No rise blues: An ode to sourdough bakers

Many bakers send me private photos of their loaves attached with rude, judge-y remarks. 

“Pancakes.” 

“F$%#-ing catastrophe.”

“Dismal deflation.”

“Friggin’ flat tire.” 

These are just a few of the adjectives frustrated bakers announce when a loaf doesn’t bounce up to the height they had seen in their dreams or worse still, Instagram.   

I try to console with “That happens to me all the time…” but that never really helps soften a defeated sourdough baker’s fall from grace. 

Let’s face it. Not everyone has the patience or stamina for sourdough baking, especially if you have done some or all of the following:

  1. Mixed the levain late one night.
  2. Spent the following day sloshing together a long list of ingredients in a bowl, each scoop of flour, splash of water and sprinkle of salt meticulously measured by the gram or ounce.
  3. Tugged and stretched and folded every 30 minutes for an entire afternoon or morning before shaping an unbelievably sticky blob into a boule or baton.
  4. Transferred your shaped loaves into a flour-lined banneton (upside-down, no less) searched for a shower cap or plastic wrap amid a drawer packed tornado-style with measuring cups, spoons and bench scrapers, your fingers sticky with a floury adhesive plastered on everything you touched including the handle of the fridge where the loaves will retire — yet rise —  overnight until early the next morning, grumpy and tired, you remove said sourdough loaves ever so gingerly, turn their upside-down forms upright on a parchment paper-covered sheet, score each with a sharp razor blade tremulously pinched between bent, arthritic fingers, don elbow-high, warrior-thick oven mitts, reach into a 500 F degree oven without pulling another muscle, place a hot Lodge combo cooker on the range top, remove its cover,  slide a scored loaf into it, replace the lid, emit a bovine-like moan while lifting the five-ton, molten hot-lidded combo cooker, bend back down again into the hellish heat to settle one pan and remove the next until both loaves are now blessedly in their baking place, covered until the timer dings in 20 minutes to uncover what could be the most blissful or depressing sight you’ve seen in the past 48 hours of your baking life. 

Who cares if you’ve created a splattered 2-inch pool of dough, and not the eight-inch-high bursting boule of your dreams? 

You do, if you have read this far.  Several decades of baking have taught me several lessons or simple rules. 

Rule one for success. To be a sourdough baker you must be obsessed if not on the verge of masochistic.     

Rule two. When the lid comes off and the dough has spread like a pool of blood, tell your ego to shut-up and wonder why. (If George hadn’t been curious, he wouldn’t have lived through all those books).  Was my starter fresh, strong and resilient enough?  Did I shape the boule to have sufficient tension? Am I scoring art or slashing their hearts? Is my flour organic, local and freshly milled? Am I using chlorinated water or sweet spring H2O?

Rule three. Know your dough like the back of your hand, the nose on your face, your third eye, whatever.  When you fail, try the very same bread recipe again, yes, again, without complaining or holding your breath. Just observe.  Do that three-day process all over again making it a meditation on sticky versus wet, pliable versus loose. Wonder how far you can gently stretch the dough without tearing. Do you want to maintain those bubbles or press them out? What is the ambient temperature of your kitchen? Have you tried putting a thermometer in your flour, dough or water? 

Last rule: Post every winner on Instagram and quietly embrace your losers. Listen to your palate because sourdough ugly ducklings offer up rich, artisanal flavours you’ll never taste in store-bought.

Apple Pecan Sourdough

Makes 2 loaves

This bread is adapted from Sarah Owen’s brilliant Butternut Squash and Cherry Bread found in Sourdough. Freshly ground flour ramps up the taste factor 100 per cent. 

Stiff levain

30 g 100% hydration starter

60 g  water

85 g  organic, unbleached hard white bread flour

Final dough

175 g stiff levain

250 g thick, preferably homemade apple sauce

355 g water

45 g honey

525 g organic, unbleached hard white bread flour

140 g whole spelt flour

30 g whole rye flour

14 g sea salt (Guérande, a gray, coarse salt from Brittany is my favourite for bread)  

1 cup toasted pecan pieces

Make the levain in a medium bowl, mix with your hand and knead into a small ball. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to ferment at room temperature for 8 to 10 hours or when it is tightly domed. (You can refrigerate after 7 hrs and keep there for up to 6 hrs if your schedule requires).

In a large bin or bowl, combine stiff levain, apple sauce, water and honey. Using your hand, break up and squeeze the levain until it breaks down into a bubbly, cloudy mix.  Add flour, spelt and flour, mixing with your hands,  a Danish dough whisk or large spoon. Cover and leave to autolyze for about 20 minutes. Sprinkle over with salt and mix it into the dough, squeezing and grabbing the dough, with a moist hand until a dough forms with no dry flour bits. Cover and bulk ferment for 2 hours, turning and folding every 30-40 minutes.  Fold in toasted pecans and continue to ferment another 1-2 hours, or until the dough is puffy and almost doubled in size, knowing that hot summer temperatures raise dough faster. 

Sprinkle brown rice flour inside lined bowls or bannetons to prevent sticking. On a lightly floured surface, halve the dough into two pieces, shape and place seam-side up, covering with shower caps or closed plastic bags. Refrigerate 8-12 hours. 

Preheat two Lodge combo cooker pans in the bottom rack of a 500 F oven. Depending on your oven this will take 30-60 min.

Remove raised loaves from the refrigerator, uncover and place a piece of parchment paper and small cutting board over each one. Flip each one over to release the dough and score. Wearing heavy duty oven gloves, remove one heated combo cooker. Remove the cover. Slide the scored loaf into the shallow bottom pan, replace cover and return to the oven. Repeat. Reduce the oven to 450 F and set timer for 20 minutes.  Carefully remove covers and leave to bake another 15-25 min, until loaves are golden brown. Cool on baking rack for an hour before serving.  

Tip

Making your own applesauce is easy to do. Core and quarter 4 large organic apples, place in a medium saucepan, add 1/2 cup water, cover and heat on medium.  Cook, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes or until the apples are soft enough to mash into a puree. 

Tip

Toasting nuts and seeds brings out rich flavour but it’s easy to burn them, instead. Try toasting in a dry frying pan over medium-high heat, stirring and watching until golden brown. It helps to have raw ones nearby to compare colouring. If smoke appears, take off heat immediately.