by Tammera J. Karr, PhD, BCHN. CNW
In the summer of 22′, I took on a personal challenge – to consistently make a good loaf of sourdough bread. I wasn’t expecting this to be a journey of learning bread from an older, simpler perspective or one that would show me I was doing everything wrong and had been for 40 years. I have made a lot of bread based on “milk or Amish” yeast bread approaches. I have used primarily spelt flour for years, and if the bread fell or was claggy, I took that to mean I needed more yeast, longer rise time, and higher heat. I was wrong.
I didn’t need more yeast. I needed less yeast because I was over-fermenting the dough. I didn’t need more rise time and dryer dough. I needed a young and energetic dough that raised once and then rose in a hot pan like a lava dome on a volcano. The dough texture is now soft and youthful, not dry and tough. Most of
all, I needed to uncomplicate this ancient food.
Part of the original goal was to make fresh bread from the 2-year-old sourdough starter at elevations above 3000′ that looked, felt and had the texture of the artisanal bread from Stone Age Kitchen. The second part of the plan was to make bread without an expensive and cumbersome wood-fired bread, convection, or conventional oven – but instead in a cast iron dutch oven on a barbeque. The ability to bake a nice loaf or three of bread while camping, RVing, or when the power goes out brings this ancient food closer to us and moves it from the mythical realm to daily life.
As a history buff, I looked at old cookbooks dating back to the 1860s when the kitchen was dominated by a wood cook stove.
The Century Cook Book 1897
Chapter XV Bread
Yeast is a minute plant, and like other plants, must have the right conditions of heat, moisture, and nourishment in order to live or to flourish……therefore, as we depend upon the growth of little plant for raising our bread, we must give its requirements as much care as we do our geraniums or roses.
General Directions for Making Bread page 340.
Bread is often mixed the night before it is to be baked and left to rise from eight to ten hours. But the whole process of bread-making, from the mixing to the serving, can be done in two and a half hours if a fresh, lively starter is used. In hot weather, it is desirable to complete the work in a short time in order to prevent fermentation or souring, which occurs if left too long a time.
Why was I searching the internet and modern cookbooks for solutions that fell short? Here in my antique collection was the simple answer. The introduction to the chapter on bread read so close to modern versions written by bakers in New Mexico and Colorado, it was as if they had copied it from the page. The prevailing difference with the contemporary versions was added steps and complicated directions like folding dough every 20 minutes in half from 90-degree opposing angles for 1 hour…..The antique versions contained simple efficiency understanding the day was full of enough chores without adding more. The dough is soft and more like batter bread than heavy-handed kneaded bread. I folded the dough once during a 2 hour rise period. I can see where at higher elevations 2-3 times may increase the loft of rising.
Another change was forgetting what I had always been told – let the dough rise until it doubles in size, punch the air out, shape it into loaves, and rise a second time. Place bread gently into a 350-375-degree oven for 40 min…… When it comes to wild yeast sourdough at elevations above 2500′, this process leads to over fermentation and collapsed underdone loaves.
What worked best was to form the rounds after the first rise, place them on parchment paper, and put them in the refrigerator for 30-60 min. I heated the oven and cast iron to 400 degrees, then set parchment paper and soft round in the dutch oven and covered. The cooler the dough, the better the loaves’ rise and signature ears (edges of dough at the cuts).
The next step was to ensure the process held from 7000′ to 4300′ to 2800′ using a basic RV gas oven, a small Webber barbeque, and finally, my electric range at home. The challenges with the gas RV oven were small size, adequate heat, and burned bottom. These same challenges on the barbeque resulted in foil blankets to stop heat loss from wind and puzzling over heat diffusing to reduce burning. Using what we had on hand, 2 cast iron trivets and foil, bread without burned or overcooked bottoms finally happened. Thankfully the home oven required none of the challenges of the other cooking appliances. And crispy browning on the top was achieved with a few minutes under the broiler.
The following solution came with gauging doneness with a thermometer versus a timer. When baking at elevation, heat, moisture, and time adjustments may need to be made daily for the bread to be done inside, not claggy, sticky, or raw. The best temperature ranges fell between 375 and 400 degrees for 35- 40 minutes based on internal temperature. Your bread is done when the interior temperature lands between 175 and 200 degrees (based on elevation and additives to the dough like dried fruit or herbs). Barometric pressure also affects how fast your dough rises and cooks. The higher the barometric pressure, the lower the atmosphere, affecting dryness and air pocket development (signature holes) in sourdough bread. The simple solution – bake when the weather is nice versus a hurricane.
This process took almost precisely what the Century Cook Book had – 4 to 4 ½ hours from start to finish, with the sourdough starter made 18-24 hours earlier. The starter should be bubbly and active.
Equipment used during this journey for baking from an RV, during a power outage, or to impress your neighbors.
Webber Q barbeque with a thermometer (this is the one we used, but others may work equally well)
2 cast iron heat defusing trivets (Lodge makes the ones we used) plus foil coils for additional heat defusing.
*A hack for this would be coiled aluminum foil on the grill, also inside the dutch oven. We found it worked best to put the cast iron trivet in the dutch oven followed by the foil, and next set the parchment, and dough on top.
4 quart cast iron dutch oven with lid (the cast iron disperses the heat evenly, and the lid holds the steam, allowing the bread to cook properly).
Meat thermometer or probe thermometer.
Unbleached compostable Parchment Paper
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