Sourdough: How to Raise it, Feed it, and Bake it - Part II

This is the continuation of my previous blog post, “Sourdough: How to Raise it, Feed it, and Bake it – Part I” which can be read here.

Baking a Loaf of Sourdough Bread

Step 1 – Mixing the Leaven

When baking a loaf of sourdough bread it is important, first and foremost, to relax and realize one thing: there’s very little you can do to mess this up. The sourdough starter may be somewhat delicate and tempermental (like a toddler), but a loaf of bread can be shaped and reshaped, and, unlike what you might have thought before, it can in fact wait for you to wake up in the morning or get home from work. It won’t walk away to find a better oven to bake in.

The first thing you’ll need to make, is your so-called leaven, which is really like a concentrated “über-starter” that will eventually go into your bread. Tartine will tell you to do this the night before you plan on making your bread. That’s great if you live in Berlin like me and don’t have to work full time for a living. You can mix your leaven the night before, then use it to create your dough when you wake up and spend a leisurely morning tending to it. If you do have to work during the day, however, I would advise making your leaven when you wake up in the morning, so that it will be ready to add to your dough mixture when you get home in the afternoon or evening. Either way, know that your leaven will probably take an “overnight” period of time (that is, between 6-8 hours) to reach its maximum strength.

This is also where a scale comes in handy, and if you don’t have one, aside from the fact that you are far behind the times and I simply do not know how you survive a day of baking, you will find it pretty difficult to mix up a good bread dough using measuring cups. Sorry.

Fill up a small vessel (I use a plastic pitcher that normally goes with my juicer) with about 150 grams of lukewarm water (if you have an instant-read thermometer, this should be around 78 degrees Fahrenheit). Add the exact same amount of flour, either white flour or a mixture of white and whole wheat. Then add one or two spoonfuls of your starter and mix the whole thing together. Cover with a dish towel and leave it for that “overnight” period of time I just mentioned.

Step 2 – Mixing the Dough

Once your leaven is ready, you’ll be able to tell by its smell, which is somewhere between fruity and “bready” on the pungency spectrum. There will also be some bubbles on the surface, and it should float in water. If you don’t want to waste any of your leaven by putting it in water you are just planning to discard, hold on: you’ll have to mix it into water soon anyway.

The most important thing to remember when mixing your dough is to work by percentages. If you are using 1 kilogram (1000 grams) of flour to make your bread (that may seem like a lot but trust me: it ends up making two loaves), your other ingredients will be a percentage of that. Tartine tells you to use 700 grams of water and 200 grams of leaven, but I’ve found that a little bit less water and a little more leaven can’t hurt. You just want to make sure your ratio of water to flour doesn’t leave any dry clumps in the center of your bread when you finally mix it.

Find a plastic bowl that is big enough for the dough to rise in, and fill it with 700 grams of water that is just slightly warm to the touch (if you have an instant-read thermometer, this should be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit). Make sure it is not hot or this will significantly weaken or even kill the leaven. Add 200 grams of your leaven and mix using a fork or a whisk. The leaven should float at the top of the water, indicating that it is ready. If it does not, you can put it aside for a few more hours until it is ready, or simply go ahead with your bread. The difference may not be that significant; it will merely be a question of whether your bread rises enough, or a lot. At this point you can either discard the remnants of your leaven or pour the rest of it back into your sourdough starter for a little surprise snack.

Now the fun part: You get to add a kilo, yes really, a kilo of flour to your water and leaven mixture! This can be any mixture of white, rye, or whole wheat, but keep in mind that white flour makes the mixture more elastic, so even if it is your dream to make a whole wheat loaf, the majority of that (maybe 60% of it at least) should still be white flour. I usually do around ¾ white to ¼ whole wheat and still come out with a very nice brown whole wheat loaf. The flour should float nicely on top of the water as you measure it all out, and once you’re done, get ready to get a bit dirty with your dough! Roll up your sleeves, take off any rings and bracelets, and mix the dough together with your hands, turning it over itself with the side of one palm and squeezing it in between your fingers. Work in all the flour until you have a nice fluffy mixture, and make sure there are no dry “bumps” that could cause problems later. Cover with the same dish towel you used to cover the leaven, just to be frugal. After 30 minutes, introduce 20 grams of salt (I know it sounds like a lot, but trust me, it'll barely be noticeable) to the mixture along with a little extra water, and work in. Cover again.

Step 3 – Tending to the Dough

Now, here’s what I meant by tending to your bread. Over the next 3-5 hours, you will have to give your bread a series of turns. This aerates the dough and serves as a substitute for the endless kneading at the end that hurts your shoulders and arms and generally makes you sour over the whole experience. Did you hear that? You don’t have to knead. Not at all. Simply go to your dough every half hour or forty-five minutes, run one hand under the faucet to prevent sticking, then plunge it down one side of the bowl, grab the underside of the dough, and fold it up over the top of the dough. Repeat several times. If you can’t be at home while the dough is ripening during this crucial period, best to have someone who is around—a husband, boyfriend, roommate, or dog—do this for you, as it really does make a substantial difference in the quality of your end product.

You’ll know your dough is ready for the next step when it has formed a rounded top, meaning it is bubbling and rising out of the bowl somewhat. If you press on it, it should spring back pretty quickly. Flour your counter top liberally, or take out a Silpat baking mat if you’re lucky enough to have one and add a bit of flour to that. Use a spatula to dump the whole mixture onto the counter top or mat, and eyeing it as carefully as possible, use a large kitchen knife to split it down the middle. These will be your two loaves. (You can of course make just one by halving all the measurements listed above, but two works better if you’re a fast eater, an avid bread consumer, or want to show off by giving one to a friend—also highly recommended. You will be surprised by how quickly these things get devoured once they come out of the oven!)

Flour your hands a bit and then smooth your palms around the size of each dough lump to make them into perfectly circular mounds. Now cover with the dish towel and let rest for a half hour or so. (All times are estimates and do not have to be perfect—nothing catastrophic will happen to your bread if you forget about it an extra ten minutes.) While you’re waiting, prepare two pans (or fairly shallow and large bowls) with sheets of baking paper and a sprinkling of flour to make them extra non-sticky. If you have ripening baskets, coat them with a good dose of flour to prepare them for the bread. (Note: You don’t need these at all, but they will give you a lovely, characteristic flour swirl that looks absolutely professional.)

When you come back, you’ll find the loaves may have risen and oozed a bit into each other, but they should still be two distinct circles. Now, in order to make them into real loaves and create enough tension in the dough that those shapes will stick during the end proofing period and rising in the oven, you will take each “side” of the circular dough and fold it inwards, each fold overlapping with the previous one. Then turn your dough package over, and use your hands to continue shaping it into a stronger and smoother loaf. When it looks and feels satisfactorily strong and tense, it probably is. Using both hands, transfer each loaf to their respective baking-paper-lined pans or baskets, and leave them to rest. The rest period is entirely up to you. It can be anywhere from 3-4 hours to overnight, leaving the loaves out on your counter covered with dish towels or putting them in the fridge (in this case the bottom shelf is best as it will not be quite so cold). A loaf resting for a short amount of time will have a mild taste, while a loaf stored overnight in the fridge will have a much more sour and acidic taste. You can even choose to make one after a few hours and leave another in the fridge to bake the next morning, just to compare and contrast.

Step 4 – Baking your Loaves at Last

Remember the #1 most important ingredient in baking bread? Well, you’re going to need it now. Place your cast-iron pot, lid on, on your oven rack, and turn up the oven dial to either 500 degrees Fahrenheit or 250 degrees Celsius. When the oven is fully preheated, that means the pot will be hot enough.

Examine your loaves of bread. If you have kept them out of the fridge, they may have oozed and lost a bit of their shape, at which point you will have to put them back on that floured surface and make one last quick shaping (this will really pay off in the end shape after it’s baked; trust me). If the loaves were in the fridge, they may have also developed a bit of a “skin”—that is, a slightly harder, darker outer layer of dough. If you do find you want to reshape them one last time, take care that this skin does not become a problem: I have had loaves that simply would not stick together due to this outer layer of skin being a bit rough and non-sticky. Then you’re stuck with more of a bagel than a loaf: a big wedge of bread with a hole in the middle. You may have to work the dough with your hands a bit more to get rid of this fridge skin, but it won’t really create problems as once the bread is baked, you will no longer see it.

Take one of your loaves of bread, spread it with a layer of flour, and cut either a slit, or a cross, or any one of a number of patterns into the bread’s surface. This is called “scoring,” and it will allow it to rise without tearing in the middle, as the bread will open up along these slits and, with any luck, present you with a beautiful bread crust design. Read this excellent blog post with video included to get some ideas of the patterns a master bread “scorer” can produce. I usually make it easy and do a simple “X”, but remember that when you use your knife (a lot of books will tell you to use a razor blade, but this just seems unnecessary to me) make your slits shallow and horizontal, as opposed to deep and straight down. This will simply make for a better shape when the bread opens.

Using oven mitts, take the top off of the now-very-hot cast iron pot and place the loaf into it, using the baking paper as a sling to carry it over from one vessel to the next (the baking paper will stay under the loaf as it bakes). Replace the lid, put the pot back into the oven, turning the temperature down to 210 degrees Celsius or 410 Fahrenheit, and set your timer to 30 minutes. Once that timer goes off, you’ll get to experience the most rewarding part of the whole process: go back to the oven, take the lid off the pot, and marvel at the beautiful—if slightly too light—loaf of bread that has taken shape. The majority of the rising is now already complete, but the only thing left is to turn that light golden crust into a dark mahogany one. Being certain to place the hot pot lid where no one will touch it accidentally (at the back of the stove will probably be your best bet), put the pot back in the oven. Here I usually set the alarm for another 15 minutes. 20 minutes can sometimes be too long, leaving you with a bread that is somewhat burnt in some corners, but if you come back after 15 minutes and you feel it could still be a bit darker, you can set the alarm for another 5 minutes or so. More than that you probably won’t need. Once you take out your gorgeous loaf of bread, if you plan on baking the second one immediately, placing the lid back on the cast iron pot and setting the alarm for 10 minutes will bring the oven temperature back up again. This will allow the pot to reheat so it will have the same effect on the second loaf.

Now I understand that this part may be difficult, but try to wait until the bread has cooled somewhat before cutting into it. If you cut into a loaf that has just come out of the oven you may find yourself cutting jagged, overly-sticky and mushy slices that may taste divine, but will also leave your bread looking like something the cat dragged in. Wait at least a half hour, and then your bread will be okay to cut, but warm enough that butter will still melt on it.

Variations on a Theme

Once you’ve mastered the basic technique of bread baking, you may find yourself getting bored with the same loaf of bread over and over again. Rest assured, there are endless, delicious variations on this loaf, which you can make with a little extra time and very little extra effort. You can add dried fruits, herbs, nuts, or olives, and you can embellish your crust with a number of things.

Some of my favorite fillings have been:

- Olives and rosemary

- Hazelnuts and dried apricots

- Walnuts and Herbs de Provence

- Dried figs and black pepper

- Fennel, coriander, and fenugreek seeds

- Black and white sesame seeds

Generally, if you are adding extra ingredients to your bread, you may do so by mixing them directly into the bowl of dough, after the first or second “turn.” You may need a bit of extra water to make everything stick.

I haven’t experimented that often with crusts yet, but one I like to make is a mixture of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and sea salt (the “everything bagel” of crusts, if you will). To make a crust, beat one egg in a small bowl, and use a pastry brush to coat the outside of your bread with the egg. Then, gently press the seed, herb, or salt mixure onto the surface of the bread, being careful not to disturb the surface too much when scoring.

I have also heard of people using a basic sourdough bread to make pizzas, or using leaven instead of baking soda when baking cookies and cakes. I see no reason why this shouldn’t work; I merely have not tried it yet. Let me know if you have, if you use this recipe and have any questions, comments, or complaints, or if you have a favorite bread filling or crust you think I should try.

Good luck, have fun, and enjoy!