If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times – there is both an art and a science to making a great loaf of sourdough bread. The scoring of a loaf of sourdough bread, in particular, showcases this aspect of bread baking. While making sourdough bread doesn’t take much effort to combine the incredibly basic ingredients of flour and water, or time really, the final look of the baked bread is probably largely determined by how the dough is scored before baking.
The “ear” of a loaf of sourdough bread is the work of strategically scoring the dough after enough time has allowed for the dough to ferment to perfection. Acing the ear, requires a quick and steady hand, the right angle of between 30 to 45 degrees and a score that measure anywhere from ½ an inch to 2 inches (1 ½ – 5 cm) deep, while choosing the right spot on the dough ball.
Overall, the best way to get an ‘ear’ on your loaf of sourdough bread, is to score confidently and not read too much into the hows and whys. Ultimately you should enjoy the process and forget stressing about the resulting look. As nice as it is to make a gorgeous loaf, eating the loaf and enjoying every bite is a good goal. If, however, you want to know more about the ins and outs of the “ear”, read on.
A Closer Look at the “Ear”
A successful “ear” is an indication of slaying each step of the process, demonstrating that the person baking the bread
- Is knowledgeable in the art of fermentation
- An expert at attaining ideal dough strength
- Allows for the right amount of proofing
- Properly shapes the dough
- Skillfully scores the dough
That oh-so-coveted “ear” on a loaf of sourdough bread is the result of a dough that has been allowed to ferment up to between 80-90%, this leaves just enough action within the dough to provide one last super rise in the oven during baking. This, and scoring. But first, let’s talk about fermentation.
What’s Fermentation Got to do With it?
Fermentation is pretty much everything when it comes to sourdough bread. From using a starter that is primed and ready to be fed to allowing for the optimal amount of time for bulk fermentation as well as the final fermentation, and everything in between.
Using an active starter, essentially means that there are very hungry microorganisms that will create lots of gas, leading to a more airy loaf of sourdough bread. The opposite would be true if using a less active sourdough starter.
Once you’ve mixed your ingredients, and performed a few stretches and folds, it’s time for you to allow the dough to rest during its first ferment, the bulk fermentation which is anywhere from 3 to 5 hours. You know your dough is ready for the final ferment when:
- The dough appears nice and bubbly (using a clear container during this point is helpful for monitoring)
- The dough has a light and airy texture
- The dough is soft, so not stiff or rubbery
- You can easily perform the “Window Pane” test (for more information read my article “Which Bread is the Easiest to make for Beginners?”) indicating its translucency
- The dough is stretchy
- You find that the dough is not as sticky as at the beginning, instead, it’s tackier and not sticking to your fingers.
If your dough meets all of the above criteria, the dough is ready to be pre-shaped and then worked into its final shape. From there it goes into the final ferment stage, overnight in the refrigerator. Once it’s out of the fridge, pretty much ready to be baked.
What’s in the Scoring?
Scoring bread is a fairly recent enterprise in bread baking. Its earliest known mention was in France during the 19th century, when a scientist refers to cuts to the surface of the bread, thereby enhancing the appearance of the bread. Historically, scoring bread was a means to identifying the baker, as well as the price and weight. Another interesting note on the history of scored bread is that initially, it was baked mainly either in prominent Parisian restaurants or for families of wealth.
There are three main reasons why sourdough bread benefits from being scored:
- Appearance – as already mentioned a few times, scoring the bread does complement a loaf of bread. These strategic cuts, when performed with skill and confidence, add a great deal of beauty to a loaf of sourdough bread. Improving the overall look and providing the baker with an opportunity for artistic expression.
- Dough Structure – dough that has been scored expands more during baking, creating an ideal oven spring. Scoring the bread produces areas that are weaker on the dough, curbing the tendency for the dough to resist expansion, and ultimately expand more than it would otherwise.
- Microbial Activity – Fermentation of the dough means the natural microbes, yeast, found on the flour being used are eating up the sugars and producing carbon dioxide. During baking, there is a surge in activity, noted by the quick expansion of the dough in the heat. Scoring your sourdough bread produces a structured way for the pressurized gas to escape.
While we often think that scoring is just about the appearance, and how pretty the loaf of bread will look once it’s baked, dough structure and microbial activity both impact oven spring. Good oven spring means great texture, another desirable attribute of sourdough bread.
A Basic Guide on How to Ace the “Ear”
There is a good bit of skill involved when it comes to sourdough bread. Getting the right combination of flour, whether wheat or otherwise, the hydration, the baking temperature, and the amount of time to get optimal results. When all is said and done, the coveted “ear” on a loaf of sourdough bread is the ultimate indicator and reflection of the work and skill as well as the science and art of bread baking at play.
A proper score on the dough provides a place for the trapped gases to escape, in a much more controlled manner – basically in one location, rather than anywhere and everywhere, all at once. Without the score, the gases will try to bust through wherever the pressure is strongest, resulting in random ruptures in the crust and a very rustic and homespun-looking loaf of bread. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, a simple score gives it a little more of a sophisticated and alluring aesthetic.
A Few Things To Consider When Scoring Sourdough Bread
Either a curved or straight blade can be used to score your sourdough bread. Ideally, you want to use a lame, blade with the specific purpose of scoring bread for the best results. You can, however, use a very sharp knife (or scissors in a pinch). Dipping the knife in water before scoring results in a much smoother cut, reducing jagged edges.
Note, if you are in that pinch, and you have to use scissors, you’re not quite scoring the dough. Rather, you will be cutting into the dough at a 45° angle a few times, depending on the length of the bread.
To get a good score the motion should be quick, smooth, and firm. Hacking at, or through the dough, will only create a jagged score, and will likely vary in depth leading to a not-as-pretty loaf, but probably tasty nonetheless.
The Shape of the Loaf of Bread
Depending on the type of bread being baked, there are two options for the scoring method being used:
- Long/Oblong Loaves, like baguettes, for example, have a shallow score that is made somewhat parallel to the loaf. The knife is held at a 30° – 45° angle and scores are made along the axis of the loaf.
- Round Loaves are usually scored with a knife that is held at a 90° angle. The slashes are a little deeper and spread evenly across the ball of dough, thereby opening up faster during baking.
If you haven’t purchased a Proper Blade yet, check out this bread baking kit that includes a blade as well as a proofing basket.
If you want to know all the know how of scoring bread check out this very informative post right here
The Dough Itself
It is also important to take into consideration how proofed the dough is. If, for example, your dough is under-proofed, you will want to make sure that the cut is on the deeper side to make up for the lack of volume, creating an ideal environment for the bread to expand more during baking. If, on the other hand, the dough is over-proofed, you will want to perform a shallow score to prevent the dough from deflating.
The final proof, in the fridge, is also helpful. The cold dough is more firm, making it much easier to score. If you happen not to cold-proof, you can try putting your dough in the freezer for half an hour or so, and then score your dough.
Beginners take note, starting with a lower hydration sourdough and perfecting that, is better than jumping into a high hydration sourdough. The lower the hydration, the dense the dough is making it effortless to score.
A Few Last Words on Scoring Bread
Making sourdough bread is like the yoga of bread making – it is a slow, mindful process that forces you to appreciate the outcomes, no matter the look, while an ear on a loaf of sourdough is aesthetically pleasing, it isn’t necessary. The real indicator of success will be the experience and the final taste. If you enjoyed the process and it tastes good, what difference does it make if your loaf acquired an ear or not?