I'm new to sour dough baking and new to this forum. By way of background, I am living in a small rural village on the Pacific coast of Panama and don't have access to almost anything at all. Just all-purpose white flour, a bowl, a measuring cup, a baking tray, and a crappy propane gas stove. I don't have recipe books, scales, bannetons, whole-meal flour, spelt, rye flour or, for lengthy periods of time, internet. It's a days trip to any kind of shops and even there not much is available.
By a process of trial and error I have made a starter using white all purpose flour that seems pretty active and healthy and I've baked a few loaves of bread with it as well as some pizza crusts and pancake mixes. I'm pretty pleased with the results so far but I'm looking to get a few tips to improve a few aspects of my bread.
I don't really know the technical talk - hydration percentages and all that stuff - so please, if possible, try to keep it in layman's terms and/or link to a good online resourse I might be able to access to learn a bit more.
My recipe is more or less this:
To make sponge:
I cup starter (consistancy of thick batter - subjective, I know but that's the best I can do - I tried to stick to equal quantities of flour and water by weight but I was using an old unmarked measuring cup to achieve this end.)
2 cups water
4 cups flour
Next day add enough flour to make a workable dough - maybe two cups more - plus 2 tsps salt and 2tlbs olive oil.
It's being rising like crazy during the first proving - doubling or more in 2 - 3 hours. So far, so good. I then deflate it shape the loaves as best I can. The question I have follow.
First, I'm wondering what are the best loaf shapes. I tried to improvise a round banneton from a colander with some success but the dough split as it was rising so the bottom was pretty messy. Any tips on forming loaves so they don't split? (I had similar trouble with some bagels I made before I got on the sourdough thing.) Since then I've been making kind of free-form bagettes by making a sheet of dough and rolling it up. They tend to spread out rather than up during the final prove.
Second, crumb... what is the secret(s) to nice open crumb?
Third, kneading... what is the optimum time to knead by hand? I can never get the window pane test to work for me. Does kneading for a long time make for more open crumb or denser bread? When you deflate it do you knead it briefly? Or just enough to get it back into a round lump?
I'm sure there's more but I'll leave it at that for now.
PS. I just read the tutorials on starters, kneading, proving, shaping, slashing so I am a little better equipped with knowledge but I still would welcome any comments, advice, words of encouragement.