I am fairly sure that part of the reason so few people bake sourdough is because the recipes look terrifying. It’s definitely more of an art than a science, which means books like the cult sourdough primer Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson of Tartine in San Francisco, have basic recipes that span up to 20 pages. Pretty much every stage has to be judged on the look of the dough, rather than by timer, and even the guidelines they give you feel pretty vague until you have baked it a few times. It also takes about 24 hours from start to finish, which also must put a few people off.
What I’m guessing most people don’t realize is that it’s actually quite fun. My sourdoughs always feel a bit like science experiments and, although it might take 24 hours from first mix to baked bread, very little of that is spent paying the sourdough any attention. (The other reason it feels like a science experiment is that Etna, my starter, has a tendency to erupt onto my kitchen side for no apparent reason). You do have to think ahead when you start, as some stages involve messing about with the dough once every hour (on one of my first bakes I started quite late in the evening and ended up putting the sourdough on my bedside table and setting hourly alarms through till 3AM), but once you’ve figured out what is a sensible time to start, it’s not difficult to produce a loaf you can feel reasonably proud of. That’s not to say that it’s easy to bake perfect beautiful looking sourdough, but if you follow the instructions as much as possible, you’ll get something delicious at the end.
It does seem like everybody has a different method or recipe, and these either make no difference at all, or all the difference in the world – I’ve not worked that out yet. It doesn’t help that the only sourdough I have tasted so far is my own, which I reckon is pretty good! In terms of recipes, all of the ones I have tried so far seem to work pretty well: credit to Malin Elmlid of The Bread Exchange (I have her book), Duncan Glenning’s and Patrick Ryan’s book Bread Revolution (I also used their recipe to create my starter) and to Chad Robertson.
I am favoring Chad Robertson’s recipe at the moment, partly because his is the most in depth one I’ve tried so far (the recipe covers 23 pages on my kindle, not including instructions on how to nurture a starter) and partly because he’s a big advocate of taking the base recipe and adapting it to fit your needs, which I really love the idea of.
This is his recipe, as printed on the New York Times website, and I have added a few notes and observations from my experience baking it. I haven’t included the starter recipe because you throw away all but a tablespoon of the starter at the beginning of the bread recipe, so as long as it’s an active starter I don’t think it matters what recipe you use. I have also halved the quantities for the dough so that it makes a single loaf, as I usually only bake one at once.
Tartine’s Country Bread
FOR THE STARTER AND LEAVEN
- 100 grams white-bread flour
- 100 grams whole-wheat flour
FOR THE BREAD
- 100 grams leaven
- 450 grams white-bread flour
- 50 grams whole-wheat flour, plus more for dusting
- 10 grams fine sea salt
- 50 grams rice flour
- Make the leaven: discard all but 1 tbsp of the starter. Mix the remaining starter with 200g warm water and 100g white flour and 100g wholemeal flour. (I feed my starter and my leaven with Wessex Mill’s Half and Half bread flour). You then cover this and let it rest at room temperature for around 12 hours. You know that it’s ready to bake with when you can drop a tablespoon of leaven into a bowl of water and it floats. If not, just leave it a little longer.
- Make the dough: in a large bowl combine 100g leaven with 350g of warm water. (The remaining leaven is your new starter – don’t discard it!) Add 450g of white bread flour and 50g wholemeal flour to the bowl and mix with your hands until it’s all combined. Cover and let the dough rest for between 25 and 40 minutes at room temperature.
- Add 10g salt (I use Cornish Sea Salt, even though it’s quite coarse) and 25g warm water. Mix with your hands until all incorporated and you have a sticky dough. (This might take a little while)
- Cover dough and put it some where warm, ideally about 25 degrees, (I usually put it above a radiator or flick my oven on for a couple of minutes then put it in there). Let rise for 30 minutes. You then need to fold the dough (you do this instead of kneading, and get pretty much the same result). The best method is to dip your hand in water to stop the dough sticking and then grab the bottom of the dough and stretch it up over the rest of the dough. You then spin the bowl a quarter turn and repeat until you’ve done it 4 times. Cover and return to your warm spot.
- Do this every half-hour for 2 ½ hours more – you should have folded it 6 times. The dough will feel airy and will grow around a third. If it hasn’t, continue resting and folding for another hour.
- Tip the dough onto your work surface and dust the top with flour. Then flip it over so the floured side is on the bottom. Work the dough into a taut round (this youtube video is a great tutorial). Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.
- Mix 50g wholemeal flour and 50g rice flour. Line as 10-12 inch bowl or proving basket with a towel (a bowl works just as well, but if you use one that’s too big or small you’ll end up with a funny looking loaf). Use some of the flour mix to flour towels really well. (Keep the rest).
- Dust rounds with wholemeal flour. Flip them over so that the floured side is on the bottom. Take one round, and starting at the side closest to you, pull the bottom 2 corners of the dough down toward you, then fold them up into the middle third of the dough. Repeat this action on the right and left sides, pulling the edges out and folding them in over the center. Finally, lift the top corners up and fold down over previous folds. (Imagine folding a piece of paper in on itself from all 4 sides.) Roll dough over so the folded side becomes the bottom of the loaf. Shape into a smooth, taut ball.
- Put your round, seam size up in the basket or bowl. Cover with a towel and return dough to the warm spot degree environment for 3 to 4 hours. (Or let dough rise for 10 to 12 hours in the refrigerator. Bring back to room temperature before baking.)
- About 30 minutes before baking, place a lidded casserole dish (ideally cast iron and about the right size for the bread) in the oven and heat it to 260 degrees. Dust tops of dough, still in the basket, with whole-wheat/rice-flour mixture. Very carefully remove dish from oven and gently turn your loaf into the dish so that the seam is on the bottom. Use a knife (or scissors) to score the top of the bread a few times to allow for expansion, cover and transfer to oven. Reduce temperature to 230 degrees and cook for 20 minutes. Carefully remove lid (steam may release) and cook for 20 more minutes or until crust is a rich, golden brown color.
And there you have it! I’ve included enough to bake a successful loaf but I would definitely encourage you to go out and buy Tartine Bread, as it goes into far more detail and has some other great recipes in.