Anyone who’s had truly great sourdough bread knows it’s a thing of beauty. The flavor is truly unique. So much so that the starter or levain that you’re going to make or use is maybe the most hyper terroir thing there is. This is due to the fact that no matter where you get your starter from it will adapt over time to your natural yeast where you are. This isn’t a bad thing though. This just means it’s going to be unique no matter where you make it.
Now the next thing you need to know is that it doesn’t need to be nearly as intimidating as you think. All you need for the starter is all-purpose flour and water, all you need for the actual sourdough is bread flour, salt, and water. It can’t get much simpler than that. One thing I have heard a lot it that you have to take good care of your starter. You have to feed it at the same time and frequency as when you start and the temperature can make it or break it. So her’s the deal I am sure there are truths in those ideas but the recipe I am using proves this doesn’t have to be the case. There is a little flexibility and as a home cook that’s important.
Lastly before we get into the technique and recipe is you have to know two things:
- Patience is key. Don’t rush the process.
- You won’t have good sourdough until somewhere around week 3 or 4 but once you do it’s going to be amazing!
OK, so here it is. This recipe and technique come from Zingerman’s Bakehouse cookbook but I have only ever so slightly changed it to fit my routine and schedule.
(Side note: All mixing and kneading can be done in a stand mixer with a dough hook but If you can do it by hand I would recommend it. There’s just something I can’t explain about feeling when the dough has come together. It’s just this kind of magic moment. However from time to time I am trying to multitask so I have done it in my mixer.)
In a small bowl mix together:
- 140 grams All-purpose Flour
- 10 grams Whole Wheat Flour
- 77 grams Water, room temperature
Once the dough it too firm to stir, pour all the contents out onto your work surface and need for a couple minutes until you have a smooth round ball. It will be rather firm. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours.
In a large mixing bowl add together:
- Sourdough Starter from the day before, helps to tare it into pieces
- 115 grams Water, room temperature
- 215 grams All-purpose Flour
Stir together with a wooden spoon until it’s a shaggy dough. Turn out onto your work surface and knead until it forms a smooth ball. At this point it should be firm but not stiff. Place it back in the bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit for another 24 hours.
Remove the starter from the bowl and only add back in:
- 220 grams of the starter, torn into pieces
- 115 grams Water, room temperature
- 215 grams All-purpose Flour
Repeat the process of mixing in the bowl then turning it out onto you work surface and kneading it into a smooth ball. Place it back in the bowl, tightly cover with plastic wrap, and discard the extra starter.
In the book they have you make something called Farm Bread at this point. I am still not entirely sure why and it is a VERY time consuming process. You will need to be home all day and start early if you choose to do this (added up with lots of down time it’s about 10 hours start to finish) but I am still not convinced you need to. The important thing on day 4 is to reserve:
- 180 grams of Starter
in your chosen container and refrigerate for a week.
If you are wanting to go through the process of making the farm bread with your starter here is the process:
After removing the 180 grams of starter and starting in a clean bowl add:
- 520 grams Water, room temperature
- 275 grams Sourdough Starter, torn into pieces
- 770 grams All-purpose Flour
- 75 grams Whole Wheat Flour
- 23 grams Kosher Salt
Again mix together until it forms a shaggy dough. Then pour out onto your work surface and knead it into a solid mass. Once it has all come together knead for 8 minutes. At this point it should be a smooth firm ball. Place back in the bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let rest for 1 hour.
Lightly flour your work surface, turn out your dough, roll it out into a rectangle, and fold.
- From right to left fold in thirds. Then from top to bottom fold in thirds. This should leave you with a rather compact ball of dough. Folding is something you will do each time you make the bread so make note of the folding technique. Folding is key to incorporating air into your dough. As you get further into the process, in the weeks to come, you will find that it doesn’t seem like your dough is rising much but once you do your folds it accelerates the rise.
Place the dough back into the bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap.
Repeat this process 3 more times giving it a 1 hour rest between each fold. In the end you should have folded the dough 4 times. An hour after the fourth fold has been done divide the dough in half and gently shape into rounds. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Cover with a light weight kitchen towel and let rest for 45 minutes.
Shape your rounds into your desired shape. I tend to just stick with rounds but you can do batards as well (longer loaves) and if you have “proofing baskets” this is when you would place them in that. I do not so I simply left them on the baking sheet. Let them rise for 3 ½ to 4 hours.
- 45 minutes before baking:
- If you have a baking stone place it in the oven. If not don’t worry about it. I bake mine on the sheet pan they are rising on. The one thing that is quite handy to have is a cast iron pan. If you have one place it in the oven on the rack below the one you will be baking on.
- Preheat the oven to 450º f.
- Once the oven is pre-heated and the dough has finished its final rise get about 1-2 cups of ice cubes. Open the oven and pull out the rack with the cast iron pan. Pour the ice into it. It will steam valiantly. Push the rack back in, put the bread in the oven, close the door and late it bake for 25 minutes. Rotate the sheet or stone and bake for another 10 minutes. (If you’re doing this first bake it will take more like 45-50 minutes total.)
- After the bread comes out of the oven let it rest for at least an hour if not longer before cutting into it. The longer you wait the more the flavor will develop. Contrary to popular belief you should never cut into a loaf straight out of the oven as it is still cooking inside.
This is what my first farm loaf looked like:
I know this doesn’t look like super yummy sourdough. This is where the patience and faith has to kick in.
After a week in the fridge and once a week thereafter you need to feed your levain. To do this, in a large bowl add:
- 115 grams of you levain or starter
- 115 grams Water, room temperature
- 230 grams All-purpose flour
Stir together with a wooden spoon. Once it’s a shaggy dough turn it out on the counter and knead into a solid mass. Then knead for 8 minutes. It will be a nice smooth ball of dough. Place this back into your container. Now here’s where I differ from the cookbook. I leave me sealed container on the counter until it’s doubled in volume and then I put it in the fridge. There have been times where I have left it on the counter over night and the gas has pushed the lid right off but I just closed it back up and put it in the fridge. I personally prefer to see that there’s action in the yeast spores before I put it in a cold environment.
You will need to do this every week, ideally on the same day, but a day or two won’t kill it. However the more consistent you are the better.
When you feed your levain you will have about 334 grams of it left over. This is the ideal time to make your sourdough.
In a large bowl add:
- 334 grams Levain, torn into pieces
- 383 grams Water, room temperature
- 566 grams Bread Flour
- 11 grams Kosher Salt
Mix everything together in a bowl until it forms a shaggy dough. Turn it out onto the work surface and knead into a solid mass. This is a VERY wet and sticky dough. DO NOT add any flour to the work surface or the dough. You need this hydration ratio to get the right crumb. Once the dough is a solid mass knead for 8 minutes.
Heres the key, a bench scraper. This is a VERY handy tool to have in the kitchen. In one hand have the bench scraper and in the other work the dough. As you push the dough against the counter to build up the gluten use the bench scraper to spare it off the counter to be able to pick it back up… You’ll develop your own technique for this. If you don’t want to deal with the mess, don’t have a bench scraper, or don’t want to exhaust yourself with the kneading then I would recommend doing this in a electric mixer fitted with the dough hook and once it has all come together in the mixer set a timer for 8 minutes.
Place the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise for one hour, FOLD, let rise a second hour, FOLD, then let it do it’s final rise. This is another deviation from the cookbook. I let mine sit out on the counter overnight and bake it the next day. This is one of those bread doughs that cannot be hurt from extended rising times. In fact most of your flavor is developed during this time as it’s when the yeast is at it’s most active and that’s what’s creating the sour flavor.
One variation to the baking instructions above for the weekly routine is that when I am ready to bake the plastic wrap is stretched to the limits. So carefully peel off the plastic. Lightly flour your work surface and as gently as possible scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the work surface. Divide in half and carefully form a round loaf.
I have found the best way to keep the surface of the loaves moist and not form a skin is to cover each individual loaf with plastic during the final rise after shaping. Just before starting the baking steps score the top of the loaf. This direct the seam and helps prevent blowouts. Steam will find the path of least resistance. I do a typical tic tac toe grid pattern but you can do whatever you like.
Now you just need to feed your levain and make your sourdough once a week. If you are not going to make sourdough every week you still need to feed the levain that frequently but you can just discard the leftover levain.
The Farm Loaf was “Week 1”
Week 3 (This was the first one with noticeable flavor. Slight but noticeable.):