My sourdough bread
Let's be honest here for a mere second, it's more a process than a recipe. A good sourdough bread is not recipe dependent, it requires time and perseverance. It's fascinating to see the texture of the dough change and evolve. Bread after bread, I'm still amazed at what 3 ingredients can do. Because it's only water, flour and salt, choose them carefully. Just like with everything else, the more you bake, the better your bread will be. It takes me roughly 3 days to make sourdough bread. But the active time is maybe 30 minutes. The rest is just planning, timing and waiting. Making bread is both relaxing and meditative. You can also be creative, test new techniques, new flours, new flavors.
On day one, I usually get my chief starter up to speed (meaning I feed it well so that it's rising well). On day 2, I make the starter for the bread and mix that starter with flour and water - then salt. I usually do this on a day when I'm at home so that I can give the dough the turns it needs every hour or so. On day 3 or 4 , I bake the bread.
If you're a beginner, you could divide the recipe in half to start small. I usually make this much - which is enough to bake 3 loaves during the week. Proofing the dough in the fridge considerably slows down fermentation and I've left sourdough in my fridge for up to 3/4 days - the more you leave it in the fridge, the more sour it will taste. But you can't leave it too long either otherwise it will overproof and your bread will be flat.
If you've never used sourdough before, start feeding your starter once or twice a day to get used to its cycle. Try baking once a week or even once a month (keep your starter in the fridge if you're not gonna be using it for a while). With your discarded starter, make pancakes! Your first loaf will already impress you. But your 100th will most probably be spectacular. If you haven't bought a scale, try to get one - baking bread (and baking in general) requires a good amount of precision (and measuring in cups will only lead to approximation). My scale is so thin and light that I bring it in my suitcase when I travel - and I haven't changed the battery once in 5 years.
I use a cast iron pot to bake bread (Le Creuset and Staub make great reliable pots, and you can buy these second-hand) but you can use a cast iron skillet, or a baking stone too. Before investing in a cast iron pot, I used to bake my bread in a Pyrex glass pot covered with a round baking pan - it was a bit wonky but it worked very well!)
This recipe - or rather guidelines - yields 3 loaves of bread. You can divide the recipe as needed. If you are are a beginner, start with a strong white bread flour.
• 1200 of flour (I use a mix of white, whole wheat, rye and spelt flours - always unbleached, organic and not enriched. My favorites are T70 and T80 flours. I usually use a larger percentage of white or near white flour like T60 or T70, and then a smaller percentage of whole wheat, spelt, rye, buckwheat)
• 300g of well fed starter (I use 3/4 rye and 1/4 white bread flour, look for big bubbles and a nice sound when your spoon goes across it - it usually takes 6-8 hours to reach that state depending on the temperature of your kitchen and whether you are using a liquid or a stiff starter - I never quite measure my starter feeds and go from liquid to stiff whenever I want)
• 900g of water (I used tap water filtered with binchotan charcoal)
• 24g of salt (I use coarse grey salt from Guérande - I bring a 1kg bag from France and that lasts me the year)
• Feed your starter at 8 am* I usually always make a little more than I need. Roughly you need 7 tablespoon of flour, 7 tablespoon of water for 1 tablespoon of starter. but it all depends if you wanna do a liquid or a stiff starter. Mine now tends to be on the stiffer side - but I never really measure my starter …. I just intuitively feed it.
• At 10 am, mix the flour and water until they form a ball, cover with a kitchen towel and let that “autolyse” for 4 hours. You can push the autolyse more. You can also start the autolyse before putting in the starter - just mix the flour and water to together and leave at room temperature - up to 10 hours - this is is called extended autolyse and leads to great results - and less 'turns') I usually do a 3 or 4 hours autolyse with just water and flour (while my starter is still growing, then when it's ready (6-8 hours after feed) I then add the starter to the mix.
• When your starter is bubbly and has doubled in size (see “is your starter ready to bake bread” under life changing tip), add to the flour and water mix. At this stage the bulk fermentation starts. This stage should last for about 6 hours.
• After 30 mn or an hour, add the salt. Dip you hand in water and bring the outside of the dough towards the middle (these are called 'turns'). Turn your bowl as to do this, so that you can do 4 turns. Cover with a towel and let sit for 30 mn.
• Repeat this process 30 mn to an hour later - for a total of 4/5 times. After the final 'turn', let your dough sit at room temperature for another 3/ 4 hours. (You could put the dough in the fridge at this stage if you need to and pick up the next day). The idea is that fermentation starts the minute your starter gets in contact with the flour and water. “Bulk fermentation” - which means the first proof at room temp usually - should last between 5-8 hours (but it ultimately depends on the temperature of your kitchen, it will take longer in the winter, shorter in the summer). “Retard fermentation - which means fermentation slowed down at a lower temperature - can last anywhere from 12 to 18 to 24 hours . It’s during that part of fermentation than the acidity of your starter kicks in. You can play with the bulk proof time - I usually do around 6. and 14 for the retarded fermentation.
• If you want to add things to your bread (hazelnuts, raisins, walnuts, goji berries, rosemary, pepita seeds, prosciutto, cheese), it's best to do it around turn 3 or 4. That said, I often forget and add these at the last minute when I'm diving the dough - that way I can have one plain loaf and a couple of different ones.
• Divide the dough in three equal parts. Using a little bit of flour on your work surface, pre shape the dough into a bowl - you can use your hands at this stage or a metallic bench scraper. The idea here is to gently pre-shape the dough just to give the dough a little bit of a shape so that it holds together but nothing should be too tight. Cover with a bowl or a bread basket for 15 to 20 minutes. You can also remove the cover after 15 mn and leave uncovered for an extra 5 or 10 mn.
• Now to the shaping stage! Using your hands, fold the dough over itself towards you, then shape into a ball, criss-crossing the side of the dough towards the middle of the dough. There should be some tension in the dough, when you press your finger into the dough it should leave a mark.
Put the dough (nice smooth side at the bottom) in little baskets or in bowls (lined with a linen cloth, or with some rice flower - nice side to the bottom of the bowl) and cover with a kitchen towel or put inside a plastic bag tied around the basket.
• At this point, you can retard your dough in the fridge overnight or more (this will slow down the fermentation process - I usually do this because I like a more sour sourdough bread, so I leave it in my fridge for 14 to 18 hours). This is the second proofing stage which can take anywhere between 12-48 hours. The longer you proof the dough, the more acidic it will become, and the more the gluten will be broken down. But the bubbles trapped in the dough will also have a tendency to deflate as time goes by. So if you make that second proof too long, your bread won’t rise as much in the oven - and the oven spring will be less noticeable. It’s all about trial and error here. You wanna push the dough as much as you can without going too far that your bread will end up flat. I push this stage to 14 hours usually but have tone it to 18 hours successfully.
• Pre-heat the overn at 500F for an hour. (i usually don’t pre-heat my cast iron pot but a lot of people do). Take a cast iron pot, use parchment paper and a little bit of flour and place the bread dough in the middle (it’s fine to go straight from the fridge to the oven but you can also take your bread out an hour before). Make incisions with a knife, a cutter, or even better a razor blade (this is called bread scoring and it’s so much fun to design patterns) You can also bake your bread without scoring . Scoring is not necessary it was invented so that bakers could recognize their bread back to when people were using communal ovens! Turn on your oven at 460°F . After 20 minutes lower your oven temp to 440F.
• After 10 more minutes at 440F, carefully** remove the lid of the cast iron pot and let the crust brown: to do so, lower heat to 425F and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes.
• Once your bread is baked, remove from the cast iron pot, tap the bottom of the bread and check for a hollow sound. Let cool for a couple of hours while resisting the temptation to cutting it. The bread will sing a little - the crust crackle as it cools down. Why wait? Hot bread is not that easy to digest and letting it sit for a few hours before eating it will let you taste all the flavor (every 'bread' tastes 'good' when it's hot, a sourdough bread tastes great when it's no longer hot, and even the next day : and that's what we're trying to make here!)
• To keep the bread fresher for longer, wrap in a tea towel or a linen cloth. You can freeze bread too - not forever though - two weeks maximum, longer and you might get frost bites unless you have a very fancy freezer. Sometimes I freeze slices so that I can take them straight from the freezer to the toaster. If I have baked too much bread - I usually find someone to give it too, not that many people can say no to homemade bread!
*8am start means you will start bulk at about 2pm and bake the next morning but you could change this up and start later in the day. I sometimes forget all the rules, use my starter at hour 12, retard in the fridge after only one turn and then shape and proof outside the next day and bake in the evening. Sourdough is very versatile.
** good gloves are key here. If you accidentally burn yourself with a hot cast iron, rinse under water for 10 minutes then make a solution with 3 or 4 organic lavender essential oil drops mixed in a neutral vegetable oil like almond oil. Apply on your burn every 10 minutes for the first 2 hours. then 3/4 times a day after that. You will see your burn heal much faster and the tingling sensation will disappear way quicker. This only works on basic and not major burns - obviously.