This Sourdough Whisperer Will Help You Solve Your Bread Problems
Bread trouble? Just page Nora Allen of Mel the Bakery—she can help.
Like so many people self-isolating in their homes to stem the spread of coronavirus, I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately. I’m far from an expert, but I’ve been making bread with a sourdough starter for a while now, so I’ve also been fielding text messages from friends who are just starting out on the sourdough path. The most common one, I’ve found, is some variation of “why does my bread look like this and not those gorgeous bakery boules on Instagram?” That’s when I point them to Nora Allen.
On the Instagram page for her forthcoming bakery, @melthebakery, Allen has been doling out gentle advice to bakers on what might be preventing their naturally leavened bread from reaching its fullest potential. Send a picture of the inside of your loaf—a crumb shot, if you will—and Allen can get a sense of what might help improve it. Too many big, open holes? You might have overbulked it. Too flat? The dough temperature might have been too cold. Either, way, she assures people, don’t worry too much—even if the bread is technically flawed, it’s probably still delicious with butter or jam.
The world of sourdough baking can be intimidating to enter, and Allen's voice is warm and welcoming. She’s not here to scold your sourdough, just to coax it into a better place. Her assessments are more Great British Bake-Off than Kitchen Nightmares. You can tell she just really loves this stuff, and is happy other people are joining her to nerd out a little about bread. “I’m not here to roast your crumb,” Allen said in our phone interview. “I want to be a guide. I’m not in your kitchen, and I don’t know the full extent of the situation. I’m here to ask, ‘what’s your crumb saying?’ I’m a crumb listener.”
An alum of the baking arms of Roberta’s and the Standard East Village, she was hoping to open Mel the Bakery on the Lower East Side in early May, but has been thwarted by COVID-19-related delays. They’re still hoping to open in a limited capacity for delivery next month, but in the meantime, Allen started fielding the same text messages I had been getting, from friends who were just wading into the world of sourdough baking and needed help with their loaves. After some encouragement from fellow bakers, Allen opened up the Mel Bakery request line on their Instagram stories to help other at-home bakers with their projects.
“There’s so much mystery around bread,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of fear that sourdough starter is this precious thing that you’re going to kill. But I promise you, you’re not. I always compare my starter to a plant. How much attention you want to pay to that plant is up to you.” Sure, there are best practices to producing beautiful, tasty loaves of bread. But if you’re just making a casual loaf now and then, your intensity doesn’t have to be at the level of a professional baker to produce something delicious. “It’s really about temperature, and what clicks,” Allen said. “I always tell people to just pick a recipe and keep making it until you’re comfortable with it—it’s easier to spot the things you can change for more consistency that way.”
That said, if you have frustrations with your bread, there are a few easy ways to see what might be slightly off. According to Allen, a good crumb depends on the bread and final intention of the baked good—the inside of a Pullman loaf is supposed to look different than the inside of a croissant. But in general, look for a crumb with an even distribution of holes. It should look something like this:
Bread Too Dense? It Might Be Cold Dough
One of the most common mistakes is having a dough temperature that’s too low for the starter to feed on all the flour in the dough, resulting in a crumb that’s dense, with fewer openings. “Starter is happiest and most active at around 75 degrees. If it’s a lot colder, the process will be much slower. A dough at the right temperature should feel alive and be warm to the touch—it shouldn’t be slimey,” Allen said. But it’s a pretty easy fix. Just move your dough to a warmer spot in your kitchen, like the turned-off oven, to warm it up. A thermometer would help here, too.
If your bread comes out too flat and dense for your liking, the other culprit might be underbulking. In sourdough terms, bulking is short for bulk fermentation, and it’s the step after you fully mix the dough, when you allow it to rise at room temperature for several hours. This is when the dough ferments, and if you don’t give it enough time, the starter cultures won’t have had time to work through the whole mixture. Then when it hits the oven, only a few pockets will open up, resulting in an uneven crumb. “The metaphor we always use is lighting a fire with kindling—you want it to sit for a while so the kindling catches,” Allen said. Here’s an example of underbulking:
Bread Too Full of Big Holes? It’s Rising Too Long
The other, less common mistake home bakers is overbulking, which is letting the dough sit out so long that the starter has already eaten through all the starches and sugars it needs, and is sort of exhausted. The crust will have a yellow-ish tinge, and the crumb will have larger holes in it—Allen called a “lacey” look. This is an example:
Both Big Holes and Too Dense? It’s Your Oven Temperature
The other two point Allen emphasized as an easy fix for frustrated beginners are making sure your oven is hot enough when the loaf goes in. “If you get huge holes by the crust and it’s dense in the center, it’s a sign that the oven isn’t hot enough,” Allen said.
It’s also always worth making sure your starter is healthy enough to leaven your project. “The trick I use to train people is just to drop a spoonful of starter in a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready. If not, it’ll produce a dense loaf—just feed it again, or wait a bit, if you’ve just fed it.”
No matter what you do, don’t get discouraged. “I’m excited about everyone getting into sourdough,” Allen said. “It’s a rabbithole you can just keep going down. Just find a formula you like, and keep baking.”