Covid Sourdough Theater Part 2

In my tiny yurt it’s a huge mistake to make a lot of heat in the summer, so I want to make an outdoor kitchen. Instead of a full-sized oven, I want to see what I can accomplish with a stovetop burner and a dutch oven. Our landlords recently started charging for electricity for the first time as well, and it’s very possible my electrical bill in the middle of our 100+ o F Austin summers are going to cost more than my rent!

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The sourdough recipe I’ve been using already recommends a dutch oven for baking but it’s used inside a normal oven. This means heat comes from all directions instead of just the bottom, and you can take off the lid of the dutch oven and still have even heat around the bread. To replace the oven in this equation with a stovetop, I knew I’d have to make some changes.

Previously my sourdough starter hadn’t been perking up as much as I wanted. It’s supposed to bubble up to twice its unfed volume at its highest, and I was only getting maybe a 50% increase. However, I realized both that I had been using chlorinated city tap water I had gotten from a friend, and also bleached instead of unbleached flour. As soon as I corrected this, I got a 100% increase in volume! I was ready to try something new.

Ideally I’d like to use an induction burner for this, because it’s not only more efficient than a normal electric hob, it’s actually more efficient than gas. I decided a set of sourdough biscuits would be a good place to start. I heated up my dutch oven on the Tramontina 1500 watt induction burner and was able to get it to about 350 degrees by slowly ramping up the heat over about 15 minutes. I put parchment paper on the bottom to protect the biscuits, but by the time the top was done, the bottoms were pretty badly burned.

As a brief aside, I tried using oat milk in a buttermilk biscuit recipe, but I didn’t add any acid to make up for the difference, so the baking soda and powder didn’t fully fire and they were quite flat. It turns out that 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar can be added to most alternative milks to correct for this, and I will try that again soon.

The problem with using a dutch oven on a hob is that the bottom is a lot hotter than the top. Even with slow, persistent pre-heating, the bottom is likely to be at least 200 o F higher than the top. The base can get up to 500 o F while it’s heating, even after the middle has reached 350 o F. This makes even cooking and top browning a problem. I was thinking that a small baking rack to get the bread off of the floor of the dutch oven might work, but it would take up a lot of space and I’m not sure there would be enough room left for a big sourdough loaf to rise. I looked online for a solution to this, and one suggestion was to put a small cast iron skillet under the dutch oven like this:

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I decided to try that. I used my Gourmia induction stovetop for this one. Even with very slow heating (over an hour), the Gourmia would eventually always quit with with an overheat warning. Meanwhile my dough went past the sweet spot and started to deflate. In a minor panic, I went and pulled my high-efficiency Ramblewood Green propane stove out of the van and hooked it up instead. This provided a lot more consistent, even heat, and I was able to get the base of the dutch oven to 350 o F in about 30 minutes.

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What’s the ray gun device I’m using to measure the temperature without burning the *!#! out of myself? That’s an infrared thermometer. It can tell the heat at some distance. I got this one to help diagnose an exhaust problem with my van, but it’s perfect for nit-piggling cooking temperatures. In this case every time I took a sample I measured the heat of the cast iron skillet (around 500 o F), the bottom of the dutch oven (about 350 o F) and the top of the dutch oven below the lid (around 200-250 o F).

I knew I was in trouble doing my final folds on the loaf before putting it in to bake at 4:24 PM. The dough didn’t want to hold its shape and was flattening out. When I tried to cut my grooves, they would immediately self-heal because the dough wasn’t springy enough. But, I figured, it would still taste good and I had learned an important lesson that, at least for the Gourmia stove, this system wouldn’t work due to the overheating problem.

In between all this I was helping build the new paddock for our incoming pigs, two adults and two piglets, that our farm was raising. It was our first really hot day and, despite lots of electrolyte water and sun protection, I still got pretty pooped.

I kept coming back to check on the loaf periodically. I didn’t crack the lid until 5:12 PM, 50 minutes into the bake. At that point I was smelling a faint burning smell but the top still looked like this:

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In the recipe I was altering, you cook the loaf inside the dutch oven inside a normal oven at 400 o F for 20 minutes, then take the lid off. I had effectively steamed my loaf inside the dutch oven for probably too long. I cracked the lid to let some of the steam out and continued cooking, checking every 15 minutes or so to see how things were going.

At about 5:50 PM, I took this measurement and saw 212 o F. My recipe said the bread was done at 205 o F, but the top still wasn’t very brown. I carefully flipped the loaf over and then baked for another 15 minutes or so to properly brown the top, resulting in this. I took a quick shower, wrapped the loaf in a the towel I had just used to dry myself, and headed to friend’s house to watch the Mandalorian, hoping it would still be warm by the time I arrived.

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It was.

The final result? A quite flat sourdough loaf with a slightly burned bottom, making it hard to cut. It was actually very close to the flatter loaf the Korean guy who showed me the “put a small cast iron pan under it” trick had made.

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One great thing about bread baking is that unless youscrew it up pretty epically, the result will still be delicious, and it was! I knew going in that it would take several tries at least to dial things in, so I wasn’t surprised it wasn’t perfect.

1) At least the Gourmia induction cooktop doesn’t work for this because the sustained heat of the cast iron trigger’s its overheat alarm and it shuts down. If this happened in the middle of a bake it could, in the immortal words of Sansa Stark, Ruin Everything! I didn’t see this problem using the dutch oven by itself on my Tramontina induction hobb, so maybe I’ll try that next time. For a more sure results, use electric or gas, despite the additional wasted energy.

2) What you feed your sourdough starter really matters. Besides temperature, this is the single biggest variable in sourdough baking, and switching from chlorinated water and bleached flour to unchlorinated water and unbleached flour made all the difference, literally overnight.

2) Dough proofing timing is important. I knew this already, and left an hour to get the cooking setup ready while the bread was doing bulk fermentation, but it took almost an hour to realize the induction method wasn’t working, and another 50 minutes until the gas setup was at the correct temperature. At that point the loaf had deflated a lot already.

3) This setup won’t brown evenly. The top of the dutch oven will run at least 100-150 o F lower than the bottom, even with the cast iron skillet underneath. It certainly would have helped if I had cracked the lid at 20 minutes instead of 50, but I still don’t know if it’s possible to get a good top brown on a loaf without flipping it over. I’ll certainly crack the lid sooner next time, but I still think I’ll need to flip the loaf to get a top brown.

4) I might need a different bake temperature. I tried to keep the bottom of the dutch oven at around 350 o F. This meant keeping the cast iron skillet at about 500 o F. At the same time the top of the dutch oven was around 200 – 250 o F. Cooking at a lower temperature might help with evenness and getting a top brown before the bottom burns. One idea that might help here is to use the oven method described in the original recipe and do those same measurements to see what the actual temperature of the dutch oven is.

5) Since many of my problems are caused by uneven heat between the top and bottom of the oven, some kind of solar-powered solution might be in order. It’s pretty easy to make a simple solar oven, and I could either bake directly in that or put the dutch oven inside. We’ll certainly have plenty of heat here in Texas, and it would be free heat.

6) I bet after all of this jacking around with hobs and dutch ovens, using my Zojirushi bread maker will probably product much better, more consistent results. Starting this sooner rather than later is probably a good idea, since my Holy Grail is gluten and dairy-free, low carb sourdough. I’m doing all this traditional stuff to get a feel for how sourdough works, and while I do better if I avoid gluten I’m not celiac. It’s fun to do the messy alchemy, but what I really want is something I can throw into a bread machine once or twice a week, walk away, and have perfect results with no further intervention. Getting this to happen with actual sourdough might well be too hard, *even* if I keep my starter and dough in a proofing box. To get what I finally want, it might be better to find a way to fake the sourdough taste and texture with some form of almond/tapioca bread and either use baker’s yeast or chemical leavening like I do in my low-gluten Jewish Rye recipe.

All-in-all it was fun, and I’ll certainly try it a few more times with this method, because I think it would really help the world to have a good sourdough technique using a hob and a dutch oven.

Thanks for reading this far, you’re a trooper! Please let me know what’s worked for you in our own sourdough adventures.

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