A FOUNDATIONAL LOAF
Disclaimer: This is a long, micromanage-y recipe. Feel free to skim if you’ve baked plenty of bread before. Some explanations/asides/context are provided in parentheses and italics throughout. Apologies.
Plan on making this bread or one like it over and over for a while. Watch how it displays your evolving intuition and handling skills, and lack thereof. It won’t be perfect the first time, thank god, and you’ll quickly figure out your own preferences for the process- what has to stay and what can go, how much you can push it, and how strongly it’ll pull you back to center when you stray too far. And remember, every environment drastically affects the breadmaking process. This bread is about you and your hands and your space (literally, your culture is made up of those things), not me and mine, so keep in mind that this isn’t scripture. There are certain foundational understandings based in science, and accepting them will help steward you through the process.
Once you have a grip on the fundamentals, though, you can begin to exploit and bastardize them. It is what we do, so try to treasure this time when things are still so grounded and straightforward and the path ahead is written for you. Dough is an inherently malleable and easily manipulated medium, for better or worse, especially once you know what it likes to hear. But you must, above all, respect it. It will reward you generously.
-You won’t have lofty bread without a happy sourdough starter, no matter what you do, so make sure it’s been fed a few times between waking it up from the fridge or rejuvenating it from its dried state (or growing it yourself). It should be doubling in 4-8 hours. I keep mine fed with rye flour, which is always a good bet for getting it up-and-at-em. A concise intro to sourdough can be found here.
-Levain refers to the portion of the starter that was built specifically for a recipe. I like to bake with a young levain, around 5 hours old. Everyone’s needs are different and will depend on temperature, ingredients, and starter activity. Keep in mind, you can change your feeding measurements to accommodate your schedule. For example, if you need to ripen you starter overnight in order to bake first thing in the morning, increase the ratio of fresh food to starter leaven so it rises slowly. The organisms will take longer to deplete a larger stash of food (for example: feed 15g of starter with 75g flour and 75g water, as opposed to equal measurements of all three).
-Here is a method I sometimes use for keeping track of time while building a dough.
yields two reasonably sized loaves
*Overview of baker’s math down below
85% bread/all-purpose flour
15% whole grain flour
75% water +
Final Levain Build:
60g active sourdough starter
60g whole grain rye flour
60g water, room temperature
745g bread or all-purpose flour (or a mix of the two)
130g whole grain flour (whole wheat, spelt, khorasan, einkorn, emmer, etc.)
150g fresh rye levain, from Final Levain Build
Water as needed, referenced in recipe directions
(rough! use as guideline/track on this worksheet, mentioned above)
0:00 - Build levain
3:00 - Mix autolyse
5:00 - Add levain
5:10 - Add salt
5:40 - Fold 1
6:10 - Fold 2
6:40 - Fold 3
7:10 - Fold 4
8:10-8:40 - Preshape
8:50-9:30 - Shape and refrigerate
Cold proof 12-18 hours
To build levain, use a clean hand to mix ingredients in a small bowl. (You’ll have 30g leftover- set this aside for later feeding and/or use.) Transport to a glass jar (or something similar) with enough room for double the volume of your mixture, and mark the level on the side with a rubber band, tape, whatever. Cover and leave in a warm spot to rise. Ripening speed will vary, but will likely land between 4 and 8 hours.
About two hours before your starter is due to peak, use a wet hand to combine the flour and water until all is saturated (I generally like to keep one hand in the muck and one hand clean; the latter serves as the responsible adult in the room). It’s okay if the mixture is homely and rough, it will age well and quickly. Don’t spend too much time on this. Cover with a towel or plastic bag and leave. This step is called the autolyse. It hydrates the flour and jumpstarts gluten development. This recipe calls for a two hour autolyse, but it can range from 20 minutes to four hours, or be left out entirely if your schedule demands it.
Add 150g of the levain to the autolysed flour and water, sprinkling with some extra water, a tablespoon or so, to help incorporate. Mix gently but firmly with a wet hand again (always moisten your hands when working with the dough; it will keep you as two separate entities), massaging the levain in for a couple minutes until it’s well dispersed throughout, hidden away. Don't tear the dough apart here- or ever, really. It’s more a scooping and patting-stretching-folding-turning kind of job. I once visualized this step as akin to lifting the dead weight of a child who fell asleep on the couch, and putting them to bed by turning your palm downwards, folding the dough onto itself from the top. Rotate the bowl as you go, stop once the evidence of the levain is lost. Cover and don’t disturb for 10 minutes.
Sprinkle the salt on top like you’re melting snow. Douse with some water like you’re extinguishing embers. Dimple the salt into the dough and mix again as before, scooping and folding the dough over itself until it’s well incorporated. Scoop and fold for 2- 4 mins. The dough will tear a bit towards the end of this process but shouldn’t break down. Stop mixing if it’s turning into a coarse, mottled mush. Be nice! Let rest 30 minutes, covered.
Now we build the dough strength. Forget that mythological kneading, like a cat readying his bed. Strength is built through a series of stretching and folding maneuvers, which work the gluten strands up (like exercising your muscles) to withstand the burping of those sourdough microorganisms you’ve reared. Instead of tearing and releasing their carbon dioxide out into the world, a strong gluten network traps it in the dough, causing a loaf to rise and fill with little pockets of air. We get there like so: use two wet hands to perform what will henceforth be referred to as a Stretch and Fold (or an S+F). Scoop up the edge of the dough closest to you, nails facing the bottom of the bowl and fingers pressed together. Pull the dough up, stretching and wiggling, then fold the dough in half onto itself. Release your hands with a snap. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and do the same, then again and again until all four sides have been stretched and folded. That is considered one fold. Cover the bowl again and rest for 30 minutes.
Perform another fold as before, sprinkling the dough with some water at the outset to help lube it up. You should feel some strength developing. Around now is when you’ll realize that the dough mostly benefits from your absence. This process is about time, not really about you. Leave the dough alone for another 30 minutes.
Continue with S+Fs or try a coil fold, a similar move, better for wet and slightly more mature doughs. Decidedly harder to articulate, but it goes something like this: moisten your hands and nudge them under the middle of the dough from the sides, fingers together, hands like paddles. Stretch the dough up towards the ceiling, letting the front edge of the dough fall underneath, and flip your hands towards you and down, folding the dough under itself this time, leaving the front edge tucked beneath the mass. Release quick! No doddling. Do this again, folding that front end under itself a second time, to tighten the package. Rotate the container 180 degrees and repeat once more on the opposite side, which should leave you with a tight-ish rectangular bundle. Tuck the two remaining sides under themselves so all edges are sealed up and you have something like a square or a round. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes.
Perform your preferred folding method, coil or S+F, once more. The dough should be stronger at every return, but will also be made a bit wobbly through fermentation, so continue to be gentle and firm with it. Sensitive. If the dough feels loose, weak, tears easily, give it a fifth fold 30 minutes later. Cover as usual while it rests.
Around two hours should have passed since you mixed in the salt and levain. At this point, let the dough rest, covered, for an hour without disturbing. When you return the dough should be visibly more voluminous than when this all started and might have some little bubbles trapped under the gluten sheath that you and time have just worked so hard to build (some folks like to say you should see a 50% increase in volume before moving on to the next step, but I find this difficult to assess and changeable; keep it in mind as a ballpark). If the dough is tight and not at all domed, give it another 30-45 minutes to continue fermenting.
Now we preshape the dough: dump the load onto a clean, unfloured countertop. Cut quickly and confidently in half (or thereabouts) with a bench knife. Use your hand and that bench knife to round into tight domes by rotating the dough in circles on the counter, building surface tension all along the exterior as the skin gets tucked underneath. A smooth mound should appear after a few rotations. Don’t overdo it. When you have two little hills, cover them with a towel and leave for about forty minutes.
Now we do the final shaping. There are as many methods for this as there are bakers, and you’ll eventually figure out which works best for you. First, prepare two proofing baskets: makeshift (a bowl lined with a towel) or official (something like this). Dust generously with rice flour if you have it, otherwise use what’s available to you. Flour the counter near the rounds and flour the rounds themselves. Use a bench knife to quickly, confidently, flip one round over, so what was the bottom is now the top, and vice versa. Draw the edges up one by one, scooting your bench knife under to assist as you go if necessary, and tuck towards the middle, like you’re hiding something inside or, less scandalously, doing laundry. I start with the front edge, fold towards the center, then hold onto the left while I stretch out the right and fold that towards the center too. Then do the same with the left. I now have an envelope with an open top. I lift, stretch and fold that top towards the center, sealing the envelope. You can stop here or make it tighter: draw both top corners to the center, one at a time, then pinch the two sides and do the same, and lastly with the two bottom corners. You should have a kind of rectangular cocoon. Roll up gently from the edge nearest to you, and flip the bundle over so the rounded bottom is once more the top. Lift into your hand with a bench knife and place into your proofing basket with the seam facing up (in other words, it sleeps upside down). Sometimes I even stitch this a little tighter by pinching from the edges and drawing towards the middle seam, if the dough feels like it can take it without ripping. No pressure. Cover with plastic wrap or a plastic bag and refrigerate overnight, 12-18 hours.
The next day, peel back the covers and check on your sleeping loaves. They may look deceptively unchanged, but give the basket a little shake and you’ll see some loft and wiggle to them. They’re alive. If the dough is very tight with no signs of rise at all, leave the baskets, covered, on the counter while you prepare the oven as follows:
Place your baking vessel (ideally a heavy dutch oven, or a similar cast iron, enamel, or clay pot with a tight fitting lid) in the oven and preheat to 500F for a minimum of 45 minutes. Cut a small round of parchment paper and dump a loaf onto it. Hold a sharp blade at a 45 degree angle, ish, and slice (called ‘scoring’ in bread terminology), at a roughly ¼” depth. Move quick, like a reflex, like you’ve done it before. Use whatever pattern you like here, but don’t get caught up. We’re just providing the dough with a path for blooming and bursting. A simple line is fine. Remove the very hot pot and lid from the oven and load the loaf into it, using the parchment to lift and place carefully, quickly, confidently. Put the lid back on, lower heat to 480F and bake for 20 minutes (you’re creating a steamy, humid environment so the crust doesn’t set too quickly, giving the dough time to expand), then remove the lid and bake for another 20 minutes, or until nicely browned (color is flavor, really tarnish that crust). Do this with the second loaf too, unless you’ve got two dutch ovens, in which case, well done.
Remove and cool on a wire rack. Do your best to give it at least an hour before slicing, as the baking process is still finishing up in there.
Store bread on the counter wrapped in a paper bag or tin foil. Otherwise slice and freeze for later. (Alternatively, consider my favorite preservation method: let it go almost creepily rock hard stale on the counter then dunk in water or broth and broil a few minutes until golden on the outside and custardy on the inside.)
Baker’s Math If you’ve poked around at bread recipes (also called formulas) you may have noticed their occasional textbook look. They’re often written in percentages or oddly precise/seemingly random weights. These numbers are the result of baker’s math, a method for calculating ingredient metrics used exclusively in bread making. It helps with comparing recipes to one another regardless of yield, scaling up and down easily, maintaining consistency, tweaking formulas by small increments, and writing recipes once you find a set of percentages you’re fond of. Trust that it makes more sense the more you use it. Here’s how it works:
All ingredients are calculated as percentages of the total weight of flour.
This makes the flour equal to 100%. Let’s look at an example of a common basic sourdough formula:
This makes the flour equal to 100%. Let’s look at an example of a common basic sourdough formula:
|Ingredient||%||Weight Measurement (grams)|
We reach these outcomes like this: 750 x .75= 562.5
Until you’re writing your own recipes you don’t really need to know how to do this, but it helps to be able to look over a set of numbers and know what to expect and how to use the information. For example, if you’re new to bread but want to make a recipe that calls for 85% hydration, try lowering it by 10%. Or let’s say you wanted to change the pace of fermentation a bit: take 16% levain up to 20% to quicken, or lower to 12% to slow it down. Etc.