Don’t Worry About the Boule: Bake Bread in a Loaf Pan

In the frivolous, pre-pandemic before-times I slacked off on my bread baking. At the beginning of quar, I prepper-panicked, hastily re-started my starter and fired up the Mockmill 100 grain mill.

Baking with a sourdough starter puts you on a collision course with the unpredictability at the heart of the “natural” i.e. non-internet world. For me the unintended randomness of my loaves came down to the discovery that I was using too course a grind with the mill. Thereafter, my loaves improved.

Even after that simple fix, I still get can get distracted by chores and forget to shape the dough in a timely manner, thus leading to what looks more like a pancake than an Instagram worthy boule. But if you’re not making bread for the ‘gram, you don’t have to do a boule or batard unless that really floats your boat. There’s nothing wrong with baking in a loaf pan. Sometimes it’s kinda nice to have a square loaf for sandwiches anyways.

The pan I have is a Pullman pan made by USA Pan. It’s square and has a lid. The lid is especially handy in that you can do the first 20 minutes of the bake with the lid on, thus sealing in the moisture which helps with loaf spring. You don’t need the fancy Pullman type with the lid but if you’re going to buy a pan I’d suggest getting a Pullman. I use a bit of olive oil to keep the loaf from sticking. If you don’t have a Pullman pan, you can cover any loaf pan with a piece of aluminum foil for the first part of the bake.

You have my permission. Bake in a loaf pan.

Lastly, I’ve been fielding some emails about what kind of mill to get. The Mockmill 100 has served me well. I’ll do a full review sometime in our quarantine part II future. If you’re curious about my bread recipe, I use Josey Baker’s 100% whole wheat recipe (with a higher hydration) that can be found in his book.

Participate in the Science of Sourdough Project

If you missed the short sourdough lecture I linked to last week, you can watch it above. To summarize, researchers at North Carolina State’s Department of Applied Ecology are attempting to figure out the biodiversity of sourdough cultures from around the world. One of the questions they’d like to answer is how the type of flour you feed a starter influences its taste and viability. This is where you can help through their Science of Sourdough Project. Using the simple instructions on that site, you create a new starter with whatever flour you have on hand, record the results and send that data back to the researchers. If you’re a teacher or a parent this would be an easy science project for our days in quarantine. I’m going to participate and share the results on this blog.

Timing Sourdough Feeding

A recent “quarantine” loaf.

There are many paths up the holy mountain of sourdough bread baking. Wildly different methods will yield acceptable and edible results. But, no matter the method, I think one factor is important if you want to get a decent sourdough bread: the amount of time between feeding your starter and making your dough.

I keep a small amount of starter on hand since I bake, at most, twice a week under normal circumstances (Under quarantine I’m baking a lot more but the reasons for that would be the subject of another blog post). Just before I go to bed, the night before I’m going to make bread, I take a tablespoon of starer and add it to 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 60 grams of water. The next morning I have a little over 110 grams of starter with which to make my dough.

Starter float test.

Here’s the critical issue of timing: while I’m sleeping the sourdough culture is growing exponentially in the flour/water mixture. I need to make my dough within 8 to 12 hours of that feeding. If I wait too long the sourdough starter will lose its vigor. How do I know the starter is ready to use? I do a float test. If you gently spoon the culture into some water it should float, an indication that it’s active and full of CO2 bubbles. One of the most common mistakes with beginning sourdough bakers is not feeding the starter enough (you should feed at least once a day or put it in the refrigerator if you’re not going to use it) and trying to make a loaf with sourdough that’s been sitting too long after its last feeding.

To review my process:

  • The night before I make bread I mix one tablespoon of starter with 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 60 grams of water.
  • The next day I make up a dough and let it rise for approximate four hours at room temperature (this first rise is also called a bulk fermentation).
  • After the four hour bulk fermentation, I shape the dough, put it in the refrigerator and bake the next day. This second period of fermentation is called “proofing”). I’ve found that putting the dough in the refrigerator to proof has a few advantages: it develops a richer flavor, the dough is easier to handle, it’s less likely to stick to the bread form, and you have flexibility in terms of when to bake the next day.
  • When it’s time to bake I pull the dough out of the refrigerator and put it straight into a 475º F (246º C) oven.

So, in total, my bread baking process takes 2 days. You have to think ahead but there actually isn’t much work involved since I’m using a no-knead method. Again, it’s not the only way to make sourdough bread but I’ve found this method works well for me. For exact recipes and techniques I highly recommend the book Josey Baker Bread (library link). What I like about Josey’s book is that it’s kind of like a class in bread baking. He starts you out with simple loaves and then gets into more advanced techniques. There’s plenty of illustrations on top of the fact that Josey is a really nice dude (I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him).

If you’re interested in the details of my starter method I did a video about it.

Stay safe and happy baking! As Josey Baker says, “Make Awesome Bread – Share the Loaves!”

Make Pizza in Your Oven

In addition to sharing a name, Eric of Garden Fork and I seem to exist in some sort of synchronicity vortex. This past Saturday, after I finished teaching a bread class in which I used the same dough to demonstrate how you can make pizza in your oven with a cast iron skillet, I settled down on the couch to catch up with Eric’s YouTube channel. And guess what he was demonstrating?

I first learned about this technique from Josey Baker. Basically, you start the pizza out on the stove top and finish it under your oven’s broiler. I’ve found that it works almost as well as having an outdoor pizza oven and it’s a whole lot easier.

What You Need to Bake Bread

As the co-founder of a club for bread nerds, I field a fair number of urgent, sometimes panicked baking queries. While in the past I’ve posted basic bread recipes and lists of equipment, I’ve since taken to simply referring people to Josey’s Baker’s excellent book, Josey Baker Bread.

In the hopes of one final post on the subject let me suggest the following bread related resources and tools:

Bake With Baker

Again, get yourself a copy of Baker’s book. It’s a class in baking organized into recipes in ascending order of difficulty. Work your way thought the book and by the end you’ll be a baking god and the life of every party. Baker is a fan of whole grains and sourdough and if that isn’t enough he has the only decent gluten free bread recipe I’ve ever tasted. At the end of the book you’ll find cookie and scone recipes that will make you the most popular person at the next potluck you attend. If you’re a Los Angeles local, you can also take a whole grain baking class taught by Root Simple pal Roe Sie at his shop, the King’s Roost.

Scale It

A digital scale. The inaccuracies of measuring flour by volume is a path to frustration and misery. The model pictured above has a pull out display which makes it easier to view under a large bowl of flour.

Legal Pot

A 5 quart dutch oven. I like the model pictured above for the reasons I outlined in a previous blog post.

Problems!
When you encounter problems—and I guarantee you will–I really like this handy visual guide on a Serious Eats blog post. And a note on baking disasters. I recently heard an experienced craftsperson explain that, despite his accomplishments, he never feels like he’s ever reached some kind of final, blissful state of mastery. During a class I took with Josey Baker’s mentor Dave Miller (I know, those last names!), Miller detailed some of the baking disasters he’s been through including the mysterious failure of a sourdough starter that shut down his bakery for several weeks. With this caveat on baking problems, let me assure you that if you go though Baker’s book carefully, you’ll have more wins than losses.

Mill Your Own Damn Flour

Should you want to go deeper down the baking rabbit hole, there’s a nice, inexpensive new mill designed by the legendary German engineer Wolfgang Mock. I have the Mock Mill 100 and will post a review sometime in the future. I’ll just say now that it works great and is a lot cheaper than other mills on the market. But you don’t need a mill to get started.

With those resources you’re pretty much good to go.

I’ve had to take a long break from baking due to the family emergencies of the last year. I’m planning on getting back into baking soon and when I do I’m going to go step by step through Baker’s book starting at the beginning.