Continued from part II in the June issue.

Part 3: Shape and Structure

Like making anything from scratch, trial and error is sometimes your best teacher, and with sourdough bread, that axiom is definitely true. The variables are endless, and in a multi-day breadmaking process, it sometimes takes a few loaves to find out where the errors were made.

Some examples of that trial and error emphasis on error are issues like sourness-starter astringency, salting and fermentation holding times. As a naturally conservative person who wants to have enough starter on hand, I wasn’t throwing enough of it out when refreshing my starter. If your starter is too sour, your bread will be very sour as well. To control this, toss more of your starter before feeding it. Sourdough guru Ken Forkish recommends tossing all but 10 percent, which means that if your starter is strong, you don’t need as much of it as you think to get it fermenting. As for salt, I used to add it in after the first stretch and fold of the dough, but lately I’ve just added it into the dry flour mix—it’s easier. Salt supposedly slows down your starter, but if you’ve got a strong, active starter and time, I see few drawbacks to making that part of the process easier. Bulk fermentation—which I’ll fully explain in a moment—adds another set of variables to your dough. Allowing it to rest in a temperature-controlled environment adds some predictability and stability into a process, especially if you’re initially going by the “feel” of the dough and not really keeping track of temperatures. A fermentation period that is too long four days in my kitchen experiment can break down too many of the glutens and negatively affect the density of the final loaf.

Cold Crash/Bulk Ferment

Here’s where the process gets interesting: after developing the dough in an evening, waiting patiently for it to get that “pillowy” texture and air holes observable through the side of a food-grade plastic bin, I cold-crash it in bulk in my refrigerator. The dough continues to ferment and rise during this time, and many times will double in size in the container. Bakers call this “retarding” the dough, and it gives time for that characteristic sourness to develop that we all enjoy. Some professional bakers, like Chad Robertson in San Francisco, will actually shape the dough into loaves before cold-crashing and do the final refrigerated “proof” in bannetons. If you own a bakery and are making hundreds of loaves at a time, this makes sense, because once the dough is pulled out of the refrigerator, timing counts, and you don’t want to overproof. In fact, if I am doing more than six loaves in a bake, I have to stagger taking the bulk dough out of the refrigerator.

No matter how you choose to do it, cold fermentation is an essential step in traditional sourdough. Like all fermentations, the chemical components in the dough are changed, cutting some starches into complex sugars, and breaking down the glutens so the final loaf is more edible. These sugars are vital for the auburn color of a deep bake, and the caramelization adds that nutty and biscuity flavor we want in artisan bread. Two days in cold storage seems to be the magic number for me, although I’ve baked bread at three and four days. The dough I baked on the fourth day of a cold fermentation was difficult to work with and left a very sour aftertaste.

Bench Rest and Shaping

When I first started making loaves, I didn’t do very well with the shaping process and had very inconsistent results—some loaves popped up high in the oven and some fell to one side. Once I realized the importance of the post-fermentation process, I began to get much more consistent results. After pulling the dough from the refrigerator pull it out about 30 minutes to one hour before using it, I use a plastic dough scraper to carefully pull it away from the walls of my container because I do not want to rip the gluten strands and air pockets that have formed. I then divide the dough evenly in half, and fold it up on itself, using a plastic dough scraper. I sprinkle the top with flour and begin to drag it along the smooth surface of the counter or baking mat, holding it at the sides, and sometimes using the scraper to keep it from sticking to my shaping surface. This dough forms a tight ball with a “skin.” These balls then sit on a lightly floured surface for around 30 minutes to allow the tightened glutens to relax—this is called a bench rest. If you leave a couple of inches between your dough, in 30 minutes, they will be touching. Once the glutens are relaxed, the dough is ready for shaping.

Shaping tells the glutens how to behave when it is in the oven—it tells the glutens where to stretch and what to hold onto to maintain shape. One thing you must have is a smooth surface for shaping. Since sourdough is a high-hydration dough, you must build structure into your loaf so it holds its shape and is easier to score and then get into the oven. In my shaping process, I pull the dough into a triangle, and then flip the bottom two corners up with the top corner pointing away from me. Then I fold over each side onto itself, and then pull a little bit from each side and push into the top—it looks a little like a football being laced up, and you can see the loaf keeping its shape. I then fold over and tuck in the top corner and roll it all away from me. I then use the tackiness of my surface to pull and shape the loaf, forming a tight skin on the surface of the bread. If you’ve done your shaping well, the wet dough will actually maintain and hold its shape through the proofing process.

After this, the loaf is ready for final proofing and baking. Those steps will be explained in the final bread making installment.