Daily Bread: How to Bake with Sourdough

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Nice Crumb on Sourdough Loaf

How do you bake a loaf of bread using the sourdough starter you made? Well let me tell you.

I named this recipe my "daily bread," as in "give us this day," because it's very basic and very good.

It's a lean loaf; that is, it contains nothing but flour and water (plus salt and wild yeast, of course). It makes great bread & butter, it's excellent as toast, and it does just fine in a sandwich — you can slice it thin without it falling apart. Even if you make it with 100 percent whole wheat, you can get a nice crumb on it. (But I suggest starting with 3 c. white : 1 c. wheat and working up from there, if that's your game.)

Ingredients

1/2 c. sourdough ferment 1 t. salt
4 c. flour 1 t. butter
2 c. water Spritzer bottle of water (optional)

Yields: 1 loaf · Prep time: 10 min · Start to finish: 18 hrs

Instructions

In the evening, in a large bowl, mix the ferment, water, salt and three cups of flour. (Beginners: use white flour for this part.) Cover the bowl with something to keep the air off, and let sit overnight.

Next morning, grease the loaf pan with the butter. Sprinkle a little flour into the pan and shake it around until the bottom and sides are all lightly dusted.

Add the remaining cup of flour to the bowl. (Beginners: this can be whole wheat if you want.) It doesn't have to be well mixed; just get it all mashed up a bit.

With a spoon, scrape the dough out onto a clean counter. It will be a wet powdery mess. That's okay.

Now for the magic. Use the technique below to work the dough until it feels smooth and elastic, 2-5 minutes. (Note, this technique takes time to learn. See "Explanations" below. Also, it will be easier if you have a dough scraper.)

Immediately after your last flip, put the dough into the loaf pan. Jostle the pan side to side until it's evenly centered.

Let rise several hours, until it's visible above the top of the pan, with a rounded shape. Do not let it go so long that it deflates in the center.

Preheat the oven to 450º F about an hour before you want to bake.

Open the oven door and quickly add the loaf pan. If using the spritzer bottle, mist it into the oven 20-30 times as fast as you can, then close the door.

After ten minutes, lower the temperature to 375º F and continue baking for another 20-25 minutes.

When done, remove the bread from the oven and immediately turn it out onto a cooling rack. You may want to run a butter knife between the bread and the pan to loosen it first.

Let it cool completely before cutting into it.

Explanations

1. Why start in the evening?

Because of the rising intervals. I mean you can start any time of day, but know that the first rise takes 8-14 hours. If you started it at 8am, it would be 8pm by the time you had to do the next step. The second rise takes 4-6 hours, so you wouldn't get it into the oven until midnight. Then you'd have to stay up another half an hour to take it out when done. I've found it most practical to get it started before I go to bed, work the dough when I get up the next morning, and bake around lunch time. But hey. You do you.

2. When to add the salt?

I've heard arguments for adding salt early (as described here) and late (right before working the dough). Proponents of adding it early say it has more time to work its flavor all the way through. Proponents of adding it later say that because salt inhibits growth, waiting allows the lump to expand better during the first rise. I routinely do it both ways and have never noticed a difference.

3. Why cover the bowl after step one?

At some point during that epic first rise, the top of the lump will get pretty hard and crusty, and you won't be able to work it back in.

4. Should you do whole flour?

It's up to you. I've done this recipe with 100 percent whole wheat. I've done it with 100 percent white. Sometimes I go half and half. Often I do the 3:1 combo that I recommend in this post for beginners. Of course you could choose a flour other than wheat, as well.

5. Why butter and flour the pan?

To prevent it from sticking of course! Since I started doing this I've never had a problem turning piping hot loaves out, without the bottom breaking off. Obviously, use some other form of fat if you don't want butter.

6. Oh my lord, why is this dough so wet?

Because I got indoctrinated by Richard Bertinet, the author of Crust. Instead of adding flour forever until you can push and prod the lump any way you like and still have dry hands, Bertinet suggested using an extremely wet dough, which makes for a lighter loaf with an airy crumb. Yes, the flour-heavy dough is easier to work (if you insist on squeezing it between your trembling fists), but it's also more brick-like in the end.

So, don't knead this dough. You'll end up covered in glue. You'll probably end up covered in glue while learning the technique, too, but please don't assume I'm lying when I say you can do this. I really believed Bertinet was lying too, but I kept trying for some reason, and then one day, my hands figured it out. It's so much easier and more fun to work bread using this technique, and the results are better.

(By the by, the dough in the video was a lot stickier than I usually make it — it's usually much more elastic, much sooner — and even so, the method works!)

7. How long can I let it rise?

You know the bread has risen fully when the top of the loaf is nicely rounded. If you want to let it keep going and see how big it'll get, be my guest, but watch for the first sign of flabbiness. When the top starts to flatten, get it in the oven, stat.

8. Why preheat an hour before baking?

I got the impression while reading Ratio by Michael Ruhlman that there's something to be gained from letting the oven continue to heat after it's hot. Like maybe the air is hot, but the walls aren't yet? Thermal mass? I may be understanding this wrong, but Ruhlman said to do it, and I believe Ruhlman.

9. Why spritz?

Humidity is essential for great crust. Professional bakeries have steam-injected ovens. The rest of us have to make do with spritzer bottles. Alternatively, you could add an inch of water to a baking dish, put it on the bottom rack while the oven is preheating, and wait to add the bread until it's been simmering a while. You could also cover the bread, if you know of a way to fit a lid on your loaf pan. This is why dutch oven bread is so good; the lid traps the humidity inside.

10. Why turn the loaf onto a rack immediately?

So it doesn't get soggy. Once it's completely cool all through (hours later), you can put it into a plastic bag and store it at room temperature for several days, up to a week. I know people whose bread gets moldy before then, but for some reason mine never does. Granted it's stiffer on day 5 than it was on day 1, but even then it makes delicious toast.

11. Why let it cool completely before cutting it open?

The mysterious answer is: flavor esters. As the loaf bakes, some of the chemical compounds (esters) that give the bread its flavor are transformed into vapor (volatilized). If you cut the loaf open while it's still hot, those flavors will escape as the steam comes rushing out. Keep the vaporized compounds inside; enjoy a more flavorful bread later.


One last note, for those who are hard up: it's difficult to bring home high-quality food when it's not in your budget, especially high-quality bread, which can be surprisingly expensive. But high-quality flour is cheap. So you don't have to buy crap bread if you don't want to. Instead, buy awesome flour, and use this recipe to make your own awesome bread. Suck that, designer grocery stores!

2 Comments

  • Peggy Judd Reply

    This is great! I may have to start a starter again. Love the instruction

    • EM Reply

      Hey, you’re still out there! I haven’t blogged in so long, I figured anyone who’d ever read in the past had up and flown away. Glad you enjoyed it. (:

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