This was an experiment that was rather forced on me because, (not for the first time), the oven door – posh hide and slide – has begun to offer just a touch of resistance and a faint grinding noise as it opens. Rather than wait until it breaks completely, we called out an engineer and he ordered the bits. Two weeks later we’re still waiting for the oven to be repaired, but at least it’s still usable with care. Obviously he can’t come to fix the oven if it’s in use, or even hot so we attempt to manage the situation by keeping the oven cool during working days.
The downside of this cooperative gesture is that under the previous 24 hour bread baking schedule there was no alternative but to bake during the day – so I wondered what would happen if we changed the dough cycle from 24 to 36 hours. So the new regime was to make the batter at around 8.00 am and make up the dough at 8.00pm. This length of time demands that things are kept relatively cool for the whole process – around 18C instead of 21C, in our flat at least. Once kneaded the dough went into its bowl to prove overnight until 8.00am the next day – outside the flat in a corridor that goes down to somewhere around 12C on winter nights. Then it was knocked back and placed in its banneton and shuffled around the flat from warm to cold to try to get it ready for baking at 8.00pm – 36 hours in total. All this sounds like a lot more work than it is in practice – it’s more like a kind of benign contemplative neglect.
By 8.00pm on the second day the loaf had risen like a pale belly, just above the top of the banneton – it looked lovely – so I turned it on to the peel, slashed it and slid it into the oven for 10 minutes at 220 C and twenty minutes at 180 C on full steam. The question is – is there a discernible difference between the 24 and 36 hour method? It makes absolutely no difference to the workload or fuel cost and since I work for free there’s no reason not to adopt it.
There’s no question that with sourdough, time equals flavour and the 36 hour loaf certainly tasted better. The crust is a matter of choice because I can’t bear those palate tearing loaves so beloved of Instagram bakers. The best justification for baking at home is that with a bit of experience you can bake bread just as you like it – never mind what the current fashion dictates. We like the crust to be firm but not hard and the crumb to be open textured but not so full of holes you could spread a quarter pound of butter on to one slice. Sourdough can be quite springy so it helps if it’s possible to slice it thinly for toast – but that’s just what we like. If you prefer the razor crust and the texture of Swiss cheese you can do that too.
Sourdough has a much lower glycaemic index than yeast bread made quickly with the same flour and for me at least it doesn’t provoke the weird feeling of bloating and discomfort that (delicious) white bread almost always causes – so it’s a win win decision. For UK readers we use Shipton Mill organic white flour and a starter that’s fed with their wholemeal rye. I’m sure you can bake excellent and equally well flavoured bread with dozens of other flours but being a creature of habit I’ve got used to the texture of the dough and the right feel during kneading. Years ago I was very fond of an 80% flour made by Bacheldre Mill but sadly they stopped producing it. I’ve yet to see any 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf that was worth breaking your teeth on. During the lockdown my son got me a 25 kilo bag of the typical refined white flour used by bakers. I could hardly use it, but it kept us going.
One of the most useful lessons I’ve learned about baking at home is to find an artisanal bread that you really like and then go all-out to imitate it. It’s a process, not a religion, and there are no penalties for heresy! All the important knowledge is in your hands rather than in any recipe – the feel rather than the theory – and even the most embarrassing failures (almost) always taste good even if they don’t look great. There are no secret ingredients, just flour, water and a little bit of fat – and ignore all that unhelpful nonsense about very wet doughs unless you like scraping two foot diameter flatbreads off the floor of your oven. Amazingly, and completely in accordance with common sense, if your loaf spreads out like a cowpat when tipped out of the banneton, you need to make it a bit stiffer next time. And that’s about it. With a bit of luck nobody dies!