I have one burnt arm and two burnt bottoms. Two burnt bottoms of sourdough loaves, that is. The oven remains my biggest bugbear in this sourdough baking lark. I’m getting the hang of everything else. Following the advice of David McGuinness, baker extraordinaire who co-founded Sydney groupie hangout Bourke Street Bakery, i’ve been doting on my sourdough starter — the concoction of flour and water that contains the fermented, natural yeast and bacteria necessary to help the dough rise and which gives the bread a unique, slightly sour taste.
When David told me he used to feed his starter every day i nearly died of shame. Mine had been languishing in the fridge for over a week — unfed, neglected. When he told me starters should be fed every six hours in the lead up to a bake, i took the starter he gifted me — Stella II — to work so it didn’t miss a feed. Yes, I’ve become a sourdough tragic.
But in my defence my starter — Stella II (read about Stella I here) was looking good — exceptionally good — ahead of this weekend’s bake. She was covered in thick, luscious bubbles, not the thin, watery kind that i’ve mistakenly identified as the green light for baking in the past but which actually indicates the culture in the starter has started to expire — it needs another feed, not to be put to work. So i’m learning to speak sourdough, which i’m told is half the battle. It’s after that, that the battle really begins.
I took a sourdough baking class at Bourke Street Bakery a week ago. We worked with sourdough at different stages of readiness — one batch was ready for baking when we arrived, another dough that been mixed beforehand and needed to be pre-shaped, then shaped, then taken home and baked. We also mixed a dough ourselves and took it home for baking.
Witnessing what the dough should look and feel like at each stage demystified much of the process. I walked away feeling much more confident. And i was very confident that the bread would work at home, particularly the batch of dough that they’d prepared for us. All i had to do was put it in the oven.What could possibly go wrong?
Well at some point during the first 20 minutes of the bake the flame in the oven fluttered out — that’s what went wrong. When i cracked the oven open to check on my sure-to-be gloriously browning loaves i found instead two ghost loaves — they were so white in that dark, unlit oven that they were almost luminous. It was the most disconcerting moment of my short, troubled, sourdough history. Indeed, it was a ‘what the fuck?’ moment of unprecedented proportions.
So I kept my eye on the flame this weekend, but the oven still got the better of me. I followed the recipe and instructions from the Bourke Street Bakery class. It’s a much wetter dough than i’m used to working with. I was clagged up to the wrists with it in seconds. But i worked through the ‘seriously fucked off with this’ stage and followed the tips we’d been taught: stretch it out, when it starts to stick let it rest — don’t over-work the gluten. When you go back to it, it’ll be smoother, firmer, less sticky. I was starting to read the dough’s body language: for a while we were in sync. I was seriously impressed with my pre-shaping technique — I’ve nailed that mother. My shaping technique isn’t bad, either. Not quite nailed, but not far off.
I slashed the top of my two loaves and was encouraged to see lots of little air pockets — a sign the dough had proved sufficiently and was ready for the oven. Unfortunately the oven wasn’t quite ready for the loaves — but this fact escaped little, old, over-confident me.
We’d been told to bake our dough at 180°C — but to preheat the oven higher. My oven had been at a steady 180°C for some time. It simply wasn’t hot enough. When i checked on the bread after about 15 minutes i had a ghost loaf deja vu, at which point i plunged my arm into the oven to re-light the flame (which hadn’t extinguished after all, it simply hadn’t been high enough in the first place). I burnt my arm on the side of the oven, cranked up the heat to try to salvage the ghost loaves, and subsequently burnt their bottoms.
So, the weekly sourdough test — and ultimate fail — is becoming a regular occurrence. So much so that it doesn’t bother me anymore — i don’t beat myself up about it (that’s No 2 on the weekly do-to list crossed off). On the plus side, it makes wonderful breadcrumbs — bags of which are now taking up two-thirds of the freezer. The newly constructed compost bin also benefited from latest botched bake. So all is not lost. I’m learning from my mistakes: including burnt arm, dented pride and burnt bottoms. It’s time for a Sunday arvo beer in the back garden filtered sunlight. Bottoms up!
Note: The Food Sage attended a sourdough masterclass at Bourke Street Bakery as a guest of the bakery.