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A Bread a Day_The Overnight Ferment Method

Posted on June 24, 2009 by Beth

Week Twenty-Six: Same Dough, Different Method

Todays method variation involves a long, slow, cold ferment of the dough. Maybe you
think that sounds like were doing something ugly to the dough, turning it into dough
sauerkraut, or something; but the term ferment is one of the 12 basic steps in yeast
bread making (explained here). In laymans terms, its the first rise, or the resting
period after you knead the dough and before you shape it.
Technically speaking, fermentation is the process of carbohydrates converting to alcohol
and/or acid, by the action of a microorganism. In bread dough, the yeast is the initiator
of this activity, and acts on the flour and any sugar present, turning them into alcohol
and carbon dioxide (and a few important acids too, for good measure). And since were
getting technical here, the processes going on in the dough at this point are the same as
when you make yogurt, kimchi, beer, wine, cheese, and yes, sauerkraut. So the idea of
dough sauerkraut isnt actually that outlandish (except that the two foods are
completely different)! Interesting side note: the study of fermentation is
called zymurgy, and there is a beer homebrewing magazine called Zymurgy. Neat!
But in breadmaking, other important things occur during fermentation. For one, the
gluten youve just formed in kneading starts to relax, while at the same time continuing
to form. How does that happen relaxing and forming? Well, gluten is like a really
uptight rubber band. Be rough with it (i.e, knead it), and it gets all tense and
persnickity, and toughens up. But if you leave it alone, it calms down and relaxes.
Remember whats happening right now, though: the yeast is producing gases. The
network of gluten traps those gases, and slowly gets stretched like a rubber band.
Thats why you need gluten in your bread; without it, those gases would just escape.
Another important thing that happens during fermentation deals with those
aforementioned acids that the yeast gives off, lactic and acetic acids, most importantly.
Those two are important dough conditioners, or things that make your bread taste
better and keep longer. The longer the fermentation, the more time the acids have to act
on the dough. Therefore, many experts have determined that for the best possible
bread, a long and slow fermentation is best. This often means using less yeast (which
will take a longer time to rise the dough), but it can also mean lowering the temperature
at which the dough is fermented (which slows the yeast activity, preventing an over-
risen dough).
My experiment for today was to see what would happen to the texture and flavor of the
bread when fermented overnight in the refrigerator. Its a trick I use fairly often; for
example, when Ive started a bread, and suddenly need to run an errand, or plans
change, or any number of similar changes to the schedule. And to the best of my
knowledge, the bread has not suffered as a result; it always seems to end up okay. But
Ive never actually done a side-by-side comparison to see if Im just fooling myself, so
nows the time!

I did deviate from the standard straight-dough method in one other way than only the
refrigerated fermentation: I used an autolyse for this bread as well. Ideally, I guess I
shouldnt have, but somebodys going to eat this bread, and Id rather it taste as good as
possible. I know for a fact that an autolyse period makes a better bread; why wouldnt I
use it here?
To critique, the finished loaf looked suspiciously like the previous two loaves: a pretty
golden brown crust that crackled and broke into tiny shards when cut, soft airy interior,
evenly-spaced holes, blah, blah, blah. And honestly, it tasted very much like the
autolyse bread from yesterday. I dont know that there was a whole lot of difference
between the two. Its still much better than the straight dough bread, I can say that
much. The complex depth of flavors from the autolyse were definitely there, and the
texture was nearly identical.

So, to sum up, if you need the extra time, dont be afraid to stick you bowl of just-
kneaded dough in the fridge for any length of time, up to about a day. As long as you let
it come back to room temperature before shaping it, you should have no problems with
it affecting taste or texture and heck, it might even help, if you dont use an autolyse
period. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.*

The Overnight Ferment Method

Makes 1 big loaf
19 ounces (about 4 cups) unbleached bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast (see note 1 below)
1 1/2 cups hot water (115 to 130 F)
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together all but a handful of the flour and all the
yeast. Add the water and mix with the dough hook at low speed until a rough dough
forms, about 1 minute. Turn the mixer off, and without removing the bowl or the hook,
cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap. Let stand for at least 15 to 20 minutes, or up to
45 minutes.
2. Remove the plastic wrap, and add the salt. Continue kneading the dough,
at medium-low speed. Knead for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the dough forms a cohesive
ball that clears the sides of the bowl, and becomes elastic. If the dough does not clear
the sides of the bowl, add the reserved flour until the proper consistency is achieved.
The dough should not be stiff.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead a few times, forming the
dough into a round ball with a skin stretching over the outside. Transfer to a lightly
oiled bowl, smooth side up. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or for
about 8 hours.

4. Let the dough stand at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour before proceeding.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Gently deflate the dough, and turn out
onto a lightly floured surface. Flatten the dough into a slight rectangle or oval shape.
Fold the two corners furthest away from you into the center of the dough, as though you
were beginning to fold a paper airplane. Starting with that point, roll the dough up into
a cylinder, pressing gently to seal as you roll. Press the final seam to seal. Transfer
the dough to the prepared baking sheet, seam-side down. Tuck the ends under if
desired, to make a more attractive loaf. Cover loosely with lightly-oiled plastic wrap,
and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat
the oven to 425 F, and place another baking sheet or oven-safe pan in the bottom of the
oven. If you have a baking stone, heat it with the oven. If not, your baking sheet is fine.

5. When fully risen, and using a sharp serrated knife or clean razor blade, make three
decisive slashes in the top of the loaf at a 45 angle, evenly spaced. Transfer the bread to
the oven (or baking stone, if using). Immediately throw 4 or 5 ice cubes into the hot pan
on the oven floor. Bake for 10 minutes, adding additional ice cubes as they melt.

6. After 10 minutes, remove the ice-cube-pan from the oven, and bake the loaf for an
additional 15 to 25 minutes, or until deeply golden brown. Remove the bread to a wire
rack to cool before slicing.

1. If using active-dry yeast, your water should be a bit cooler, around 105 F to 115 F.
Instead of mixing the active-dry yeast into the flour, you should dissolve all of it in a
little of the warm water, in the mixing bowl. Let stand for about 5 minutes, or until
foamy. Add the flour and salt, and proceed as directed.

* Cause knowledge is power!