16 January 2020

Industrial kitchens around the country, I salute you!

My first sourdough loaf fresh out the oven. Don’t be fooled – they don’t always look like this!

In usual ‘new year, new me’ fashion, I like to set myself a challenge each year to learn a new skill. Well, 2020 is year of the… sourdough!

My mum is the queen of sourdough making, and when I go back home, I always enjoy freshly baked bread for breakfast – usually with some bacon and egg involved! However, I’ve never really appreciated the process of getting to a lovely plump and perfectly shaped loaf. You know, the sort you see at your favourite artisan bakery. I now know there must be ‘off days’, but every time I’m home, mum seems to nail it!    

I still don’t know much (there is a lot of science involved!) but essentially sourdough bread is made by the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast. Fermentation of sourdough happens over a long period of time and start to finish time for a loaf is about 36 hours. At the time I thought I would be far too inpatient for this bread making malarkey, but it’s amazing how much joy I get tending to my dough every few hours and seeing how it’s going to turn out!

My mum gave me some live sourdough ‘starter’ which cultivates ‘wild’ yeast into a form we can use for baking. When it’s ready it has plenty of gas bubbles and has usually doubled in size since it was fed.

My sourdough starter ready to go

Every bake is a learning experience and there are so many variables at play that can affect the quality of the end-product. In fact there are 13 reasons your dough could end up flat!  I’ve started making notes (yes, I know, what’s happening to me?!) of each baking experience and the conditions that I was exposed to each time and then noted how it affected the process. For example, the second time I baked, the house was particularly cold. I live in an old cottage and if the central heating or log burner hasn’t been blasting out heat for at least 4 consecutive hours, it’s freezing. I’d got up early to bake and the heating hadn’t been on that night, so it was chilly and I noticed the bread didn’t rise as well throughout the fermentation. During the rest periods I put the bowl that the dough was in on top of the radiator and that seemed to save it.

The next time I made sure the environment was a lot warmer and it made a difference. Hooray – I’ve now got an excuse to have the heating on more! Our tortoise that lives in the kitchen is also pretty chuffed with this outcome.

The same fermentation stage in a cold house versus a warm house. Or you could say Instagram versus reality!

Hydration level of the ‘starter’ is also important. Who knew? A lower hydration level means using a higher ratio of flour to water. Acetic acid is produced more abundantly in a drier environment  – which helps to create the ‘sour’ flavour profile. Madly, I’ve found that when I’ve had the dehumidifier on in the house (nothing to do with baking, and more to do with avoiding condensation on my windows!) my starter has been less hydrated, and bread has ended up tasting more sour. Bonkers, huh?!

So, I’ve realised there is a lot more to it than technique. I’m improving (and even dreaming?!) about my folding technique (folding is done every few hours to create structure so that the final loaf holds its shape) but there are things outside my control that I can’t predict – such as changes in temperature, humidity, quality of raw ingredients etc and this can all have a significant impact on whether the 32 hours of watchful eye and gentle nurture have been productive use of my time or not! It’s the lack of control and guesswork that is frustrating and not knowing whether my boyfriend and I are going to enjoy sourdough bread for the week ahead, or not! I realise that sounds very much like a first world problem, but for manufacturers of baked goods – this really is a problem. 

Whilst I’m only in the game for fun (she says!), it’s given me an appreciation for the industrial kitchens over the country that I expect have similar challenges  – whatever they’re making –  but on an unprecedented scale and with bigger productivity and waste losses at stake.

If they could monitor and control the impact of changes in variables, or perhaps even track the variability in real time to develop predictive models, they could make informed decisions and intervene before it’s too late.

Keith Thornhill, Head of Food and Beverage explains the technology that can help control variables to increase food productivity and agility in this blog.

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