Its a strange day in the bakery. On a normal day at this time, a little before 10 AM, I would be baking my third load of bread for our two markets tomorrow, but today I slept a blessed bit longer because my doughs weren’t quite ready when I checked them around 4:30 this morning. My first load is still a good hour away from baking.
I make naturally-leavened breads using a living culture of yeasts and bacteria that was started at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab by my dear friend Jane Ogilvie. This “mother” lives in our fridge on a mixture of rye and white flour until two days before I bake, when I bring her out and feed my little friends, expanding the starter to a volume necessary for baking 64 loaves of bread. The microbes in the starter digest the starches and proteins in the flour, releasing nutrients and producing flavorful acids that condition the dough and create the open, elastic sourdough structure we adore.
On a normal day there is usually a little something different about one of the doughs–it’s a little stiffer, or takes a little longer to ferment, or perhaps the additions don’t incorporate as well. I delight in this variation in my bread. It attests to the living nature of the dough, its responsiveness, like any living thing, to changes in temperature, humidity, and quality of food. As with an infant, my billions of little microbial babies can’t tell me what they need, so I have to guess, judging from the smell, the feel, the appearance, and from what I know I’ve already tried.
But today, there is a large something different about all of the doughs. It’s as if I’m making them for the first time. The honey oat is much stronger, which bodes well for its final shape, but the oats cooked more than usual, making them more difficult to incorporate. The raisin rye is taking much longer to ferment than usual, despite its having the greatest bulk (and thus thermal resistivity) and a rye starter in addition to the usual levain. Even the country white–the most straight-forward and dependable of my doughs–is different today, with a looseness to its structure that I have only ever seen with my miche dough.
On a normal day, I tweak my recipes slightly, to try to make them even better, to correct little defects in the crumb, or in the flavor. Two days ago, in preparation for mixing, I made what I thought would be a small tweak, mostly for my convenience. I had liked how my younger-than-usual starter had performed for the Lexington market bake earlier in the week, and I didn’t want to start mixing until the afternoon, so I put my still-young starters in the fridge to hang out until I was ready. When they emerged some six hours later, they were a bit further along, but smelled sweeter, and had a much stronger structure than normal. I confess I have been somewhat lax in controlling the temperature of my starter, mostly because the practical difficulties of baking in a home kitchen in a wood-heated house give me anything but control over temperature. But this change is dramatic, and exciting. Perhaps the cascading force of this small change is what I am now reckoning with. I can’t wait to try it again next week!