This is a recipe for baking bread without using commercial yeast. The leavening comes from the wild yeasts that are present on the wheat itself. The sourdough or natural levain process develops these organisms and uses their power to make the bread rise. There are several steps in the process:
The Basic Plan
1. Make or get a sourdough or natural levain starter.
2. Make sure the starter is active.
3. Use a bit of the sourdough starter and successively larger additions of water and flour to expand the small portion of starter into a batch of dough.
4. Bake the dough.
That’s all there is to it. However, there is a lot of biology and chemistry going on in there, and some parts of it are still a mystery, even in this age of DNA, RNA, electron microscopes, lasers and gas chromography. Even though there are very few steps involved, everyone who bakes sourdough seems to have his own names for the stages of development. This is very confusing, at least it was for me when I first started out. I read a lot of books and articles on sourdough and couldn’t quite figure out where different recipes aligned with each other. If you’ve read a few of the books, by this time you’re nodding your head. I finally reached a MEGO (Mine Eyes Glaze Over) point. Then I found “The Bread Builders,” by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott.Finally, a straightforward description of sourdough. Or mostly straightforward, but still the best I’ve found so far. As a result, I’ve decided to forego naming a lot of the stages of development. I don’t use terms like seed culture, storage culture, first enhancement, washing, third elaboration, firm starter or barm. If you want to get into the details of other methods of sourdough, there are many books you can read. I have neither the time nor the patience for this exercise and besides, I’ve tried most of them at least twice. If you want to make good sourdough, use this recipe first, then branch out as your interests dictate.
This is a recipe to make sourdough white bread. It is adapted from Wing and Scott “The Bread Builders.” It starts with a 100% hydration sourdough starter and builds from there. It’s in grams and is scaled to make 2 kilograms of dough. If you need less bread, just cut every ingredient in half and you’ll have a 1-kilogram batch. Because there are some long fermentation times, I start the process at 11PM and end up baking late at night the following day. You can stretch out the fermentation times by putting the dough in the refrigerator for a few hours. You can shorten the whole process by fermenting the dough at a temperature of 85-95F / 30-35C, but you have to be very careful not to let the dough get too old. Either of these should allow you to fit this bread into your schedule and lifestyle. If you have questions or comments, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please understand that this process isn’t set in stone and that there may be, in fact probably will be, changes. My first project will be to rework the times involved so I can fit making this bread into a more normal schedule.
Making Your Very Own Sourdough Starter or Natural Levain
Sometimes it seems there may be twice as many recipes and methods for sourdough starter as there are bakers. Many of the recipes use stuff like yogurt or grapes or even commercial yeast. What follows is my method. It has two ingredients: flour and water. It works in my kitchen and should work for you. The actual time involved is a few minutes a day for about a week, then nothing, since the starter gets taken out of the dough at an intermediate stage of dough development. This is a starter that is made and kept at 100% hydration, equal parts of flour and water. I use Chatham, New Jersey, tap water. As someone once wrote, if you can drink the water, you can make good bread with it. Other people swear by bottled or filtered water. Take your choice.
1. Obtain a container with a lid such as a Tupperware jar. Weigh the container without the top. This is the tare weight. Mark the weight on the side of the container in several places.
2. Put 20 grams of flour and 20 grams of water in the container and mix it up.
3. Place the container on the kitchen counter for 24 hours.
4. Each day at the same time (I do it when I get back from the last dog-walk of the day, about 10PM), throw out enough of the mix that you have 20 grams left. Here’s my method:
a. Turn on the scale.
b. When the scale is showing zero, I place the container on the scale.
c. I scoop out enough starter so that the scale shows 20 grams plus what the container itself weighs, the tare weight from above.
d. In my case, my container weighs 36 grams. I scoop out starter until the scale shows 56 grams — 36 for the container + 20 for the starter = 56 total.
5. Add 20 grams each of flour and water. You should have 60 grams of starter and in my case, the scale should show 96 grams, 60 for the starter and 36 for the container.
6. Mix it up, cover the container and let it sit on the counter.
7. After repeating this process for a few days,you should see signs of life in the starter.
8. After a week, the starter should be ready to use in the recipe below.
You can accelerate the process a bit by doing the process every 12 hours, but that’s too much trouble and bother for me. I may use a 12 hour schedule if my kitchen has been warmer than usual or when the weather is very warm, but since the optimum temperature for yeast development is around 95F / 35C, this process shouldn’t move so quickly that the starter will run to exhaustion before the next cycle, even when the weather or your kitchen are fairly warm.
Making Sourdough Bread With the Starter
All units in grams.
|Time||Starter||Warm water||Bread flour||Total.|
Set on counter for 8 hours.
|Time||Starter||Warm water||Bread flour||Total.|
Remove 60 grams to replace the starter. Place this back in the starter bowl for next time. You can either do as I do, which is to do the daily throw-out-and-add process outlined above, or you can let the starter develop for an hour, then put it in the refrigerator for a week. Your choice. I keep it working on the counter. That way, if I want to zip up a bread I’m making, I use the throw-away part of the starter in the dough as an added flavor factor and aid to development.
Place the 840 grams on the counter for 7 1/2 hours, 8:30-4:00. (This can be anywhere from 7 to 8 hours. If your starter is very active, you could shorten this to 6 hours; if the starter is sluggish, it could go to 8 or even 9 hours.)
At this point we have 840 grams of developed dough which we must build up to 2000 grams, or we must add 1160 grams of water and flour. 2000 grams desired minus the 840 grams we have means we need 1160 grams.
We also have to add 26 grams of salt after a 20 minute autolyse.
Making the final dough
The table below shows what you have to add to the 840 grams of dough from above to achieve final doughs at different hydrations. If this is your first time making a sourdough, I’d advise working at 60% hydration. Sourdough seems to work as though it’s wetter than the stated hydration, so it’s better to start with a lower hydration and work up — less chance of a mess or a failure. You may not get bread with big holes in it, but you shouldn’t bake a door-stop, either.
Here is the timing I use.
4 – 5 PM: Mix for a few minutes, autolyse for 20 minutes, then knead fully for another 5-8 minutes. This whole period will take the better part of an hour.
5 – 8 PM: Ferment on the counter. You can do a fold after 1 1/2 hours. I folded this dough after one hour and after two hours.
8 – 8:30 PM: Divide. Round. Rest 20 minutes. Shape, being careful to get as much surface tension, what Julia Child called the “gluten cloak,” as possible, since this is what gives the dough the ability to hold a shape.
8:30 – Midnight: Rise. I dusted the tops of the loaves with flour and covered them with a towel.
Midnight: Slash. Bake. 430F / 220C. Steam. On tiles.
My breads baked in 35 minutes to an internal temperature of 200F / 93C. I then turned the oven off and let the breads sit for 5 minutes to thicken the crust.
One small tip. Because sourdough handles as if it is wetter than its hydration would indicate, I don’t put flour on the parchment paper. I think the stickiness of the dough helps keep it from spreading as much as it might if it weren’t sticking to the parchment paper.
Pictures of Making a Sourdough Bread
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Two loaves of 62.5% hydration sourdough baked at a higher initial temperature.
I baked these at 500F / 260C for 15 minutes, then turned the oven down to 430F / 220C and finished the baking — around 20 more minutes. I did this to get a very active initial burst of yeast activity, which happened. The oven spring was at least 100%, which is pretty good for this recipe.