Since my Sourdough challenge at the end of April I have baked 6 batches of bread. The fifth was probably the worst--I forgot to add salt at the proper point and I messed around with both the starter amount and yeast amount. The result was tasteless, shapeless and hockey puck-y.
One problem I keep having is that my bread flattens out during the final rise. I shape it into a nice loaf, but when I put it on a baking sheet to double in size, it oozes sideways instead of rising up. The results would be good for muffaletta I guess, but that's not what I'm going for. I want my loaf to look like I got it at the bakery! I want it to rise in all directions!
I watched this Peter Reinhart video (author of The Bread Baker's Apprentice which I rave about in my Sweet on Sourdough post) about shaping boules (aka round loaves). I thought maybe I wasn't getting enough surface tension on my loaves, so I tried folding things in toward the center more during shaping.
No dice. The bread still flattened out sideways. Next I considered another Reinhart video about stretching and folding a very runny dough to give it more volume. I tried the stretch and fold technique after the first rise and before shaping and the second rise.
Again, no dice. Same flat loaves. (I'm not implying here that Reinhart is instructing us wrong--not at all! I just think I'm applying his techniques without really understanding them.) All this time, though, I had a sneaking suspicion that my problem was actually much earlier in the process. Maybe I wasn't kneading the dough enough in the first place. It's during kneading that gluten is developed after all, and the gluten strands are what give the bread its shape and allow the yeast bubbles to puff up the whole structure. I knew for a fact that the "windowpane test" is recommended for beginners who wonder if they're kneading long enough. The idea is that you can tell if your gluten is at a good point by trying to stretch a small piece of dough after kneading. If it stretches nicely so you can see light through the resulting membrane, you're done kneading. If it breaks, though, you have to knead some more. Whenever I tried this test, my dough always broke. But then I'd lose patience and give up. "Whatever," I would think. Maybe I was thinking wrong.
Today is baking day for batch 7. I got up early to find some videos about kneading. This one, using a flashlight to drive home that you can SEE THROUGH the stretched windowpane, really emphasized that I need to work on this before I try any more funky shaping techniques. If I'm not getting my gluten right in the first place, it doesn't matter what kind of tension or shape I try to create later. I won't have the structure to hold it up.
Kneading until I got a windowpane (and it wasn't a great one, but I was starting to pass out from kneading) took HALF AN HOUR. I was a sweaty mess by the time I set that thing to rise. I tried different kneading techniques along the way, including an elongating, pressing motion followed by a fold-and-turn that may or may not have been effective. BUT. The boule that I made actually held its shape during the second rise. It remaining round and perky and did not seep and deflate like in previous weeks. I think I'm onto something here! (Like... following the directions correctly!)
A few notes:
Although it felt naughty to introduce other variables as well, I couldn't resist also doing 2 sets of stretching and folding during the first rise. My inspiration was some excellent videos from the Back Home Bakery. Mark Sinclair (here's his Youtube channel) demonstrates that this volumizing technique is done during the first rise, not after as I'd tried before.
I also tried a "pre-shaping" step (which Peter Reinhart seems to call "benching" in his book). To pre-shape, I basically shaped the pieces the way I wanted them, left them for about 20 minutes, then shaped them all over again. The idea seems to be to double the surface tension, and I believe the "rest" between shapings helps the gluten do its thing. (It also re-animates the yeast a bit I think.) It is not bad to "degas" or punch down the bread quite a bit at this pre-shaping step, because the yeast gets a fresh chance to work during the second rise, or proofing, step. (Reinhart points out that this is literally about "proof" that the yeast is active enough to do its job.) Pre-shaping is in this Back Home Bakery video, which I love.
Also, my mom heard an NPR piece about the new book 52 Loaves, about a guy (William Alexander) who baked bread every week for a year to really figure out how to do it. (Sounds familiar!) This is the same fellow who wrote The $64 Tomato, by the way. I checked out the book's web site and he also has a kneading video. But I'm not sure what to think about it. He says he lets the dough "autolyse" (develop gluten) by letting it sit for a bit after mixing but before kneading. He says that then he only needs to knead it for 5-7 minutes. He also says he knows it's ready when his hands are really sticky and "webbed" with dough. This is where I'm skeptical. In the Back Home Bakery video, the guys hands are perfectly clean, and the dough isn't sticking to anything. There's also a French bread video where the baker explains (and shows!) that it takes him 20 minutes of WHAMMING the bread on a metal table to get it to the smooth point that he wants. His dough isn't sticking to anything either. And after just a few minutes of kneading, neither was mine. Once I'd reached some flour saturation point, I didn't need to add any more but could just knead... and knead... and knead. And knead. So for now, I'm going to stick with my windowpane test, and try to knead properly. The results are really gratifying.
One last thing--I got me a lame!! (That is a French word, so probably pronounced "lamm.") It's the razor-sharp blade used to score the top of a loaf just before baking. I tried several different knives, serrated, sharp, etc, but they were all horrible and either wouldn't cut at all or dragged the dough in a crude hacking manner. I spent $1.79 at the hardware store on this item. Perhaps it is not food grade, but... whatever.