I have been baking bread with my own sourdough starter since I started it in 2005. For years I mainly use it as a texture improver, while relying on dried yeasts for quick and consistent rising. (Quick is a relative term here compared to how long purely sourdough bread making usually takes.)
Ever since I wrote about my good old sourdough starter made from an apple, it had received more interests than I expected. Since then, I’ve been looking more into baking bread the patient, artisan way that is using purely sourdough starter for leavening.
I don’t know whether it’s just me, or that the fab in sourdough baking these days really seems to be focused on getting big dramatic holes in the crumb. Somehow I became caught in the holey bread chasing winds.
My first knowledge on getting holey bread was the dough is generally very wet and sticky. And in general, the wetter the dough, the larger the holes. Then I came across Northwest Sourdough, where Teresa produces loaves and loaves of beautiful holey sourdough. So I tried to follow her techniques (except folding the dough once an hour for 6-8 hours… Sorry I have a line and I don’t want to babysit my food.)
I had a few disappointments… The breads were beautiful on the outside, but simply not holey once cut open. Upon hearing me sigh, “my breads don’t have big holes in them”, Kiwi Bird said with puzzled amusement, “why would you want big holes in the bread? All the sandwich fillings will fall out!” Even my mom didn’t really understand, “what’s wrong with your bread? They always taste very nice! Bread with big holes don’t actually look that appetising to me!”
But, but, but,… Perhaps simply because I have never made bread with big holes, I somehow want to be able to just do it once!
So I kept on my search for the “holey grail”, and YAY I finally had success! I followed the method from Breadtopia. The dough required no kneading, just minimal mixing, and really worked for me! Except I didn’t bake in an enclosed cast iron or clay baking dish, because I have my wonderful Big Bill the clay oven!
I mixed 3 lots of dough the night before baking: one using my sourdough starter, one using commercial yeast (just to compare), and one with beetroot added, also using commercial yeast. (Excuse the one with beetroot – a bit of sidetrack for this article, but I had leftover…)
On the morning of baking, the two white loaves both more than doubled overnight. However the beetroot one didn’t do much at all (probably because the beetroots were cooked with some vinegar), so I added another 2 teaspoons of instant dried yeast and mixed it in.
By the afternoon, the 3 loaves all looked very bubbly with very visible bubbles on top (the beetroot loaf caught up really well by now), and looked like they were about to start collapsing if left fermenting any longer (nearly 14 hours since my dough were first mixed). This is how it looked to me in the videos from Breadtopia. (And you can see a photo of dough just starting to collapse here.) So I started shaping the loaves. These dough were a lot easier to shape than any of my previous attempts. They were very soft but also elastic, and I had no problem shaping one into a round (sourdough loaf), and the other two into logs. Now I think of it, my previous loaves must have over proofed, because they were really soupy and just wanted to flop, even though they were not really wetter dough when first mixed. After shaping, I just left the dough to rise on well floured kitchen cloths, with the round in a basket (left above), one log sitting in the top from an egg carton (right above), one just sitting on the bench.
Then about 2 hours later, once Big Bill the Clay Oven is nice and hot, I put the loaves onto the pizza peels, slashed them, and loaded them into the oven one by one. Before I put the oven door on, I sprayed a mist of water into the oven with my garden hose. Then I shut the door and waited with hugh anticipation. The temperature of the oven when the bread went in was about 250C.
30 minutes later, they were looking great but I decided to let the crust brown a little further for another 15-20 minutes at 180C. Then I waited with more impatience for the bread to cool down enough to cut open. (On top is the sourdough round, left above is the yeast loaf, right above is the beetroot loaf.)
Wahlla, I have holes! Weeeee! Who’d ever thought having holes in bread would make a girl so happy??! (Top one in the photo above is the yeast loaf, bottom one is the sourdough loaf, each about 8cm high.)
The loaves were very elastic and yummy, and Kiwi Bird’s “sandwich filling” problem was a non issue because they were chewed away in chuncks alarmingly quickly (we had help from the family!) The sourdough version has a nice light sourdough aroma to it, whereas the yeast version smelled fragrantly of wheat. The beetroot one, not surprisingly, didn’t have as big holes because of the added beetroots (pictured below), but tasted very nice with an earthy beetroot aroma.
And finally, here are what I think —
Critical factors for getting holey bread:
- It is more important to learn to judge the “stages” of the dough, then to follow the timing in recipes.
- Everyone’s sourdough starter would be different, so it’s important to work with your starter rather than asking it to work to different recipes’s timings. In the past I over proofed my dough, so when it came time to shape them, it was pretty much like shaping soup! And because they were over proofed, by the time the are doing the final rising and baking, the yeast simply didn’t have enough oomph left in them to produce big gas pockets. I think my sourdough is one that dislike being “retarded” for too long in the fridge once it’s mixed into a dough.
- Also I think the “starter to flour ratio” is inversely proportional to the optimum rising time. In other words, more starter leads to faster first rise, but also is more prone to over proofing. I think it’s because the amount of flour (food) for the starter (yeast) gets depleted faster if there’s more starter to begin with. Breadtopia’s recipe uses very little starter compared to Northwwest Sourdough, so my loaves were able to stay elastic even though the first fermentation time is not really shorter compared to some of my past doughs. I don’t think there’s anything actually wrong with the recipes I tried from Northwest, but the timing didn’t work for my starter and I had not leant to judge my dough correctly.
- Minimal mixing seems to aid holey bread.
- The way I was taught making ciabatta involved mixing the dough in two stages – sourdough first, then more flour, salt and water after first fermentation. After the second fermentation, it’s streched and baked without really any shaping. I would get holes this way, but not big ones, and I think perhaps the 2 stages of mixing somehow supress that a little.
- Adding grains to white flour suppresses big holes.
- I rarely bake without using at least some wholemeal flour so perhaps that’s also why I didn’t have that much success in the past.
- High baking temperature helps producing big gas pockets.
- In the past when I bake a big loaf, I tend to bake at 200C for fear of burning the crust at higher temperatures. When I was reading around, it seems most sourdough legends out there bake at 230 to 250C. The higher initial temperature provides a “shock to the system” and helps proving big gas pockets.
There will definitely be more experimenting going on. What’s wonderful is bread hardly ever turns out completely unlikeable. Have you been chasing the “holey grail” like me? What have you been experimenting these days? Hope you are having fun and learning lots like me! 🙂