Unfortunately, it is common to hear a home baker puzzling about a loaf with a dense layer across the lower crust, and a huge ‘bubble’ or a ‘flying’ upper crust.
The reason for the defect in the loaf is simple but generally misunderstood: the bread is under-baked. How we get an under-baked loaf when we follow all the guidance of a recipe or formula is difficult for the baker to work out: the oven was pre-heated to the required temperature, the dough was loaded into the oven and the temperature was dialled back, all according to the instructions. So, why didn’t the bread bake properly? First, let’s think about pre-heating the oven. Dialling up the correct temperature for pre-heating the oven seems like the right thing to do, but why do we do it? Pre-heating the oven is done to ensure there is enough heat in the structure of the oven (including an oven stone if it is being used) to start the process of heating the dough that will lead to baking the dough. Pre-heat temperature is usually 10 or 20 degrees higher than the baking temperature. The oven is ‘overheated’ to allow for heat losses when the oven is opened to load the dough. Each time the oven is opened, heat is lost immediately. When the dough is loaded into the oven, cooler objects are placed into the oven, so the heat in the oven drops again. The dough and any baking sheet or bread pan are around 180degC cooler than the oven. If the oven is pre-heated to, say, 210degC, the temperature may drop to around 170degC. For the dough to bake in the time allowed in the recipe or formula, the oven needs to re-gain the heat that was lost. The larger the mass of dough, the larger the heat loss due to the dough temperature. In my domestic oven, three demi-baguettes on a baguette tray, even with a pizza stone that has been in the oven, the oven temperature drops around 30degC. It takes around 10 minutes for the oven to return to the desired temperature if I keep the dial at 210degC. If I dial the temperature down to 200degC (the specified bake temperature), it will take much longer for the oven to return to the desired bake temperature. This delay in returning to the correct baking temperature will result in the dough being under-baked. The longer the delay, the more ‘under-baked’ the loaf.
To overcome this issue, I keep an inexpensive, portable oven thermometer in the oven so I can check the actual temperature in the oven. I keep the oven dialled to preheat temperature until the portable thermometer shows the oven to be at the desired temperature. Then I reduce the oven temperature setting to the desired baking temperature. Another approach is to pre-heat at a higher temperature so that the heat loss will only reduce the oven temperature to the desired baking temperature.
Hey, hang on there, sourdough isn’t easy, and bread without gluten isn’t easy either.
Well, it’s a bit like driving a car – when you begin learning it is not easy, especially if you are learning to drive a manual car with gears and a clutch. When you get the basic skills of changing gears and steering and braking sorted out, then the co-ordination needed for reversing, especially reverse parking it becomes easier, until you don’t have to think about each action or process – you just do it! So, making sourdough bread without gluten is a bit like driving: it can be a bit daunting at first, but as you become familiar with the co-ordination of ingredients, temperature and time it becomes easier. As you build your skills and understanding it becomes a simple process, and you begin to wonder why it seemed so daunting.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a good bit to learn, and many skills to develop, but with a bit of guidance it really is easy to bake delicious bread without gluten, using the simplest of ingredients.
Preparing a sourdough starter (the stuff used to inoculate the dough and initiate fermentation) is as easy as mixing flour and water, then letting it ferment. Then as it begins to ferment you feed it, and use a simple process to refine and mature the culture.
When you have a mature starter culture you take a small amount to inoculate a simple dough.
Fermentation takes time, so this when you leave the dough to do its thing. When the starter has transformed the dough you shape it, let it ferment a little longer, then bake it.
The general process for making bread applies to bread made with bakers’ yeast as well as to sourdough bread, and even, in a modified form, to soda bread.
Preparing real bread, pastry, and pasta without gluten can be challenging, even or especially, if we are familiar with working with gluten. There seems to be nothing to make the dough work. So, we feel the need to add to the dough. All sorts of interesting additives have been proposed and used. These are known as gums, or thickeners or binders. All are recognized as food additives, so in some sense, they are ‘food safe’, however many have issues that make them unhelpful, or even unsafe for some people. Many of these additives are found in all sorts of processed foods to improve the texture or to bulk out the food. In bread some seem to work well, others not so; but the greatest challenge is to decide:
what is the dough to be used for?
is an additive really required?
which additive is going to work best with the dough?
how much additive is required?
Before we spend time trying to answer those questions there is another set of questions to address:
what sort of dough do I want to make?
what is the dough to be used for?
am I trying to replicate a dough that contains gluten?
what texture, aroma, and flavour am I aiming for in the final product?
what have I learned about the flour: how does it behave under different conditions, what are its characteristic textures when milled and mixed with different liquids, what happens as it ferments with a related starter culture, or with different starter cultures?
how will the flour and other ingredients, including any additive, affect the texture, aroma, and flavour of the final product?
Of course, it is possible to throw ingredients together and get a result. If we want to work with our ingredients to produce the best possible result we need to spend time learning from each ingredient.