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My wife says holes have no flavour, so why bake them in or pay for them?
As a fellow Scot, I have to admit she has a point, except in the case of hot toasted ciabatta which I liken to pockets of air held together by crisp filaments of bread, the butter seeping all the way through!
Seriously though, I agree that high hydration is a must, and 50-58% is really quite low....
For higher hydrations this is worth trying.
I've been playing around with how I do the structural shaping. And that has a big impact on the holes. The method in Tartine and in Dan Lepard's The Handmade Loaf give a good distribution of holes. Although there have been times when there are also a lot of air bubbles on the side of the loaf. Haven't figure that one out yet.The method I have been using that gives me a more even centre (ie no big holes) is one that was taught to me by Sardinian chef/restaurateur Pietro Porcu. His restaurant Da Noi has the most fabulous bread. His shaping method is to pull the dough out long and roll it up like a Swiss roll. Then turn it 90 degrees and do the same again.I've been using his method cos I actually quite like the even crumb. :)
I run at 65-70% hydration with sourdough, as any higher means pancakes!
But I found that my sourdough needs quite a bit more working at the final shaping stage than the yeasted breads. Not sure why, but it may have to do with the gluten development.
Aside from high hydration, try using a weaker flour. If you are using a high gluten or bread flour, try changing to an all purpose flour (probably no more than about 10 % gluten/protein). You basically want to weaken the gluten network some. Aside from raising the hydration, a weaker flour will help.
It also helps to handle the dough more gently. Don't use a mixer. This doesn't mean you have to wear out your wrists kneading, you are in fact better off to use just a few stretch and folds 10 min apart. This way you are less likely to keep any large gas bubbles forming, but the effect is less "even" than a mixer. A mixer beats many small air pockets into the dough before it even starts proofing, and these expand as the yeast works, leading to a more even expansion as the dough rises.
If you're not familiar with the stretch and fold technique, there is plenty of into including videos if you google. My suggestion - mix the ingredients, wait 20 min before you do anything. Stretch and fold twice. Leave to rest at least 10 min and strech and fold another two times. Leave another 10 and do again if you have time. Go to bulf proof, then shape your loaves (gently) for the final rise. That's all.
I am a big fan of Chad Robertson's technique. No need for strong wrists, and have never failed to get big generous airholes with his technique (only been baking for 6 months). his secret is in to autolyse after mixing, followed by a turn of the dough every 30 mins for 4 hours. he follows with initial shaping, 30 mins rest, final shaping and proofing for 4-5 hours, then baking. His breads are pretty high hydration and I find them tricky to transfer to the cast iron (which he preconises). But the care is worth it! Also, as mentioned above, all purpose flour gives more generous holes than higher protein white flour.
I really suggest buying his book Tartine Bread, which goes through this in detail. It's a great read.
Thank you so much for all the great input. I'm not an expert with hydration, so I'll do research on that, and I'll try the ciabatta recipe. I made that many years ago, but not with a starter. I've been so focused on using high protein flour, it never occured to me that it could be a problem. I've learned so much from all your responses.
Oh, and SlackerJohn...my boyfriend's grandfather used to say that the holes in Swiss cheese had the best flavor!
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