country bread, nerd style: alton revisited

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Having shat upon Chad Robertson’s wet Country Loaf elsewhere in the blog, I began to feel as though I should add balance to this scatological equation. I am no stranger to high-hydration doughs, nor to no-knead doughs. Before reading Tartine Bread, my preferred bread recipe was simply to take Chad-esque ratios of ingredients (with active dry yeast rather than a natural starter); mix them together in a large bowl; let the dough rest, covered, for 12-18 hours on the countertop; then shape and bake the boule. See me go home to my cooking roots and thumb my nose at artisan bread after the jump.

Working with natural leavening, I don’t turn on the mixer unless I’m making brioche. It doesn’t make sense to do so, actually, because the natural leaven to flour ratio is 1:5 – it takes time for the natural yeast to work its way through the loaf. Rushing the development of the bread would seem to be a trade of time for flavor. I don’t lick my chops over Wonder Bread; the prospect of inching towards that extreme doesn’t seem to be worth the time advantage.

But Alton Brown seemed perfectly content to use both a natural leaven *and* his stand mixer to put his country bread together, without compromising flavor. I remembered that distinctly, but he neither discussed – nor did I have the wherewithal to infer – why that was so. Having finished my le pain perdu and brioche braid, I had some time to kill before I needed to make a run to the store for tonight’s meal. So, I blew the dust off of I’m Just Here for More Food and revisited his country loaf.

(You have to understand that, when I first began cooking with Alton’s guidance a decade ago, a natural leaven was beyond my skill level. Oh, sure – flour plus water plus time equals natural yeast. The theory is grand – the practice and upkeep is murder. I’ve created and killed enough starters by now to see (and smell) it at every stage of life. Back then, I would have failed at starter and never gotten around to the actual bread baking.

Alton’s books read like science textbooks, which is great, except there are no photos – nor sufficient anal retentiveness – to illustrate and illuminate some of the chemical reactions. That’s one major advantage Tartine Bread has; getting the photos and descriptions of a starter coming to life is invaluable.)

It came as no surprise that Alton’s base wild sourdough starter is liquid – 320% hydration, and feedings are at 160% hydration. There’s no good or bad way to put together a starter – it’s simply a question of adjusting your flour/salt/yeast ratios to compensate for the liquid starter. It was also unsurprising that Alton’s country bread is a high-hydration dough – 79%, once you take the water in the starter and the actual recipe into account. Alton adds a bit of commercial yeast to his bread to give his natural leaven some backup – belt and suspenders, that’s Alton.

What *did* come as a surprise is that his natural leaven to flour ratio is 1:1.5. No wonder Alton can get away with using a mixer without compromising flavor in his country bread – he uses a shit-ton of starter to seed his dough. I was unprepared for the use of that much leaven, to say the least, so I scaled back the rest of the ingredients (and fiddled a bit more with the water to mimic 79% hydration) accordingly.

It still felt dirty and sneaky to use a mixer to develop this dough in a few minutes rather than several hours. It windowpaned beautifully and released from the bowl like it was greased after 10 minutes total kneading. It is sitting on my counter right now, finishing the bulk fermentation (no turns, dammit). Given the hydration percentage, I will still need to treat it with kid gloves when shaping it; I may let it chill in the fridge for an extra hour so it handles easier, as I did with the brioche in order to braid it.

The real test will be in a few hours, when it’s time to bake. I will accommodate The Diva as always, with a twist. I will start with the shaped dough enclosed in a cold 8-QT Dutch oven, and the batch will go into the cold oven that will then be set to 450. After 30 minutes, the lid will come off, and I’ll finish it with another 15 30 minutes at 450 400.

Will I end up with a wet Chad-loaf? Will I proclaim from the rooftops that I have found The One? Stay tuned.

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