A few weeks ago I wrote a few pithy words about creating sourdough starters and baking sourdough bread. Recently, however, there has been a very interesting exchange in Twitter about whether or not it is ok to proof sourdough bread in a tin. My answer is a categorical yes and it had not occurred to me that there would be a problem with this until Dan Lepard tweeted that the acidity of the sourdough may eat into the tin. He is right and it’s a great point. So far, it has not happened to me and I will be on the watch from now on for pock marked and/or rusty tins. That advice being given, let’s go on to the great tin versus basket debate.
Why tins are great
1. If you want a square loaf you need to bake in a square tin. Some people really like square loaves. One of my clients really likes square loaves. She gets a square loaf.
2. If you are just starting out with bread, it is easier to get a good result with a tin:
– If you grease a tin your bread will never stick
– It is easier to see how much your bread has risen in a tin and, therefore, when it is ready for baking
– If you do not have confidence in your shaping skills and/or you are working with a really wet dough, you can relax when your bread is in tin because the dough is contained by the tin and so it’s shape is guaranteed.
Going down the basket route
So, why bake in a basket? Well, before we had tins we had free form bread and bread that was proofed in a basket, in heavy linen, or in a bowl/pot with solid sides.
This free form bread was necessarily drier – it kept its shape while proofing or it relaxed into a round puddle of dough, ready for the oven! Bread proofed in a basket/linen/bowl could be wetter, was somewhat contained as it proofed, and was rolled out of its container and into a HOT oven – so it had little chance to relax into a puddle before it was baked. That, and the fact that it was well shaped, more about which is below. Today, non square bread is seen to be more “authentic” (kind of like odd shaped sugar cubes?) and as people become accustomed to it not being square, more attractive. I like it because no two loaves are the same. Every non square loaf is visibly unique, reflecting the baker, the state of the dough, the humidity of the day, and a million other things that give that loaf individuality and humanity.
If you choose to go down the basket route, however, things do get a little trickier for the novice.
The first problem people face is their dough gets stuck in the basket. A great way to deal with this is to do what is always done in a German bakery: you treat your basket by washing it with a thin paste made of cornstarch (corn flour) and water. Paint it all over the inside of the basket and let it dry. Once every few months, scrub out your basket and treat it again. In addition, you can flour your basket before you put in the dough or you can dip your dough in flour before you put it in the basket. Too much flour results in a tough, thick crust so you may have to experiment before you get it exactly right.
The second problem people have is that it is more tricky to tell whether your dough is oven ready in a basket. Within reason, if you fill a tin 1/2 full for light flour and 2/3 full for whole meal flour and let it rise until it has come to the top of the tin before baking it should be fine. If you bake your dough before it has sufficiently risen, the loaf may split in an irregular pattern and may be a bit “worthy” in texture but will still be great sliced thinly and toasted. This holds true whether you are proofing in a tin or a basket. If you allow to dough to over rise, and you are baking in a tin, you may see bubbles on the top of the dough before you put it in the oven and it may collapse a bit. So you will have a bit of a wonky crust and a worthy crumb. It will still taste good, especially toasted. In a basket, however, over-rising has an additional complication. If your dough is over developed, it tends to collapse a bit when it is turned out, appearing like middle aged spread bread: bulges where you may not want them, but loveable nonetheless.
To test for rising when using a basket, prod the dough gently with your finger. The dough is ready for the oven when the indentation comes out fully in about a minute. More than a minute = not ready. Significantly less than a minute (or dough that is so soft and airy that your finger goes straight in) = dough over proofed. Bubbles on the top of the dough also indicate that it is over proofed. If your dough is seriously over proofed, just take it out, knead it again with some more flour, shape it and put it back in the basket and wait for an hour or so and it should be oven ready. You can get away with this a couple of times before your dough runs out of puff. You are looking for your sourdough to rise by 50% – not by the 100% that you are looking for in a yeasted dough.
The third problem people may have with basket risen bread is that their dough is inadequately shaped. Shaping is not just putting
the dough into the form of your choice. It is a key process, the objective of which is to prepare your dough to get the loaf you want. However, here we have to digress into a discussion about flour. Wheat and spelt flour both have the particular gluten structure that transforms them from a sandy mess at the bottom of your mixing bowl to a pillowy, elasticy blob on the counter, assuming you have kneaded well (10-15 minutes). Rye, on the other hand, although it contains gluten, has a totally different gluten structure from wheat or spelt. You can knead all you want and your dough will resemble clay. It will never become pillowy and elasticy. The best you can do with 100% rye is shape it into a sausage with wet hands, roll it in flour and lay it tenderly in your basket. It will rise – yes indeed! And quickly (well, quickly for sourdough). The more rye in your dough, the less elasticy it will be. Even if you use a tiny bit of rye starter and make a wheat or spelt loaf you will see that your dough is less elasticy than a 100% wheat or spelt loaf.
The tightness of the dough determines the shape of the bread and the number, size, and distribution of air bubbles in the bread when it is baked. Most important is to get the surface of your dough taught so that it rises in the shape of your choice and does not bulge around. As Richard Bertinet says, in the hilarious and informative video you can look at here, “no Mr Floppy”. To shape you need to “stretch and fold”. Even the traditional “knock back and roll into a sausage and drop in a tin” is a way of stretching and folding to get a sandwich loaf: lots of small, evenly distributed holes in the bread to hold in the butter and the ham. The stretching creates the surface tension and lengthens the strands of gluten to enable them to rise better; and the folding/rolling puts the dough back into a smaller shape of your choice than a stretched out blob of dough and within reason ensures the crust actually sticks to the crumb. You can shape in lots of different ways and every baker has his or her own ways. The point is to have a sausage or a blob that is firm to the touch.
Working with a very wet dough is a challenge. You need to really develop the dough by proper shaping if you are going to get it to hold its shape when you turn it out of the basket. If you are interested in the science behind developing gluten structure, you should read Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley. There is a baker in San Francisco who, after kneading, stretches and folds his dough on the hour every hour for 12 hours before baking it. I don’t do anything of the kind. I tend to knead and let rest for one hour. Then I begin the “stretch and fold”, sometimes leaving the dough in the bowl, sometimes turning it out into a large tupperware box. I will stretch and fold at least twice, and usually 3-4 times over a 2-4 hour period (depends on how hot it is in the kitchen). I will then turn the dough out, cut in into the size of pieces that I want, stretching and folding those and working them into loose balls. I let them rest for 30 minutes or so and then do a final shape before the basket which goes like this:
– Stretch and fold around the dough in a circle, stretching out and folding the dough back on itself.
– Roll it up, pinching out the ends. Fold the ends in and roll it up across the fold, let it rest 10 minutes.
– Roll it out into the length you want or the size of ball you want, using the counter top as resistance to create surface tension.
Basket. Let rise 1-5 hours depending on what is being made and how cold it is. Bake.
Your simple alternative if you are nervous or adverse to middle aged spread it to bake in a tin and there is no shame in that!