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    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

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Three-Hour Sourdough

Three Hour Sourdough

I love sourdough–eating it, anyway. Baking? That’s enough of a challenge that I’m elated when it turns out relatively edible. Because even with my standards, which are a bit loose, there are times when the outcome is decidedly not up to expectations. I have trouble getting the dough risen well enough and into the oven before the acid chews up all the gluten. In other words, it tends to overproof and then flop. Few of my loaves–I can face it–have ended up risen enough to consider serving other people, and most of them are a bit coarse inside–partly because I want rye or whole wheat rather than just white bread.

The other challenge is the perennial one for sourdough cultures–it takes several days to build a decent-tasting and stable mix of flour, water, wild yeast and lactobacillus culture with no undesirable bugs or off-flavors and odors. And in the meantime most instructions tell you to take a small bit of the mixture, feed it fresh water and flour, and toss the majority. Wasteful–both of ingredients and time.

So for the past year or so I’ve wondered whether I couldn’t somehow just get a running start past all that by using commercial yeast (a big no-no according to sourdough experts) with some commercial lactobacillus culture–yogurt, maybe?–and flat-out cheating. As in, faux dough. Well, more precisely, perfectly real dough, with a real-enough sourdough taste and texture, only about 4 2/3 days faster. At least. Without just caving and paying 6 bucks at Whole Foods for a small decorator loaf.

Yesterday I wondered it strongly enough to hunt around online and see if the yogurt idea had occurred to anyone else–and it had.

Ladyandpups.com is the food blog of a sometimes cranky, sometimes poetic, impressively prolific and creative baker named Mandy Lee. She has a “fraudulent easy sourdough” recipe that uses more than a cup of plain yogurt with a small amount of yeast and 3.5 cups of bread flour–no added water, apparently–and some salt for a firm dough that rises either 18 hours at room temperature (1/4 t active dry yeast) or 6 hours (3/4 t. yeast) and comes out tasting right and looking beautiful and crackle-crusted via the Jim Lahey no-knead-but-preheat-the-dutch-oven method.

And that’s all to the good.

But I’m even more impatient than that, and most of my sourdough faux pas have to do with letting the dough sit too long before baking. Even a 6-hour rise seems like too much. I also wanted a whole-wheat sourdough (so half whole wheat, half bread flour), which means it’s already comparatively gluten-challenged. So I wanted a really short, sharp rise that would get the dough puffed up and bakeable before the acid got to the gluten too badly. With luck, the yeast would win out just enough to outpace the acid buildup and resulting hopeless flop, but still allow enough to develop a good tang, which is the whole point of sourdough in the first place.

That meant changing things a bit:

1. Less yogurt, only about half what Lee calls for–half would still have plenty of lactobacillus culture to reproduce, but wouldn’t contribute as much acid right up front.

2. Some water to dilute the initial acidity further to delay the inevitable gluten-chewing effect. More water also gets the dough smoother and the gluten developing more quickly even when there’s no acid-producing bacteria to worry about. That’s an added benefit since I was going whole-wheat.

3. Not too much yeast either. Normally, adding more yeast means getting a faster rise. But even 1/4 t. is about what I usually go with for a slower-rising dough with 5-6 cups of flour, and that only takes 3-4 hours to more than double in my kitchen, at least with a hot rise. I didn’t want so much extra yeast at the start that it outcompeted and inhibited the lactobacilli from the yogurt altogether, because no sour culture equals no sour flavor.

4. To get a faster rise, I decided to rise the dough hot, not at room temperature. I put the thick-walled old-Pyrex mixing bowl I use over a stockpot of very hot tapwater and stuck a pot lid on top of the bowl to keep the light out (cultures prefer doin’ it in the dark). The bowl sits tightly in the top of the pot and keeps the heat in pretty well for at least a few hours.

5. I don’t have a dutch oven and tend to go with the more basic foil-lined baking pan in a 450°F preheated oven with a flat pan of water on the bottom for steam generation. It’s a much shorter time to preheat than the full-on Lahey method, only about 15-20 minutes vs. 45-60 since I’m not trying to go to 500 or heat a heavy iron pot. And it gives pretty decent results even so.

The oven setup.

Two or three more notes on sourdough success vs. flop:

My usual bowl-of-dough-in-the-fridge is a basic pizza/pita/calzone dough, very loose and stretchy. The hot-risen dough usually ends up above the rim of the bowl after 3-4 hours of proofing, well more than double and almost triple the volume of the initial kneaded ball. However, if you want bread dough to hold up under an acid attack and have any gluten left at the end of the rise, you have to start with more gluten–that means more flour for the water and therefore a firmer starting dough.

And you can’t let it proof as far as my usual–you have to catch the dough while it’s still on the rise. Just under double volume is about as far as you can go before it gets too lax and starts flopping.

Milk products (in general, not just yogurt) also seem to soften the final crumb, so a little goes a long way and the firmer starting dough with more flour might help keep the structure from going too far in the direction of WonderBread.

Finally–results. With all the changes I’d made, I figured it would either work okay or it wouldn’t and maybe I’d tweak it if it was close enough to look like it might work next time. But at least I’d know within a couple of hours, not 6 or 18.

And…it worked! Really worked, I mean–not just “okay, we can sort of pretend it’s sourdoughlike.” If I hadn’t seen myself make it, I’d still have been pretty impressed.

The total rise time was just 2 hours–it was actually just starting to go lax on the bottom of the dough as I scraped it out of the bowl onto the floured foil, so I seem to have barely caught it in time. Probably because of the yogurt’s milk solids, it browned a deep chestnut within about 30 minutes, which fooled me into thinking it was fully baked–certainly it seemed crisp and crackly when I took it out, but 20 minutes later it was going soft and not-hollow-sounding on the bottom.

Needs more time–the bottom’s not as hollow-sounding as the browned top suggests.

A quick Great-British-Bake-Off-style slice through the middle and a small finger poke into the middle (much less destructive than any of Paul Hollywood’s soul-crushing tests) revealed that it needed more time. I turned the oven back on to 390F and put the halves back together with a tinfoil hat to keep them from overbrowning. Half an hour later, the bread was done and although it was pretty heavy for the size (maybe I should go for more yeast and/or a little added vital wheat gluten next time?), the crust was a bit thicker and nicely crisp/tough, like kornbroyt, the inside crumb was now fully cooked, nicely chewy but no longer mushable, and yet finer-textured than my usual. It stayed nice the next day and sliced well thin or thick.

And the taste? Beautiful. Really beautiful. Not super-tang, not “yogurt,” not bland. Balanced. And even though I might personally cut down a little on the salt next time, everyone liked it as-is, including me. This sourdough is dairy, so if you keep kosher, you don’t get to eat it with corned beef, but I’m not crying. It goes nicely with all kinds of cheese, including cream cheese and lox. That’s on for tomorrow if I can dash out to the Trader Joe’s before they close.

All in all, a surprising and very easy loaf, and perfect for an impatient Slow Food Fast type like me. Because I’m going to have to make another one asap.

Happy New Year and b’te’avon–bon appétit, mangia bene, happy noshing, etc.

Ladyandpups.com’s Yogurt-based “Faux” Sourdough–these are my shorthand notes to myself before I started making changes; see her site for the full description and many other impressive baking and cooking recipes–she’s pretty astonishing. I went with the gram weights instead of cups because it looks as if her dry cup measures are bigger than US standards.

  • 3 c/ 405 g bread fl
  • 1.5 t/ 8g salt
  • 1/4 t active dry yeast for 18-hour rise or 3/4 t yeast for 6-hour rise
  • 1.5 c + 2T (385 g) plain milk-and-cultures-only yogurt

Knead all this together, cover, and rise at room temperature 18 (or 6) hours—no more than 20 if you don’t want a bitter developing. Rise until almost double. Dust a board with flour, scrape the dough onto it, cloak, fold gently 2-3 times, turning once, shape into a ball on floured parchment paper, cover with a large bowl and proof 1-2 h at RT to almost double. Preheat dutch oven with a lid in regular oven at 500F/250C starting 45 min before the dough is likely proofed. Lift the parchment into the pot, put the lid on and bake 30 min covered, then 25-30 min more uncovered to brown.

My version:

Whole Wheat ~Three-Hour Sourdough (makes a 2-lb loaf in about 3.5 hours start to finish)

  • 220 g whole wheat, 185 g (or to make total of 405 g) bread flour
  • 205 g plain 0% regular TJs yogurt plus about 185-200 g warm water—the little extra for a medium-firm dough given the more absorbent whole wheat
  • 8 g salt, maybe make it 6 next time, or do a bigger loaf
  • about 1/4-1/2 t. active dry yeast

Stir salt and yeast with dry flours in a large mixing bowl, stir in yogurt fairly well (flour-coated lumps) and then add the water. It’ll make a reasonably firm but not incredibly stiff dough. Put a sandwich baggie over your hand and knead in the bowl about 5 min or until it forms a pretty smooth ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set atop a stockpot of hot tap water. Put the pot lid on top and let rise about 2 hours or until just a bit less than double volume, and when you press a finger into the surface it won’t bounce back all the way.

Put a metal pan of water on the floor of your oven and start heating to 450°F or so (hotter if you really want, but time is probably a factor, and it’s better to get baking sooner).

Meanwhile, line a large baking pan with foil and scatter in a small handful of flour. Lift the bowl out of the stockpot and dry the bottom with a towel. Scrape the dough gently out of the bowl and onto the flour without deflating too much. Fold it over on itself gently just once or twice right to left, then turn 90 degrees and fold over again once or twice, lift up the dough and tuck the edges under so it forms a ball or oval about 7″ x 10″ and lay it on the foil with the plastic wrap covering it loosely to expand a little more while the oven’s heating.

Just before putting it in the oven, dust it with flour and slash the top surface about 1/4-1/2″ deep a couple of times with a sharp knife–either 2-3 diagonal lines across the loaf or a crosshatch (tic-tac-toe or hashtag-looking pattern). As soon as the oven’s hot enough and the dough is just a little bigger (don’t let it go more than about 20-30 min total or it may flop), open the oven door–keep your face back so you don’t get steam burns–pop the tray in the oven and shut the door quickly.

Check at about 30-40 minutes. It should start smelling baked and browning fairly deeply, but it probably won’t be done inside yet (my experience). Turn the oven down to about 400°F or even 375°F, put a sheet of tinfoil over the top of the loaf to shield it from overcoloring and let it go another 20-30 minutes–tap to see if the bottom’s hollow-sounding–it shouldn’t be pillowy or give like a challah, it should be fairly crisp and stiff all over. Let it cool 15-20 minutes and press the top gently–when it’s actually done the cooled top won’t give at all and it’ll still be crackly. If it seems a bit more squeezable, it probably needs another 20 minutes in the oven to finish.

Happy 2019! Here’s to a better, healthier, happier year!


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