I am not a baker by nature, but I love to make sourdough. It’s science and it’s alive and it’s different every time. If it’s warm in your house, it needs less time to rise and proof. If it’s damp out, you may want to use a bit less water. If your starter is grumpy, your bread is grumpy.
My bread is an Irish California hybrid. I actually learned to make sourdough at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, Ireland. Tim Allen is a sourdough master with decades of experience teaching students how to make chewy, complexly flavored loaves. Ballymaloe’s method involved about 9 different flours and a stand mixer - serious impediments to recreating the recipe when I got back home to California.
Listen to the gurus. I live 2 blocks from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. I mostly wanted to make my own bread to avoid the insane lines. I started reading Chad Robertson’s books and making some good progress. But it wasn’t until I read Ken Forkish’s techniques in Flour Water Salt Yeast that my loaves really started to sing. I just like the way he writes, and was able to wrap my head around the handling techniques a little better. All of these recipes (and mine below) rely on 100% natural rise, no yeast, and the no-knead stretch and fold methods.
Keep a bread journal. For a few years, I’ve been writing notes about my loaves at Ken’s suggestion. Timing, ratios, weather, and outcomes. Sometimes I draw diagrams. It’s real nerdy. This recipe is my own variation that has given me the most consistent rise, with chewy, moist crumb and charred, dense crust. I’m a crust fiend - I want a blackened bottom with an almost bitter flavor to set off a slather of Kerrygold butter.
You can play with flour blends. Just keep in mind you will need to add more water as you plus up whole grain flours, since they absorb more liquid than white flours. Many recipes call for bread flour, but I’ve found that good quality all-purpose white flour gives me the chew and volume I’m looking for just fine. But I am always tinkering and may change my mind on this down the road.
I am not going to teach you to make the basic starter. There are tons of recipes out there. Truth is, I tried to make my own and hated the way it smelled. So I’ve been using a starter that someone gave me, and feeding it equal parts water to flour. I use a blend of 50/50 white and whole wheat flours. The key with starter is dumping quite a bit of it out before you feed it, so you feed it more volume than the amount left in the jug. So if you feed it ½ c water and ½ c flour blend, you want to be sure there is less than 1 cup of starter in your jug. It is a hungry beast and likes to eat more than its weight. Reward it. This is the single most important lesson I have learned in my experimentation with sourdough over the years.
Do I measure this very precisely? No. Should I? Who knows? My bread tastes good and that’s all I care about. I do pare down the amount of leaven I make compared to other recipes – I feel guilty chucking so much flour all the time. That said, I would not make any less as I think it really needs to eat a lot for maximum rise.
Time = fermentation = flavor. If you proof the loaves for longer it will develop a sourer flavor. If your starter is very mature you also may get a sourer flavor. If you don’t like sourdough flavor I suggest you find a recipe that combines some natural leaven with yeast.
San Francisco Sourdough Bread
Yield: 2 loaves
2 cast-iron dutch ovens with lids, 5 Qt ideal
2 9” round proofing baskets
75 g starter
300 g all-purpose flour
75 g whole wheat flour
300 g water approx 78F
750 g all-purpose flour
100 g whole wheat flour
50 g rye flour
725 g water
285 g leaven
24 g salt
If you are using starter from the fridge that hasn’t been fed in a while, allow yourself 2-3 days to feed the starter before you make the leaven.
From the time you have a fed, happy, bubbly starter, allow yourself 2 days until the final bake. I like a long overnight rise and a shorter proof with no fridge time. You can certainly adjust – just remember if you decide to proof overnight you probably want to do a cold proof in the fridge. If you decide to start your leaven overnight there’s more wiggle room on timing, and you probably don’t need to refrigerate it.
Morning Day 1: Make your leaven
In a medium bowl, mix together your starter, flours and water with your hand. Cover with a cloth and let it rise for 4 – 6 hours. It should at least double in volume.
Do the float test: Drop a teaspoon of the leaven into a jug of cold water. If the leaven floats, you’re ready to make the dough.
Afternoon Day 1: Make your dough
In a very large bowl, mix your flours and water with your hand. Let sit 30 minutes so the flours really soak up the water – you may hear this step referred to as autolyzing.
After about 30 minutes, mix in the salt and 285 g of mature leaven with your hands. Really work the salt and leaven through the dough so it blends evenly. The remaining leaven is your new starter - you can mix it into your old starter or just chuck the old stuff and start feeding the leaven for your next round.
Afternoon Day 1: Begin your stretch and folds:
Hold the bowl with your left (or non-dominant) hand. Wet your right hand, and scoop your hand under the right edge of the dough and pull it slowly so it stretches as far as it will go without tearing. Fold the dough over itself in the bowl. Rotate the bowl 90 degrees, and repeat on all four sides. Let the dough sit for 30-45 minutes. Repeat 2-3 more times, letting the dough rest 30-45 minutes between each session.
Evening Day 1: Bulk fermentation
Cover the bowl with a towel and leaving it in a warmish, non-drafty spot. Let rise overnight for 12-15 hours.
Morning Day 2: Shape and proof your loaves
After the dough has risen, it should be about tripled in volume with big gassy bubbles on the surface. If the dough looks flat, give it a little more time and consider turning up the heat in your house or placing the bowl in a sunny spot.
Flour a large, clean surface – I like to use a marble pastry board. Pour the dough gently out of the bowl, using your hands or a dough scraper to separate the sticky dough from the bowl and keep in one piece. Use a flat-edged bench scraper or knife to cut the dough into two equal pieces.
Pre-Shape: Sprinkle some flour on each piece of dough and flour up your hands. Try not to work too much extra flour into the dough – just use enough so you can handle it a little more easily. Using a similar but less aggressive technique as the stretch and folds, gently pull on the right side of one dough piece and wrap it over the top, then do the same on 2-3 more sides so the dough forms more of a ball. You only have to pull on it a little – the goal is to maintain the air and volume in the dough but just give it a tighter shape. Repeat on the other piece of dough and let sit for 10 minutes or so.
Shape the loaves: Flour your hands and the balls of dough one more time. Cupping the back of the first ball with both hands, pull it gently towards you. Rotate it 90 degrees while pushing it gently away from you. Repeat this until you have a nice tight ball with lots of surface tension. Just a tiny bit of stick on the bottom of the loaves will help you get a tighter ball. Again, do this gently to preserve the air and volume in the dough. Repeat on the other piece. Flour your baskets and gently place each ball of dough with the bottom seam facing up, smooth top face-down in the basket.
Proof: Let the baskets sit for 3-4 hours. Gently poke the dough with a finger – it should slowly rise back up. If it bounces back instantly, it may need a little longer. If the indentation doesn’t bounce back, you’ve probably over-proofed it. Just bake it and don’t worry about it – it will still taste great. If you need to, pop the baskets in the fridge loosely covered with plastic bags and you can get about 8 hours safely.
Afternoon Day 2: Pre-heat and bake
An hour before you plan to bake the loaves, pre-heat the oven to 475 F and place both dutch ovens with their lids inside.
Cut two pieces of parchment paper that will hold your loaves.
Gently flip each basket onto the parchment paper. Sprinkle some flour on the tops of each loaf and smooth it down. Using a lame, slash your loaves into whatever pattern you like. I like a long curving slash down the middle to create a crispy “ear” and then a few whiskers on either side. Some people get really fancy, I am not one of those people. If you are, I really admire your patience.
Take the screaming hot pots out of the oven and remove the lids. If you have a lot of excess parchment paper, trim the sides but allow enough so you can lift each loaf into the pots without burning yourself.
Cover the pots and load them into the oven, both at the same time. If they don’t fit just follow the next steps for each loaf. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid, careful to avoid the steam. Place the pots back in the oven and bake for 25 – 28 more minutes. The top of the loaves should be a deep burnished brown. Remove pots from the oven, then remove the loaves from each pot and let cool on a wire rack. I use a big flexible metal spatula to help me get the loaves out of the hot pots.
Let the loaves cool for at least a half hour. They should make some satisfying crackling sounds as the steam from inside the loaf tries to escape the crust.
Loaves will keep for 3-4 days on the counter. Store with the cut side down or draped with a damp towel for maximum freshness. I usually eat some, then slice and freeze the rest in a big ziplock bag.