Thursday, December 16, 2010

All about the dough

I've been fortunate in the past to work as a bakery assistant. I was often left in charge of baking the morning bread. My only regret was I didn't stay long enough to learn many of the "reasonings" behind certain practices. I was told to add so many bags of flour, per litres of water, oil and grams of fresh yeast. I followed the program without having to understand the measures, or why it had to be "this" much.

But during that time I was exposed to the texture of bread dough, how it should feel when it's ready, and even the subtle change in smell. You simply knew when it was ready, even if it was a big commercial piece of equipment that "buzzed" in first. The finished product was ready when you pressed the dough, and it quickly pushed its way back as if you never touched it.

Without a formula to follow however, or machines to buzz in, it was a whole new experience learning how to read sourdough. I have news for you too; learning how to read your sourdough will be nothing like your experiences with commercial yeasts either. Every loaf that touches your hands will be a living leaven. You will feel (and know) the air bubbles and gauge the correct crumb, rather than counting the clock for kneading times.

I use to time myself for 10 minutes with the first knead, but now I gauge by the texture of the bread and that subtle sweet change, which immediately fills the nostrils. When the leavens have been feed and massaged by nurturing hands for just the right amount of time, you too will experience that sweetness dance around your nostrils. It's incredibly euphoric, but oh so subtle you could almost miss it.

This is what commercial equipment and bread machines have taken away from the baker. Don't get me wrong, those machines definitely have their place but when you become dependent on them before learning the beauty of living bread, it's any wonder people become intimidated by how to experience bread making with their bare fingertips.

Trust yourself though and persist. It's incredibly rewarding.

I want to show you the differences between tacky doughs and wet ones. Tacky is what you want to achieve, but you may have to add more flour if your dough is too wet. First of all, this is what a wet dough looks like.

It sticks to the bench with ease (and your hands) plus it won't let go without leaving some of itself behind. If you've used all the flour your recipe asked for, keep incorporating a handful of flour at a time, until the right consistency is achieved. You want to incorporate it for a few minutes though, to see if you need more. The next picture is where "tacky" stage is almost achieved.

It won't leave residue on you or the bench. I'm actually peeling back the dough in this picture and its coming away cleanly from the bench. But to my mind, this tacky is still not quite ready. This last picture is what I would consider appropriate for what you want to achieve.

It still sticks, but not much. I like to aim for just past tacky, because the firmer the dough, the more the gluten will be massaged out during your kneading time. It takes me a good 5 minutes to gauge if I've incorporated enough flour, then it's on to the 10 (or so) minutes continuous kneading.

Don't underestimate the power of drinking a hot beverage before embarking on kneading your dough either. Especially if you're one of those people who tend to have cold fingers and toes. Wrap your hands around a warm cup of coffee or tea first (this is what I always do) as it gives you a good body temperature to start massaging the glutens.

How does a person actually knead dough though? I prefer the envelop method. Once you're happy with the consistency of your dough, roll it into a ball, then you push down on it with the palm of your hand.



Then push down with your palm again.

Feel free to use your other hand for turning, while the opposite hand folds and pushes down. I only omitted my other hand for the purposes of taking photos, LOL. So the kneading process is fairly straight forward - push, turn, fold, push down again, until your 10 minute kneading time has expired. Or as I like to do, read the dough's texture.

A better way to demonstrate this is by comparison pictures. The first picture represents the dough prior to commencing kneading, the second represents the correct texture you're looking for. First picture.

Folds and creases, are still very obvious. In the second picture however, the correct dough qualities are apparent when its finished.

Once the folds and creases start to amalgamate, the dough has become more elastic. Still a bit confused? It's important to see what I mean by reaching the correct elasticity. First picture.

Absolutely no elasticity, in fact the dough is breaking away with the weight of the dough in my hand. Second picture (after 10 minutes kneading).

The finished dough will bend to the contours of your hand and hang without breaking its fibre. Now let's see how the dough holds its form on its own. First picture is the ball of dough before kneading.

Notice the uneven surface and how rough it looks? All those ingredients haven't been massaged together. Now for the second picture.

Notice how the dough ball is smooth and wants to hold it's round form. If you pat or press it, the dough wants to resume its uniform texture and pushes itself out again. This is a correctly worked dough which will be happy to expand and grow if you let it.

I suggest if you want Swiss cheese type holes in your sourdough, form this ball into the desired shape you want now, place it on a greased tray (Vienna or Cobb loaf style) and don't do the second knead. I only knead again if I want a finer crumb for my sandwich loaves.

Of course, there are all sorts of shapes you can form bread in to. I hope to write a post later on, demonstrating all the ones I've used.

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