After Plated Desserts and a brief stint as Student Chef, during which time I fetched supplies for everyone, washed ten thousand dishes (which we have to do on the pastry side because the dishwasher's is far away), prepped for Chef's side projects (like the cheese-shredding and horchata-making for the culinary school fundraiser, Wok on the Wild Side), hauled fifty-pound bags of flour and sugar, and generally dug myself into a hole of manual labor / pit of despair... it was time for the hardest station of all - BREAD STATION!
Bread station is intense because everything is time-sensitive, and even with the earlier start of 6am (as opposed to 6:30am for most the other stations) it's hard to fit everything in and get done on time.
On my first day I was assigned to sourdough, which is easier because the time frame is wider: more time between fermentations, and the dough is not baked into bread the day of but, instead, goes into the walk-in refrigerator to sit overnight and further develop the sour taste.
The main ingredients are mostly simple: 6 lb 10.5 oz bread flour*, 8.25 oz whole wheat flour, 78 fl oz water, 3.25 oz salt. The difficult part is the 3 lbs of "starter", or the yeast culture, the part that's alive. While for some doughs you simply add yeast at the time that you're making it (direct fermentation), others, like sourdough, have the pre-fermented part (the starter, for indirect fermentation).
*Bread flour has 10-13% protein, whereas all-purpose flour has 8-12%
Making sourdough starter from scratch is different from making other starters (which are just a combination of flour and water and yeast that's allowed to sit overnight). Sourdough starter relies on the yeast that's naturally occurring in the air and on your skin, so the process of making it is rather lengthy, like a week or two. But once it's made, you can literally keep it forever, either in the fridge or even out (providing that you feed it with flour and water daily). Chef's starter has been around for 6 or 7 years, and every day we use 3 lbs of it and use the remaining 1 lb as the base for the starter the next day (adding to it 4 lbs of bread flour, 2 lbs of water, and 1 tbsp salt).
The mixing process for the dough is very particular: everything except salt mixed for 4 minutes on low speed, then the dough rests for 15 minutes, then add salt and other add-ins (I chose dried cherries and pecans pieces) and mix for 1 minute on low speed and 2 minutes on medium speed.
(Although I chose dried cherries and pecans, savory add-ins were very common, like this roasted garlic and cheddar cheese one made on a different day.)
Once the dough is made, it is put into a oiled, lidded box and left to ferment for an hour. At the end of the hour the dough is "folded" - you take the corners and fold them in toward the middle, then turn the whole dough over - this redistributes all of the yeast/food/heat/ temperature. After another hour and another fold, the dough ferments for another 20 minutes and is ready for portioning by scale.
We divide the dough into two 3 lb pieces, three 2 lb pieces, and four or five 1 lb pieces. Then we pre-shape them into rounds. After they rest on the workbench awhile, we shape them into more perfect rounds by gathering our hands around them until our hands touch underneath them (turning the round and doing this another once or twice). Then the rounds are placed upside down in floured baskets and those are wrapped and placed in the walk-in.
The next day, the sourdoughs are unwrapped and put in the proofer (around 89F and high humidity fridge-like box) for about an hour. Then we load the sourdough by upending the baskets on the bread oven belt (the sourdough coming out neatly due to the baskets having been floured).
Each round is slashed with a cross (or X, depending on the angle) with a lame (pronounced la-may) knife for decoration and for venting/expansion purposes. Then the bread oven (at 450F) is pre-steamed for three seconds, the doughs are pushed in, and the oven is steamed for another five seconds.
We watch the oven until the bread is done - usually you can tell by the color and/or the sound (a heavy hollow thump when you knock on it), but the other, surefire way to check is by thermometer - 220F and it can be taken out!