Ep. 21: How to Make Sourdough Bread with Andrew Janjigian

iTunes | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Play | Google Podcasts | iHeartRadio | TuneIn

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot of questions lately from you, dear readers. And a lot of them have everything to do with sourdough bread. Which is how this podcast came to be. We didn’t have all the answers (even David himself admitted to not knowing everything!) and we wanted to make sure you did. Andrew Janjigian, a baking expert from Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen, was kind enough to share with us the essentials of creating your own sourdough loaf, from making a starter with just flour and water and patience (and, we’d like to note, without any need for commercial yeast, which is what has made sourdough so insanely in demand as of late) and takes us through everything you need to know through slicing that finished loaf. Cue freshly baked sourdough scent and admiring oohs and aahs from everyone in your household. As with most things in life, it may take a little practice But never have the results of your endeavors been so crusty, tangy, chewy, and versatile.

Renee Schettler Rossi's signature

Transcript

David Leite: Adam, how did your latest sourdough deep dive go. Better?

Adam Clairmont: Yeah, I’d say better in some respects. So yeah. So first of all, thanks to your personal input, David, and all the things that I’ve been learning just producing the show and listening. I finally, finally got a starter ready to bake with, so thank you for that.

David: You’re welcome.

Adam: So Saturday I began with the dough, put the dough in the fridge overnight, and then finished up on Sunday. Overall, I’m happy, I did have some problems, I will say, but the end result was bread and it tasted great. I mean, it came out a little on dark side, a little burnt.

David: Was it burnt on the bottom?

Adam: No, it was burnt everywhere. Yeah, but it’s not inedible and overall I’m really happy. I learned a ton just going through the process and that’s really where I get to learn, you know, when I try something out and I make some mistakes. So yeah, overall good experience and I’m really excited to give it another try real soon.

Renee Schettler: Well, and David is good at jumping in with that personal input.

David:  Yeah. Yes. I put my hand in here, I put my hand in there just like miss Dolly Levi and Hello, Dolly.

Renee: How did the kids like the bread Adam?

Adam: Well, my son he’s a picky eater, so he’s not going to go anywhere near anytime soon but my daughter, she likes it. And actually I have been making bread using the recipe that I picked up again from the show the 5-Minute No-Knead recipe from Zoe Francois. And I’ve been making that dough with my kids and it’s been a lot of fun, been able to teach them something new, gets them excited about something that’s not an iPad.

Renee: Science. Homeschooling.

Adam: Yeah, that’s right, making natural organisms.

David: So science…natural orgasms…

Scared Boss: Excuse me!!

David: …oh my God! Oh my goodness! “Natural orgasms!” No, the natural organisms. I am so red, so embarrassed–

Renee: You are red.

David: Oh my God.

Scared Boss: HR, pick up line one.

David: Oh my God.

Renee: I’ve never seen you so red in the face David! And moving on, I’m Renee Schettler editor-in-chief of Leite’s Culinaria.

David: And I’m David Leite, its very embarrassed founder and this is Talking With My Mouth Full.

Renee: You’re really red, David.

David: Adam, you’re in luck because today we have one of the giants of the bread world, Andrew Janjigian. Andrew is resident bread head over at Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen. And I wonder if he is a senior bread head, does that make him a head bread head? We’ll have to ask him about that. And he’s going to answer all your nagging questions about sourdough. So Andrew, welcome to the show.

Renee: Thanks for being here.

Andrew Janjigian: Thank you. Nice to be here.

David: So I’d like to help get tons of our readers and listeners off the cross because some of them are just beating themselves up when it comes to sourdough. So doesn’t learning to make a great loaf of sourdough bread take time and practice?

Andrew: Absolutely. I’m still getting the hang of it myself, and I’ve been doing it now for 10 years or so. It takes time. But you can get something that’s quite edible and quite tasty pretty early on. So you shouldn’t let aesthetics discourage you from continuing a lifetime of baking sourdough bread.

Renee: Nice.

David: Thank you. Thank you for saying that!

Andrew: It really is just aesthetics in there in the early days that…

David: I agree.

Andrew: … for the most part.

What is a sourdough starter and what’s your formula?

Renee: So we’ve been getting questions from readers that take us all the way from starter to finish loaf cooling on the counter. So many questions when it comes to sourdough, especially obviously, since we’re not using yeast like most of us grew up baking with. So can you talk us through beginning from what is a starter and how do you begin to create that? What’s your formula? What’s your timeline?

Andrew: Okay. So to begin with, what a sourdough starter is a mixture of flour and water, along with bacteria and yeast that live in symbiotic association with one another. They consume the sugars that are made from the starches in the flour and as they consume that they release all kinds of interesting compounds, primarily carbon dioxide, which is what leavens bread, but also flavorful molecules like acids, aldehydes, and alcohols. And that’s where all of the flavor from bread comes from, after the flour itself. And so the way you get a sourdough starter is you find a friend who has one and you ask them if you can get some of theirs.

Renee: Nice!

David: That’s the easy way.

Andrew: That’s the easiest way and also the most reliable way of getting it. If you don’t have a friend with the sourdough starter, then what you do is you get flour and everyone has water. So you get flour and you mix flour and water together and then you simply let it sit for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. And after which it will start to show activity in the form of bubbles and aroma. And that’s a sign that the microorganisms that are naturally present on a kernel of wheat or rye have woken up and are starting to consume the starches again. The sourdough organisms are in nature, that’s the only reason we can bake bread with them is because they’re out in nature consuming sugars where they can find them. And one source of those are grains.

David: And what is your formula, water to flour? What kind of flour and what’s the proportions?

Andrew: So there’s two ways to talk about it. One is, are we talking about quarantine conditions or ideal conditions?

David: Ideal conditions.

Renee: Fair question.

Andrew: You would want, ideally, organic flour so that you don’t have any issues with fungicides or anything else that might’ve been sprayed on the grain to kill organisms. And you would ideally also have a whole grain flour in the mix, if not entirely all whole grain. Because a whole grain is literally that, it’s the whole grain and so the organisms that are there in nature on the outside of the seed coat and so if that’s been taken away you’re also taking away some of those sourdough organisms. So ideally you have some whole grain in the mix. I recommend people do a 50/50 mix of white flour and rye or whole wheat. Rye is particularly good at being a place to find the organism. So if I could choose whatever flours I would say, a mix of all-purpose or bread flour and rye flour.

David: And then an equal amount of water to match the amount of the flour.

Andrew: Yeah, the ratios aren’t as important in the sourdough creation process as they are obviously in baking bread. Formula, it has to be precise when you’re trying to make a loaf of bread, but when you’re making a starter, it’s really just has to be loose enough so that the organisms have all the water they need. And so an equal parts mix is just as easy kind of thing to remember, you don’t have to think about what ratios because it’s just the same amount by weight of each.

David: So many people have written and saying that their starter goes gangbusters day two, day three, day four and then it rolls over and plays dead. What’s going on?

Andrew: And I got the same things from people throughout this process that I’ve been doing myself. What’s happening there is that, in fact, it’s not simply that a kernel of weed happens to have the two organisms we want—the lactic acid bacteria and the yeast that we want to live in bread—they have all other microorganisms on as well. And some of those are much faster to wake up. And…

Renee: That makes sense.

Andrew: …so in the beginning it’s….so in ecology is called a succession, you start with a certain organisms that take a foothold on in the environment. And over time, as the conditions change, then those organisms die back and new ones replace them. And so it takes a while to get to the point where the yeast and bacteria that you want are actually there in sufficient numbers to leaven bread. And so there is that middle period where it looks really good, the people are just astounded that on day two, it’s doubled in size and it smells, it doesn’t necessarily smell good in their early days, which is something that is good to realize actually if it starts to smelling kind of putrid and then it dies back, it’s a good sign that you’re getting away from those things that you really don’t want to be cultivating.

David: So it’s like Game of Thrones of bacteria?

Andrew: There’s definitely evolution involved and there’s definitely a competition there and fortunately the sourdough seems to win out in the long run.

Renee: And mayhem and malevolence.

What the best way to know if your starter is ready?

Renee: And so in terms of testing for doneness, I’ve been hearing a lot about the float test in which you take a small blob of dough and drop it in a glass of water and, theoretically, when it floats its ready. Is that true?

Andrew: Yeah. So, unfortunately, the best way to know if it’s ready is to try to make a loaf of bread with it. And that can be disheartening when you’ve gone through a two-day process and you realize that you weren’t quite there yet, but there are a number of sort of indicators that things are either there or close to being there. And so a starter, maybe it’s easier to say what a mature starter looks like.

Andrew: You’ll mix it with fresh flour and water and let it sit at room temperature and within eight to 12 hours, it should about triple in volume. So it should expand and it should happen fairly quickly, so in less than 12 hours. So probably not ready for prime time. So in the early stages of the process, once it starts to pick up again after that quiet period, after four or five days, so maybe about seven to 10 days in, it’ll start to expand but it will take longer than the 12 hours. So usually, in the beginning, you feed it once every 24 hours so that it can kind of go through the whole cycle and then it is time to refresh it.

A glass jar with overflowing starter on a wooden surface as part of an explanation on how to make sourdough starter.

Renee: And so then when you’re refreshing it, when you’re not imminently baking a loaf of bread or intending to, right, barring any spur-of-the-moment needs for a loaf, how often do you feed it then?

Andrew: So, yeah. So once a day is what I tell people. We’re still talking about the creation process, right?

Renee: Yeah.

David: Yeah.

Andrew: So here’s what it looks like from day, say, one to about 10, you’re doing it once a day and hopefully by day 10, it’s starting to move more quickly and starting to rise in less than, about 12 hours time or so. And then you can jump to twice a day feedings and then eventually, say, by day 20 to 30. Some people in my worldwide experiment have found it took 45 days or so. So it can take a while and some of that has to do with how precise your feeding or how careful you are about feeding it on a regular schedule and I can’t control what other people are doing. So I don’t know if those outliers are because of the process or because of the person doing it. But the entire thing should take about a month to get to a point where it can really leaven a loaf of bread successfully regularly.

David: Because what I’ve told readers is I use a Weck glass, those round glasses, right? Which I love and I have them use a grease pencil or a rubber band to mark where it starts and then mark its high point. And then once it’s arising and collapsing and being fed and rising up again, that just before it reaches that high point, isn’t that where its strongest when it’s a fully matured starter?

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. So that high water mark is the ideal moment.

David: Exactly.

Andrew: It could be just below that, you can be about two-thirds of the way through the process and it’s still going to be pretty good because it’s got the forward motion still there. So yes, but there are plenty of bakers that use their starter after it’s collapsed and it’s still active and definitely usable you just have to know better. I think for a beginner, it’s much easier to say, okay, I can see when it’s at its peak or close to it and it’s time to go.

How do you get a really sour loaf?

Renee: The longer you let a starter go, you’re talking about 30, 45 days, does that affect the resulting complexity of the flavor of the loaf of bread? Is that where you get that really sour tang or is that due to something completely…?

Andrew: No. Its sourness has more to do with how you treat the starter and what you are feeding it and refreshing it with. And so the more whole grain that’s in the mix, the more sour it’s going to end up being.

David: Wow.

Andrew: Or if you use warmer water or it’s warmer conditions then it will tend to be sour. There’s a lot of different conflicting information about how you push sourness and whether cold temperatures for the dough or for the starter are better than warm for certain because there’s different types of bacteria. There’s lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria and each of those is a different compound using different flavor profile and some of them are more active at one temperature versus another. I like to have it pretty mild.

Andrew: My breads they have sourness to them but I don’t like that punch you in the face sourdough. One thing I try to when I teach baking and sourdough in particular, I have to always point out that just because you’re baking sourdough doesn’t mean it will taste sour and it can actually be quite mild and it’s not hard to make it taste quite mild.

Renee: That’s a good distinction.

Andrew: Yeah. That’s why bakers like to use the term naturally leavened as opposed to sourdough because it just implies that you’re using a natural ferment not and the sour is not in the equation necessarily.

Renee: And I personally find it reassuring that you don’t know the difference by heart of all those different lactobacilli, which means neither do I nor neither do our readers.

David: And it’s okay for us!

Andrew: No. And I…Yeah. I have a background in microbiology too and it’s complex. It’s not something… There are two labs now at Tufts, my friend Ben Wolf has got a lab and then one at UNC I think or NC State that are doing sourdough studies and they’re learning things that people haven’t figured out yet. So there’s still a lot-

Andrew: …to be learned about sourdough…

David: Wow.

Andrew: …the science is complicated.

How come dough doesn’t always rise in its initial proofing?

David: In the proofing and fermentation stage, some people have asked us how come their sourdough sometimes doesn’t rise in that initial proof?

Andrew: Yeah.

David: What’s going on there?

Andrew: Well, so it depends on whether or not if your starter is active or, the word I like to use is mature, is if your starter is mature and stable and does reliably doubles to triples within 12 hours time, then probably the case that you didn’t let it proof long enough in the first stage. If you’re a starter as immature, then all bets are off. It’s hard to say whether it was one or the other or both things going on. And so when people…

Andrew: I’m getting a lot of instant messages on Instagram with a picture and “what went wrong with my loaf?” I’m happy to help but there’s nothing I hate more than trying to diagnose bread from a single photograph over the internet. But I guess in most cases right now, what I’m looking at are peoples who starters aren’t quite there yet and so they’re probably jumping the gun. They fed it and they were getting ready to put it into a dough to make a loaf of bread and they didn’t proof it long enough in the first stage and then once they made the dough, they probably didn’t proof it long enough before they shaped it and then went to the next stage. And knowing what to look for is always the key. That’s the hardest thing to teach but also the thing to try to teach people to think the most about.

How do I know when my dough is properly proofed?

Renee: So Andrew, what should we look for?

Andrew: What I tell people now is that two stages of dough proofing are bulk fermentation and shape proofing. So what happens before you shape the loaf and then what happens after. And what I suggest people look for, the key indicators of a well-proofed bulk dough, is a domed nature. So the dough doubling and all that stuff is important, but really it should look like it should have a curve to the edges. So it should come up…

Renee: Oh, that’s interesting.

Andrew: …in the center and curve to the sides of the bowl. That’s a sign that it’s got a lot of gas on the inside. It should be jiggly so if you shake it, it should move really easily. And then bubbles, you should see large and small bubbles on the surface of the dough. And then when you go to tip it out onto the counter or divide it up, you should see a fine network of bubbles on the inside of the dough. That’s harder to see until you cut into it but you can lift it up or you can proof it in a glass bowl and then it’s obvious it’s right there. So really once you see that, when somebody shows it to you, it’s very clear what to look for. But I have a feeling a lot of people just, they see a recipe it says, eight to 12 hours or however long the first proof and they just-

David: I agree.

Andrew: … set a timer and they move on as opposed to using their eyes and noses as the best judge of what time it is.

Renee: I think we’re out of practice with that, right? We’re out practice with learning at our grandma’s side and what something should look like or feel like or something like that.

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And I always tell people that the bread itself is a living thing but the organisms that are in it are definitely living things. And you have to adjust to them not try to get them to adjust to you.

David: Right.

Andrew: I call it microbial husbandry. So you’re in charge of taking care of these organisms and you have to know what they like and adapt to that.

Renee: I love that.

Can I stop the breadmaking process if life gets in the way? And how do I do that?

David: So Adam, you have a question I think that it fits in here nicely.

Adam: Yeah. Hey Andrew.

Andrew: Hey there.

Adam: All right. So I have kids and they’re nuts, I know I’m not the only one in that situation, I know. Sourdough has a lot of steps that need to be completed within a certain window of time, right?

Andrew: Yes.

Adam: So sometimes the day can get away from you: kids, life, etc., right? This Saturday for the first time I baked a loaf of sourdough bread and this was the challenge that I encountered.

Andrew: Yep.

Adam: So my question for you is when things do get hectic, is it okay and when is it okay to throw the dough into the fridge and hit pause? And if it is okay, when you take the dough back out of the fridge, are there any additional steps that need to take place before you resume, where you left off?

Andrew: Okay. So the beauty of refrigeration is that it makes baking and it makes sourdough baking, which is typically a long process, so much easier. And I’m a big fan of using the fridge, particularly for a home baker. Bakeries have issues with space so they can’t always get everything into the refrigerator to do that thing, but at home it’s really easy if you can just carve out a shelf or two from your fridge. And so there’s a bunch of ways to do it. My current approach now is to do the bulk fermentation at room temperature and do the entire shaped proof in the fridge. So I do 12 hours at room temperature and then typically overnight. So I’ll mix the dough around dinnertime and then the next morning it will be ready to go and I’ll shape it. And as long as it’s at that perfect stage that I just described then you can go right into the fridge and leave it there for anywhere from eight to 24 hours. I haven’t actually pushed it but I’ve heard people go as long as 48.

Andrew: And then the beauty of that process is, as long as it lived outside of the fridge long enough and then it sits in the fridge long enough, you can go straight from the fridge to the oven. So it’s very flexible. As soon as your Dutch oven is hot or however you’re baking, you go straight into it. The beauty of that is not just convenience it’s also much easier to handle a cold dough because it’s stiffer, it’s easier to score, it’s easier to tip out of the basket, and it makes life so much easier. It took me a while to get the hang of that. I used to do bulk fermentation half on the counter and half in the fridge and then take it out, shape it, and then have to proof it again to get it to the stage where it could be baked.

Halved slices of sourdough stacked on top of each other on a white and grey marble surface.

Andrew: And that can be really slow because if you take a cold dough out of the fridge, it can take a long time for it to wake up. Particularly if it’s January and you keep your house at low 60s then sourdough likes high 70s, ideally, temperature-wise if at room temperature.

Renee: Well, and to your point earlier about people relying on time if they make it in January as opposed to July that’s going–

David: It’s going to change it, too. So you do bulk fermenting and the shaping at room temperature…

Andrew: Yes.

David: …then it sits in the fridge overnight…

Andrew: Yes.

David: … for 24 hours. That’s what I do, too.

Andrew: Yeah, it’s okay to do overnight and when I figured out what it should look like, it changed my approach to baking, it changed my result, I think that you get better results. You get better oven spring, you get better scoring and I’ve completely converted over to that way of doing things. So yeah, it’s definitely doable, even with kids.

David: There you go Adam. Your kids aren’t going to get in the way of you making good bread.

Adam: They’re not an excuse, at least.

David: Yeah.

Renee: There you go.

How can I get a really nice round loaf instead of a flat-looking one?

David: So this is about shaping, how do you get beautiful buxom loaf, so they’re not ovoid and largest on the bottom but they actually rise up? How do you get that?

A loaf of baked bread in a Le Creuset Dutch oven.

Andrew: So there are a couple of things that go into that happening one, you need good oven spring. So we haven’t talked about how to bake or where to bake yet, but you want ideally use a hot baking stone or a Dutch oven if you’re baking in a pot. I’m a big fan also of the Dutch oven [Note: Andrew is also fond of the  Challenger Bread Pan, see side-by-side comparison below–ed.] I think that for home bakers, if you’re only making a single loaf at a time Dutch oven is the best way to go. And so you put that in the oven on the highest rack it can sit on with the lid on it and preheated at 450°F and make sure it’s good and hot when you put it in. So that’s number one, because that’ll give you that energy and the loaf to get it to rise up as opposed to out.

Andrew: The other thing is steam, because steam around a loaf of bread as it’s in the initial stages of baking or keeps that cross moist and so it allows it to expand maximally. If you don’t have some form of steam in the oven, then it’ll set fairly quickly and it will be tight and dense. And so a Dutch oven gives you that as well because with the cover on, the bread is producing its own steam. And there’s only a couple of inches of space all around it. So it’s easy to fill that space, to saturate it, with moisture. And so that’s another way to get it to rise up as much as possible. But there’s another part of it, which is it happens earlier on, where shaping gives you the ability for that to expand three-dimensionally as opposed to…

David: Right.

Andrew: …two-dimensionally out in space. And tension in a dough is important. And so the way you do that is, something I’ve noticed that a lot of simplified bread recipes skip over the preshaping step, and I think that’s part of it, too. So typically a good bread recipe should have a preshaping step where you take the dough, if you have more than one loaf at a times worth of dough, you divided it into pieces and then you shape it into a round, and then you rest it for 20 minutes to half an hour before you shape it a second time. And that preshape evens out the texture of the dough and knocks out any large gas bubbles and it gets you part way to the finished shape without having to force the dough there prematurely. So it’s gradually moving it from an amorphous shape to a nice ordered one.

Andrew: And so that preshape is a good place for that tension to start being built into the dough. And in the final shaping, it’s really about forming a good skin and not having the dough be sticky so it catches on the counter as you’re rounding it or folding it. So you want to work with an adequate amount of flour. You also want to have a good formula. A formula is too wet then it’s going to be hard to build tension to dough because it’s going to stick to your hands or the counter. And so a lot of it is just knowing how to shape and then there’s techniques for building tension into a dough. I don’t know that we want to go into that here, but really that is key. You want to like….

Andrew: Sometimes you blow up a balloon one too many times and it’ll have those weak spots in it. The skin of a loaf of bread is like the rubber of a balloon. If it’s nice and taut and when you blow it up and it’ll blow up in a symmetrical uniform way. If it’s got any weak spots, it’s going to blow out or…so building that tension is really key.

David: Okay.

How can I get big holes in my bread?

Renee: How does that tension in the loaf translate to holes? Because some readers tell us they’re looking for really large expanded holes…

David: Like ciabatta.

Andrew: Yeah.

Renee: …like ciabatta.

A loaf of ciabatta, sliced, and filled with large air holes

Andrew: Well, yeah there’s an Olympics of–

David: Absolutely.

Andrew: …hole structure right now, everyone…

Renee: Absolutely.

Andrew: … I like peanut butter on my toast and so if the holes are too big and the peanut butter melts through…I like a beautiful crumb structure. But I don’t think it’s the be all and end all. But in order to get that you need a lot of water in the dough, which for a beginning baker can be a difficult thing to handle it. Because high hydration dough is also going to be sticky and so there are ways of dealing with that but that takes a certain amount of practice and skill to master. And you want that spring I was talking about before, the loaf can expand in the oven farther apart all of those alveoli are going to be, so you’ll get bigger crumb structure. Scoring plays a part in spring, too. You have to score it well in order to get that to open up in an even way.

David: And a very shallow, on-an-angle score, will give a big ear and also allow for a much larger opening.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Finally got around to doing a side-by-side comparison of oven steaming methods. The loaf on the left was baked on a stone using my current go-to steaming method (see below for details) and the one on the right was baked in my @challengerbreadware pan (more or less the same as a Dutch oven). The spring and the crust are nearly identical (the size differences are due to the way I shaped them), but the oven-steamed one is less glossy and slightly duller in color in the cuts. It’s definitely good enough, but this does illustrate how hard it is to get the best results without a Dutch oven. ⁣ As for the former method, here’s what I do: I place two pie plates on the bottom rack of the oven, one filled with lava rocks, the other empty, and preheat both with the stone for an hour. Right before I load the bread, I put two rolled up washcloths in the empty pan and pour a cup of boiling water over them and close the oven door. Then I score the bread, load it onto the stone, and then pour another cup of water over the lava rocks and close the door. After 20m, I remove the pan with the washcloths, which will be pretty much dried out by then. ⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣The lava rocks do most of the work, but the washcloths help to saturate the oven space before the bread goes in, for a little insurance.⁣ ⁣ ⁣ ⁣Keep in mind that the pie plates and the washcloths will get trashed over time, so don’t use ones that you can’t live without.⁣ ⁣

A post shared by Andrew Janjigian (@wordloaf) on

Andrew: Exactly. Yeah. So the goal is to create a flap as opposed to a slit. So you’re going under the skin and creating something that is deep and has two sides to it that when they unfold you’ll get this large score. So typically, if you’re using a long curved razor blade, you hold it so that that curve is almost facing the ceiling that’s what you know. And it’s something that’s not intuitive you want it to face it up so that way that cut is really at a deep angle to the loaf, it’s not at all perpendicular.

How do I prep my oven for bread baking?

David: And then moving on to baking, how do you prep the oven and do you use a pot? You like the Dutch ovens, right?

Andrew: Yeah. I actually did a post yesterday on Instagram about comparing the Dutch oven versus a stone and what I consider the best possible way of steaming outside of a Dutch oven and it was good. And unfortunately, what it showed was the Dutch oven was a tiny bit superior and mostly because you get that kind of shininess that in the cuts that I find really beautiful. The texture of the crust is a little more tender as a result of that and that’s because the steam is just better in a Dutch oven then. Because home ovens are not designed to hold steam, they’re leaky on purpose so that you just can’t get quite as much steam as you would.

How to Use Lava Rocks to Create Steam for Bread Baking

Video courtesy: America’s Test Kitchen

Andrew: And also there’s a lot more space to fill so it requires a lot more water and so the method I recommend to people who are baking on a stone is to use lava rocks in a pie plate or actually two pie plates that you put in the bottom of the oven while you’re preheating the stone. And when it comes time to bake, you get the bread in the refrigerator and then you pour some boiling water onto one of the pans of lava rocks and that gets the oven saturated with moisture. Then you take the bread out, you score it, you put it into the oven and then you pour into the second pan and you give it another hit of steam. And that’s where most of the steam is coming from but at first heat is there to saturate the oven and hopefully to give you a little bit extra. Using a pie plate of lava rocks alone isn’t as good as two.

David: That blows my mind. I’ve never heard of lava rock.

Andrew: Yeah. I don’t know where I picked up on it. Somebody turned me on to it but I definitely brought it to Cook’s Illustrated and it’s now our go to method.

David: Excellent.

Andrew: The two-pie-plate method is mine and it’s a little too advanced but even just one pan of lava rocks is far superior to anything else. The ice cubes on a cast iron skillet or spraying the size of the oven are just not anywhere near as good as that. What you want to happen is to have steam be produced over that first 15 or 20 minutes of the bake. And so ice cubes they’re going to just cool down the pan and spraying the oven isn’t going to last very long. And so you really need…if you ever watch how professional bakers bake, they have steam injectors and they run those things for the first 10 minutes of the bake. So they’re getting plenty of steam there.

What causes sourdough bread to be dense or gummy?

David: And then so talking about the finished loaves, some people are saying, well, my sourdough is just too dense. What causes that?

Andrew: So I would say that’s a reminiscent of those photographs that people send me. Dense to me means under proofing, whether it’s because the loaf was not proofed long enough or because the starter wasn’t mature enough it’s hard to say, but it’s one or the other of those things. One thing that people maybe don’t understand is that that oven spring is actually part of fermentation. It’s not just the water and the gas is in the loaf expanding, the yeast is actually having one last gasp. And so those first 10 minutes or so, it’s actually generating a lot of carbon dioxide. And so if it’s not active, if it’s under proofed then that’s not going to happen and you’re going to end up with a dense loaf.

David: And how about gummy loaves?

Andrew: I think that those two things go hand in hand because the moisture in the crumb either is going to escape from the outside of the loaf because it’s expanded and able to come out through the dough or it’s not going into the crumb as into the starches and fully setting because it’s not getting hot enough. It’s so dense, the moisture is never going up to boiling temperatures and so that’s… I think there’s gummy where people just cut into a loaf early-

David: That’s true.

Andrew: The other thing tell everybody…

David: And I’m guilty of that.

Andrew: Yeah, we are. We all are and that’s why I like to bake long loaves because the ends of the loaf are ready sooner than the center.

A paper bag filled with loaves of pane Francese.

David: Yeah.

Andrew: We all know you have that option or at least you can shave off the first couple of inches before it’s cooled.

David: Andrew, thank you, I feel we’ve had a master’s class in bread baking.

Renee: Wow.

David: In fact, my head hurts with all this information.

Renee: I’m a little exhausted.

Andrew: But you caught me at a moment where all this stuff is running through my head 24/7.

David: Sure.

Renee: It’s fascinating. Thank you so much.

David: Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Andrew: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

David: Andrew Janjigian is a Senior Editor at Cook’s Illustrated magazine and America’s Test Kitchen. He’s also a baking instructor at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont and elsewhere. You can find him online, of course, at CooksIllustrated.com and on Twitter and Instagram. His handle is @wordloaf.

David: Renee this week lots of restaurants are opening all over the country. And while we don’t have food traffic like them we do have specials like them. Mind reciting them for us?

Renee: Not at all. So we’re a little all over the map this week. We start off with a Mapo Tofu recipe from China…

David: Nice.

Renee: It’s actually been the most popular recipe on our site so far this week. We also have a little different sort of chicken wings where we go to Mexico. We have a chipotle chicken wings recipe made with a chile rub with a little brown sugar. It makes the wings sticky sweet and we roast them in the oven. There’s no need to fuss with a deep frying. We also have a Kimchi Bulgogi Sandwich.

David: Oh yes. Good.

Renee: Right? Something different. You’re going to get hooked on this, I promise.

David: Okay.

Renee: We do a homemade Greek yogurt, you can determine exactly the consistency that you want. We give you all the tips and tricks you want. We have soft peanut butter cookies, an original recipe from one of our recipe testers.

A white bowl filled with soft peanut butter cookies.

David: Oh, wonderful. I’m so happy that’s happening now.

Renee: Yeah. We’ve got a lot of amazing home cooks contributing their stuff to our site. We’re excited about that. And because it’s Memorial Day we’ve got smoker recipes.

David: Oh, yeah, of course.

Renee: Pork shoulder, brisket, a whole chicken, vegetables, everything. And then we cap it all off with a homemade rhubarb crisp, just like grandma used to make.

A white baking dish filled with easy rhubarb crisp and a spoon resting in the center.

David: Oh, that’s so seasonal. This weekend we were at the store and there was all this rhubarb and I said, we’ve got to make something with rhubarb, so it’s perfect. I know exactly what I’m going to make. Thank you, my dear.

Renee: There you go.

David: This podcast is produced by Overt Studios and our producer is our own doughboy, Adam Clairmont. You can reach Adam and Overt Studios at overtstudios.com. Remember to subscribe to Talking with My Mouth Full on your favorite platform and listen to us wherever you go. And if you like what you hear and want to support us, please leave a review and rating on iTunes. Chow.

Renee: Chow.

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

Have something to say?

Then tell us. Have a picture you'd like to add to your comment? Attach it below. And as always, please take a gander at our comment policy before posting.

Upload a picture of your dish