Monday, May 11, 2020

And now, a break for sourdough bagels

Sourdough Bagels, version 3.0

One of the things I've been spending my days doing is baking bread. I've always turned to cooking in times of stress and bread is one of the things I find most satisfying of all to make.

I actually used to bake most of my own bread. When the kids were young, I would bake several loaves of sandwich bread every Sunday for their weekly lunches.

When we bought StarField Farm - our home in central Massachusetts - we discovered Rose 32 Bread - an amazing bakery that made some of the best sourdough bread I've ever had. And for the past three years, I haven't made a single loaf. I just can't compete with their wood fired brick ovens and their magical sourdough.

About six months ago or so, the owner was kind enough to give me some of his starter so I could use it for pancakes. So when Covid-19 came, causing the bakery to close for the time being, and causing massive shortages in yeast, I was in a good position to resume making my own bread.

But it had been many, many years since I had worked with sourdough. My first attempts were mediocre and frustrating, with the dough hard to handle.

With my writing brain on indefinite strike, I started obsessively reading sourdough baking websites and collecting recipes.

I found The Clever Carrot, which has become one of my favorite resources.  In studying a myriad of recipes, I have come to understand the *why* of sourdough instructions, which, for me, was key to making good bread.

I'm stubborn when it comes to following strict directions. I'm like this with yarnwork, too. I'd rather understand the reason and rationale for any instructional steps then just follow a pattern for a garment. So, too, with sourdough bread.

And that leads me to bagels.

I have been working with several different (but similar) recipes:

1.  New York Style Bagels at Sisters and Spice (sourdough with added dry yeast)
2. All sourdough bagels at Baking-Sense
3. Clever Carrot's bagels (shared with permission from her book) and
4. This recipe from the archives of The Fresh Loaf

There are minor differences among all the recipes, but each of them makes really good bagels. Here are some of the lessons that I learned that really helped me master sourdough in general and bagels specifically:

  • Test your starter before you use it. While you can tell if starter is ready by look and smell, a good trick is to gently lower about a teaspoon of sourdough starter in a cup full of room temperature water. If the glop of starter floats, it's ready to use. If it sinks, give it another feeding and try again in a few hours.
  • Use a food scale rather than cup measures Different flours have different volume to weight measurements. That can knock off your hydration level significantly. Weigh your ingredients if you can. Your bread will thank you.
  • Different breads require different degrees of wetness and different handling methods.
    • Highly hydrated doughs are best for classic boules where you want a light, airy crumb with a lot of holes. But wet (also called slack) doughs are impossible to knead. Instead use the stretch and fold technique. (I recommend you watch a few youtube videos) 
    • Drier doughs are best for sandwich breads and bagels. Particularly with bagels, you want a stiff dough. But you definitely can knead it by hand. (See the 4th recipe above.)  
  •  Sourdough requires patience and a lot of waiting. There are 3 basic waiting periods:
    • autolyze (where you add the flour to water and let it sit for 20-30 minutes. There are variations of this where you also add the starter.) This helps boost gluten development and is really important. I autolyze just the flour with the water, even if the recipe doesn't specifically call for it. 
    • bulk fermentation This is where your fully formed dough will need to rise. Sourdough will not rise until double in bulk the way yeast doughs will and it will take a lot longer to do its rising. Be patient. The slower the rise, the more sour the resulting bread. But let it rise too fast (especially under warm conditions) and it will overproof, giving you a doorstop when baked.
    • second rise Once you shape the bread (loaf or bagels), it needs to rise a second time. Again, don't expect your dough to double in volume and the time it takes to rise enough will depend mainly on ambient temperature. 
  • Retarding the rise Because sourdough develops slowly, you can slow down the fermentation and rising either at the bulk fermentation step or the second rise step. I have baked bagels both ways, and it works just fine. Bulk Fermentation step: I have placed the kneaded dough ball in a lightly greased and covered bowl in the fridge for over 2 days before taking it out to shape, then boil, then bake. Second Rise step: I have also shaped the bagels and put them in the fridge for a day or two before boiling and baking. 
My next experiment is to form the bagels and freeze the dough for later boiling/baking. I'll keep you posted! Feel free to post questions or links to your favorite sourdough recipes.

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