Wednesday, October 24th, 2018
Today I found the perfect solution to a problem that has been niggling me for some while. Sourdough can be temperamental. In the summer months it behaves beautifully and I can make a loaf in about 26 hours. But when the weather turns cooler it can take a loaf the best part of a day to prove instead of an hour or two, by which time it has lost a lot of moisture, even if you try to enclose it in a bubble with plastic sheeting. I used to put it in the airing cupboard, but even that is unpredictable as the temperature there varies considerably at different times of the day, depending on whether the boiler kicks in or not. To address the drying out problem, I often keep my dough wetter than it should ideally be, and that causes other problems and does not really prevent the outside from forming a skin, which then prevents the loaf from rising properly.
Here’s my solution, which guarantees consistency and good results. When your loaf is ready for proving, take a large insulating ice box and fill the bottom two inches with very hot water. Put an upturned box or rows of empty jars in it to form a stand so that the loaf tin is not in contact with the hot water. Place your loaf tin on the stand and close the lid. The hot steam swirling around in the ice box will make your loaf rise in just one hour and it will be beautifully moist as it goes into the oven for the bake.
I make my sourdough loaves in tins rather than freeform because guests like toast and it’s tidier to have uniform slices that fit the toaster. Bakers might wonder why it takes me 26 hours or more to make a loaf. It’s because I make a “sponge” from starter, flour and water in the morning, which I leave all day for the flavours to develop before adding more flour and kneading it in the evening. The dough then rises slowly overnight in the larder or the fridge, depending on the time of year, is knocked back after breakfast and is proved until ready to bake. With this new speeded up proving process I can have it ready by lunch time at any time of year, no matter what the ambient temperature is. I bake in batches, once or twice a week depending on the number of guests, and I alternate between white loaves and wholewheat loaves made with stoneground flour.