Pandemic Bread – NOT a Sourdough

First off let me say: this is NOT a sourdough bread recipe. It’s not a no-knead recipe. It’s not a Dutch oven recipe. This is just straight up mix it all together, rise, shape, bake free-form post. You want a consistent loaf of bread for toast, sandwiches, etc.? Here you go.

In a lot of my instagram (@sausagekonig) and blog posts, baking posts that is, I usually remind everyone I’m not really a baker. I can do a great pie crust and a couple other savory things but bread has been my white whale. Consistency is what you strive for, and bread can be cruel to the home not-a-baker-cook. I’ve tried many different styles, techniques, recipes, in search of the one which would consistently give me a good loaf of bread. The past year gave me time to finally work on it.

Since restaurants were pretty much closed early on (at least in Chicago), wholesalers had plenty of flour and yeast so I avoided the Great Flour and Yeast Shortage of 2020. However the flour and yeast they did have in stock were 25lb bags and 2lb packages. When you have a 25lb bag of flour you can practice and practice and practice and practice…. And yes, you may not think you’ll use it up but you will and then you’ll get another.

I miss those bags. With our move the suppliers here don’t have the same basic flour I was using in Chicago. They’ve got the big bags but not the brand I liked. However, our local farmers market in Takoma Park has not one but 2 vendors selling local flour and grains. After a year of basic APF and honing my bread skills I think it’s high time to try out fancy flour. I picked some up on Sunday and am really looking forward to the first loaf made with it. Ok back to the bread.

While I am not into the care and feeding of a sourdough starter I do use a starter, the biga I’ve previously written about from The Italian Baker by Carol Fields. It’s basic, has served me well, and the amount is good for about 5-6 loaves over the course of a few weeks. I just scoop out what I need and put it back in the fridge. Eventually the top will turn a little grey and once that happens I use what’s underneath and then make a new biga. Hey, when you have 25lb bags of flour you don’t fret about 50grams of grey starter.

Skimming through The Italian Baker I looked for a bread recipe which used her basic biga, didn’t get stale too quickly, would make good toast, and didn’t require multiple rises. The best one I could find was for a rather large Pugliese round, which thankfully could be halved. Even though one of us was eating for 2 at this point of the pandemic, we didn’t need a large 1-2 kg loaf of bread.

After a lot of trial and error, tinkering, and finessing the recipe, I’ve got it. You know why? Because I actually started writing things down and adjusting from there, so this pandemic bread recipe is based on my own ratios. The dough in her recipe is a slightly wet and sticky one which gives you a more open crumb, bigger holes. Nice but not the best for toast. My adjustments have tightened up the dough and the crumb considerably. And it consistently gives us a great loaf of bread. Usually, when I figure something out and keep making it over and over, Cheryl will eventually request something different but not with this one (so far).

For the starter I take 240 grams of warm water, 330 grams of flour, and 3 grams of instant yeast. I’ve been using Saf-Instant Gold label (which is actually for sweeter doughs but works great with non-sweet). And don’t knock instant yeast. There’s none of that activating nonsense and you can simply add it to the water with your starter and flour without waiting for it to ‘bloom.’

Biga/starter after sitting overnight in a covered bowl and transferred to container

Mix the water, yeast, and flour together in medium sized bowl so the flour is all incorporated. It’ll be sticky. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise on the counter, overnight. Once risen you can transfer it to a container with a top and store in the fridge, ready to use. Over the course of the next couple of weeks it’ll develop more flavor as it ferments. You only need 100grams per loaf so you’ll have 5-6 loaves of starter.

Ok, biga made and ready, on to the loaf. Here are your amounts: 330gr warm water, 3gr yeast, 100gr biga, 535gr flour (been using APF all pandemic long), 8 grams of salt. I’m going to be giving instructions for a stand mixer but you can use your hands too.

Side Roam: you may have guessed I put some of my shio koji into the loaf in place of some water. Instead of 330gr of water, I put in 220gr of water and 100gr of the shio koji liquid. The yeast seems to really love this. Just remember to reduce the added salt to 4-5grams since the shio koji is salty enough to make up for the rest of it. It adds really good favor to the bread. I’ve been using barley shio koji lately and yes, it give the bread and even better bread-y flavor. The rice shio koji also works great, I think it rises better than the barley shio koji, gives more of a hint of sweetness. Both give a nice dark crust. Either way, you win.

Put the water, yeast, and starter in the mixing bowl. Using your dough hook give everything a minute or 2 mix in order to break up the starter a bit and mix together. Ok so far? Good.

Now add the flour and salt. Back onto the stand and mix with the dough hook. Once everything has come together and pulled away from the sides of the bowl you’ll have a ball of dough. Keep the dough hook going for a few more minutes (3-5) to work the dough to some sort of elasticity.

Ready for the rise

Put the dough into a lightly oiled large mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, place in a warm spot and let it rise for about 3 hours. Every recipe says triple in size, I like mine to be close to the rim of the bowl. If it’s not close at the end of 3 hours let it keep going. We all know bread baking can be fickle and frustrating. Too warm or too cold and it affects things. Use your sense here.

I’d say that’s tripled. This one took a little longer (cool kitchen) and didn’t rise as much as normal. Usually gets about halfway closer to the rim.

Ok so your 3 hours are up and hopefully your dough has risen and looks like this now. Go and pre-heat your oven to 450F with a heavy pan placed inside.

While it’s pre-heating dust the top of your risen dough with a little bit of flour, pull it out, and kind of fold it in on itself a couple of times. Hold it with your hands, fold them in, turn it and do it again. Basically, what you want to do is pull the sides a little and tuck the edges into the middle and pinch them if you’re making a round loaf. Don’t need to punch it down or handle it too much. Got it? Good.

Banneton/Brot form. Well used.

The dough facing you in your hand where you’ve been pinching it together is the bottom so go ahead and dust the other side and place the ball, smooth side down/seam side up, into your brotform or banneton. Cover with a towel and let rise again for about an hour. I usually place the basket on top of the pre-heating stove for this step. It’s nice and warm there. And yes I know the oven will be preheated long before this shaping rise. If you have a baking stone like I do you want it fully heated. No stone, heat a baking sheet while the oven is preheating.

Approximately 60 mins later…

By now your towel should have a nice bulge in it above the edge of the banneton. Get a pice of parchment paper ready or dust your peel. Flip the banneton over onto the paper or peel, make your slashes, and slide the loaf into the oven onto your baking stone. Pour one cup of warm water into the heavy pan you left on the lowest rack in your oven. I do the first half of the bake on the parchment paper then slide it out from underneath when I spin the loaf at the halfway point.

Bake for 20 mins. Spin the loaf around 180 degrees, slip the parchment paper out from underneath and finish baking for another 20-25 mins. Remove to a wire rack to cool. Listen for the crackling as it cools. I love that sound.

Oval shaped benneton
Nice, tight crumb. Spongy and has that soft custardy texture.
Round banneton. Even though this one took longer and didn’t rise as much as I liked, the bread still baked nicely and tastes delicious.

Now, depending on conditions you may have a little bit of a blowout at one of the slashes or around the bottom. I think that means it didn’t rise long enough or the exterior is dry? Doesn’t matter, the bread will still taste good. As you can see there’s really good oven spring with this mixture.

The loaf stays fairly fresh for a couple of days, after that I’ll store it in an open Ziploc bag cut end to the back. Keeps it from drying out too quickly.

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