Bread Baking in Summer

Hot, humid weather — which is to say “summer” — can be challenging for a bread baker. This bread baker uses sourdough almost exclusively. Most of the year, my loaves rise in a leisurely fashion. In winter they rise so leisurely that if I got started late in the day they may not go into the oven till two in the morning.

Batter rising in big bowl

In summer, however, my starter acts like it’s on steroids. A couple of times I’ve thought I had time to run a couple of errands or go for a walk with Tam before the rising loaves are ready to go into the oven, only to come home to dough overflowing the loaf pans. Whereupon I throw the dough back in my big bowl, punch it down, knead it a little, and loaf it again.

Even when I catch it in time, dough that’s risen too fast bakes into bread with a coarse, uneven crumb. It tastes fine but looks ugly. I live in an un-air-conditioned studio apartment, and if there’s a way to slow the rising down, I haven’t figured it out yet. Any ideas? (I’ve tried setting the loaf pans in shallow baking sheets filled with cold water, which I replenish regularly, but this doesn’t seem to make a difference.)

This afternoon, instead of loafing the dough immediately after kneading it, I let it rise in the bowl. It doubled in barely an hour. I punched it down and let it rise again three times, hoping it would wear itself out, and you know what? It didn’t slow down, but I think it helped. My loaves rose briskly, but I kept an eye out and got them into the oven at just the right time. The texture is a lot better than that of my last couple of bakings.

In fact, I’m quite pleased with these loaves. They’ve got chopped walnuts and dried cranberries in them — I’m congenitally incapable of baking bread without putting stuff in it — and because I didn’t skimp on the cranberries, there’s a pleasant tartness in each bite.

The other challenge of hot, humid weather is mold. Ordinarily I finish off a two-pound loaf of bread in a week or 10 days. Three seasons of the year the bread will keep that long. Toward the end of its lifespan, it’s not exactly as chewy and wonderful as it was in the first few days, but it makes perfectly good toast or French toast. In summer, however, bread starts developing blue-green splotches after four or five days. In summer I also don’t eat as much bread.

But I wasn’t about to give up baking just because of summer. Kneading is good therapy, among other things, and a good time to catch up on podcasts (I can’t listen to spoken-word anything when I’m working). Instead, I cut the liquid (in this case orange juice and a little applesauce, which I count as liquid because it’s squishy) from two cups to one and a half, which means the dough will absorb less flour (about two and a half cups each of whole wheat and white and a scant cup of rye that I wanted to use up) and turn into less bread.

Then, instead of cutting the dough lump in two, I cut it in three: two one-pounders and one one-and-a-half. When they cool, one will stay out for eating, and the other two will go into the freezer.

I’m pretty sure I can finish off one of these smaller loaves before the blue-green splotches start taking over. And the other two are waiting for me in the freezer, where mold can’t get to them.

Note that the middle one has an overhang like a toadstool. That loaf pan is the same size as the one at the far right, but it had more dough in it.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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