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Sourdough, bagels, and bread storage

(article, Hank Sawtelle)

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The e-mail bag is e-bulging with follow-up questions after my last column about no-knead bread. I tackle a few of them below.

I'm new-ish to baking. Have some sourdough starter and we really love the flavor. My loaves are pretty dense though tasty. Can you help me modify a recipe for that airy light semi-no knead bread?
— Jacqueline C., Boston, Massachusetts

Here's the thing with sourdough starter: Even though it lasts pretty much forever, it only works (rises) well when it's fed frequently. It can take time and practice to get a starter into an active phase. Because I don't bake very often, I keep my starter in the refrigerator. When I take it out, it takes several feedings over a couple of days before it is active enough to really raise a dough. If you are turning out dense sourdough loaves, you may be using a tired starter.


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There are two solutions. You could become a model sourdough citizen, refreshing your starter twice a day with flour and water so it's always active, and baking with it 3 or 4 times per week so all that [/columns/askhank/sourdough "yeast and bacteria"] feed doesn't go to waste. Or, you could cheat. By which I mean you could augment your sourdough loaves with commercial yeast.

I know that sounds like utter blasphemy, and it sort of is, but you can still get much of the complex flavor from your sourdough starter even if it doesn't do the heavy lifting. The trick is two-stage fermentation. In the first stage, mix a portion of the entire recipe's flour and water with your starter, and let that ferment until it's nice and sourdough-y (say, overnight). 

Then add the rest of the flour and water (and salt or whatever), along with a normal dose of active dry or instant yeast. The commercial yeast will multiply quickly and give the dough an effective rise, while the sourdough flavor comes along for the ride. (Never put commercial yeast into your mother starter, however — that would be bad.)

Two-stage fermentation is common in many baking traditions, and the first stage is generally called a “pre-ferment.” (Technically, a sourdough starter itself is a pre-ferment.) The biga is a classic Italian pre-ferment, and French bread recipes often include a poolish (a name and technology that apparently came from Poland). 

Even if you're only using commercial yeast (as bigas and poolishes usually are), a pre-ferment can make a big difference in flavor, because the longer fermentation produces more tangy acids and funky aromatics. The addition of more flour and water, on the other hand, dilutes the acids so the fresh shot of yeast can work quickly and efficiently.

Some recipes — such as this Allrecipes recipe for sourdough bread — combine a sourdough starter and commercial yeast. If you study a good bread book (anything by [/author/Preinhart "Peter Reinhart"] would be great) and get a handle on baker's hydration percentages, you should be able to adapt any recipe. 

What about a recipe for a no-knead bagel? Would the bagel be chewier on the inside and crustier on the outside? Can it be done? I have always been disappointed with my homemade bagels.
– Gwen J., Florida

Bagels (good ones, anyway) aren't really bread. They are denser and chewier by design. This texture is due, in large part, to what [/books/collections/allbooks/The+Bread+Baker27s+Apprentice "Peter Reinhart"] calls “the stiffest dough in the bread kingdom.” While most doughs are 55 to 65 percent liquid by weight, bagels can be as low as 50 percent. And for bagels, that liquid is usually mixed with the highest-gluten flours, which absorb more water.

The magic of no-knead bread, on the other hand, comes from a very wet dough, upwards of 75 percent liquid. The extra water, over the course of the long fermentation, allows the gluten to hydrate and link together to form strands that would ordinarily come from kneading.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Real bagels are supposed to take time."]

No matter how long you let a 50-percent-liquid bagel dough ferment, the gluten structure will never spontaneously organize itself. It requires a good kneading session — there is no way around it. You could try making bagels with a wet no-knead dough, but you won't really get bagels, you'll have floppy bread rings. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that if it makes you happy.

But the way I see it, real bagels are supposed to take time. Not only do you have to form each serving by hand, it's the only food I can think of that gets cooked three times (boiled, baked, and usually toasted) before eating. So what's an extra 10 minutes of kneading? (Five, if you have a stand mixer.)

I just tried out the no-knead bread with truly spectacular results. As I live alone, I'm concerned about how to keep it — it probably needs refrigerating, but I'm afraid to close it up in plastic for fear of softening the crust. Do you have any experience with this?
– Diana B., Katy, Texas

The sad truth is that no matter what you do, fresh-baked bread will never be as good as the day you baked it.


h1. More tips for bread makers

Blogger and baker Sam Fromartz recently annotated seven tips for bread makers from a British home baker named Jack Lang and brought to the web by Guardian columnist Dan Lepard. Worth a look.


I usually keep a fresh loaf cut-side down on the cutting board, so “people” can come by and cut a slice whenever “they” want to throughout the day. (I pity them for their lack of self-control.) I'm not a fan of refrigerating fresh bread — the refrigerator is a very dry and scary place for bread. As you mentioned, sealing fresh bread in any way will immediately start to soften the crust, and you can never really get than crispness back.

The one place I've found that is pretty decent for storing home-made bread is the freezer. A loaf wrapped in foil and then sealed or tightly wrapped in plastic will last for at least a couple of weeks in the freezer. It can go straight from the freezer to a hot oven in the foil wrapper for a few minutes (depending on the size of the loaf), and the result is not bad at all. So you might want to try baking smaller loaves and freezing a few of them. (Let them cool before wrapping them.)

Fresh bread makes an inexpensive gift. Really, it's just a few cents' worth of flour and yeast, and friends and neighbors go nuts for it. But if you can't eat it or unload it fast enough, there are many uses for mature bread in the kitchen. Day-old bread can be sliced or cubed, brushed with oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, and toasted for a few minutes in a hot oven to make crostini or [/columns/bacon/croutons croutons]. Three-day-old bread is perfect in any sweet or savory bread pudding (or stuffing) recipe; you should arm yourself with a handful of those. Finally, you can process completely over-the-hill (mold-free, please) dry bread into [/columns/frontburner/homemadebreadcrumbs "breadcrumbs"] in your food processor, and you'll never need to buy another $3 package of those again.

p(bio). Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle* has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.

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