A Question from the Doctor

The great Doctor Fugawe asks:

Here’s a good one for me uncle (even if he ain’t!) – and you even have some degree of responsibility for this one, since it’s your ‘Classic Sourdough Loaf’ that I used here.  I’m working through your new book, doing each bread in it – so I put together Mick’s Classic Sourdough, only I used freshly ground wheat, and not an aged commercial variety.  My experience with this flour is that it impedes the proof, so I expected it might take longer to rise than you suggest in the book.  But I had a scheduling problem as well – I had stretched things out to the point that when the loaf had had a 4 hour proof, it still had not risen much at all – so instead of baking at that point, I put it under refrigeration and went to bed.

Next morning, I thought I’d try baking it right out of its refrigerated proof -as I have read about others doing successfully- and since it had begun to swell a bit, that’s what I did.  My result, as you can see here,   was dramatic  (I regret not having taken a shot of the proofed loaf for comparison, but it was significant!).

So uncle, why, after such a long proof, did this loaf still have so much energy left in the form of oven spring?  I know the cold slowed down the rise a bit – but 13 hours seems excessive, doesn’t it?  And what is it about freshly ground grain that seems to slow the dough’s rise?

But regardless, I must say that the loaf came out looking beautiful and tasting superb – and you deserve credit for that part!  Thank you.

Dear Doctor

Sorry about the time it has taken to respond. On top of things being hectically busy I had to (long pause for dramatic effect) go to Dublin for a conference with my illustrator.

The simple answer to your question is, I haven’t got a clue. I am just a practical baker – my technical knowledge is zilch. Someone once explained to me what an enzyme is but I’ve forgotten again. Plus I’ve never baked with fresh ground flour. I read somewhere that fresh flour is described as “bucky” i.e. lively and unpredictable – so I was surprised when you said it was likely to slow fermentation.

I deliberately tried to keep the book simple because a lot of writers don’t seem to be able to describe the basic methods clearly. But I suppose we are lucky in the UK, temperatures are generally moderate, humidity pretty constant, flours consistent. I use Doves Farm Organic flours – not very sexy to trendy home bakers but easy to get delivered in quantity and a pretty reliable product. I don’t have the knowledge to advise people about the flours in their parts of the world, or about coping with temperatures, humidity, altitude. Except I know sourdough is very flexible and there are experienced bakers on the net who do work in more difficult climates.

A couple of points. I wasn’t trying to say that 12 hours is the optimum period between starter refreshments (that might be eight hours depending on temperature). More that the long development times with sourdough can be used to your advantage, e.g. you can refresh your starter in the morning, go to work, and refresh it again before you go to bed, mix dough when you get up next day. A few hours either way won’t make a lot of difference (so long as the temperatures are fairly moderate).

Because I am doing between 50-60 kilos of dough to order on a bake day in circumstances not much more advanced than the average home baker, my schedule works like this: morning, final refreshment (previous starter refreshments will have been as much about  producing volume as strength), prepping (soakers, etc.) during the day, mixing in the evening. So the bulk of my doughs are mixed the day before and ferment overnight in the fridge for a minimum of nine hours (say, last in 8.00 p.m., first out 5.00 a.m. = 9 hours. But the last dough for loaves out may be 10.00 a.m. = 14 hours. Plus the baguettes probably not out until 2.00 p.m. = 18 hours).

On bake day I shape the loaves in batches of 6 large (any combination of 12 small) because that is the oven capacity, at intervals of 50 minutes because that’s how long it takes to bake a loaf. The first loaves go in the oven after about three and a half hours proof and, ready or not, the next goes in 50 minutes later. I totally leave out of the calculation the fact  that any 2 kilo loaf is going to take 65 minutes to bake which gives subsequent batches an additional 15 minutes proving time. It all works out.

I very rarely do it the other way round and prove in the fridge – just occasional overnight baguettes which are only out of the fridge for the 20 minutes or so it takes for the oven to come up to temperature.

I have heard of a French baker who proves a high hydration dough in the fridge for a couple of days, simply tips out the dough, cuts it into strips and bakes it straight away.

All I can imagine is that the yeasts in your dough were getting on for dormant and went a bit berserk when they hit the oven heat.


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