Saturday, March 5, 2011

Technique: Troubleshooting Dough

I started a thread recently asking Serious Eaters what dough-related tips and techniques they wanted to read about. There were quite a few "troubleshooting" questions - not so much "how do I?" but more like "Uh oh, it's gone wrong ... now what?" I'll keep collecting questions and answering them here from time to time, so if you've got questions, let me know.

Here are the first few:

If you've added too much flour to a dough, how do you add more water?

We all know that adding more flour to a dough is easy - sometimes too easy. Flour your work surface and the dough will keep picking up more and more flour as you knead. Adding water, on the other hand, seems so complicated. Try to pour even a tablespoon of water in the middle of your dough and work it in, and you've got a mess on your hands.

But think about it. When you add flour, you're not putting a scoop of flour into the middle of your dough and trying to work it in. You're adding a thin film of flour to the surface of the dough, and incorporating it slowly. Are you ahead of me yet? No?

The answer is to use a spray bottle and add the water just as slowly as you add flour. Mist the dough, fold, and knead. Mist again, fold and knead. If you add too much water at once, the dough gets slippery and it's a little harder to work in the water, but if you mist it just enough, it gets tacky and the dough sticks to itself and the water incorporates easily. Once you figure out how much water to spray, it's pretty easy to add enough water in a short amount of time.

If you've covered a formed and rising loaf of bread with cloth, and the cloth gets stuck, how do you un-stick it?

The best thing to do is thwart the sticking to begin with. White rice flour dusted on top of the loaf will keep almost anything from sticking, and unlike wheat flour, you won't have that raw flour taste if you leave it on during baking. If you don't want that much flour on top of your loaf, you can rub the rice flour into a cloth. I have a couple of cloths that I use specifically for dough, and they're pretty much impregnated with rice flour. The cloth doesn't stick, but it also doesn't leave a lot of flour residue on the loaf, either.

If it's too late for precautions and your cloth is sticking, pull out your trusty spray bottle filled with water, and spray the cloth. Give it a second or two, and it should release from the bread without tearing the skin on the dough. If it's still pulling, wet it a little more and give it another couple seconds before you try again.

My kitchen is always cold. Dough rises too slow, and refrigerated doughs take forever to stop feeling chilly.

Yeast likes warm room temperatures, so if your kitchen isn't warm, your dough will take a lot longer to rise. While a long slow rise is great for developing flavor, sometimes you want your dough to rise a little faster so you can have it for dinner tonight instead of breakfast tomorrow.

If your oven has a light inside, you can put the dough in the oven with the light on. This doesn't help when you need to preheat the oven for baking, though, so you can also use your microwave. Heat a cup of water to boiling in the microwave, then put the dough in. With the door closed, the air in the microwave will stay warm for quite a while. You can leave the water in, if there's space in the oven, or take it out.

Another option is a little craftier. If you've ever been to a craft fair, you've probably seen the neck warmers that are full of some kind of seeds. Unfortunately, a lot of those are scented, and you might not want to potpourri scented bread. But you can use the concept. The seeds in many of those bags are millet seeds, and they seem to be quite amenable to being reheated over and over without turning into millet popcorn.

All you need is a cloth bag and some millet seeds. Millet seeds aren't terribly expensive and they don't have a strong scent when heated. I've seen them at the supermarket, but they're quite popular at health food stores as well.

Microwave the bag of millet seeds until it's hot - my bag, with about a pound of millet, takes about 2 minutes to heat to maximum temperature, and the bag stays warm for quite a while.

Put your dough in a covered bowl or a plastic bag. Put the bag of millet into the bottom of your microwave, a cooler, or even a stockpot that's large enough to hold your bowl of dough, then put a few kitchen towels on top of the millet bag to insulate your dough from the direct heat. Place the bowl (or bag) of dough on top of the towels. The millet should warm the dough and the air enough to get a rise out of it.

Remember: When the bag of seeds first comes out of the microwave, it will be too hot for close contact with the dough, so don't put a plastic bag of dough right on top of it. Remember, you're trying to warm the air, not precook the dough.

The millet-filled bag is also useful if you want to serve warms buns for dinner. Just put the warmed bag of millet in the bottom of your bread basket and cover it with a pretty cloth. Put the buns in, and cover them with a cloth. They'll stay nice and warm through dinner.

Any questions?


Thatcher said...

My parents use their in-floor heat in their bathroom to rise bread, as it keeps a constant temperature and is warmer than the house's air. I place mine on the top of a shelf where the room's heat gets trapped.

Anonymous said...

This probably goes with the "my kitchen is cold" theme, but my problem seems to be more fundamental. After significant experimenting, I've discovered there is *nothing* I can do to get my sourdough to rise, not even using your delightful suggestions above.

I think my starter is a flop. I followed along with your sourdough starter-along on Serious Eats, and read as you constantly reassured folks that it was okay if our starters weren't as bubbly as yours, because eventually ours would catch up. Mine never has. It's now... what, five months old? It lived in the fridge for about two of those months, but that didn't do anything except make it more sour. I keep the starter warm, I let it stay cool, I feed it 1 oz each of flour and water, I feed it 1 cup each of flour and water... nothing changes.

There's definitely yeast in there. It bubbles a little. At its best, it looks like your picture from Day 6.

What can I do?

Donna Currie said...

Dump out most of it, leaving about 1/4 inch in the jar. Add enough water and flour so you've got 1/2 inch in the jar. Let that sit on the counter overnight. Next day, feed enough to double the amount. Later in the day, double it again. See if it's bubbling more fiercely by then. If not, give it one more day, feed it a few times during the day - feeding enough to raise the level by about 1/2 inch each time. If it's not getting more lively by then, I'd call it quits and start over.

Anonymous said...

I'll give it a shot and report back. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

It's aliiiive!

And I've got to say, I'm completely amazed. I had my doubts, all the way through the first three feedings, but when I uncovered the starter for the fourth feeding, it had turned into a completely different creature. It was bubbly and elasticky and alive. In the five months I've been trying, it's never come anywhere near this bubbly. I think it'll be ready to try turning into bread this evening.

I hereby dub you a bread-saving genius.

Donna Currie said...

Excellent! Have fun with your new pet ;-)

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