I am back to share with you my latest favorite sourdough bread recipe, along with techniques that work for me. I was going for an open, airy bread, with some of those great big holes, but not too many! I also wanted a mild but distinct sourdough tang. And a crispy crust that is not a tooth breaker. And I wanted to be able to make intricate designs… And I think I found it!! (Update 3/16/21: I have a new favorite sourdough bread recipe that I think you will like. Check it out!)
After trying a few different recipes, and then focusing on the one that worked best for me, and trying a few different techniques, I am tempted to say that I am satisfied and will stop experimenting…
So before I go and forget this yummy bread recipe, along with technique tweaks, I am going to document it right here and now, because all of that experimenting gets very confusing!
My most successful sourdough loaf is King Arthur Baking Company’s Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread recipe. It is fantastic! It came out beautifully the first time I made it, and that was with no tweaks at all. But then, I wanted a bit more rise, and a few more holes, and a bit more tang… so I had to tweak it a bit, mostly technique, and a tad more salt. And be aware, the original recipe makes two smallish loaves of bread, but I didn’t want to make two loaves. I just wanted to make one large loaf (a two pounder), so I make 2/3 of the recipe for one large loaf. It works well with my dutch oven, which is a Le Creuset #26 (26 indicates the inside diameter of the pot in centimeters), which has a 5.5 quart capacity.
You can see the number on the bottom of the pot.
I also have a #22, which has a 3.5 quart capacity, and that one works well for small loaves. Since I am relatively new to sourdough, I feel a bit overwhelmed at the idea of making two loaves at a time. So I make one big loaf. And here is what works for me, from beginning to end.
Start two evenings before you want to bake your bread. For example, I want to bake bread on Saturday morning, so I start the process on Thursday evening. Don’t worry! What you have to do that first evening is minimal. And what you get to do on the morning that you bake is so fun and satisfying, and also not a lot of work. The middle day is when the bulk of the work happens.
Day 1: In the evening, take your unfed starter out of the fridge. If you have read my Sourdough: Part One! post, maybe you will have a jar in your fridge that has about a tablespoon of starter in it. Or maybe you just got some starter from a friend. In any case, all you need is about 10 grams of starter. This is what I start with. Really.
All the starter I need is in the jar… maybe 6 grams?
In a 16 ounce glass jar, mix about 1 tablespoon of unfed starter, or anywhere from 6 to 10 grams, with 70 grams filtered room temperature water and 70 grams all-purpose flour. Please use a scale and weigh everything. Stir the flour, water, and starter together and mix well, using a rubber spatula so you can get everything well combined. It might look something like this.
Put a rubber band around the jar at the level of the starter so you can keep track of how much it rises. Put a lid on the jar, but don’t close it tightly. You just want to stop anything from falling into the jar. Leave it on your counter overnight.
Now you are done with Day 1! Yay!
Day 2: Hopefully you will wake up and notice that your starter has grown quite a bit. Mine usually takes about 12 to 14 hours, so if I mixed it up at around 8pm on Day 1, on Day 2 at 8am my starter will have doubled, and will look something like this.
Because I want my starter to be very active, I let it go for another couple of hours, until it has almost tripled in size, and is doming on top. It will look like this.
Anywhere from double to triple in size with lots of bubbles and doming top is great. To avoid waiting too long, aim for somewhere between double and triple in size. You are now ready to mix up your second starter. You will need a larger container for this.
Pour 105 grams of your starter into a large container or glass bowl. Add 105 grams room temperature filtered water and 105 grams of all-purpose flour. Mix well with a rubber spatula so you can scrape the sides and incorporate everything.
Cover this new starter with a loosely fitting lid (you should have about 315 grams total) and leave on your counter for about 6 hours. Again, you want the starter to have doubled to tripled in size, with lots of bubbles and a doming top. If you have let it go too long, the top will collapse, and you won’t have as much rising power for your bread. Don’t forget to put a tightly fitting lid on your original glass jar, which will have some scrapings in it. Pop it in the fridge for the next time you want to make bread. That jar of scrapings is your forever starter [insert heart emoji here].
When your new starter has doubled to tripled in size, you are ready to mix your final dough together. In a large glass bowl, pour in 300 grams starter.
Add 264 grams room temperature filtered water. Right now it might look something like this.
By the way, I zero out the scale before each addition so I don’t have to do the math in my head, if that makes sense. Now add 400 grams all-purpose flour.
And now add 56 grams whole wheat flour.
Stir everything together until everything is well incorporated and you see no more dry flour. Scrape the sides of the bowl to get every bit. The dough will look shaggy, like this.
Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes. This rest is important, and is known as the autolyse. The flour continues to absorb the water, and the dough becomes easier to work with. DON’T skip this step.
After the resting period, remove and set aside the plastic wrap, and sprinkle 2 teaspoons kosher salt (12 grams) over the dough. The picture shows 10 grams, but really it is 12 grams.
With a rubber spatula or bowl scraper, fold the dough over onto itself to start to incorporate the salt. By the way, a bowl scraper is made out of some sort of flexible plastic material that bends to work nicely in a bowl, and should not be confused with a bench scraper, which is made of metal and is not flexible at all!!!
Scrape the dough out onto an UNFLOURED surface. This is where it gets interesting. Your dough will be wet and sticky. Don’t freak out.
Now it is time to knead the dough. This is the most labor intensive part of the recipe. The first time I made this recipe, I kneaded the dough as I always do, on a lightly floured counter. The bread came out great, but I wanted a more open crumb (picture those nice big holes), which requires a more hydrated dough. So I use this slap and fold technique for kneading that requires no flour at all. Watch Alex do it here at 3:20 into the video. He explains it quite nicely. And here is a super short video of me doing it, so you know it’s possible, because if I can do it, so can you.
You want to knead your dough for about ten minutes, until the dough is nice and smooth and still tacky. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover it with the plastic wrap that you saved, and let it rest on your counter for one hour. The dough might look something like this.
After an hour, you are ready to give the dough a few folds. You will want to very lightly flour your work surface for the folding. Your dough might look something like this – it will have flattened out.
And now the folds. Scrape your dough out onto a very lightly floured surface. You will fold each end of the dough over like an envelope. You might need to use your bowl scraper to manipulate your dough.
Eight folds… you’ll want to fold all four sides like an envelope, stretching the dough gently before folding it, and once you’ve done four folds, rotate the dough 90 degrees, gently flatten the dough a bit, and repeat. You are giving your dough structure now.
First of all, let me apologize if there are too many photos. I just know that when I am learning how to do something, I want to see it so that I know I am doing it right. And there are not pictures of every single fold, because my photographer got tired :). So you have folded all four sides, rotated the dough 90 degrees, and folded all four sides again. Now do one last fold and bring that fold over so that the seams are facing down. Pick up your package of dough and put it back in the bowl seam side down and cover it again with your saved plastic wrap. Let it sit for another hour. Don’t worry if this is starting to make your head spin. It is starting to make my head spin just writing it all out. I will put a timeline near the end of the post. After your dough has rested for that hour, you will want to do another set of folds, but just a few this time. When you gently scrape the dough out of the bowl, you want it to land smooth side down, seam side up.
Now about three or four folds.
Roll the whole thing over so that the seam side is face down, and gently shape into a round by cupping your hands around the dough. Rotate it around while cupping the dough slightly under itself to create a nice round shape.
Lightly dust with flour and cover the ball of dough with plastic wrap and let it sit on the work surface for twenty minutes.
During those twenty minutes, get out a clean kitchen cloth (not terry cloth!). Tea towels work nicely. Put flour on the towel.
Now rub the flour into the towel so that you have a solid layer of flour.
Fold the towel and put into a large colander.
When the twenty minutes are up, open up the towel to prepare for the next step.
Go back to your dough after the twenty minutes is up. Now, don’t get mad at me, but you have to do a few more folds. By this time, your dough will have gained enough strength and structure that it will be difficult to do actual folds, so it’s just more like bringing the edges toward the center. I don’t have pictures of this part, as my photographer was on strike. She’s ten. But here’s what you do. Lightly flour the top of your dough and flip your dough gently over so that the smooth side is facing down. Bring all the edges gently in toward the center. Do one last fold to roll everything over again (bringing the seams side down), and cupping with your hands, rotate the dough gently around! You can bring the dough toward you and then rotate it. Do this many times, to create a little tension in the dough. But don’t be rough or vigorous with the dough, because you don’t want it to tear. Here Alex is doing it at 5 minutes into the video, but he uses a bench scraper. I use my hands. You might end up with something that looks like this.
Now, lightly flour the top of your dough one more time, and place it smooth side down and seam side up into your prepared tea towel/colander. This is important! The smooth pretty side goes face down into the floured tea towel/colander. What you are now looking at is the seams. The not-pretty side, and eventually, the bottom of your loaf of bread.
Dust the seam side of the dough with more flour, then cover with the towel. Then cover the top with the plastic wrap. Should look like this.
Now let the dough rest on your counter for 20 to 30 minutes. When that time is up, place the whole thing in the fridge for an overnight rise. The dough can stay in your fridge for longer than overnight, but so far, I have just done a twelve hour rise in the fridge. You have completed Day 2. Congratulations!
Day 3: When you are thinking you want to bake your bread, back track about an hour. So if you want to bake your bread at 9am, preheat your oven to 450° F at 8am. When you preheat your oven, put your dutch oven inside your oven so it can preheat with your oven. For this loaf of bread – it’s a biggie, 2 pounder – you will need a large dutch oven. Mine has a 5 1/2 quart capacity. Okay, so put your dutch oven with the lid on it into your oven and preheat to 450°.
You can preheat your oven anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. An hour is better, but not essential. A half hour is essential. Make sure your oven has come to temperature. Fifteen minutes before you want to bake your bread, take it out of the fridge. Remove the plastic wrap, open up the towel, and now set a square piece of parchment paper over the top of the dough and dutch oven.
Then place a large plate upside down on top of the parchment.
Now, with one hand on top of the plate, and one hand on the bottom of the colander, flip the whole thing over so that now the plate is on the bottom. Remove the colander.
Carefully remove the towel and set aside, and brush any excess flour off of the parchment paper. It’s okay if there is flour on the dough. (Clean up tips for the towel are here, but that’s for later.)
If you want to do fancy scoring (fancy cutting into the dough), you will need to take a small amount of flour and very gently smooth it over the surface of the dough so your design will show up.
A note about scoring: one of the advantages of a long overnight rise in the fridge, aside from getting better flavor, is that the cold dough is easier to cut into! But if you don’t want to be fancy, you can just get a sharp knife or serrated knife and cut quickly and without fear across the loaf, about a half inch deep, and then again across the other direction, so you have a cross. These cuts are very important to allow the bread to rise and expand during baking. Otherwise your loaf will perhaps explode in places where you don’t want it to, and it will rise unevenly.
But I am going to assume you want to do something really fun, so you will need a sharp razor blade. Nothing fancy, just a sharp razor blade. The french call it a lame (pronounced lahm, rhymes with bomb), which just means blade. A lame is also what bakers refer to as a tool to score your bread. I have one, and basically, it is a sharp razor blade on the end of a stick. Below is a picture of something you can do to give yourself guidelines to work with. I take a cotton string and make marks in the floured dough. I forgot to flour it below, but it will be floured on the next one.
Now for the scoring. Since I want an intricate design, I will carefully and decisively make cuts that are barely 1/4 inch deep. There will be lots of these little cuts, so plenty of ability for the dough to rise. Here’s an example of one of my favorite patterns. I didn’t make it up. I found it online.
Now that you have scored your loaf, get some sturdy pot holders and take your dutch oven out of the oven. Take the lid off. This part you must do swiftly as to not lose too much heat. Now, believe it or not, take two ice cubes and put them in the bottom of the piping hot dutch oven. Now grab the parchment paper on both sides of the loaf and lift your masterpiece. Place it down into the dutch oven, parchment paper and all.
Grab your pot holders, place the lid back on the sizzling steaming dutch oven and put it back into your piping hot 450° degree oven. Set your timer for 25 minutes. Now go walk in your garden or have a cup of tea or wipe flour off of your counter, but don’t stray too far from your kitchen. I keep my timer on my person at all times. You have worked way too hard on this to mess up on the timing. When the timer goes off, grab your pot holders or oven mitts, open your oven and take the lid off of the dutch oven and set it aside, preferably somewhere heat proof, like your stove top. Stare at your beautiful creation for one or two seconds tops (it will look pale, but beautiful, and hopefully will have risen some), then close the oven door and let the bread bake without a lid for 15 minutes more. The top of the bread should be a deep golden brown when the bread is ready. When 15 minutes are up, take the dutch oven out and use a spatula or kitchen-gloved hands to remove the bread. It is hot!!! I use a flexible plastic spatula, the kind you use for flipping pancakes, and an oven mitt. If the bread looks pale on the bottom or sides, you can put it back in the oven directly on the rack (no dutch oven) for one or two more minutes to brown the crust a little more. Again, be careful and don’t let it burn!!! Two minutes is enough to brown the bottom of the crust. Bread is done when it is a deep golden brown and it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Place the loaf on a cooling rack and let cool completely before cutting into. This can take a couple of hours.
You might want to sit and stare at your bread for a while. I don’t blame you. Bread is beautiful. You might even hear your bread make a sweet, soft, crackling sound in those first several minutes that it is out of the oven. It is whispering sweet nothings to you.
Snap out of it!!! Here is a sample timeline:
- 6:00pm – Mix starter (total about 145 grams) set on counter overnight
- 8:00am – Mix second starter (total about 315 grams) and set on counter
- 2:00pm – Mix 300 grams starter with flours and water, cover with wrap for autolyse
- 2:40pm – Add salt and knead dough for ten minutes, put back in bowl and cover
- 4:00pm – First set of eight folds, dough back in bowl and cover
- 5:15pm – More folds and shaping, let rest on work surface covered at room temp
- 6:00pm – Final shaping, place in prepared colander and let rise overnight in fridge
- 8:00am – Preheat oven and dutch oven to 450°
- 8:45am – Remove dough from fridge and score dough
- 9:00am – Place dough in dutch oven and bake
- 9:25am – Remove lid from dutch oven and continue to bake bread
- 9:40am – Remove bread from oven and let cool
- Noonish – Bread is ready!
Of course, this is just a sample timeline. You can play around with the timing if you prefer to do the bulk of the work on Day 2 later in the day. Just means you would need to get your starter going later in the evening on Day 1, and that your bread won’t be ready on Day 3 until a bit later. Just make sure that your overnight rise in the fridge at the end of Day 2 is at least 12 hours. I wanted to show you a sample timeline so you would see where the bulk of the work is, and that it’s really not too overwhelming, once you get the rhythm of it. Obviously, you’ll want to have a large chunk of time on Day 2 for all that kneading and folding business. On Day 1 there is hardly any hands-on time at all, and on Day 3 just a bit more of hands-on time.
Flour is important! For this recipe, since it is a King Arthur Baking Company recipe, I use their flour. Their unbleached all-purpose flour has 11.7% protein, so it is ideal for breads. I also use their whole wheat flour. I have not tried this recipe with a different all-purpose flour, but when I do, I will update my post to to let you know how it goes.
Use a scale. For consistently good results with bread making, it is important to weigh your ingredients. I never used to do this, and my results were not consistent. Not only that, I would avoid recipes that had measurements in grams instead of cups. So I missed out on a lot of great recipes. You can find good digital kitchen scales at kitchen stores or online, or if you are lucky, you can find one through your Buy Nothing group like I did.
Size of loaf: If you have a dutch oven, but it is a bit smaller, you might want to make a slightly smaller recipe. If you go to the original recipe, just halve it and you will get a smaller loaf. Keep in mind that I did increase the amount of salt in the recipe, so if you are calculating, I put in 2 grams of salt per 100 grams of flour. So for a full recipe I would use 18 grams of salt (about 3 teaspoons), so 9 grams ( 1 1/2 teaspoons) for a half recipe. Remember, I did a 2/3 recipe, (thus the 2 teaspoons salt). I wanted a big loaf to make all of my work worthwhile!
Don’t have a dutch oven? If you don’t have a dutch oven, no problem. The original recipe doesn’t call for one. You can bake your bread on a baking stone or on a baking sheet. I followed the recipe exactly the first time I made it, and used my baking stone. The bread came out great, but for me, it comes out even better when I use my dutch oven. The closed dutch oven is great for retaining steam, which makes for a better rise and lighter, crisper crust. And the ice cube trick (thanks to my friend Sarah) creates even more steam. Please refer to the original recipe for tips on how to bake this bread on a baking sheet or baking stone.
Don’t like the three day process? Guess what? The original recipe has you making bread from beginning to end all in one day. That is assuming you have a large amount of starter ready to go. Instead of doing an overnight rise, you just let your prepared loaf rise for 2 1/2 hours on the counter (no fridge), then bake! For me, I like what the overnight rise does for the flavor of the bread (more sourdough tang, while still subtle), and I like the flexibility I have on Day 3 to bake the bread when I want to, earlier in the day. And I really love playing around with scoring, which is much easier on cold dough!
Finally: This is an individual process. What works for me might not work for you. I played around with a lot of recipes, and then repeated the recipes using different techniques until I found what worked well for me. I read countless blogs and watched a ridiculous number of YouTube videos and read a gazillion recipe reviews, and asked my sourdough baking friends endless questions about what worked for them. What I ended up with was definitely my own thing. What works with my hands, my flour, my spirit, in my kitchen. So I encourage you to have fun with the process, and don’t give up! My first couple of loaves were dense and not at all what I wanted. And I had several other flops. We ate them all, of course, because anything toasted and buttered suddenly becomes irresistible. And the house regularly smells like wild yeast and freshly baked bread. And that is a good thing.