I have been baking variations of this loaf for over a year. It really is that good. Chad and I eat it on a daily basis, sometimes for dinner with butter and fried eggs, or even just plain with cheese, pickles, and a little charcuterie. I love the extra nuttiness and flavor of the sprouted whole wheat flour. There is still a majority of high protein flour in the mix, though, so when executed properly the crumb is still quite open and not at all dense.
I usually work my baking schedule around my contract labor jobs. Most of my mixing, stretching and folding, bulk fermentation, and shaping happens when I get out of work at 5:00 pm right up until I go to bed. I let the shaped loaves cold-proof overnight in the fridge (technically referred to as a “cold retard” because the decrease in temperature inhibits the growth of the yeasts that love warmer temperatures, and allows time for the bacterial activity to catch up to the rate of production of the yeast). I usually have to wait until I get off work the next day to finally bake my loaves, so they can spend anywhere from 15-20 hours in the fridge. I sometimes wake up early enough for a before-work “wake and bake” or I can squeeze a bread baking session into my mid-afternoon lunch break if need be. The point is it is always possible for me to make a sourdough schedule work around my busy schedule. I assure you, if I can do it while balancing three part time jobs (four if you count keeping my boyfriend and cat alive), you too can make great bread happen at home.
This is the bread that I love to eat, and feel good about eating. I love to experiment with adding ingredients and flavors to my sourdough bakes but I continue to come back to this basic recipe over and over again for the very simple reason that it is the most reliable and the most delicious. I have the scaled ingredients memorized but I generally record every bake in a notebook with the date and timeline so that I can keep track of my successes and failures. Every bake is different. On a day to day basis the humidity of the air, the ambient room temperature, the technique used to shape the dough, and many other small factors come into play all at once so it can be hard to keep track of it all without keeping a coherent written record.
As I began writing this post I realized that I am absolutely overwhelmed with the idea of explaining the intricacies and nuance of naturally leavened baking. I have no words to adequately expressing my appreciation for what it has brought into my life. Please bare with me as I attempt to gloss over the basics. I will try not to gush too much.
To bake this bread you must have an active sourdough starter culture. A sourdough starter is essentially a mixture of flour and water that is refreshed (or “fed” with more flour and water) that serves as a growth medium for a plethora of wild yeasts and bacteria. These yeasts and bacteria, in my understanding, are naturally present in the air that we breathe as well as specifically present on the wheat berries that are then ground into flour. When you initially mix your medium, there is a lot of bacterial activity in the flour and water mixture. Eventually the yeasts become active and the types of beneficial bacteria that are present live in a symbiosis where they are able to kill off the less beneficial types of bacteria and yeast. The remaining yeasts and bacteria in a matured starter are a true “power couple”. When properly maintained, this culture can be used exponentially. When it is refreshed daily (or even better yet every 5-7 hours) the starter can be used straight up in bread recipes, or it can be fed again with calculated amounts of flour and water to create a “levain” that a specific recipe may call for. I usually use half whole wheat flour and half bread flour to feed my starter, at a ratio of 50% starter to 100% flour and 100% water (which is known as 100% hydration).
There are many names for this active starter culture, some people call it a “mother” or “levito madre” or “barm”. This terminology can get confusing especially when there are different names for different stages of the culture. For clarity’s sake I will refer to it solely as a “starter” from here on out.
If you are interested in trying to bake some sourdough bread and you live nearby me, I would be happy to share some of my starter with you to save you the hassle of building your own. A starter can even be dried and sent in the mail and then revived, but that will require a bit more work (but still far less than culturing one from scratch). I do not mean to intimidate you. I cultured a starter from scratch successfully as a newbie and there are numerous online tutorials as to how to do so, and they all should work fine. I personally followed the instructions for culturing a sourdough starter from Peter Reinhart’s book Bread Revolution, but there are MANY quality books on the subject. This recipe and method is based on a variation of the basic Tartine Bread “Country Loaf”, though I have altered it to my taste and to accommodate the addition of sprouted whole wheat flour.
To follow this recipe you do not need to have an understanding of “baker’s math” but if you want to increase or decrease the amount of loaves, or compare it to other recipes, the expression of quantities of ingredients in percentages relative to the total flour weight (expressed always as 100%) comes in very handy. You can easily multiply or divide recipes from making 1 loaf to 1,000 loaves using this method of baker’s percentages for ingredient scaling.
Once you have a starter refreshed at 100% hydration that has been fed within 5-7 hours, you can start baking this loaf.
20% WW Sprouted Flour Sourdough (1 loaf @ 80% Hydration)
- (22%) 110g Starter @100% Hydration
- (73%) 365g Water
- (60%) 300g Bread Flour
- (20%) 100g All Purpose Flour
- (20%) 100g Whole Wheat Sprouted Flour
First, using your kitchen scale set to grams, measure out the water and starter into a large mixing bowl. Scale out and incorporate the flours, mixing just until no dry flour remains. The texture will be REALLY STICKY. Wetting your other hand helps immensely when removing sticky dough from your fingers. The intention here is simply to allow the flour a chance to hydrate. Let the mixture rest for at least 30 to 45 minutes. This is sometimes referred to as a “faux-autolyse,” because a true autolyse is just a combination of flour and water, while this initial mixture also includes the starter.
- (7%) 35g Warm Water
- (2.5%) 10g Fine Sea Salt
While waiting, mix the salt into the warm water to dissolve it as much as possible. Set aside. Once the mixture has had a change to rest pour the salt water into the bowl, over the sticky mass of dough. Using both your hands mix the water and salt into the dough. It will take some time, but once the texture is consistent (and very sticky) and the water is incorporated, transfer the mass of dough into a clean well-oiled bowl or an oiled food-grade plastic container.
Coverand set a timer for 30 minutes, and thus begins the process of the stretch-and-fold.
After 30 minutes have passed, uncover the bowl and wet your hands with water. Starting with the side that is farthest from you, grab the edge of the dough, pull it upwards and then fold it over the top of the mass of dough. Quite literally stretch the dough and fold it onto itself. Rotate the bowl 90 degrees and repeat the stretch and fold. You may need to wet your hands again to keep the dough from sticking. Continue this process twice more, until all 4 sides of the dough have been worked. Set a timer for 30 minutes, mark in your notes that you completed S&F #1, and then repeat the entire process. Set the timer for 30 minutes and when the timer goes off it is time for stretch-and-fold #2. Continue this until you have completed 4-5 stretch and folds. (At this point, having baking experience comes in handy, as this is all up to your own judgement of when to move forward with the next steps. If you have the time allowed in your schedule to continue through shaping and baking, by all means do it. I work around my schedule because I have to, so overnight refrigeration works for me.)
If your dough has become billowy and domed and pulls easily from the sides of the bowl it is probably ready to be divided (if you are making more than 1 loaf) and shaped. During the winter months when it is colder in my apartment, I usually let the dough continue to bulk proof for at least an hour after the final folds. If I start this recipe when I get home from work at 5:00pm (having fed my starter around 11:30 am-12:00 pm on my lunch break) I usually put the dough into the refrigerator overnight, and then pull and divide and shape the next day.
Shaping method is a matter of personal preference. I like to use a wooden board that has a waterproof finish on it (so I can easily use flour or water for shaping on the surface), because my counter-top space in my apartment is severely lacking. I store the board on its side in between my refrigerator and the wall, and I pull it out whenever I need to make a counter-work-space. I usually use it on top of my dining table so I have to sit down in a chair while I work my dough because I am too tall and hunching over gives me back problems.
Regardless of your surface, dump the dough onto the work surface and dust what will become the exterior with flour and invert it (flip it flour side down) and then imitate a gentle stretch-and-fold motion for the pre-shaping. Simply pull the four exterior edges of the loaf into the center as tightly as possible without tearing the dough, and fold the flaps over each other like an envelope. This method creates quite a bit of surface tension if your dough has bulked properly. If the dough is particularly slack, I usually fold in the four corners and then turn the dough over and twist it a bit with my hands on my work surface.
Dust the top of the loaf with flour, and let it rest for 15-30 minutes covered in plastic wrap or a tea towel. Once the time is up repeat the shaping process with more gentle handling this time around. Work the loaf into a taught round and then let it sit on its seam for another 15-30 minutes before inverting into a proofing basket. If you have a proofing basket (called a banneton) with a cloth liner that is great. If not just grab a tea-towel and line a mixing bowl with it. Dust the cloth liner with rice flour, or a mixture of rice and wheat flours, to reduce sticking. Scoop the round up with your hand and a dough scraper, and then flop it upside down (seam side up) into the prepared proofing vessel. I usually put the bowl into a large plastic bag and tie it off, but you could just as easily cover it with a tea towel.
The final proof (named as such because the dough literally PROVES it’s readiness to be baked) can take anywhere from 2 hours to 24 hours, depending on the temperature of the dough and the activity of your starter. If you have your dough proofing at room temperature it should take around 2-4 hours or so. I like to use my phone to take a “before” picture as a reference so that I can compare the activity of the dough after an hour and then two hours and so forth. When I have a day off work and I start a fresh batch of sourdough in the morning this is the point where I will throw the shaped loaves into the fridge, to slowly proof overnight, and bake the next day. This can increase the “sour” flavor that sourdough is famous for, which is attributed to the development of lactic acid by the bacteria in the starter culture. The same basic principle is applied when I bulk the dough overnight in the fridge before shaping. An extended fermentation is nice but not necessary so if your dough has proofed at room temperature and has increased in size by about 30% and has a puffed slightly domed-surface, it is most likely ready to bake. There is this thing called the “finger test” that is kind of confusing for beginners (or at least it was for me), but there are many YouTube tutorials to aid in your confusion. Essentially you put a little flour on the edge of the dough, near the rim of the basket. You press your index finger down gently into the dough where you placed the flour (so your finger doesn’t stick and pull the dough) and pull it back. If the dough springs back and fills the indent immediately, the dough needs to proof longer. If the dough holds the impression and doesn’t spring back at all, it is over-proofed. What you want is a result somewhere in between the two. The impression should spring back, but ever so slightly retain your finger mark. This method is a visual and tactile aid but it is not a requirement, nor is it a necessity, at all. Once you have handled sourdough a few times you will begin to get an eye for it and be able to more readily identify the stages of the development.
About an hour prior to baking, you will need to pre-heat your oven. Many home bakers swear by the pizza-stone or fire-safe bricks and steam tray method, but I personally prefer to bake in a cast iron dutch oven. You can use any type of oven-safe dutch oven, but I already owned a camp-stove style cast iron dutch oven before I started baking sourdough bread, and it works like a charm. Put your dutch oven into your regular oven, with the lid slightly offset so the pot isn’t sealed shut while pre-heating (this helps to reduce smoky-oven-syndrome in my experience), and crank the heat up to 500°f for at least 30 minutes and ideally an hour before baking. I also like to place a large heavyweight pan on the rack underneath the dutch oven, as this seems to keep the bottom of the loaf from burning. The idea here is to simulate the effects of hearth-oven baking in a home oven.
There are several ways to get the loaf scored and into the oven but for now I am just going to explain my own personal method. When my oven is heated and my bread is ready to be baked I pull out a sheet of parchment paper and tear it into a square roughly 2″ larger on all sides than my proofing basket. I put the parchment onto a short handled pizza peel (that I bought at Lit Jr. for 12$ or so- but a lightweight wooden cutting board would also work) and then overturn the proofing basket into the center of the paper, so the loaf is now right side up. I quickly score the loaf with a razor blade, usually in a hashtag (square), or a triangle shape. Immediately following scoring I open the oven and remove the lid of the dutch oven and set it on top of the stove. I pull the oven rack out a bit, and using the pizza peel to move the loaf as close as possible, I grab the parchment with my fingers and drag the loaf off of the peel and into the center of the dutch oven. I quickly put my oven mit back on and replace the lid, making sure it is tightly sealed on the dutch oven, as this is what keeps in the steam which is essential for browning.
Set a timer for 20 minutes with the lid on, and reduce the temperature to 450°f. When the time is up, remove the lid and then bake another 12-20 minutes, depending on how dark you want your crust. Remove the loaf from the oven and test the internal temperature with an instant thermometer. It should register at 200°f internally. The inside of the loaf continues to bake as it cools, so let it cool completely before slicing, if at all possible.
It really is that easy.
All Photos by Simon Hua, 2016