Friday, June 3, 2011

Lahey Gone Wild

I set out today with the best intentions. Well, some of them were evil, but it was for a good cause all the same. I planned to produce one batch of bread, the Norwich sourdough, not the 16 others that I was chomping at the bit to try. And this sourdough, I was to craft it with no aberration from its original design. Why? Because I can never follow rules, I can't stick to a decision for all the tea in China, and I try to accomplish too many things at once. For instance, I will begin a formula for a specific type of bread, and by the end of it all I've tossed in everything but the dog. Like the Norwich Sourdough formula that I had just brief days ago altered to such a degree that it was no longer the intended bread, but a chocolatey ode to Charles Bukowski and his crusty old tome about sandwiches.

The crumb of 3 different bread varieties

The evil intention is that while I was pledging my allegiance to simplicity and obedience, I secretly planned to also transform a Lahey loaf into one that uses wild instead of commercial yeast behind my own back. But I couldn't help myself. I had recently picked up his book and as gorgeous as his rustic breads are, I couldn't find one formula that used a wild yeast starter. What a bummer. I was convinced that his style and no-hands technique could be accomplished with some mindful modifications. It can be. You'll see the results later on down this road. And of course, in proper form, by the end of it all I ended up revising two.

I have yet to make a loaf of bread the way god had intended, well, the baker who authored it anyway. But there is a reason for my flagrant mutiny that I would like to share, lest you begin to believe that I'm some bohemian hash slinger with pie in the sky dreams about elevating lowly loaves to some eccentric level with my iconoclast ideas. The truth is, I am hiding some dirty truths, and because it has been said that the most expedient way to freedom is to come clean and start spillin' the beans, I thought I might share them over my morning coffee. I will take for granted that you're willing to tolerate my informal confession, since most people love a good deficiency against which to judge the caliber of their own. We'll talk bread in a minute, yeah? After I'm finished stretching out on the proverbial couch and truthin' my way to liberty.

Here goes.

My first dingy little secret is that I'm a disgrace to my own sign. I'm a Virgo, and there is always some unkempt corner of my flat littered with baskets half-loaded with (clean) clothes that I've been mining since laundry day which could have been two weeks before, maybe three. And worse are the grocery bags, unfolded, at least one of them containing my wallet and either onions or lemons that I just could not be bothered to put away. Virgoes are meant to be the tidy sun sign, but I blame my disorder on the fact that I was also born year of the dog. And like any sound canine true to its species, I'm really good at toggling between amusing myself and loafing about. I have forty years of empirical proof that year of the dog trumps Virgo, so I doubt those bags are going to get folded any time soon, and I know just where my wallet is in case I need to make French onion soup.

The second vicious little truth is that I have too many irons in the fire all of the time, and every time I try to pull one out to simplify my life, I slip another one in on the sly. How cagey. For instance, did you know that I have two blogs? That I'm working on a third? And I won't even tell you how many are hidden behind the scenes. I could just brush it off with a declaration that I have a lot to spout, that coupled with my vast array of interests calls for many many forums where which to lay it all out. But no. I have too many irons in the fire because of the last of my evil little truths: I have a terrible fear of making mistakes. This, the filthiest truth of them all.

I think that the maxim about baskets of eggs has ruin't many a good soul, including mine. My fear of making mistakes is so debilitating that I make certain my basket is populated with plenty of ouevos in case a few of 'em get crushed beneath my mid-morning nap. After all, that aphorism pretty much assures that most of your efforts are going to get pulverized, so you had better have a back up egg. You'll pack that basket tight if you're wise.

Consider this, if I have so many endeavors on my plate, I'm probably never really expected to finish anything at all. I'm busy, you understand, maneuvering my ever copious eggs, which makes me a serious woman, one who cannot be bothered with trivial things like deadlines and completing projects. It is my sole job to keep these eggs suspended and rotated and on the move. Please don't bother me with your orthodoxy.

In fact, I have so many pursuits that my friends have no idea about which to ask, or how my progress therewith might be. I have for years been hopscotching from one plan to the next without raising much suspicion or realization that in view of the myriad, nothing ever gets accomplished at all. And my endless epiphanies about starting new endeavors has become my most finely-honed talent. The perfect smokescreen, really, to hide the fact that I have a paralyzing fear of failure, or maybe success, the age-old tandem of fears, so long in the tooth that this duo has become the catch-all to summarize why many of us avoid accomplishment. Forget about the underlying cause.

The stored loaves

So here's what: I did have an epiphany recently, but it wasn't one announcing my latest scheme that would launch a wooden shoe factory in Indonesia to tap the market of remaining nostalgic colonists. My epiphany was that fear of making a mistake is simply fear of self-trust disguised as prudence. And who would argue the foresight of a practical woman? All of my eggs and irons represent my reticence to make a decision and buckle down to the task of one pursuit. Why, if I don't choose one thing with which to forge ahead, then nothing will ever get accomplished. If nothing ever gets accomplished then I am never held accountable for a possible abysmal failure, and if I wildly succeed I never have to worry about, well, being accountable to nurture the thing that brought me success. Even better, if my success was a fluke there will be nothing to highlight the possibility that I might be a fraud. And who wants to face the idea that their life is a sham?

Just what is so golsh darned terrifying about failure anyway?

There is a comfortable certainty that comes with familiarity. Standing still is safe, boring, sure, but at least there is a guarantee. Let me rephrase, the odds of a guarantee are evident because you've been standing there long enough to anticipate the degree of danger given the number of years you've allowed yourself to take root. It is very tricky how our minds can become so married to the promise of safety, even if illusory, that it constructs methods to conceal deep-rooted fears that eventually paralyze us. And when we are paralyzed, we can’t recklessly hurl ourselves into the jaws of danger. The danger of success. The danger of discovering our essential selves. In time, our habitual paralysis disconnects us from our essence. We sit in our tight little mews, strangers to our own needs and suspicious of that which might lead us to thrive. We become shadows in our own lives, and the story that we are meant to tell gets buried in the avalanche of mistrust. Mis-self-trust. It is indeed our vulnerable self that believes it is better to remain stagnant than to risk being chewed up by the terrifying unknown.

The bottom line is that we have to make decisions without judgment, you know, that we will probably fail, or worse, succeed. We have to make a choice to pursue some thing, one thing, without fear of potential, probable, cataclysm. We can't just keep plunging iron after iron in the fire and laying dozens of eggs. It's really not up to us to decide whether the decision is good or bad. In fact, if left up to some of us, I would venture that there’s a good chance that we will spend so much time weighing all the variables that our reluctance might very well cause us to talk ourselves out of doing something 'silly', and miss out on the spontaneity of living. I'm not suggesting that we hurl ourselves recklessly into endeavors without any degree of thought, but those of us whose caution is cradled in fear might consider that not every decision is going to bring life crashing down. We are more at liberty to take calculated risks, and stalwart enough to withstand the challenges of them, than we give ourselves credit for.

Life is an experiment, and decisions are the steering wheel. You turn it this way, you turn it that way. If you find yourself on a road that doesn't jive, hit the blinker and round the next bend. Whatever you do, just don’t turn back. That’s a decision that is rarely the right one. At least this much I know is true.


Today I made several loaves.
The whitish loaf is my newly developed City Loaf, in whole wheat, the
one to the right of that is my City Loaf, in white. The three loaves that
support these two in the back are the Norwich loaves, my way.

decided to risk tweaking the Norwich sourdough which is the one all covered in wheat bran. The original formula can be found on Wild Yeast Blog. Just click on the link above. Suffice it to say that the crumb came out largely irregular and much more open than the last time. Lovely. I did make the following changes:

Increased the hydration from 600g h2o to 700g. And I performed 3 turns instead of 2 - 1 every half hour for the first 1.5 hours - during the ferment. And the ferment I increased from 2.5 hours to 3. I also shaped the dough into 3 boules instead of 4 batards, and I used my combo cooker because I love the way it steams the loaves. I baked them covered for 28 minutes at 475˚, and uncovered for the remaining time. Not sure how long they baked, but the internal temp was 205˚ or so. You know. They were done when I took them out of the oven. And the most obvious thing I tweaked was dusting them with bran before baking. As an experiment, I scored one, one I left unscored, one I just cut a sliver in the top, just to see what would happen. They were really good, and all of my friends assured me that it was the best sourdough they ever ate. I love my friends.

Here is the formula:

900g KA all purpose
120g Arrowhead Mills rye
367g ripe, rye sourdough starter
700g h2o
23g salt

Mix starter, flours and water together. I did use my mixer for this. The dough was quite sticky.

Autolyse for 30 minutes. Add the salt. Ferment for 3 hours, with turns at 30, 60, and 90 minutes.

I let the dough ferment untouched for the remaining hour and a half. It will double in volume.

Beautiful gluten development.

Shaped into 3 balls. Bench rest 15 minutes.

Under these. Oil them first, or they will stick.

These days I oil my board instead of flouring. I'm so paranoid about adding too much flour, I figure I can't go wrong with this. Can I? Let me know.

Linens in wait.

Laid out a linen.

Sprinkled with wheat bran.

Shaped my dough and got it onto the cloth.

Wrapped it up snugly to proof.

Here's the trio.

This is a Lahey application employed to this Norwich sourdough by the way. It seemed cool and I have plenty of linen, so I thought I might give it a try.

Done proofing.

Onto a peel.


Baked as outlined above. Et voila!


Closeup of crumb.

The next decision I made was to tweak two Lahey formulae to use my wild yeast starter. I must admit, I am not a fan of commercial yeast. One of the main reasons I got into this biz was because of the health benefits of sourdough. It is, after all, a fermented (pre-digested) food, so, it's good for you despite those fools who don't believe in eating carbs. Carbs do not make you fat, people. Excess does.

Onto Lahey.

So, we are familiar with his bread. The reason I dusted those Norwich loaves was because I liked the way the rustic loaf looked. That's also the reason I played with not scoring and minimal scoring.

I had really good luck converting two of Lahey's formulas to sourdough: his white loaf and a whole wheat.

Because I made some changes and plan to continue tweaking the hydration etc., I've sort of appropriated the loaves and call them my own: City Loaf, in white and City Loaf, in whole wheat.

Let me comment first on the bread. The City Loaf in white had a lovely crumb, it was moist, the crust was excellent, oven spring was fantastic, and it tasted sublime. The same for the City Loaf in whole wheat, airy, wonderful crumb, texture and flavor. I am definitely going to keep tweaking the formulae and playing with the fermentation time, hydration, and volume of sourdough.

Here's what I did:

City Loaf, In White

400g King Arthur bread flour
100g ripe, rye sourdough starter
310g 55˚ to 65˚ h2o
8g salt

Lahey adds the salt right at the start, because you are just supposed to mix everything up and let it ferment for 12 - 18 hours. This is exactly what I did. This is a hands-off method after all. The only time your hands are in the dough is to get this stuff together, and then again to shape the boules. Next time I think I might play with autolyse and adding a few turns, just for shits and giggles.

I started here.

This is what the dough looks like. It's a very sticky blob.

After 8 hours it doubled. *Be sure to ferment this in the coolest part of your house. If it's too warm, this will ferment too quickly and will not reach the full fermentation time. We want a long fermentation for this loaf so that it has time to develop not only flavor, but appropriate gluten action. Remember, this is a hands-off loaf. (Though I will be experimenting with this fermentation time, see below).

NOTE: The day before I experimented with Lahey's 18 hour fermenting technique. IT DOES NOT WORK when you are using sourdough starter. That sourdough starter gobbled up all the sugars pretty fast, and 18 hours later it was a glossy, flaccid, soupy mess. Here is what it looked like after 18 hours of fermentation:

Even after 12 hours I could tell that the dough was spent. 8 hours was just when the dough hit the doubled mark. But I will be playing with this fermentation time and passing along the info to you. I am going to decrease the fermentation time, and you will see why when you read below.

After proper fermentation, I got it into a linen-lined banneton. I did not do a bench rest. (See note below). For one thing, Lahey goes right from the fermenting vessel into a shaped boule. No shaping into a ball before the boule, and no bench rest. And, as it were, there is no way that this dough could have bench rested, because it was super soft. Instead, I shaped it straight from the fermenting vessel and and refrigerated it for its proofing time of 2 hours.

Note: This dough was very soft, which is why I didn't proof it 'Lahey style', using only a linen. It needed something rigid in form to keep it altogether. Next time I will play with fermentation duration. Perhaps a little less time on the ferment, and perhaps I will experiment with a refrigerated fermentation as well, just because I would like to see that dough have a little more structure for the 2-hour proofing period. I would like to get it to the point where it can be proofed right in the linen, without the employ of a banneton, and preferably on the counter top instead of the fridge.


Here is the boule straight from the fridge. Nice, eh? I inverted the banneton onto a peel lined with a piece of parchment for easy sliding.

Slashed, though Lahey does not slash. I wanted to. Next time I want to experiment with slashes - no slashes, minimal slashes, traditional slashes.

Into the heated combo cooker.


Oh, my oven temps. Heat to 500˚ with the combo cooker. When you slide your dough into the oven, turn down to 475˚.

Baked covered for 30 minutes. Here is what the steamed loaf looked like. Beautiful, eh?

Baked for another 20 minutes uncovered.

Here's the City Loaf, in white crumb:

A closeup:

City Loaf, In Whole Wheat

300g KA all purpose flour
100g Bob's Red Mill whole wheat flour
200g ripe, rye sourdough starter
305g 55˚ to 65˚ h2o
8g salt

I mixed everything together, including salt. It was difficult not to mix the flour and water first, let it autolyse, then add in the salt. But, this is a hands-off method, and I was following the rules. Yay.

After exactly 7 hours later, it had doubled in size and I could tell by the look of it that it wanted to get into the oven. Sorry for the bad photo, I baked this loaf at night and I don't have proper lighting for better nighttime photography. That will come soon.

The dough ready to be shaped.

I don't know why, but I did a 20 minute bench rest, which is not part of the Lahey plan, and after that rest it was just a tad loose. I might toggle between refrigerated cool (room temp) fermentation, or just decrease the fermentation time a tad at a time. In the very least I will nix the bench rest and go straight from the vessel into the linen for its 2-hour proof. I did not use a banneton. I used the Lahey method of proofing using just a proofing linen.

I baked the City Loaf, in whole wheat, as I did above with the white loaf: 30 minutes covered, then another 30 uncovered. It took 10 minutes longer than the white, though, my oven is evil and loves to race up and down willy-nilly. It takes some serious muscle to keep the temp in check, so, the fluctuation in temperature could have caused the extra time.

Here is the finished loaf.

The crumb.

Closeup of the crumb.

I will keep you all posted with new details about my City Loaves. I'm excited to see where I can take them, and how I can make them more and more my own.


Flavor: Extraordinary. Crust: Shattery. Aroma: Heavenly. Dough temperament: The Norwich sourdough was a little challenging because I increased the hydration, but not so much that it could not be proofed in linen without a banneton. The white City Bread was unruly because of the high hydration, and I had to proof it in the fridge. The wheat was a little easier, but not by much. I would not do a bench rest, and instead I would proof in the fridge then go directly from fridge to oven. I need to work on hydration.  Worry factor when fermenting: Almost nil - it expanded visibly and steadily. Exciting.

To the staff of life!

This post was submitted to Wild Yeast Blog's Yeast Spotting. 


  1. i want some! NOW!

    mmmmm mmmm mmm

    - Ben Kobayashi

  2. Your writing style/content/frequency/eloquence never ceases to amaze me.

    - Graham

  3. Beautiful analogy!



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