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Thursday, November 26, 2009

An interesting tool for bread baking

My son (who is a professional brewer) has been using the excellent Beersmith shareware program to design and manage his recipes for brewing beer at home. It has some marvellous features for managing the complexity of ingredients, especially when trying to achieve a specific style of beer.

I always thought it would be great to have a similar program for baking bread, as the ingredients are similar (grain and yeast) even though the outcomes are different (bakers don't really care about retaining fermentation alcohol).

I had thought of managing recipes in a spreadsheet, as bread baking is mainly maintaining a target hydration based on weight of the ingredients. Also how to calculate other ingredients (like salt) as a percentage of flour weight should be fairly easy in a simple spreadsheet.

For fun I googled "bread baking calculator" and found an interesting program that has Beersmith-like features (not quite as advanced) called Tad's Baker's Calculator. And best of all, its free!


One of the great features of a calculator like this is the ability to scale the recipe based on a finished product weight, and get all of your ingredients lined up. For example, if you want to make four 340 g. baguettes, you have to figure in baking loss, then work backwards to figure out how much flour, water, salt (etc.) will be required to complete the recipe. This calculator allows you to put in your basic recipe, then scale it to whatever your needs are.

I'm running it through its paces with the included pizza dough recipe. If this works out OK, I will experiment with my own 3 stage preferment sourdough, to see if I can get better consistency.

Stay tuned for a full report!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

2nd bake with new hombrew culture and Kaiser pans = energy domes



On Thursday I came across a pair of Kaiser miche-style round loaf pans in the liquidation corner at Homesense (Homegoods in the US). I thought this might be the solution to the flat miche loaves I have been getting that seem to rise horizontally than vertically.

I figured I would try out the new homegrown atmospheric culture with the new Kaiser units to see how things would "pan" out (sorry... couldn't resist:-)

I used my usual 3 stage recipe, which surprisingly only took about 10 hours to complete. My stored sponge culture has not lost any of its power even after 2 weeks in the fridge! 

The speed in which the culture was developing kind of threw me off schedule, so I decided to refrigerate the last stage before making the dough so I could go to bed not worrying about a mess all over the counter. I actually expected overflow the next morning in the fridge, but the culture stayed within the confines of its bowl. I made the dough with a slight variation, using a bit more salt, about 1/3 cup of organic raw sugar, 2 cups organic rye flour and 1 cup of organic whole wheat, with the balance (about 10 cups) organic unbleached white flour. First proof was 3 hours, then I split the 2.2 kg of dough into the two Kaiser pans for a final proof before baking.

According to the Kaiser leaflet that came with the pans, it is recommended to release the loaf upside down on a baking sheet after 10 minutes. I did this, but I found the loaves collapsed somewhat and could have easily been 2-3 inches higher. Overall bake time was 45 minutes at 375 F, and the loaves could have stood another 5-10 minutes as they were a tiny bit doughy in the center. These are BIG loaves, and weigh in at 1100 gr each!

As you can see from the photos, the loaves have an unusual pattern, which to me looks a lot like a Devo energy dome (please Mr. Mothersbaugh, don't sue me for trademark violation! (As you can see, Mark is also eating too much bread.)

Mouth feel and taste were absolutely fantastic. The bit of extra sugar and salt really helped. Crust was crispy and thin and the crumb, while on the tight side and a bit dense, had just the right blend of chewiness. It was incredibly hard to resist. Can't wait for toast in the morning!

Sourness was almost non-existent, and this had me surprised. I expected the extended time in the third stage would result in more sourness, as the relatively liquid (100% hydration) 3 stage technique is to promote more lactic bacteria activity. Also I find my cultures get considerably more acidic the longer I leave them in the fridge, and since the first loaves from this culture were quite sour, I was worried these loaves would have been worse.

Next bake I'll try and improve on this with a slightly longer pan proof (this was 2 hours) and a longer set time before releasing. However I am out of President's Choice organic flour, and will be switching to Abenaki unbleached organic. These may be too many variables to change...



Friday, July 18, 2008

My theory on making good atmospheric sourdough cultures

My son is a beer geek and quite the talented homebrewer. We both enjoy getting and tasting unusual beers from around the world, and can boast about more than 200 different styles that we have tasted.

We took a particular interest in lambic beers last year, mainly because they are spontaneously fermented using yeasts and lactobacilli from the local atmosphere, very much in the same way sourdough bread is created. This means that there are no live yeast isolates added to the brew. This is a long process, taking usually up to 2 years.

Explaining biological fermentation

As many people don't know the air is full of yeast spores and bacteria. Different strains of micro-organisms have different affinities for nutrients. It just so happens that a few strains have strong affinities to specific carbohydrate molecules, such as in the maltose found in barley malt (beer) and wheat.

What happens in sourdough and in lambic beers is that a symbiotic relationship develops in the culture medium between a single strain of yeast and a single strain of lactobacilli. Basically the lactic acid created by the bacteria renders the medium inhospitable to most other micro-organisms with the exception of a specific yeast strain, that can tolerate and thrive in an acidic environment. (Greenwood, 1996)

Commercial brewing and baking yeasts are grown in conditions where there is no contamination by bacteria, and their activity is so fast (especially in bread baking) that there is very little contamination during fermentation. Brewing beer is another story, and risk of airborne bacteria contamination is very high and can introduce all kinds of unpleasant flavors. This is due to the complexity and the ongoing transformation of the available carbohydrates in the mash that will attract a wider variety of bacteria strains. This is partially controlled by the initial pH of the mash that helps not only the transformation of fermentable sugars but renders the environment inhospitable to unwanted bacteria.

As many sourdough bakers know, the location that the culture comes from creates bread with unique flavours. Many people agree that San Francisco sourdough bread is the best tasting (although a French Poulain loaf is my personal favorite), and in fact a unique strain of bacteria has been isolated and named for it (L. Sanfranciscans), with the dominant yeast strain being the common C. Milleri. Other sourdough types will have a variety of yeast and lactobacilli that may or may not be unique to a region.

Cherry Orchards and Lambic Beers

But what makes the traditional lambic is a really simple trait: they are fermented in or around cherry orchards. This got us to thinking that since the carbohydrate is essentially the same in beer and in bread (maltose), then a sourdough bread culture that was developed in a cherry orchard should be pretty good.

It just so happens that we have 3 very productive bing cherry trees in our back yard. This meant figuring out the optimal time to begin developing a culture. Logically this would be when the carbohydrates in the cherries would be naturally developing yeast and bacteria cultures and releasing large quantities of spores. In other words, when the cherries were nearly fully ripe and showing signs of rot.

Starting and developing the Culture

I use and frequently refer to the instructions in the rec.sourdough.faqs for developing atmospheric cultures and maintaining my existing ones. I basically followed these instructions and expected to get activity in about a week. The cherries on my trees were nearing their peak and we had begun picking at this point.

I was quite surprised to have noticeable bubbles in the culture in only 12 hours. I kept to the schedule, however, with 2 refreshes over a period of 5 days. To be honest it smelled pretty bad, like old cheese, so I was a bit worried this would be a bust. Also temperatures were in the mid 90s, and I was concerned this was too hot for natural yeasts (which die typically around 97 degrees F).

After bringing the culture inside, I followed the instructions for "polluted" culture. This meant taking only a couple of tablespoons of the outdoor culture and adding it to a thin mix of water and flour. This part of the process is called "washing" but it really is about giving the desireable micro-organisms a chance to take over the culture and kill off the undesireable molds and bacteria. I expected to have to go through at least 3 generations of washing out, but was surprised to find the culture was ready after the first wash! Just the same, I repeated the cycle to be on the safe side, and was amazed at how it was developing! Usually it takes about 24 hours for serious activity, but the 1 quart mason jar was overflowing after 12 hours!

After baking with it, I must say I indeed have a winner. The taste is slightly more sour than my San Francisco bread, but this is what I was aiming for.


Greenwood, D. 1996. What is the Microbiology of San Francisco Sourdough?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

First Bake - Sourdough culture from the local atmosphere

Wow! This is by far one of the best cultures I've used (and I've used about 8 or 9 different cultures). It easily surpasses my current favorite, the San Francisco original from Sourdoughs International

This is my 3rd culture I've developed from the local atmosphere. The difference this time was taking advantage of my three cherry trees (that's what you see in the background). I started this culture when the cherries were ripening and beginning to show signs of rot and fermentation. (I will elaborate on the reasoning behind this in another post, but feel free to email me for details).

This culture is quite amazing for several reasons. First, it took only 2 days to see activity and a single replenish before I began the development of the culture. Second, this particular culture only took 2 generation cycles before it was ready to bake with. Finally, it is extremely active and rises fast. For example, my SF culture usually takes 7-8 hours first proof and 3 hours proofing in the pan. These loaves were pan proofed in only 90 minutes! As you can see in the picture, I got incredible loft and a beautiful crumb structure in loaves that weigh in at approximately 600g (a bit less than a pound and a half).

I baked 4 loaves with approximately 10 cups unbleached organic white and 2 cups organic rye flour. I was a bit worried that a new culture would be a bit too sour to use this much rye flour, but was pleasantly surprised. While still warm there was a slight nutty (walnut)  and sweet cultured butter flavor and only a hint of tang in the aftertaste. As usual the acidity is in the crust and this should diminish and stabilize after about 8 hours.