In hopes of cutting out a couple of steps and reducing the overall loaf-making time, I blended some old tricks with new ones.
The problem with this method is that it takes a lot of time, from start to finish–nearly two whole days, although the real work time is far less.
My goal was to see if I could shave labor time as well as time overall.
Before I share the experiment, here’s a quick recap of typical steps over two days.
Day 1: Early in the morning, and again, twelve hours later, feed the stiff levain. From start to cleanup, that’s about ten minutes each time, twenty minutes overall on Day 1.
Day 2: Over the next six-to-seven hours, do the following, which adds up to about an hour of labor, in small increments here and there, the longest being 20 minutes.
- Measure the water and levain, and soak the stiff levain 10 minutes to soften.
- Add the flour, but not the salt, mix well and let rest 20 minutes (autolyse period).
- Add salt, knead 20 minutes, and set to rise 3 hours.
- Shape into rough ball and let rest 20 minutes.
- Stretch and shape into boule and let rise in banneton 1 hour.
- Turn out, slash and bake 45 minutes.
- Let cool at least 30 minutes, longer if possible, before cutting.
Not only am I spending nearly an hour in labor each time I make a small loaf of bread, I’m mostly stuck in the house the better part of a day to assure I don’t miss the next step and the next.
That’s not so bad for me, a retiree experimenting with sustainable ways to nourish ourselves and willing to spend the time.
But for a busy family with half a dozen places to be every day, or a millennial holding down two or three part-time jobs and trying to build independence in the biggest over-educated, under-employed group this nation has ever seen? That’s just not going to work. Every minute matters.
What I did differently
This time, eschewing the second feeding the night before, I made the dough just before bed, omitting the salt, and set it to rise in a cool spot. By morning, I hoped to find the dough elastic, pliable, and partly risen.
Instead, it had more than doubled. I knew I might be in trouble. I still had to add the salt, which meant punching down the dough.
Would the yeast have enough food left to rise a second time after kneading, and once more after shaping the boule?
My hope was that, by skipping the second levain feeding, and doing a long, cool autolyse, the dough might knead in half the time, shaving ten minutes from the total labor time, in addition to the ten minutes I saved the night before by omitting the second feeding.
Twenty minutes don’t sound like much, but it’s time I’d be glad to spend on other pursuits if I can get the same or better results. Time, too, that might make the difference to a busy mom, dad or active young person, pressed for time, but wanting the advantages of homemade, whole grain, wild yeast bread.
Besides, I had hopes that the long autolyse might help the dough to rise faster and shave half an hour or so off the total rise time as well.
If all worked as I hoped, I might save 50-60 minutes total time, and get fresh bread on the supper table, and not have to wait until morning to cut it, as we so often did.
At first, this method looked like a winner
During the knead, I thought this new method might just be the answer.
The dough was not sticky at all. I got almost no dough on my hands while kneading, and had to scrape very small amounts from the work table only a few times. Win!
Then, about eight minutes into the kneading, the dough suddenly felt elastic, pliable, and alive in that way you know it’s working. Win! Win!
Encouraged, I stopped kneading and did both the window pane test and the baby bottom test. They failed.
After kneading twelve minutes more, stopping twice along the way to conduct the tests, I finally got a smooth baby bottom and a fairly good window pane.
Not one minute of time shaved off the kneading period. Rats.
Dough rise time steady at three hours
Still hopeful, I set the dough to rise and checked it after two hours. While it had risen markedly, it had not doubled. Drat.
At the end of the third hour, thankfully, the dough had doubled nicely. Disappointingly, this method had saved not one minute of rising time.
At least I hadn’t lost any.
Carefully, stretching and shaping the boule, I laid it upside down in my flour-dusted banneton, set it in the oven with the light on, and covered all with a big seven-quart stainless steel bowl, to hold warmth and prevent surface drying.
Relieved, upon checking the boule after thirty minutes, I found the soft dough double its original size, or nearly–just what we want when we bake a sourdough loaf.
I turned it out onto the pizza peel and fired up the oven, pizza stone in place and cast iron pan on the bottom shelf to receive the hot water, which I set to heating in a small container on the stove top.
Slashing the dough and pouring hot water into the steamer pan in the oven, I slid the boule from the peel. Five minutes later, through the glass, I could see it had popped up higher than any loaf I’ve made to date. Success!
Sadly, I had not slashed that loaf deeply enough. The popping gasses blew right through the top of the loaf and left me with a misshapen football.
More sadly still, the loaf is dense inside, with few large holes and not enough small-to-medium ones. Most of the gas must have escaped from the top with the explosion.
Although the first two slices contain a fair amount of bubbly holes, the rest of the loaf is dense and heavy. Note to self: Remember to lay the slices on a clean cutting board, so they’re not sullied with flour from the bottom of the loaf.
After the fact, I realized I had introduced one other variable to this experiment, for which I need to account. My most successful loaves started out as very wet, sticky dough. This time, I forgot to add that extra ounce of water.
Could a wetter dough make a difference? And what if I were to autolyse the dough in the refrigerator instead of on the cold night-time counter top?
Worth giving it a try, right?