I love baking sourdough. It is delicious, healthy1, and forgiving to work with. Over the past year, it has been an ongoing project to learn as much as I can about how to bake the most interesting sourdough breads from scratch. In this project, I decided to bake sourdough bagels.
Some have argued that sourdough bread likely resembles the first breads that humans ate. There is evidence dating back to ancient Egypt that bread was made using the yeasts from old beer. The basic concept is elucidated quite nicely by this baker.
Clearly, the rapid-rise yeasts found in Wonder Bread are nothing like the breads our ancestors ate. Some believe that these unnatural breads are associated with a recent spike in gluten intolerance. There is a bit of evidence in support of this assertion: some gluten intolerant people are tolerant of sourdough bread.
As a relatively recent addition to the 2,000+ year history of sourdoughish breads, San Francisco sourdough has quickly become the archetype pro tempore for sourdough. San Francisco sourdough is one of those interesting coincidences in life, kinda like life itself, I guess. The characteristic flavor of its sour dough comes from the organic byproducts of bacteria2 and yeast metabolism.
Specifically, the flavors come from lactic acid from the bacteria and a bit of alcohol from the yeast. Alcohol boils and evaporates at about 172°F, which means that it has a much lower boiling temperature than lactic acid (250°F). Because you bake break much hotter than 250°F (at about 500°F), the alcohol and lactic acid both boil off during the bake, so you won't get drunk from it after you bake the bread. However, due to its lower boiling point, the alcohol boils off more quickly than the lactic acid (the same principle that allows distillation!). The diaspora of these "metabolites" from the dough during the baking process also contributes to why your starter always has a stronger flavor than a leavened sourdough bread.
The science behind sourdough baking will be a topic for a future post, but for now, it's sufficient to say that San Francisco sourdough is unique because its lactic-acid bacteria, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, works symbiotically with its yeast, usually Candida milleri. The bacteria and the yeast each consume different sugars, so that there is not competition for resources. In addition, the bacteria has an antibiotic effect that keeps out other harmful infections, keeping your sourdough starter clean and delicious. If you're interested, you can read this article about the chemistry behind sourdough bread.
So how did I make the bagels? the principle is very basic: Let some dough rise, form it into bagel shapes, boil it in salty water, then bake them and eat too many carbs for 2 days straight. In the rest of this article, I'll explain the details of this process.
Let's start with the ingredients:
A note on flour selection: I've noticed that a lot of novice bakers are immediatly drawn to trying to incorporate whole wheat flour into their baking, perhaps because they want to make their bread as “healthy” as possible. Truth be told, whole wheat flour is just very difficult to work with. Even though it has a reputation for being gluten-heavy, it's rather hard to get a good gluten development in your bread with whole wheat. This is why a lot of whole wheat breads fall apart so easily: they have little packets of gluten, but it doesn't "play well" with the rest of the loaf, so it crumbles.
I simply reccomend skipping the whole wheat. As it turns out, sourdough probably has a lower glycemic index than whole wheat3, meaning a primary health benefit of whole wheat as opposed to white flour, the rate at which it raises blood glucose levels, is actually accomplished just fine with sourdough made from white flour. If you still want to be really healthy about it, choose rye over whole wheat. Sourdough rye consistently ranks as the lowest glycemic index bread.
I've often heard the adage that "cooking is an art, baking is a science," usually to suggest that one needs to be very precise when baking. As a scientist, I tend to believe that there is quite a bit of overlap between the domain of science and the domain of art. In order for baking to "work," two factors must be present:
As you can glean, there is a lot of variability with respect to how you get your bread to "work." In many cases, I think that following a recipe to the dot is a very bad way to make bread, because it doesn't force you to pay attention to the qualitative features that will affect how your bread bakes and tastes. Once you have successfully baked a few loaves and have the confidence to deviate from a recipe, I highly recommend trying your own flour/water ratios, kneeding techniques, and rising times, just to see what happens and how each will affect your bread.
That being said, I know that it's helpful to have a ballpark idea for what ingredients to use, so here's a basic guideline based on how I made these bagels:
- 1/2 cup starter (50/50 suspension of flour and water, by volume)
- 1 cup water
- 3 cups flour
- 2/3 tspn salt
- seeds to taste - I used a mixture of fennel, poppy, and sesame seeds. I also chopped some onions and garlic to put on top. Do whateva ya like!
And the basic process:
If your dough has successfully risen, then we are finished with the "dough development" phase of bagel making. Now for the fun part: Making the bagels!!
Final thoughts on the project: I'm really stoked with how the bagels came out! They were chewy on the inside, appropriately crusty on the outside, and quite flavorful. I have made them twice, and I didn't change the process at all from the one I described above. I really wouldn't change anything about how they turned out.
I think it's probably important to bake them on something that does not conduct heat too efficiently to prevent the bottoms from burning.
Published on November 13, 2012