If you are an avid baker like me, you may have noticed that in the winter making proper sourdough or natural rise breads can be challenging.
If you are just learning to bake bread, the frustration may have made you so fed up that you have considered giving up baking. Please don’t.
Why is Sourdough more challenging in cold weather?
The issue is temperature. One of the most important things a baker learns is how to manage temperature. If it is too warm, your breads will spend their energy too quickly and if too cold, they will take longer to develop. In the winter, particularly a very cold one, we tend to keep our homes colder than is ideal for bread development.
The ideal temperature range is 72° to 75° Fahrenheit or 22° to 23° Celsius. Some experts allow for as low as 70° (21°) and some as high as 78° (25.5°), but most books and bakers will advise to stay in the 72° to 75° degree range. Our house is 67° to 68°F (19° to 20°C) during the day and even as low as 62° to 63° (16° to 17°C) overnight.
Because of these lower temperatures, if we are not careful, we may find our naturally leavened, or sourdough, breads just don’t turn out as we had hoped. The instinctive feel for the rising times we use in the warmer months are gone, meaning we need to allow for longer development times and keep a closer eye on our dough.
As many of you know, there are different styles of sourdough or levain starters. There are stiff and liquid levains (levain is the French word for leaven and is most often used in reference to what we in North America call sourdough or a natural starter. made without commercial yeast).
A stiff sourdough is more dense and dough like, while liquid starters are more batter like. A stiff levain will develop very slowly. A liquid starter, with more moisture, will grow more quickly and have a shorter lifespan.
To offset the colder temperatures of winter, you can use the liquid levain to help keep your rise and proofing times more in line with warmer months. The addition of something other than plain water in the starter, milk or honey for instance, can provide additional sugar for our natural yeast friends to consume helping to kick-start the activity.
Though some may consider it anathema, you can add a sprinkle or dash of commercial yeast to your sourdough bread to help it grow more easily in colder winter temperatures. In experiments I have tried, you still have the character and tang of sourdough, because the commercial yeast addition is insufficient to have a huge affect on the overall leavening composition.
Even though it may take longer to rise in cooler months, remember that a long drawn out development in your starters and final dough creates character, enhanced flavor and better post-baking life in the finished bread. These are some of the reasons why connoisseurs of bread seek out sourdough or levain style breads in the first place.
If you want to stick with your tried and true method of sourdough in the winter, you can seek out warmer places in the house to let the starters rise, such as near the furnace. You can also use space heaters and oven pilot lights as ways to provide additional warmth. Some even use thermal blankets to provide a nurturing environment for their little bundles of fermenting joy.
If this extra care and attention is not something you want to undertake, you still have options for baking. You can use commercial yeast to bring about a more steady controlled result.
With commercial yeast, you can still develop some character to your bread by utilizing the sponge or poolish method. Using this technique, you use commercial yeast to create a starter which develops some character and flavor over a period of 6 to 10 hours, or even longer depending on the amount of yeast used. The final bread can be made using the sponge, with the addition of more yeast along with the flour, water and salt.
There is also Pâte Fermentée or old dough method. This technique uses a piece of finished dough from the previous batch to seed the next. This method is more difficult for the home baker who naturally bakes less frequently, so preserving the old dough would mean feeding it like a natural starter.
While the commercial yeast will give a more certain rise in cold weather, temperature levels still play a part. If your house is cooler like mine, you may find that the rising and proofing times will be slightly longer than what may be listed in the recipe. Each baker needs to learn how to bake in his or her home, finding those warmer environments to help keep your yeast alive and bringing the glorious, golden treats from the oven.
Homemade bread is delicious, nutritious and far less expensive than commercially made bread. Baking at home brings to mind the warmth of the hearth, and a time of simpler pursuits, plus it fills the air with the wonderful fragrance of fresh bread.