On Improvisation and Porridge Breads

all that jazz

A little while ago I received this note on Instagram from fellow Boston sourdough baker Devorah Vester, along with the above photo:

Hey Andrew — good morning! Thanks for the inspiration with your sourdough English muffin [bread] recipe. I’m a bad tweaker :-) and decided to switch out the bread flour for freshly ground spelt. I also booted the pinch of baking soda, and substituted honey for the sugar. Hahaha I guess I totally reconstructed the house, but definitely left the foundation and walls: 400g pure discard. I’ll send you a pic soon. Thank you!!!

Devorah went way off book with her version of my English muffin bread, but it came out beautifully just the same. In part, that’s because she started out with a solid “foundation and walls” in my original recipe. But it’s also because she intuitively understood what sort of aesthetic and/or material changes the recipe might withstand and yet still remain structurally sound.

She went on to say that my recipe was “the key to other worlds!!”, which is the highest praise I can think of. Not because it’s an indicator of the recipe’s inherent wonderfulness, but because it gets at how I construct my recipes and what I most want them to do: Serve as frameworks for improvisation.

My goal with this newsletter, and with my baking instruction in general, is to teach you all to be confident enough to look at a recipe and riff off it easily, the way a skilled jazz musician can take a simple chart of chord changes and turn it into a masterpiece. Now obviously getting to that point requires lots and lots of practice, something I can’t make you do. But I can give you scales to take home and practice on. The good news is that unlike most musical scales, “practice” bread formulas need not be boring—even the most basic recipe can produce a delicious and beautiful loaf, thanks to the intertwined alchemies of grain, fermentation, and heat.

This is in part why I don’t share every recipe I make myself. Most of them are simply variations on one of a small handful of themes that I return to again and again. In each, I have a basic framework that I feel works well, from which I can swap components or onto which I can add elements to create something almost entirely novel. Right now, I’m working on writing up a set of bread recipe classes, the sum total of which should cover nearly any style of breads one could ever want to make. It’s going to take me awhile to sort all this out and how best to present it, so stay tuned for that, most likely early next year.

One of the frameworks that I’ve been working with a lot recently are porridge breads, in part because I just finished developing a set of porridge sandwich bread recipes for an upcoming issue of Edible Boston. (Also because I love them.) Porridge breads are simply doughs into which a grain porridge has been incorporated. They function more or less identically to a tangzhong breads, since a porridge is just another form of precooked starch, which serves to provide a soft texture and increased resistance to staling. Because the water in the porridge is locked up within its starches, it allows a baker to add more water to a dough without making the dough stickier or softer. As with a tangzhong, the average porridge bread contains 5 to 10% more water than an equivalent non-porridge formula.

Whereas the tangzhong method is most commonly used to make plush-textured enriched breads like milk bread, brioche, pain de mie, and challah, porridge breads are generally more rustic in texture, in part because of the coarse-grained consistency of most porridges. And while I generally make the porridge specifically for use in the bread, it can also serve as an opportunity to use up leftover cooled porridge if you have it—oatmeal, polenta, grits, cream of wheat, congee, whatever.

Keep in mind that though a lot of the water in the porridge is bound up in its starches, not all of it is, so you can’t just add a porridge to any old bread dough without lowering the total amount of water in the formula, or you’ll end up with a soupy dough. (In most of my porridge formulas, the hydration of the dough minus the porridge is about 50%, which is significantly less than your average rustic bread formula.)

My go-to porridge bread these days is one containing a rolled oat porridge, aka oatmeal. Oats are rich in a special type of carbohydrates known as pentosans, which can hold far more water by weight compared to starch. (Wheat, rye, and other grains contain pentosans too, but most of it is removed during the milling and sifting process.) Which means that a relatively small amount of oat porridge can add a ton of “stealth” water to a dough, making the resulting bread wonderfully—and lastingly—moist. All without significantly compromising the open structure of the crumb or the crispness of the crust.

I’ll be sharing a basic but wonderful oatmeal-maple sourdough recipe in the next few days, so stay tuned for that. And I’ll eventually follow up with some variations on the same theme, including that oatmeal-raisin pictured above.

I shared this on Instagram already, but if you want to shape your loaves into a bâtard, rather than a boule, here’s a handy gif that illustrates how I like to do it, using the oatmeal-raisin dough I just mentioned:

And here’s how I’d write that up in text form, in case it’s not entirely clear:

Flour top of dough and surrounding countertop. Using flour on hands and top of dough as necessary to prevent sticking, gently press dough into 8-inch circle. Fold lower third of dough toward middle to form rounded triangle. Stretch tips of triangle laterally to elongate long edge of dough to 10 inches. Fold right third of triangle toward left side, forming seam just past centerline; repeat with left side. Fold top third of dough toward center to close. Roll dough toward you into firm cylinder, keeping roll taut by tucking it under itself as you go. Pinch seam closed and roll log over itself so seam is on underside. Gently roll log back and forth under cupped hands until it is about 5 inches long.