The Fugue Counterpoint by Hans Fugal


Sourdough in Bread Pans

A lot of people will tell you you shouldn't put sourdough in metal. Some even go so far as to say you shouldn't use a metal spoon to stir it. That's all nonsense. It's not hydrochloric acid, it's food.

However, when you leave sourdough in a vessel for an extended period of time, and that vessel is not non-reactive, it will react. (The same as tomato sauce will.) It turns out, aluminized steel is one of those substances, and my precious Chicago Metallic pan is ruined from a few very long and sour proofs (10+ hours). Also a lot of scratches from metal knives trying to release stubborn loaves, have taken their toll. As it turns out aluminized steel is steel coated with an aluminum-silicone coating, so you should probably treat it as you would non-stick, even if it claims to be "uncoated" (meaning it doesn't have a non-stick coating). Use plastic utensils to wage war with your stubborn bread.

I'm not sure whether regular non-stick coatings are non-reactive or not, but I'm not a fan of tiptoeing around my cookware so I avoid non-stick.

So I'm buying a Stainless Steel Loaf Pan. I considered silicon too, but I hear horror stories of bad smells at high heat and not keeping their shape with a heavy loaf. And I'm not sure if they'll brown well (stainless is supposed to be less-good for browning that aluminum or aluminized steel, but oh well).

If you already have aluminized steel pans I'm sure you can bake sourdough in them, just watch out for long sour proofs, and use plastic.


Erin’s Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread

My adorable wife is very picky about her bread. It has to be 100% whole wheat, and the right shape for sandwiches. I'm kinda picky too, it has to taste good, have a light and soft crumb, be fun to make, and be able to wrap around my work schedule.

It's easy to make bread that satisfies some of those constraints, but it's been a long process to get everything just right. But get it right I have, and now I'm blogging it.

First, the recipe:

20 oz whole wheat flour
10 g salt

8 oz milk
7 oz water
2 oz sourdough culture
tablespoon honey
tablespoon oil or butter

Proof covered for an hour
Stretch and fold twice
Proof covered for another hour or two, until it begins to rise
Retard in the fridge overnight or up to a couple days
Stretch and fold, let rest 10 minutes
Shape (8½"x4½" pan) and let rise about 4–8 hours (depending on temperature and culture)
Bake at 375°F to an internal temperature of about 200° (adjust for altitude)

This is 75% hydration—the dough should be soft and sticky when first mixed. I could explain in detail what each of these loaded terms means (e.g. stretch and fold), but most of you are sick of hearing me prattle on about them and the rest of you can ask in the comments or search the all-knowing internet. There are helpful videos for S&F and shaping. Google for the poke test if you're not sure how to know when it's done rising.

It's sourdough, but it's not sour. It does have excellent flavor, but if you are put off by really sour bread don't worry (and if you want it, this isn't the recipe for you). It's not as light as white bread, but it is soft and not dense as whole wheat bread notoriously can be.

WARNING: Science Content!

The 8½x4½ pan size is nominally a "1 lb loaf" pan. This either means 1 lb of dough, or 1 lb of cooked bread (which means roughly 3 oz more than 1 lb of dough). Both are a far cry from the 2+ lb of dough we use here. I don't have a good explanation for this, and it makes me kind of uneasy. But this is the amount of dough it takes to get the loft my wife wants with whole wheat. Probably less would be required for white bread; the fact is whole wheat just doesn't rise as high as white bread—but don't ever let anyone tell you it must be dense or won't rise to lofty heights. Another factor is probably that my wife really likes a high mushrooming crown, and I get the impression that the professional bakers calling this pan a 1 lb loaf pan are satisfied with a squarish top loaf that crowns not far above the top of the pan. Maybe? Please enlighten me.

We grind our own flour, from white wheat. Red wheat and store bought is of course fine, it's a matter of preference. You may adjust the liquid as needed but 75% is going to be a good start for any whole wheat dough. The long life of the dough (thanks to the overnight retard and sourdough pace) gives the enzymes plenty of time to work, which gives a much more interesting and sweeter taste vs the harsh bitter whole wheat taste we all love to hate. You really will be surprised at how good it tastes.

One of the keys to whole wheat bread is to make sure it's kneaded well enough to develop the gluten. The long rise and wet dough means we don't have to do much work to achieve that (no-knead style), but if you want to throw it in your mixer and do the windowpane test, I doubt it would hurt anything.

The short initial rise (2 hours is a short time for sourdough) gets the sourdough beasties going without getting them into overdrive. It takes the dough a little while to cool to retarding temperatures once you stick it in the fridge, and so we will be well into the exponential phase. This means optimal growth after deflating and shaping (once the dough has warmed up again) which is important for good loft in sourdough. You can toy with the timing a bit, e.g. more initial proof for a shorter second proof (up to a point), or a shorter initial proof for a longer second proof (e.g. so it can proof overnight for a first-thing-in-the-morning bake). Exact timings are highly dependent on your ambient temperature and sourdough culture character.

I have a nice sourdough rhythm that I use for maintaining my start. When I use it, e.g. mix up a loaf of bread, I feed the jar 2 tablespoons of flour and water, then let it grow at room temperature about 8–12 hours. Then I feed it again and stick it in the fridge. This way it's ready to go in a few days and is live and healthy in the fridge, not old and dying. But it doesn't spend all its growing time at fridge temperatures, because every other feeding is on the counter, which is important for maintaining various desirable properties. I use the start straight out of the fridge, but you can also refresh the culture 6–8 hours before mixing your bread for extra vigor.

If you have any questions, please ask them and I'll fill in the gaps.


Bread PDF Update

I've updated my bread/sourdough PDF to reflect the recipe and methods I have settled on.

The bread recipe didn't really change, though I adjusted a few minor details in wording, etc. The sourdough pancakes recipe is completely new—the one from Joe Pastry which is so much better than the one I came up with. The biscuit recipe is the old biscuit recipe from the old sourdough cards that my family got with our start. I don't know if that source has a name or author, but I do have scanned images at The consensus of all who eat these biscuits is that they must be served at Thanksgiving dinner in Heaven.



Loaf Sizes

So I recently got fed up with making the wrong amount of dough for the intended loaf pan. I did some looking and didn't really find a definitive guide for loaf pan sizes and bread recipes. But I did find an underlying mostly-unwritten consensus, which I will share with you now.

A "standard" loaf here in the states is about 1lb and baked in a 8.5x4.5 pan. At Wal-Mart yesterday here in Las Cruces, there were no metal pans of this variety, some foil pans of the right size but labeled 2lb (2 lb of what? I have no idea), and pyrex pans of this size. (I have one of those and I don't like it, although this is my preferred loaf size to make). The most constant property of a standard loaf seems to be that it uses 3 cups of flour. This of course seems ludicrous when you consider that measuring flour by volume is ridiculously variable, but I suppose it gets you in the ballpark. For the record, that's approximately 15 oz of flour, i.e. just shy of 1 lb flour alone. In my experience this is the appropriate size loaf for this pan.

An "oversized" loaf loaf is supposedly about 4 cups of flour (so about 20 oz). The pan is 10x5 or thereabouts. My jury is still out on this, but I find that a 2lb loaf actually fits better in my oversized pan. Maybe I just like lofty crests. So I'd go 5–6 cups flour (25–30 oz). Wal-Mart had several of these in metal, labeled loaf pan or meat loaf pan.

My favorite pan is longer, about 4x12, and probably a tea loaf pan. This also makes 1.5–2lb. I found, surprisingly, that it takes about the same amount of dough as the oversized pan.

(Note, I own none of the linked pans above, but my pans are similar in size. Those are more like my wishlist pans, with the exception of the last where I already have the perfect tea loaf pan)

Now how do they compare in volume? Well assuming you want similar height (all these pans are roughly the same height), we can just compare the area. Standard pan is 38 square inches, oversized is 50 square inches, and tea pan is about 48 square inches. So the oversized loaf is 1.3 times as large as the standard loaf. Why then do I find 1.5 times as much dough even lacking? I don't know, this is a true mystery. I think it has to do with aesthetics and me wanting a higher crest for a wider loaf. Even more mysterious to me is the tea loaf, which is narrow, seeming to swallow the dough. But when we look at how it is fairly close to the same size as the oversized loaf, it makes sense.

So there you go. How about a recipe for a standard loaf? Ok.

15 oz flour (abt 3 cups)
10 oz water (1.25 cup)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 oz sourdough start

Sourdough Pancakes

My family is really into sourdough biscuits and sourdough pancakes. But to be honest, the recipes they use are a bit peculiar. You've probably never seen pancakes or biscuits like these, but you end up loving them anyway. I'm going to talk about the pancakes here and ignore the biscuits which are generally regarded to be the epitome of perfection by all who consume them.

Here's the recipe they use for sourdough pancakes:

leaf 1leaf 2

Note that last bit: "approximately 80 small pancakes.… Remember that sourdough pancakes have a very firm texture, and are entirely different from the pancakes you are used to." They're small, white, rubbery, sour, and delicious. But you see, I'm really only interested in the sour and delicious parts. I have no investment in them being small, white, and rubbery.

So when Joe Pastry (a food blogger I have immense respect for) started talking about sourdough pancakes, and showed pictures of normal brown pancakes that I'm sure were sour, delicious, and not rubbery, I had to try it out.

And so I did, this morning. I followed his recipe, except I halved it (yes, I halved an egg) and made it with whole wheat flour (as he discusses at the end of the post). The pancakes were excellent. All the requisite sourdough taste and deliciousness, and normal pancake size/color/texture. Plus it was a lot of fun to watch the batter foam up when I added the soda water.

So if you make small white rubbery sourdough pancakes (that means you, family), give his recipe a try and see if you don't like it even better.

Then I recommend you read the follow-up post on the science behind sourdough pancakes. And for extra credit, compare the two recipes and hypothesize on why the results are so different.


Thermometer Reference Card

Next to a digital scale, I'd say a good probe thermometer is the most important kitchen tool that nobody has. If you're not everybody, then you might find this reference card handy.

Thermometer Reference Card Thumbnail


Pain Perdu

I grew up eating french toast once every week or two. Delicious stuff, and easy too. Some eggs, a little milk, dip the bread and cook like a pancake.

Then I got married, and my wife did the same thing but ruined it by adding cinnamon. Well, to each her own. We started dividing the egg stuff before she added the cinnamon to her mix.

One day I watched the Good Eats episode Toast Modern where AB goes through this complicated process to get some kind of "perfect" french toast. It sure didn't look worth the effort to me, so I promptly forgot all about it.

Then I visited New Orleans for a conference. The hotel I stayed at had complimentary breakfast (and not that lame cover-up people call "continental breakfast"). One day I ordered the french toast, unwittingly changing my life forever.

What they served was, as AB says, crispy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. It tasted less eggy than what I was used to. It was lightly dusted with powdered sugar before I put some syrup on, but I knew it went deeper than condiments. This was fundamentally different french toast to what I had been accustomed to. And I loved it. Truly incredible. More than anything else about that trip to New Orleans, I will remember the french toast.

Fast forward again, and I came across the same Good Eats episode. This time I paid closer attention and due respect to AB. Then I tried the recipe faithfully, but with mediocre results. First, the homemade artisan bread I was using had curled up while staling, making it very difficult to get a good browning in the pan. It also was quite holey. Second, I just didn't get much of a crisp. So again I chalked the recipe up to too complicated and not really worth it.

Yesterday I again had the hankering for some french toast like what I had in New Orleans. So I decided to follow AB's recipe again, but also to take some insurance out. I did some surfing and found that New Orleans french toast is apparently famous. Most recipes that seemed credible had the same basic structure: custard, pan-fry in butter, maybe put in the oven for the final crisping (I get the feeling some just use more butter or butter/oil mixture and fry it to crisp instead). So I grabbed french bread from the store (for reproduceability) and the rest of AB's ingredients. I mixed the custard and set out sliced bread the night before. In the morning, I followed his instructions to the T, except that I used the toaster oven and I included baking in the toaster oven in the pipeline (since I couldn't fit all 8 slices in at once anyway). It worked well, and wasn't too complicated.

The toaster oven really cuts down on the wait for preheat and the wasted heat. I actually set it to 400°F instead of the 375°F he recommended, and it worked well (5 minutes in). I may even toy with using the toast setting instead of the bake setting.

The rack and cookie sheet are, I believe, an unnecessary complication. If properly staled, the toast loses very little custard while resting, so i wouldn't worry about pooling. Instead I plan to use foil, or maybe just a cookie sheet, to cut down on the cleanup.

The french bread didn't curl, and tasted alright. As good as Albertson's french bread could be expected to taste. Next time I'll use my own artisan bread again (one with a bit more even crumb), and make sure to not lay it out in a way that bends the bread. I expect the results will be fantastic.

I feel like I'm working with the same principles that the hotel chef was working with. It is close to what I had, and I think perfection is within my grasp. What's more, it's no harder than the old way though it does take just a hair more planning and a less-common ingredient (half and half).


Baking Bread in a Toaster Oven

So we got a toaster oven. The primary motivation was that I like to make biscuits and gravy, but preheating the big oven takes way too long. Plus I wanted to bake little one-day loaves of bread some mornings, with the same problem.

But always wanting to push the limits, I also wanted to try a larger loaf in the toaster oven. This is actually half the size I usually make, but it's about the limit of the size of boule I'd make in a toaster oven. Too much bigger and the top will burn.

Toaster Oven Boule

Here are more pictures of the process. I moved a couple of tiles from the big oven to the toaster oven to make a nice baking stone, and I preheated the toaster oven. Then I put the bread in (conveniently on parchment paper, though in the future I think I'll trim the parchment paper for better convection airflow). There is noticeable oven spring, and it was fun to have such a clear view of it. Eventually it started to brown, and when I figured it should be about done I took it out. I found that it had actually browned quite a bit more in the back than in the front—maybe some tinfoil on the door next time to aid the radiation? The crust was a bit boring, but that may have been partially due to my using a slightly drier dough than I usually do. In any case, the crumb was as good as ever and the experiment was a success. As in the large oven, I definitely recommend some sort of stone setup though.

A few more experiments will be needed to know for sure, but it's possible that the close quarters will help in the steam department. However, it's a convection oven and I'm not sure whether that would counter any steam tendencies. As I said, this loaf was a bit drier than usual, so more tests are in order. Incidentally, I had a loaf in the dutch oven come out with the same boring crust the other day, and I think the hydration was about the same as with this loaf.

As for biscuits, it works great. I turn it down slightly from the called-for temperature but otherwise there's nothing to it.

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Freezing Dough

No-knead bread is simple and painless. So why do we still put it off or decide not to make it because of five lousy minutes of effort (and a few dishes)? Because we're lazy, that's why. So here's how to bring your laziness to the next level: freeze that dough.

Here's a scenario: it's half an hour past your bedtime, and in the morning you'll leave the house about 40 minutes after you wake up. But it would sure be nice to have some hot, fresh bread for breakfast. So you take a bâtard out of the freezer, take it out of the freezer bag, and put it in your greenhouse on a piece of parchment paper. Then you climb in bed and start sawing sheep. The next morning, you stumble into the kitchen and turn on the oven. You go do some morning stuff and come back in 10 minutes and put the bread in the oven. More morning stuff, and the bread is done just in time for breakfast. Your day turns out 134% better.

It really is that easy, I did it a few times over the past week. Sourdough and baker's yeast work equally well. Here's how you freeze it: begin as normal, but after the first 12–18 hour rise chop the dough into 3 or 4 pieces, shape into bâtards (or boules or whatever), lightly dust with flour and freeze (in freezer bags). I'm sure it will work just as well with normal-size loaves too (though you may have to adjust the thaw/rise time). Less mess, less time, less stale bread. A big winner all around.

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Cost of Bread

How much does it cost to bake a loaf of bread? Or put another way, how much money might you save baking your own bread (which will taste better anyway)?
These figures will give you a ballpark idea. As always, I'm following my recipe.

  • 425 grams of King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour: about 60 cents
  • 8 grams of kosher salt: about 1.5 cents
  • Sourdough culture and water (practically free)
  • Preheat (my) oven with baking stone and dutch oven to 450°: 20 minutes at 2585 watts at 11.482 cents/kWh = 10 cents (I leave the baking stone in because I'm too lazy to take it out. Actually, it's 6 unglazed clay tiles, but that's another story)
  • Heating element on during bake, including restoring heat lost when oven door open (yes, I watched the little light with a stopwatch): 10 minutes = 5 cents

Total cost: about 75 cents for a 1½ lb loaf of absolutely terrific artisan sourdough bread. You'll pay 4–5 times that for bread that's not nearly as good (nor as good for you) at the grocery store. So if you save say $2 per loaf you might be able to buy yourself a used iPod after a year. Then again, you might eat 4 times as much bread…

The take-home lesson here is never let anyone give you a guilt trip for baking bread. It costs under 25¢ in electricity, and even if you place a high price tag on pollution it is dwarfed by your air conditioner, refrigerator, etc. One very real issue is baking in the middle of the day in the summer, either making the A/C work that much harder or making you that much hotter. This is mostly a concern in places like Las Cruces where lunatics like myself live. Most of you will have air conditioners that can handle it just fine, though it would be interesting to figure what that cost would be (if you do so, let me know).