How does the baking process of one of our loaves really start and how does time, proficiency, passion and intuition make it taste so good?
The Fermentation Process
Long fermentation is at the heart of what we do when creating our bread. When you ferment flour for the right amount of time it changes from one thing to another. The long fermentation process increases the nutrients available as well as pre-digesting the grains making it easier for your body to deal with. The natural acidity that builds up over the long fermentation process also acts as a natural mould inhibitor, so you can keep your fantastic Alex Gooch loaf for longer.
"So what is the key difference between a loaf bought from the Alex Gooch Bakery and supermarket bread?"
Alex's bread takes a long time to make and there are many benefits to this:
Long fermentation creates acidity, which acts as a natural mould inhibitor - if bread is made quickly (like supermarket bread) you don't get this so they have to add mould inhibitors.
A lot of commercial bakeries also have to add flavour enhancers (e.g. sugar), which isn't necessary for our bread - we achieve the flavour through long fermentation and by baking for the right amount of time so that the crust caramelises. This helps keep moisture in the loaf too.
Long fermentation also helps pre-digest the grains - you can only achieve this with time so this bit gets missed from quickly-made bread. This means that quickly-made bread is much harder for your body to digest. Also most vitamins and minerals only become available during long fermentation so quickly-made bread is less nutritious.
Creating the perfect Sourdough
Our sourdoughs are made with a leaven, which is a wild yeast starter or yeast culture. It is made of organic rye flour and water - nothing else. We feed it by hand roughly every twelve hours on a continuous cycle - this means there must be someone in the bakery to do that, day and night. We put the leaven into tubs, add more water and flour (this is feeding) then mix it by hand. It's then left to do its thing for around 12 hours. Part of the skill is making a judgement about how active it is - fluctuations in the water, flour and air temperature all have an impact. So the person feeding the leaven has to have a very good understanding and make a judgment call as to whether more flour or water is needed and what temperature the water should be. It's like having a relationship with another person because the leaven is alive.
The wild yeast lives within the flour and in the environment. This is why bread from different parts of the country will naturally be different. Alex met a baker from the Greek Islands and his leaven was spawned with basil because he grows fields of basil outside his bakery. You get a misty covering on basil like on grapes, which is yeast. In our country, where we are surrounded by apple trees, it would make sense to start a leaven with apples. Yeasts are attracted by sugars so if you add grated apple to start your leaven the yeast will feed on this.
What does leaven 'do' when it's fed? After you've mixed flour and water together enzyme activity starts to make natural sugars available which the wild yeasts found in the grains and in the environment feed on.
When you start from scratch, it takes between three to ten days to get it active enough to make a loaf. How warm the room is, how warm the leaven is, how active it is all dictates how long you leave it out once you've fed it before using. This is a massive judgment call. When you're making proper sourdoughs without baker's yeast you have to get it right.
What is Bakers Yeast? Baker's Yeast is a fast-acting, natural yeast that has been cultured (fed) so that it grows. It is then stabilised and sold to bakers. Using baker's yeast makes things rise quicker and gives more consistency so it works very well in large, industrial bakeries producing high levels of stock in less time.
By contrast, sourdough culture is always a slow fermentation process, taking longer and involving much more man power and skill because its less predictable and harder to handle. Creating a leaven is a balancing act - acidity for quality, flavour and pre-digestion of the grains, and yeast action for rising and pre-digesting the grains.
When flour and water combine, enzyme activity makes the sugars available for the natural yeasts to feed on. As they feed, they release CO2 (a bit like us breathing in oxygen and breathing out CO2) which is then caught by gluten. Gluten is formed by the joining of two proteins - gluten and glyiadan. These two proteins occur naturally in the grains (different grains have different proportions) and if something is fermented for a long period of time, the acidity breaks down the gluten more - this is why if you struggle to digest gluten a long fermented loaf is a better option. Also certain grains produce less gluten (such as rye and some older grain varieties), which are known as 'weaker' grains. If you have problems digesting bread combine a long fermented loaf with a weaker grain variety and it may be more suitable for you.
Finally the salt adds flavour, helps the gluten to develop and is a natural mould inhibitor. It also helps to control the fermentation.
"There are so many variables in bread making - the flour, the acidity, the temperature, the yeast activity... Getting it right is a fine balancing act - which is when the true art of baking comes alive!"
Why is Hydration so important?
Hydration is also a key factor in making sourdoughs. Hydration relates to the amount of flour to water ratio. This uses a concept called 'baker's percentages' where flour is always 100% and the hydration is calculated using this as a baseline. For example, our Dark & White Sourdough is 1kg of flour to 750g of water therefore this is a 75% hydration. Alex says that with sourdoughs, the wetter the better!
Wetter sourdoughs give better textures and a chewier, moister crumb. The 'crumb' refers to the inside of the loaf (as opposed to the 'crust', which is on the outside). High hydration doughs are much harder to work with because they are very wet and subsequently stick to everything. It takes a lot of practice to process these doughs. Also, it takes a lot of experience to know how the dough is fermenting each day and, therefore, at which point to perform each part of the baking process. You have to be able to do this by touch, sight and smell. None of our sourdoughs are less than 70% hydration.