How hard could it be?

swirly score

Before choosing bread as a career path, others warned me about how difficult the work was. I had made bread before, numerous times, and with breathtaking results. How hard could it really be?

Now that I call myself a baker, I am understanding what they meant.

Being a good baker isn’t just about the demanding physical work (lifting many pounds of water and flour and then dough each day, mixing, turning, portioning, and shaping each loaf by hand) or knowing the dough, being able to gauge its readiness, and follow a recipe. It’s about becoming a detective: probing vats of dough throughout its fermentation time for temperature readings, working with the dough and not forcing it along a specific schedule, and knowing how to correct for influencing factors (time, temperature, humidity, flour type).

I’m still learning. I don’t think I’ll ever stop.

HOUSE-DRIED FIG + TOASTED FENNEL SEED SOURDOUGH

BUILD THE LEAVEN

Making sourdough requires planning. Before we can make dough, we must first prepare our yeast for the great task of raising flour, water, and salt into a lofty loaf of bread. We do this by making a leaven 4-8 hours before starting the dough. Mix these together with your hands:

Hard red wheat flour, 25 g
Rye flour, 15 g
Water, 40 g
Ripe sourdough culture, 10 g

Cover with a secure lid until a tablespoon of the leaven floats in a bowl of room temperature water (4-8 hours).

PREMIX

Leaven (above), 75 g
Water, 400 g
Hard red wheat flour, 500 g

Mix together by hand until no floury bits remain. Cover with a secure lid and allow to rest for 1 hour. This is called the autolyse – it allows the flour to completely hydrate and soften before starting to make the dough.

DOUGH

Once the autolyse is complete, add:

Sea salt, 10 g
Water, 50 g

The addition of salt gives bread better flavor and also gives us bakers greater control over the development of the yeast. Once the salt is added, the premix becomes dough. Incorporate the salt and additional water into the dough by turning the edges in towards the center, until it comes together and is no longer a shaggy mess. Cover again with a secure lid.

BULK RISE

Let the dough rest for 30 minutes at room temperature. Remove the lid and give the dough 4-6 turns and stretches clockwise, pulling dough from the outside in towards the middle and letting the dough fall at the center each time. The dough should be in a fairly cohesive round. Cover again and repeat this process. Fold these into the dough, just as you would in another turn of the bulk rise:

Dried figs, halved, handful
Fennel seeds, toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant, and ground up a bit in a mortar + pestle, 1 TB

Cover and let rest again and continue to fold the dough every 30 minutes two more times (for a total of 5 times or 2.5 hours of bulk rise). The bulk of the dough should have risen about a third and be lofty, feeling full of air.

REST

Gently coax the dough from its bowl and onto a lightly floured countertop. Pull the dough into a nice round, being sure to keep all the seams on the underside. Leave here undisturbed for 10-20 minutes.

SHAPE

After the rest, flip the dough over (seam side-up) onto a part of the countertop that has been slicked with water. Like an envelope, gently pull the top of the dough up and then back down towards the bottom of the round, then the right side towards the left side, and the left side towards the right side, and finally the bottom side up towards the top. Each side of the dough should overlap in the center. Scoot the finished dough onto a part of the countertop again slicked with water, seam side-down, and let rest again for about 5 minutes.

Generously flour a proofing basket (or colander with a flour sack towel) with brown rice flour and plop the finished dough into the bowl so that it is now seam side-up. Dust the seams with brown rice flour and place into the fridge for about 16 hours. Refrigeration helps to keep the dough at a manageable consistency, allows for further expansion and rising, and gives the bread a more sour flavor and enhanced digestibility. I like to bake dough directly from the fridge.

BAKE

Preheat a cast iron dutch with lid at 500°F. Using a knife or lahm or razor blade, score the bread starting at the top, in a hypnotic type of swirl (or whatever way you fancy). Plop the dough into the hot cast iron, cover with the lid, and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue baking for 20-22 minutes more. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

(If this looks familiar, it is the Tartine Method – with a few changes. There are many ways to make and bake sourdough bread that change from person to person and season by season. Everyone has their own little spin.)

HOUSE-DRIED FIG + TOASTED FENNEL SEED SOURDOUGH.

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