Five Things You Thought You Knew About Sourdough

I’m prepared to catch a lot of flak with this post, because I’m going to challenge some of the most cherished and prevalent beliefs about my favorite type of bread and that mysterious microbial ecosystem that makes it possible: sourdough.

I’m not saying these Sourdough Stories are False with a capital F or Myths with a capital M, nor am I proclaiming myself the grand arbiter of high sourdough truth. But there are credible sources that refute or question a good amount of the prevailing lore. If you don’t want to give these Sourdough Stories up, that’s fine. But if it would make your life easier or more interesting to let a few of them go, then feel free to do that, and know that you’re in good, if perhaps not abundant, company.

Sourdough Story #1: San Francisco sourdough bread can only be made in San Francisco. OK, I suppose you could say this one is actually true by definition. But the lactic-acid-producing bacterium (Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis) that supposedly makes SF sourdough unique is found in sourdough starters all over the world, and is in fact the predominant bacterial species in many of those starters. So if you’re not lucky enough to live in San Francisco, or to have a “geniune” SF sourdough starter, don’t despair; a fine sourdough is still attainable. Conversely, some sourdough breads made in SF are positively mediocre. A good sourdough bread has as much, if not more, to do with the skill of the baker than with the specific organism species in the starter. Read this Discover Magazine article to see why sourdough researcher Frank Sugihara said, “I think you can make San Francisco sourdough pretty much anywhere.”

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Baker’s Percentage Tutorial, Part 3

As promised, this installment of the Baker’s Percentage Tutorial focuses on how to make a given amount of dough from a BP formula. I’ll also discuss how to make dough that uses a given amount of a certain ingredient.

If you didn’t catch Part 1 and Part 2 of this tutorial, you may want to do so before reading any further. I’m assuming that you’re familiar with what BP is and how to convert a recipe into a BP formula.

A couple of things are helpful to have before getting started: a calculator and a “math is fun” attitude. Smile and repeat after me: “Math. Is. Fun.”

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Baker’s Percentage Tutorial, Part 2

A number of people left comments or sent email saying that they found Part 1 of my Baker’s Percentage Tutorial helpful. Thank you for that! And now that you know what baker’s percentage (BP) is, you might be wondering what you’re supposed to do with it.

In addition to flour, most bread contains three other basic ingredients: water, yeast, and salt. One thing BP is useful for is allowing you to look at the amounts of these ingredients and get a rough idea of the kind of bread the formula will make, and whether the ingredients are balanced.

Water

Bakers often talk about the “hydration” of a dough. Simply stated, hydration is the amount of water in a formula, relative to the amount of flour. That’s exactly the definition of the BP of water. Look at this dough formula:

  • Flour 100%
  • Water 66%
  • Instant yeast 1%
  • Salt 2%

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Baker’s Percentage Tutorial, Part 1

If you bake bread, sooner or later you’re going to encounter (cue ominous music) Baker’s Percentage. Did I just strike fear in your heart? No doubt about it, this can be confusing, even scary, stuff. But it really doesn’t have to be.

My first brush with Baker’s Percentage (BP) came a few days after baking my first loaves, as I was perusing my newly-acquired copy of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. I saw these weird sidebar versions of all the recipes in which the total of the ingredients always added up to more than 100%.

My first thought: Huh? Wow, this fellow really needs a math lesson.

This was followed pretty quickly by a second thought: Mr. Reinhart is a rock star baker and he’s managed to get quite a few books published; just maybe he knows a little more than you do about this, my dear. Maybe he’s on to something.

Lucky for me I had that second thought. It turns out that this convention, which to my knowledge is unique to bread bakers, is both straightforward and useful.

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The Right Weigh

Weigh your ingredients

There is no right or wrong way to bake. Or rather, the “right” way is whatever way has you aching with pleasure when you pull a lovely loaf or perfect pie from the oven and taste that first bite of heaven.

So when I say – rather loudly, sorry – “WEIGH YOUR INGREDIENTS, PEOPLE!” please understand that’s just a suggestion. Okay, a very strong suggestion. Some would even say I’m fanatical about it.

If you don’t believe that my way is the only one that merits consideration, think about this experiment I did with a few friends not long ago, using my favorite problem child, flour:

Everyone measured out one cup of white flour from the same bag, using their usual measuring technique. When we weighed each cupful on my kitchen scale we found they ranged from 127 to 148 grams. That’s a difference of up to 15%.

Don’t think 15% makes much difference? In the world of bread, it’s huge. Using 15% more flour can transform what’s supposed to be ciabatta into something more like French bread, or sandwich bread into something as stiff as a bagel. And vice versa.

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Shaping a Couronne Bordelaise

Couronnes Bordelaise

Couronne bannetonIt’s time for another BreadBakingDay, and host Eva (Sweet Sins) chose “Shape” as this month’s excellent theme. I opted to make a couronne Bordelaise (Bordeaux-style crown), because it was about time I put my oddly-shaped couronne banneton, which I’ve had for a few months now, to use.

What I wish I had figured out before I spent a small fortune ordering this 12″ linen-lined banneton from France, however, is that you absolutely don’t need it. You can rig up a perfectly good stand-in with an inverted cereal bowl inside any flat-ish basket (even a large pie plate would do), and a piece of linen draped over them. I made one couronne in the “real” banneton and one in the mock-up, and I truly couldn’t tell the difference in the final loaves. The diameter of my basket is about 11″, and of the bowl, about 4.5″.

Mock couronne basket Linen-draped mock couronne banneton

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