Now the chilly season is upon us, baking bread and the cosy comfort it brings means our sourdough starters will likely be working overtime. But winter brings us bakers some challenges, as do the summer months, with fermentation and keeping our dough happy.
With the falling temperatures, it takes much longer for you bread to reach its ideal proofing temperature (72F/22C) and fermentation slows down not just in our starter, but also our preferments and final dough. So what can you do to get the best out of your bread this winter? Try these tips below:
More time - winter can mean more underproofed dough, as the yeast’s activity is decreased, resulting in bread with an excessive rise, split crusts and a dense and gummy interior. Those 12-hour sourdough recipes may need more like 15 or 16 hours to rise in winter so elongate your schedule accordingly. Try to go with the visual clues like when the dough is light enough to retain a shallow impression when gently poked. The same applies to your starter too – it will need more time to become ready to use after refreshing.
Put your dough somewhere insulated and cosy. Smaller batches of dough, unlike larger masses in bakeries, cool quicker. So to prevent this, move your dough into a microwave and shut the door. Even in its idle state, your microwave is an insulated box and protects your sourdough environment from both extreme cold and hot temperatures. You can even pop in a mug of steamy hot water next to the dough. The combination of steaming water and a tight enclosed space will make an ideal fermentation space for your dough and the internal temperature inside should stay consistent.
You can take this same idea and apply it to your home oven. Once you’ve mixed your dough and bulk fermentation has begun, move it into the turned-off oven with the light bulb switched on. The temperature inside the oven should be consistent and draft-free. You can even boil a pot of water and move it into the oven next to your dough. Proofing boxes are ideal, of course.
Use warmer water - this is the one variable you can control right from the get go. Your flour and sourdough starter will definitely be colder during winter, there’s not much you can do about that, but water temperature you can. Use water that’s warm to the touch, instead of room temperature, around 80F – 85F, for mixing your dough and refreshing your starter. The warmer water will help it to rise faster.
Increase the amount of starter – basically the more starter you use, the more quickly it will ferment. Make sure you don’t take it above 15 – 17%, using bakers percentages. More starter will contribute more microorganisms, thus increasing the speed of fermentation. And make sure you are using it when it is ripe, so keep it somewhere warm and use it when it’s bubbly, loose and doubled in size.
Use a blanket - Try placing a blanket or heavy towel over your sourdough starter jar to insulate it from cool air temperatures. Surprisingly, this can be a simple way to help keep your sourdough starter warm and cosy.
Use wholegrains – sometimes you don’t need to adjust the amount of starter to get things going. Whole grains encourage more active fermentation so whack in some Risen Awesome Wholemeal Flour when refreshing your starter. You could even add a small amount of commercial dry yeast to a sourdough loaf to give it an extra kick.
Increase starter carryover or preferment – it really helps to have an increased bacteria and yeast population in your recipe. The more microbes, the higher the fermentation rate, which can help keep your cold dough on schedule with a recipe. In other words, starting the dough off with a larger microbe percentage offsets waiting for longer for fermentation to happen. You might use 5% of starter in the summer to refresh, in winter, try upping this to 20%.
Use a smaller container for your bulk rise - the larger the surface area, the faster the dough will cool. If you're using a bulk fermentation container that allows your dough to spread out too much, your dough will have an increased surface area and will cool faster than if kept in a smaller container. So keep it snug and small!
Give these tips a go now winter is here to nudge your dough a few degrees in the right direction. And remember: it’s a going to be a different loaf every time, whatever the season.