Week Twelve: Pre-Fermented Breads
Today’s the day I get to brag. Today’s the day I get to proudly run to the Internets, hold up my work like a happy first-grader, and shout, “Look what I did!” You see, today I get to talk about the First Bread I Ever Made Without A Recipe. Oh yeah!
I was flying solo on this one, people. No cookbooks, no internet, just my own expertise (such as it is). Here’s the story: back when I made pizza crust, I invited some friends over for dinner to help me eat it. I was expecting five people, but one person dropped out at the last minute, after I had already divided the dough up. Rather than toss the dough out (unthinkable!), I hastily stashed it in a ziploc bag, and put it in the refrigerator. To do what with? I wasn’t sure, but one smallish portion of pizza dough wasn’t really going to go far in the usual dinner preparations for two.
I had some recollection that one could use old bits of dough in new bread for better flavor, but I hadn’t really studied it recently as such. I knew, though, from my repeated making of G’Bread over the last few years that something about the same consistency could be used as a starter. So a couple of days later, when the poor little bit of pizza dough had started to bubble up in its plastic home, I decided to just have a go at it. How much could I possibly screw it up? If it didn’t work out, no harm, no foul; if it did, then I could write about it later. Win!
Using the method I recalled from G’Bread, but firmly refusing to even glance at the recipe for help, I began by combining fresh flour and water in my mixer. Knowing that I had 4 ounces of leftover pizza dough, I started with 12 ounces total of flour. It added up to a pound total, which seemed like a fine place to start, if a little arbitrary. I mixed in the yeast and enough water so that it looked about right (measuring the whole time!), and then gave it a little 15 minute autolyse (or, catnap). I then added the pizza dough and salt, and mixed until it looked right. From then, I just followed the technique I remembered.
It rose properly, it looked right, and when I finally baked it off, I knew I had done things right. It came out so well! It was nicely browned on the outside, soft and flavorful inside, airy, well-crusted; in short, a darn good bread! I had finally done it – I had made my very own bread, that no one else could claim! Was this the pinnacle of my baking career? Okay, perhaps not, but it was definitely a high point. I was so proud! I mean, do you see those lovely holes in the crumb? Awesome!
The technique of using a piece of old dough to improve the texture and flavor of a newly-made dough is nearly as ancient as breadmaking itself. Though I did come up with this recipe (as such) on my own, I am certainly not claiming to have thought up the technique. It is one of the very well established methods of using a pre-ferment, and you can use any sort of dough you care to. Generally speaking, though, an old dough will incorporate best into a new dough of a similar or firmer consistency.
I suppose the moral of this story is not to toot my own horn, but rather to show that breadmaking need not depend on a quality recipe. It’s more about technique, learning what a proper bread should look like at all stages, instead of dogmatically following a recipe that may or may not be appropriate for your circumstances, or may even be written with mistakes. If you can learn a few visual cues, and some basic timing, you too can absolutely make your very own recipe-less bread. Don’t be scared; I know you can do it!
Makes 1 loaf
4 ounces of this dough (about 1/5 of the recipe)
8 ounces bread flour (about 2 cup)
3 ounces whole-wheat flour (about 1/3 cup)
1/4 teaspoon active-dry yeast
1 1/2 cups room temperature water
1 teaspoon salt
1. Let old dough sit in the refrigerator for at least two days, to develop the flavor.
2. Remove old dough from fridge and let sit at room temperature while you make the rest of the dough. Mix flours and yeast together. Combine in the bowl of a stand mixer with the water, and mix with the dough hook until a rough dough forms. Adjust levels of flour or water if necessary; it should look a little lumpy and kind of rough around the edges, but all the flour should be moistened. Turn mixer off, and without removing dough hook, cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap, and let sit 20 minutes.
3. Remove plastic wrap, add old dough and salt to the mixture, and continue to mix on lowest speed until all the ingredients are incorporated and a dough is formed (the dough should clear the sides of the bowl but stick to very bottom), about 4 minutes. Increase speed to low and continue to knead until dough forms a more cohesive ball, about 1 minute. Transfer dough to large bowl (at least 3 times dough’s size) and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in cool, draft-free spot away from direct sunlight, until slightly risen and puffy, about 1 hour.
3. Remove plastic wrap and, using a broad nonstick spatula, fold the dough over itself, as though you were folding a letter: 1/3 over the center, then the opposite 1/3 over that. Lastly, fold dough in half again, perpendicular to the first folds (like you’re folding the letter in half). Dough should end up being roughly a square.
4. Replace plastic wrap, let dough rise 1 hour. Turn dough again, following above procedure, then replace plastic wrap and let dough rise 1 hour more.
5. Dust work surface liberally with flour. Gently scrape and invert dough out of bowl onto work surface (side of dough that was against bowl should now be facing up). Dust dough and hands liberally with flour, and using minimal pressure, push dough into rough 8 by 10 inch square. Gently roll up dough, using long edge, and pressing seam to seal as you roll. Tansfer dough to a large sheet of parchment paper. Dust loaf liberally with flour and cover loosely with plastic wrap; let loaf rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour more. Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position, place baking stone on rack, and heat oven to 500º F.
6. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut a slit 1/2-inch deep lengthwise along top of loaf. Spray loaf lightly with water. Slide parchment sheet with loaf onto baker’s peel or upside-down baking sheet, then slide parchment with loaf onto hot baking stone in oven. Bake 10 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 400º F, and quickly spin loaf around. Continue to bake until deep golden brown, and a thermometer inserted into center of loaf reads 210º F, about 35 minutes longer. Transfer to rack, discard parchment, and cool loaf to room temperature, about 2 hours.
1. I like the slightly rustic flavor given by the whole-wheat flour, but you can certainly use all white flour if you like.
2. I’ve written the recipe exactly as I made it, but things might obviously be a little different for you. Depending on how wet your old dough is, you will have to add a little more or a little less flour to the new dough. But for the rustic, ciabatta-style bread I was aiming for, I kept the consistency fairly loose. Certainly, if you’re looking for a more sandwich-bread-style loaf, you can increase the amount of flour (or decrease the amount of water). It’s up to you!