Stalking the Wild Yeast, Part 4

Day 18 was a Sunday.  My starter was now three days behind schedule.  Although it bubbled up roughly eight hours after feeding, its interior still did not exhibit anything close to the consistency of bubble wrap.  I went for it anyway.  After two and a half weeks of biding my time, I’d arrived at the “whatever” stage.

I tended to my mise en place, gathering together ingredients and equipment.  By the time I was ready to start, my dining table was arranged with 18 ounces of starter, a fresh portion of bread flour, a bit of wheat germ, salt, room temperature water, and, to keep the party from getting too wild, my trusty bench scraper.  The flour went onto my hefty wooden cutting board, and I hollowed out a well in the center.  The starter and wheat germ went into the well.  Salt has a way of inhibiting yeast activity, so it wouldn’t get tossed into the fray until later.  Adding the water little by little into the well, I incorporated the ingredients, working my fingers in small circles and gradually pulling in flour from the perimeter.  Eventually the mixture came together and became a dough.

As I pressed and folded, kneaded and stretched, the dough turned into a ball-shaped mass with a tackiness that clung to my hands like a big, gentle suction cup.  Soon I could feel the gluten strands strengthening within the dough and resisting my efforts.  At this point, Silverton says to let the dough rest for 20 minutes: “As it sits, the flour continues to absorb water.  The dough is also regaining its composure, so to speak, after enduring the stress you’ve just inflicted on it during mixing and kneading.”  I wondered if this was an editorial error, and whether Silverton meant just the reverse, because in my case, it was clearly the baker who had endured stress and needed to regain composure and the dough that had done the inflicting.  I let myself rest for 20 minutes while absorbing two cups of water before going back to the dough.

The salt went in next, followed by another brief period of kneading, until the dough passed what’s known as the “window” test—if you can stretch a small piece of the dough to a transparent membrane without the dough tearing, it passes.  I shaped the dough into a neat ball, a boule, and placed it inside a lightly oiled bowl, noting the dough’s size.  I covered it and left it with hopes that it would grow twice as large in volume over the next 3 ½ to 4 hours.

The dough didn’t disappoint me.  I’d left it as a grapefruit-sized ball of dough and returned to find a cantaloupe.  It was soft and yielding to the touch.  When I poked it with my fingertips, the indentations lingered for long moments before filling out again.  My starter was doing its job!  Fermentation was going strong.  Bubbles of carbon dioxide and alcohol gases were stretching and teasing apart the fibers of gluten in the dough, literally inflating it.

But still the dough wasn’t ready for baking.  It had to spend the night in the refrigerator first, with the cold temperature serving the purpose of curbing, though not altogether eliminating, the activity of the yeast.  This long period of slow fermentation was the key to achieving full flavor development. phone-pics-494

I divided the dough into four portions, shaped each piece into rounds, and tucked them into bowls lined with floured cloth.  The balls of dough were given another brief rise before getting covered with a kitchen towel and then bagged in plastic.  Fitted on a half-sheet tray, they claimed the entire bottom shelf in the refrigerator while the left-over pizza and the previous night’s clam chowder spent the night with the milk, butter, and eggs on top.

Find out what happens next in Stalking the Wild Yeast, Part 5.

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