Spelt experiments, or When bread goes wrong, and the dilemma of blogging the failures

So I was feeling experimental this week. I’d been both looking at old photos of breads I’ve made the past few years and browsing my favourite baking book, looking for inspiration. One of the breads I liked but haven’t tried too often is a 100 percent sourdough with some potato in the mix. I’d had great results once – a bread with a great, irregular crumb, which is something of a holy grail for bakers like me. It requires a high hydration dough and, generally, a natural leaven. It’s not something I’ve had much luck with lately, but I had done back in Blighty with a better kitchen and more familiar ingredients. I can’t find a photo of the bread in question, but here’s one with the kind of crumb I mean.

Okay, thought I, I’ll try that again – but with farro flour. Indeed, I’m going through a bit of a phase trying to use farro bianco all over the place, where, if I was still living in the UK, I’d use strong white or even plain flour.

I revived my leaven over a few days, then got stuck in. Feeling optimistic, taking photos to record the process, thinking I could proudly blog the results, imagining cutting open a loaf with a crunchy crust and finding that wonderful irregular crumb structure again.

Except it didn’t go well. The bread is borderline terrible. Dense, heavy, and clearly lacking in life, with no oven spring. It tastes strangely like a teabread.

This left me with a dilemma. It’s one that’s probably faced by anyone who likes to make food and blog about it. If you make something, and it’s crap, should you blog about it? You of course want you food to look marvellous when you shove it out here on the interweb. But then I thought, Hang-on, this isn’t a glossy magazine or a recipe book, it’s a blog. It’s record of my endeavours, and not just the successes. So why shouldn’t I blog the failures? Or at least talk about the agonies of deciding whether to go public with the failures. And if by some miracle this is read by experts, perhaps that can give advice. (Yeah, right. Ed.)

So anyway, this is the recipe I used, a variation on Dan Lepard’s Crusty potato bread
250g leaven (mine was fed with farro, 80% hydration)
280g water
25g honey
75g unpeeled potato, scrubbed and grated
500g farro bianco flour
10g fine sea salt

1 Combine the leaven, water, honey and potato.
2 Add the flour and salt and blend to create a wet, sticky dough.
3 Rest for 10-15 minutes.
4 Turn out onto a lightly oiled work surface and give it a brief knead.
5 Return to a lightly oiled bowl and rest for around 10-15 minutes.
6 Repeat this process (it’s Dan L’s process, developed while he worked in a busy kitchen. In some ways it’s irritating – kneading, cleaning up, waiting, kneading, cleaning up, waiting – but in others it’s great. It seems particularly good for handling wetter doughs).
7 Repeat again 2-3 more times, then leave the dough covered for half an hour. Give the dough a fold if you like.
8 Divide the dough into two equal pieces and shape each into a ball.
9 Rest the balls, again covered, for about 10-15 minutes.
10 Shape batons, then place then in proving baskets lined with floured clothes, or if you ain’t gone none, place side my side on floured clothes, covered.
11 Leave again until doubled in size. This will vary according to the temperature of your room, but if it’s warm (around 20C) it’ll be around 4-5 hours.
12 Heat oven to 220C.
13 Turn out the loaves onto a baking sheet lined with parchment and dusted with semolina.
14 Bake for 20 minutes, then turn down the oven to 200C and bake for another 20 minutes.

So anyway, after all that, mine didn’t work. But if you use strong white flour instead, there’s a chance yours could. And if they do, it’s a lovely lovely bread.

Now for some diagnosis, some thoughts about why my bread didn’t work
1 The recipe really doesn’t like spelt flour. Although spelt has a not dissimilar proportion of protein to a strong white bread flour (around 14-15%), it has different proteins, which some sources refer to as “extremely fragile”. Compared to modern wheat varieties, it has less gluten, particularly gliadin, the protein that is integral to making easy stretchy white doughs (but appears to be at the heart of the increasing prevalence of coeliac/celiac disease). I’ve made plenty of decent loaves with spelt in the mix recently (like this one), but I think this is my first 100 percent spelt, 100 percent naturally leavened.
Which leads me to…
2 The leaven wasn’t sufficiently active. I perhaps should have fed and refreshed it over a few more days. Or maybe its current residents just aren’t happy with their conditions. It is Rome after all – so maybe it’s some kind of yeasty sciopero.
3 Or if I didn’t refresh it enough, I should have at least left the dough fermenting longer. It’s the winter, and our kitchen isn’t that warm, probably only around 15C (until I put the oven on). So yes, if it’s cold, it’ll take longer to ferment.
4 Except I also worry that if I left it fermenting too long, the yeasts would finish gorging themselves and any rise achieved would collapse back in on itself.
5 Some sources also talk about how you have to adjust the water. Well, I reduced it slightly from Dan L’s original recipe, and the dough did feel pretty good while I was working it. I dunno though , this place says “Too much [water], and the dough is sticky and weak and will not be able to hold the gasses that are produced during the fermentation process.”
6 Some other random factor. Like some unprecedented chemical reaction between the spud and the spelt. I know not.

Anyway, if you are a baker, and have any thoughts about what might have gone wrong here, please share!

In the meantime, I have to decide whether to continue my spelt experiments (I also used them in some brownies yesterday) or retreat to the comfort of strong white bread flour, or Manitoba as it’s known here in Italy, with its reliable if dietarily dubious gliadin and glutenin content.

Addendum

Here’s the recipe as baker’s percentages. I’m doing this partly because I’m getting out of practice and partly in response to talking to Jeremy.

250/500 = 0.5 x 100 = 50% leaven
280/500 = 0.56 x 100 = 56% water
25/500 = 0.05 x 100= 5% honey
75/500 = 0.15 x 100= 15% potato
500/500 = 1 x 100 = 100% flour
10/500 = 0.02 x 100 = 2% salt

Or if we’re getting serious (and it looks like we are), and factoring in the leaven… 250g leaven at 80% hydration = 112g water + 138g flour (rounded), so the total water is actually
392g, and the total flour is 638g.

392/638 = 0.61 x 100 = 61% water
25/638 = 0.039 x 100 = 3.9% honey
75/638 = 0.118 x 100 = 11.8% potato
638/638 = 1 x 100 = 100% flour
10/638 = 0.015 x 100 = 1.6% salt

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1 Comment

Filed under Breads, Discussion, Flour & grain, Recipes

One response to “Spelt experiments, or When bread goes wrong, and the dilemma of blogging the failures

  1. Okay, I’ve had my first expert input, though it was via Facebook. I want to put it here, as things get lost on FB. It’s from Jeremy, who said, “I think it is great to blog the failures, or learnings, as we call them in the trade.
    … it seems to me your dough is actually too dry. 56% wouldn’t really give it that much opportunity to build those big holes you crave. That’s the first thing I would do, take it up to around 65%.

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