I think I am one of the luckiest bakers, but I'm concerned sometimes that my tendency to improvise may cause me to miss some obvious opportunities. So, I'll tell you how I got here, and I'd love to hear any suggestions. My wife loved the sourdough ciabatta from a local baker, and after a few weeks of attempts, I managed to match what she loved, and have been making these ciabatta about twice per week for about 6 months with almost no problems whatsoever. Well, almost. My first starter was a dud (smelled bad), but the second one has been robust, happy, and energetic without fail.
Here is what I do. First, I keep my starter in a liquid form because it seems to keep better in the fridge. I've kept it for two weeks untouched at times, and it springs back to life instantly, but usually, it only sits in the fridge for a day or two or three at most. It's 6 months old, and happy as can be.
My recipe involves a two day process:
- Combine liquid from fridge (about 150ml) with some whole wheat flour to make a fairly stiff mixture.
- 2 hrs later, it's beautifully spongy. I add water and regular flour to create a "batter" consistency (I do this totally by "feel", but did some calculations once and it seems that it's about 50%).
- Then, I feed twice more during the day, keeping the consistency feeling right, and let the starter sit overnight. I read somewhere that this will make the sour flavour develop, and it seems to (though I have not done this any other way, so who knows!?). My wife (and neighbors and friends) love the rich slighly sour flavour so far.
- In the morning, I use equal weight starter, water, and flour... though I don't put the water in right away. So I start with the flour and starter. Usually 400gm of the overnight starter (which is more of a bubbly biga by this time), and 400gm of flour. I take the extra starter, dilute it, and put it in the fridge for next time.
- In my Kitchenaid with dough hook I add about half the water (200gm), mix on low speed just long enough to combine, then let it sit in the mixer for 15-20 minutes.
- Then, I put it on #1, mix and add water until the dough mixes easily but is rather stiff. I like to see as much gluten form as possible.
- Then I put it on #2 for THIRTY MINUTES! (I am consumed with guilt when I read posts telling you not to overmix). During that time, I add water gradually every 10 minutes or so, always being sure that there is plenty of elasticity.
- About 10 minutes before I stop, I add salt, and by the end of the process, the dough is very hydrated (shiny and wet looking), and comes off the dough hook in a stretchy windowpane. Almost without fail, by the time I am done, nearly exactly the 400gm of water has ended up on the mix (different flours, though are slightly different).
- Then, I put it aside and let it rise, covered, until later in the day, usually 8-10 hours.
- I (almost) "pour" it out on the baking table, use a pastry cutter to "pull it apart" into globby loaves, separate them and let them proof for 30 minutes.
- I flour them, flip them, and proof for another 30.
- I bake in a steamy oven at 240C on a baking stone for 15 minutes for a softer crust, and 20 for a crustier loaf.
Now, so far, this has been working great, and the results above are just what I've been looking for.
But, am I missing out on something by the amount of mixing I'm doing? That is my biggest worry. The 30 minute mixing came from a turkish bread (yeasted) recipe from years ago, and I honestly have found that less kneading does not produce such chewy, resilient loaves. I've also tried this with about 50% whole wheat with excellent results.
The one thing I've found is that caution is needed with the water. Too much water too soon, and it's soup. The gluten barely forms. But, if I keep the water content low at first, let the dough become elastic and tenacious, then add the water gradually, it seems to be able to absorb an amazing amount of water and remain elastic and bake well.
Any suggestions? Ideas? I love to experiment.