Esperance with BreadLocal — and I’m all mixed up!

So it was off to Esperance. I’d been averaging a workshop every couple of weeks so far. Suddenly I was flat out. In Esperance I had a busy itinerary, with two Bush Baking workshops and a demonstration bake to do; all in the space of about a week. In addition, I had to cast an eye over BreadLocal’s home based microbakery.

BreadLocal is the brainchild of Tiff Brown, who came to study with me some years back. She has continued her study of bread and pastry production processes in multiple countries over the whole time, and now creates sourdough loaves and croissants which are second to none. I was looking forward to catching up and seeing what was going on for her production wise. She had a few questions and things to try while I was there. It was going to be a fun week!

Tiff Scores!

Tiff runs her bakery on a Market Master wood fired oven which was designed by Craig Miller and myself. Hers was a late ‘pre-production’ prototype, but you wouldn’t know it. It is a very well thought through piece of wood fired cooking equipment. My own oven, Luna, was the third generation prototype which, via a couple of other ovens, led to this one. Compared to mine, Tiff’s oven is streets ahead.

The Market Master Firebox in action

This was the first time I had ever seen her oven in the flesh, though Craig always sends me plans and fabrication pictures. There in Tiff’s nearly complete bakery, the Market Master looks formidable. I’m immediately jealous.

Tiff had been having some issues with steam generation in her oven. The system Craig developed has evolved from the one I have in my oven. Hers is certainly a better looking setup, with nice stainless water cylinders and proper plumbing. Tiff, however, wasn’t happy with it. She needed substantially more than the oven was generating.

We gave the oven a run the following day, and I was going to have a look at this issue. Tiff was also interested in exploring ways to make her baking more child friendly.

Tiff’s setup is at her home. It’s a converted garage, with two kitchen spaces — an oven room and a dough room. It’s been really well thought out, and built to a high standard by local tradespeople. When I arrived, the place was a flurry of activity, as these tradies were flat out getting the dough room finished in time for the upcoming workshop. To make matters a bit more complex, Tiff had also organised a rather large catering gig at her family’s farm just out of town on the weekend.

Oh, and did I mention that Tiff was also about 6 months pregnant; with a small (but delightful) boy (Ned) who was heading towards eighteen months when I was there? Yep. (Or, as Ned would put it, ‘No way!’)

Ned hard at play just out of the way of Mum’s feet.

Tiffany isn’t your normal baker. Indeed, she’s in a league of her own. Over the coming week I observed her super human powers gradually emerge.

Part of the mission for us while I was there was to explore ways she could make her baking session each week more ‘family friendly’. Her one full day each baking week had become a bit long, and Tiff wanted to work out a way of alleviating this issue before she had two little people to hang with very soon. I’ve been an advocate of the retardation process for many years, and Tiff had seen it in action at my place, so the plan was to see if it could be worked into her routine.

While I was there, we were also going to experiment with her oven. Tiff had been mainly using the top deck, as the bottom was too hot. The idea here was to figure out if using the bottom deck was at all workable in her typical bakery routine.

Meanwhile, I was prepping for my two workshops and demonstration bake (which was at the catering event I mentioned earlier). Part of Tiff’s idea was to make sure I had plenty of gigs to help pay for my trip there. For that I was eternally grateful, as this trip was expensive to do. The distances involved are enormous, no matter how you travel — by air or land, there is a cost.

Esperance, for anyone who is not familiar with the area, is on a remote piece of coastline in Western Australia. It’s a minimum of four hours’ drive from Esperance to the nearest proper town. It’s 3420 kilometers to my place from there. It’s a pretty place, with pink salt lakes, coastal wetlands, beaches, and large swathes of wheat country all around. Beyond that, you are going to be crossing the desert to get there. But wait; there’s more! It’s also a busy little tourist hub, and a grain focused port is a vital part of the town’s mixed economy.

I love port towns.

Esperance is a most unusual, diverse place. Farming, salt lakes, wetlands, coastline, tourism, the port, and I’m sure there is more in the mix I haven’t been able to touch on.

Tiff is a very accomplished organiser, and she had decided to have a go at catering for a hundred people in an old wool shed on her parent’s farm while I was in town. It became increasingly clear to both of us that she had a bit on her plate. I did too — though for entirely different reasons.

We busily worked our way through the week; her extended family all converged on the house and attended to an enormous list of coordinated activities painstakingly worked and re worked by Tiff as the week unfolded. We worked our way through her bake, and were successfully able to use the bottom deck. However, surprisingly, using both decks actually slowed her down. Tiff believed she was able to bake faster with only the top deck. This amazed me, but I could see what was happening, and she was definitely right.

Loading the bottom deck of Tiff’s oven

Large double deck wood fired ovens are worked like conveyor belts. The baker ‘sets’ the formed dough on the hot bottom deck, and then transfers the ‘set’ loaves to the top deck for ‘crusting’. Once the dough is crusted, it is taken out or rotated, and at the same time the next load is put in for setting. This process works with the natural ambience of the oven; the fire is baffled away, underneath the bottom deck, sending flue gases all the way around the deck to the top. The heat is captured by stones on the roof, and radiated back down for the crusting part of the bake. In order to achieve the ‘conveyor belt’ effect, and to maximise the extra labour involved in ‘shuffling’ the bread from bottom to top, the baker needs quite a bit of dough to ‘work’ through the decks. Then, the heat in the bottom deck is gradually absorbed by the ongoing loading of cold dough. Basically, the longer the baking process is maintained, the faster the oven gets. This is, of course, only works when you can fire the oven continuously.

Tiff’s bake, at this stage, was relatively small. From time to time she did larger volumes, but to efficiently make the oven work to the conveyer effect, we really needed a bigger volume of dough. Thus, for now, the top deck would be the most efficient way for Tiff to use the oven.

It turned out the oven’s steam was adequate — but it wasn’t enough for her needs. Tiff’s workaround involved a garden hose and a spray gun, and her crusts were amazing using this technique. She’d simply spray the walls of the oven just before loading with the spray gun.

My feeling was that more moisture in the final proof would eliminate the need to spray down the decks — and the oven’s steam system would then be adequate. Moist dough, fresh out of the proofer, always gets better oven spring — but if the baker can’t achieve this due to not having a proofer, steam in the baking deck will do a similar thing. The drier the bakery environment, the more steam you need! Not sure what the annual rainfall of Esperance was, but apart from it’s coastal orientation, around it on three sides was desert. Dry air would be the norm.

As yet, Tiff hadn’t invested in any proofing gear so we looked at ideas which would work for her. Without getting any more technical than I already have, there are some really inexpensive ways for a craft baker to proof their dough, and Tiff and I discussed ways she might do this in her bakery. Once she’s set these things up, I suspect she won’t need to blast her oven with a garden hose for steam!

I made a batch of dough in her mixer for the event Tiff was catering for, as well as a batch by hand for the workshop. I also made a batch for running through Tiff’s oven, just to see if a slower proofing routine would work for her.

It was about now that the chickens of my ‘constant change’ methodology (from being on the road without proper refrigeration, consistent flour or water) came home to roost. I had been (over) confident in my process up to now. But recent issues with the bread we baked at the last Bush Baking workshop had highlighted to me that something wasn’t right — and I had no idea what it was! I was about to find out over the coming few batches of dough just what a mess my ‘system’ was in!

The first batch of dough for Tiff’s oven just sat still — I left it overnight, out of the fridge, and nothing much happened. When it came time to cut it, the dough felt strange — not ripe, not over ripe. Time, however, was moving on, and I was keen to process the dough so I could squeeze it in the oven after Tiff’s bake was done. I cut it, rounded it, and allowed the dough to rest and re gas. Normally, this might take a couple of hours — but after the right amount of time, not much happened at all. My dough was inching along, and it was a relatively warm day. Nothing made sense. I ended up baking it in two separate lots, and while it was acceptable, it was hardly to the standard I am used to baking. Tiff’s dough, done with a short bulk proof, was far better. She had worked with the temperature, using a ‘build’ technique, refreshing and establishing a fairly quick dough overnight.

Ten kilos of hand made dough

My hand made dough, which I built the next day, did something completely different. It began to break down, almost straight away. I managed to make another hand dough, and this time I put it in the fridge as soon as I made it. I also made another dough in the mixer, which was for the event the following day — and this went straight into the fridge also.

I’ll add that my technique is usually based around super slow fermentation, so allowing the dough to proof at less than ten degrees is pretty normal for me. Why was this happening?

It was at this point that I arrived at my first harsh discovery; I couldn’t diagnose what was going on for my dough until I had removed all the variables. The issue was even more challenging, you see, as almost EVERYTHING was a variable. The flour, the water, the starter, the temperature; I had not been able to manage consistency with any of these things on my gypsy journey. How the heck would I be able to figure out what was going wrong until everything was consistent again?

Secondly, how could I control temperature, with my third world evaporative cooler (which wasn’t even working properly?)

Faced with chaos, I had to return to basics. I fed the starter, and refrigerated it in Tiff’s fridge. I purchased a bag of Wholegrain Milling baker’s flour from Tiff, a flour I was very familiar with. I decanted a tankful of Tiff’s water — though later I purchased spring water from the supermarket. I could taste the clay in the local water, and I was certain it wasn’t reacting well with my process. From that point forth, I began feeding my starter more often, as temperatures in the trailer could not be kept below 15 degrees consistently.

It wasn’t until three bakes later, at a workshop at Yirri Grove Olive plantation, that things began to work again. In the mean time, I had been witness to varying levels of failure at every bake — from ‘lumpy’ dough, to ‘flat’ dough, to ‘mediocre bread’ at best. It was soul destroying stuff; especially when you are trying to teach others how to make great sourdough!

Tiff’s event at the wool shed was a total success. The locals came out in force and enjoyed the day immensely. Tiff and her crew of helpers presented a damn fine spread of wholesome country fare, while outside the Bush Bakery MkII and I worked the dough and baked it for an audience of keen home bakers.

I used the dough which had been made in the mixer and kept cold. It survived till baking, but still didn’t really elevate as I have been used to. Nonetheless, everybody who came had so much fun kneading and rough rounding, it didn’t seem to matter.

Needless to say, I was still no closer to solving my dough problem! Stay tuned for the beginning of the solution!


Originally published at www.schoolofsourdough.com.au.