In baking there are certain cardinal rules to which we hold fast in the hope of creating some kind of standard. But then there are almost always variables beyond our control that force us to toss those rules out the window.
In the case of Wheatstalk, that variable was the incredibly hot and humid weather that descended on Chicago this week, which made the instructors jumpy about fermentation times, dough temperatures during production and even oven usage.
Jeffrey Hamelman--who taught bagels, bialys and pretzels--ran into the issue of heat and humidity as he was preparing his pretzel levain for class this morning. He shared a fascinating trick that seemed almost counterintuitive to me while simultaneously making perfect sense.
"If it's hot and humid, it's likely your levain will over-rise during a 16-hour fermentation," he said. "So I added a bit of salt to slow down the fermentation."
"How much is a bit?" I blurted out.
He patted me on the shoulder and smiled. "Don't worry, don't worry," he said, sensing my surprise. "Two percent salt, taken from your overall formula." He went on: "The microorganisms in sourdough can coexist with salt because if not, we wouldn't be able to make naturally leavened bread. So it's okay to have a little salt hanging out with your levain."
He noted that he was no stranger to unpredictable conditions in the production kitchen, emphasizing the importance of some basic adjustments to temperature so as not to waste product. "Sometimes your levain is too ripe or underripe. So what should you do if this happens? The first and most important thing is to not beat yourself up," he said. He noted that in addition to taking a little salt from the overall formula and adding it to the levain, chilling the flour and water before mixing with an overripe levain could help lower the overall dough temperature by a couple degrees Fahrenheit and slow down fermentation. Conversely, for underripe levain, bumping up the dough temperature will help boost fermentation.
Cardinal rule of mixing bread dough officially broken. (And I feel okay about it.)