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Author Notes: I've tried many methods of baking sourdough and through a combination of lots of different ideas and recipes have found a general formula and process that works for me, so I wanted to share that. I don't use a scale or measure things in bakers percentages, this is kind of a "rustic" method that's all about using your hands to mix dough and keenly observing textures to determine when to move on to the next step. Just have fun and don't get too hung up on technical details and specifics! No matter what you'll have an edible final product! Some troubleshooting tips at the bottom <3 —Lily Applebaum
Makes 2 loaves
- stiff sourdough starter -- I had success building mine based on Maurizio's instructions here: https://www.theperfectloaf.com/7-easy-steps-making-incredible-sourdough-starter-scratch/
- 6 and 2/3 cups flour, see note below
- 2 and 2/3 cups your hottest tap water
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, more or less to taste
- first thing in the morning, OR right before bed (about 8 hours before you'll mix your dough): feed your starter as you normally would; I feed mine entirely with rye flour, a 50/50 mix of white and whole wheat flours is also great
- selecting your flours: I've found sourdough benefits from a combination of flours to control fermentation and flavor. If you're working with just regular flour from the grocery store, which is what I almost always do, definitely mix in at least some percentage of whole wheat or grain flour, like regular WW, spelt, rye, buckwheat, etc. A formula that works particularly well for me is: 3C white flour, 3C whole wheat flour, 2/3C rye flour. Definitely don't go over 60% whole wheat until you're feeling really confident! Bread flour is great too in place of white flour and makes your kneading easier, it's just a little pricey.
- Once you’ve chosen your flours, in your largest mixing bowl mix all of the flour and all of the water. I just stir using clean hands. Mix until all of the flour is hydrated by the water, and if you need more water add it in little bits at a time. Wetter dough will give you a more open and spongy texture, but will also be harder to work with, so err on the side of less water if you’re new to sourdough.
- Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and leave the dough mix to rest for about an hour, covered at room temperature. Tip: plastic shower caps make great rinseable and re-usable bowl covers.
- At the tail end of the hour of resting, get your starter which should by now have risen to its full height and be falling back down. You can tell if there’s a line of residue above the line of volume of the starter, indicating that at one point the volume was higher. You should see lots of bubbles. Scoop out half of your starter and drop it in to the bowl of dough. Feed the remaining starter and put back at room temperature if you’ll bake again this week, or into the fridge if you wont.
- Mix the starter with the dough by pinching and folding until it’s no longer visible. Now you’re ready to start kneading. Many sourdough folks say not to knead the dough, but this has always worked for me and produced a great bread. We build up the gluten in this step so that as the dough ferments, it has “rungs on a ladder” to keep climbing up and rising. That’s how I understand it, anyway!
- To knead, you’ll basically be stretching and folding the dough. I do this by putting my hand underneath the whole mass of dough, scooping half of it up, pulling it up and stretching it, then folding it back down on itself. Then I give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat. I do this for 10-15 minutes which can get tedious and difficult, but it’s worth it!
- You can use the “windowpane” test to see when your bread is done; basically you stretch a small piece of dough between the index and thumb of both hands, and if you can stretch it thin like a windowpane without it breaking, it’s ready. If it’s like, 80% there I’d say it’s fine too, I often call off kneading at that stage.
- Add the salt to the dough and knead to combine. If you’re adding mix-ins to the dough, here is where you do that as well. Make sure that any dried fruit has been soaked almost to the point of being rehydrated, and drained.
- Cover the bowl again and leave to ferment at room temperature first and then in the fridge. How long you do each sort of depends on your temperature at home. If it's very warm in your house, do around an hour or two at room temp, then ~12-14 hours in the fridge. If it's cold, do the full overnight at room temp. It's hard to get this part exactly right and I've found fussing over it to be almost never worth it. You're aiming for around 12 hours of rest but adding on some time if your dough is in the fridge. My normal here in Philly is ~6 hours at room temp and ~8 hours in the fridge overnight, bake early the following morning.
- An hour before you bake preheat the oven to 500 degrees and put a pan somewhere in the oven filled with tap water. This will create the steam needed to get a shiny crispy crust.
- Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. I freeform shape both loaves and bake them together on one sheet, just for speed and convenience, but you could shape one, bake it on its own, and then shape the other.
- Now you’re ready to shape the dough. You’ll divide it in half and shape one half at a time in to two rounds. This video from “Bread monk” really illustrates what I do, but you basically want to hold the dough mass in the air and form it in to a ball by slowly stretching the top and sides downward to the bottom, creating surface tension. Don’t put the dough down on any surface unless it’s *covered* in flour because it will be very sticky. Once it’s shaped, place it on the cookie sheet as far over to one side as you can, then repeat with the other dough mass on the other side of the sheet. If you *have* the time to let the shaped loaves sit for ~30 minutes to an hour, let them, but if not that's OK too https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8J50Ad0KGvw
- Slash the top of each loaf with a sharp knife or razor blade, just a simple slash down the middle or a curved one on either side of the top will do. This allows steam to escape while baking so that the bread holds its shape. Do this the instant before you put the loaves in to bake.
- Every oven is different so it’s hard to advise on baking times and temps. I like to do 20 minutes at 500 degrees, then the remaining time at 450 or 425 if it looks like it’s really cooking, usually another 40 minutes. Start with this method and adjust as you need for your own oven. The bread is done when it’s deeply brown all over, if you used whole grains it might even look almost burned, and knocking on the bottom of the loaf with your knuckles produces a “hollow” open sound, not a dense short sound.
- Leave the bread to cool on a wire rack; it should be completely cooled before you cut in to it, which is the worst part about this whole process. If it’s mostly cool, you can leave it to cool the rest of its time in the fridge. I always store bread in the fridge, wrapped in a paper bag.
- This is the process and method that I’ve found consistently works for me, I hope it works for you too! Once you know what the dough is “supposed” to look like you can experiment with different kinds of flours, mix ins, levels of hydration, etc. I just made a bread where I used canned pumpkin to supply some of the hydration, and that worked beautifully! Enjoy!
- Troubleshooting: Dough too wet after fermenting? Dough stuck to everything and it's a big mess? Scrape it all down, bake in one big blob on a cookie sheet, call it focaccia, you're a hero ! Or, line a loaf pan with parchment and bake as stated above. Bread "exploded" in the oven? If the top looks neat and tidy but the bottom looks cracked and blown out, it literally did explode in the oven, and the yeast had nowhere to go! Next time, try cutting a deeper slash into the top of the bread before baking. Ready to mix in? This formula can handle ~1 C of mix-ins, which is fun! Cheese, olives, scallions, chili oil, rehydrated dried fruit, nuts, seeds, all make great add-ins. The top photo was made with canned pumpkin replacing some of the water until the initial mix achieved the right texture!
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