Friday, 30 July 2010

Bannetons, pannetons

Whenever I get newly into something, I'm a sucker for buying all the gadgets, all the add-on bits. When I was eighteen - eighteen for Christ's sake - I got into cycling and had a racing bike hand made. It cost over £600. This was in 1984, when £600 could buy you a house. The bike had all the latest everything on it, I went completely mad.

I'd like to point out I funded its purchase myself. Entirely. From the proceeds of selling ice-cream outside my parents' shop all summer, every summer, from 1979.  Aside from the loan I extorted off my aunt in Italy. But I paid it back. But the bike wasn't enough. I had to have special cycle shorts (because of course I couldn't ride it without them). And a special cycle jersey. And hand-made in Cumbria (I didn't even know where Cumbria was at that point) cycle shoes. And I had a computer thingy on the handlebars that told me how far I'd cycled (not very far at all) and for how long.

Thankfully, I lost my virginity a few years later and stopped being quite so mad.

My friends from school, of whom I still have four (they are my top, top friends, the inner circle): Alex, Claudia, Emma and Sandra, still occasionally hint at my prior madness. They know that it's rare I get into something and don't decide it's really essential that I have that extra bit of kit.

So when I started making bread, I was determined, really determined, that I wouldn't clutter up the kitchen with any more extra 'stuff'. I proved my first loaf in a bowl, lined with a tea towel. It worked fine. Well, I say that but the teatowel stuck a bit (was it  pure linen? who knew) and well, it was a bit of a faff, turning the loaf out.

I'd read about bannetons (aka pa(n)netons in some books), proving baskets, which are made of wood fibre, or cane or wicker.  Because sourdough dough is fragile, it needs support when proving, otherwise it'd just spread out like a thick puddle. I decided I liked the wicker ones best, they seemed to make the most sense to me.

I was adamant I didn't need them. I could manage fine with a teatowel and a bowl or sieve, which is what loads of people did I was sure.

But then I bought one. And I can reliably report that they really are a purchase worth making. You put the dough in the panneton for the final proof. Then, I cover it with a teatowel (see, I still am using that teatowel!) and put it in the fridge for an overnight or longer, prove.

When I'm ready to bake, I simply tip the bread out onto the polenta lined baking tray. No fiddling about trying to transfer the dough out of the teatowel and bowl and onto the tray.

Mine were the wicker ones from Bakery Bits, my absolute favourite website for buying all things bread-baking related. Everything on there is easy to understand (lots of bread websites are commercial and not reader friendly at all), and the service is great.

I started off with a 400g round wicker one and now have two 600g batons and 1k round. I really recommend you get them lined, as the cost isn't that much more and I really don't see the point of them unlined. Although NOTE: I washed mine after several uses (you don't wash them after every use, see the BB blog for more advice on looking after them) and they split. So when you do wash yours, take extra care. I put mine on a short rinse in the machine  (which is a Miele of course, so double-good), a process I really think linen liners should be able to withstand. But one split so badly it's unusable, the other did along one seam. Only one survived completely intact. I wrote to BB about this and they are replacing them and were very courteous. Which goes to show you can't always control it when something goes wrong, but you can control how you handle it.

However, in chatting to Patrick at Bakery Bits, I learned some interesting things. Since I bought my bannetons the site now also sells Matfer wicker lined bannetons (advertised as "heavy-duty" on the site). These are about double the price of the Bakery Bits bannetons. So for example a 1k round regular one would be £10.99 (all BB prices excl of VAT), but a Matfer one would be £19.99.

However, the Rolls Royce of wicker bannetons are Vannerie ones, people on bread blogs talk about these with real reverence.  To continue the comparison, a 1k lined Vannerie basket is £34.99. I believe they are things of of beauty, and I'm sure are very robust, but that's just too much for me! But it'd be nice as a present (HINT HINT to all those people who say I'm hard to buy for).

If you're serious about bread-making - and I guess you wouldn't know that until you'd made lots - then I think the Matfer ones would be good to get, a good half-way house. I can see how the wicker is more substantial and I'd hope the lining didn't rip. I think the Vannerie ones are for people with the money. But I have a soft spot for the most basic ones, they do the job not just well, but great and considering that you can make sourdough just fine with a tea-towel and bowl, anything above that is surely a step up.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

72 hour prove

Because making your own bread seems to make other people feel guilty, one of the questions I get asked a lot, rather accusingly, is "how do you find the time to make your own bread?"

The ironic thing is that since I've been making my own sourdough I have:

Lost weight
Saved money
Spent less time shopping

This is because sourdough is low GI, it's so delicious it's almost (I said ALMOST) like eating cake but without the sugar lurch. So I snack in more satisfying fashion. Because a loaf of bread and some scraps make a meal, I spend less time shopping, ergo I save money. (Because although I do go shopping with a list, I always go off-list, too, so I go in for a tin of tomatoes and come out having spent £23.)

But also, sourdough, as my friend Lucy told me, is forgiving and easy to fit into a busy schedule. Aside from the beginning bit, the rest you squeeze in in amongst the laundry folding etc. The only thing it doesn't work with is when I am actually away from the house, because sourdough requires lots of little bits of time spread out throughout the day. It suits me perfectly.

What I've also discovered is that you can make a double batch, prove it in the fridge, bake one lot and then keep the rest in the fridge. So far I've done this for 12 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours, 48 get the picture. This means that you can  have fresh bread without having to have actually made it the day before.

This was a genius discovery for the likes of me.

A pure white sourdough doesn't seem to like proving over about 24 hours (although more experimentation is needed). Any longer than this and it overproves. It's still delicious, but you'll get big air bubbles at the top of the bread and the crust starts to come away. But with darker flours it works better. I made a three flour loaf (white, rye, wholemeal) the other day, proved one over 12 hours at 4 degrees then cooked it. But kept the second loaf for 72 hours at 4 degrees.

The 72 hour loaf looked like it would be my first failure. As I slashed it, it collapsed alarmingly. I checked it after 15 mins at 250 degreees and it still looked collapsed and I prepared myself for failure. But after it's second 15 mins at 220 degrees it looked completely normal. It had risen, it looked great.


It tasted absolutely delicious. The longer the prove the longer the taste has to develop, see.

My three flour loaf, baked 72 hours after it was made. It was delicious.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The best crumb yet

So. I'm starting to crack the making of sourdough in this extreme heat. The optimum heat for making and proving seems to be in the 18-21 degrees range (for me, at least) but even though my kitchen is pretty cool, me living in the country 'n' all, it has reached temps of 25.

This has made proving tricky, so I've cut down proving times in a most scientific way. Er, by roughly 20%.  And then not always cos if I'm feeding the baby/trying to get her to sleep/doing almost anything, I forget, get distracted and then my giant timer tells me that I've run over by 38 minutes or something.

It's not been so bad when the sourdough has included low-gluten flours like barley or rye, but when it's pure white, it's sometimes been a struggle to keep the dough on the table top as it spreads out. I've heard tales of ciabatta dough being so frisky, bakers have had to chase it round the kitchen.

The heat has also made me sometimes panic whilst handling the dough. And one knows one must never show fear in baking.

Absolutely essential has been oiling the surface you're working on. I use a large Top Gourmet chopping board. This means that, in my busy kitchen, I can move the bread around easily if surfaces are needed for something else (because let's face it, making sourdough takes all day so you do need to do other stuff). I can sometimes get away with not oiling the surface, especially when making breads containing what I call 'healthy flours' (i.e. anything but white). But it really can make the difference when working with white flour, in the heat.

The other day I made a giant potato bread loaf which I hardly handled at all (it was really hot and the dough turned to glue the moment I touched it), I used just a dough scraper.  The bread was fantastic, but I do think it suffered from the lack of loving.

Anyway, yesterday I could tell straight off the dough was going to be good. I put it to prove at 4 degrees (i.e. in the bottom shelf of the fridge) for six hours, then took it out and put it at 20 degrees for three hours.

Then I did something which has no rhyme or reason but seems to make a huge difference. I pre-heated the trays, as per. I used ice cubes as per, but I heated the oven up to 220 and then when the bread went in, I put it up to 250. I did this the very first time I made sourdough and sort of forgot about it, because usually what I do is always crank it up straight away to 250 (because you'd think the hotter the oven is to start, the better, no?). But something about turning the temperature up as the bread goes in makes for a much better crust. I cooked it for 15 minutes at 250 then down to 220 for another 20 or so.

It is a fucking marvellous loaf. Here it is. Tell me I'm not a total genius.

It tastes wonderful, really sour, tasty crust.I love it so much I've thrust it under the nose of almost everyone whose come through the door this morning. My dad has had to say "fantastico" at least seven times.