes longer to finish.
  8. Turn out and cool completely before slicing.

Next time, I also plan to knead the dough plenty before making the loaves. Not ninety minutes, of course. That was a one-time experiment. But I will knead them longer than I usually do before the loaf phase.

That’s the plan.

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