John Cochrane’s portrait dating to the 1780s doesn’t suggest suggest someone who was passionate about bread. He kind of looks like a stuffed shirt sitting there with his wig and frilly collar and cuffs. He is a good one to apply the adage, Don’t judge a book by its over.
Cochrane’s Seaman’s Guide was published in 1797. Cochrane referred to the book as a pamphlet. It is 65 pages and covers a variety of topics mostly centered on bread. Cochrane styles the work a “treatise.” He uses the term in its modern sense of a methodical discussion. Cochran’s offers an overview of dough structure, fermentation systems, and milling.
In keeping with his work being a treatise more than a cookbook, he suggests ways of approaching bread recipes but not recipes with quantities. No mention is made of water quantities. He assumes you will add water in the usual ratio — whatever that is for you. I suggest 60% hydration as a basic place to start.
Conceptually, Cochrane is focused on two ideas. The first and primary idea is that a small amount of initial leavening, either in the form of yeast or sourdough, can rise an unlimited amount of dough as long as one builds up that dough in a methodical fashion. Specifically, never add more fresh flour to a dough than the amount of flour that has already been leavened. Simple idea. And usefuCochrane is a big believer in staring breads with dough held back from a previous baking, whether that dough was initially started with yeast or leaven. In practice, a dough started with yeast will become a sourdough after not very many iterations. As bread yeast is usually the dominant yeast in sourdough cultures, what you end up with is a real sourdough starter.Cochrane’s second idea is that you can use the structure of your recipe to control for taste. If you’re yeast is super bitter from hops, as yeast often was when it was acquired from the brewer, or if the sour starter tasted sour, a taste not appreciated at the time, then Cochrane points out that you can dilute away these undesirable flavors through developing a dough over a long period of time through the measured multiple additions of flour.
Cochran’s structured approach to bread making puts the baker in charge. I think his system are flat out brilliant! If you have a super sour sourdough starter then use it for his multi-part dough building system.
Recipe 1: Standard British Sponge System
“In baking with yeast, when it is in a good vinous state, and in an abundant quantity, the operation is soon performed; the flour, in this case, being seldom mixed up oftener than twice; that is to say the yeast is added to half the flour, and well kneaded, and is then allowed to sponge and rise in the trough; next the other half of the flour is added, with a sufficient quantity of water to make it into dough, and then allowed to ferment and rise; when it is again well kneaded, and made into loaves”
Use this for a basic yeasted bread. Think of the sponge as a preferment. I usually add 1% dried yeast by weight of flour, so 10g per kg. As you know, the more yeast the faster the dough will rise. As his other recipes favor a slow rise with multiple builds, I’d let this go reasonably quickly. Thus, I’d use 1% yeast measured for the entire recipe in the flour used for the developing the sponge. Cochrane is not interested in salt quantities. I suggest either leaving the salt out of the sponge or dividing the salt in half for the sponge part and then final build.
The classic Early Modern sponge system – and also into the 19th century — was too put all of the flour in the trough and make a batter-like sponge. Cochrane specifically says to knead the sponge. Adding water and flour to a 60% dough is not easy. So! I think it will be easier to work if you make the sponge, well, spongey! Like make that dough a reasonably wet dough — like 75% hydration. That should make adding more water and flour easier for the final build.
100% flour, 60% -70% warm water, 1% yeast, 1.5% -2% salt.
500g flour, 300g – 350g warm water, 5g yeast, 7.5g – 10g salt.
My advice. Weigh out all ingredients dividing the flour into two parts.
First build — the sponge. Add half the flour, all of the yeast, half the salt, and enough water to form a wet dough. Cochrane says to knead at this stage. I would have a dough that is too wet to knead, but that you could roughly stretch and fold. If this first build is too dry it will be very hard to mix the flour for the last build. Cover and let rise to at least double — the sponge should be spongey.
Second and final build. Add the remaining water and the remaining salt to the sponge. Roughly mix. Finnish mixing by incorporating the flour. Knead well, cover, and let at least double. Gently degass, form into loaves, cover and let them begin to rise again. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 385F 175C until done.
Second Recipe starts just after the dash “The most intelligent bakers….” This recipe is almost exactly the same as Nicholas de Bonnefons master recipe in Les délices de la campagne suitte du Jardinier françois (1655). Bonnefons started his recipe at 8pm with the second build at 10pm and the final build in the early morning with baking during the day. Cochrane’s recipe starts at 11 am with baking at 2am. I think Cochrane’s timings are more realistic than those of Bonnefons. Whether Cochrane knew the Bonnefons recipe, or got his structure from talking to bakers is something we cannot know. Cochrane is explicit. If you follow this system, then no matter how bitter your yeast or sour your starter the final bread will taste sweet. I have been making this bread – from the Bonnefons recipe — for years. If you have a super sour starter try it out on this recipe. I will mention, though, that Bonnefons recommends beginning to refresh your starter some days before using it.
My advice is to settle on a basic recipe like 100% flour, 60% to 70% water, 1.5% to 2% salt, and enough starter or yeast to get the first ¼ part of flour leavened. The times are:
Instructions: Set out the ingredients before starting — mis en place. This eliminates mistakes in the quantity of flour and lets you portion out the water to make the dough workable at each of the stages. My advice is to keep the first and second builds very sloppy — almost a batter. This makes it easy to add in the final tach of water and flour.
•11am add yeast or starter to ¼ part flour
• 3 hours later, 2pm in this example, add the next ¼ part of flour, and enough water to mix
• 7 hours later — at 9pm in this example add the rest of the flour water, and remains salt
• 5 hours later bake — 2am in this example