Homemade bread has become one of COVID19’s great clichés. Instagram has turned into a scrolling gallery of sliced-open loaves and sourdough starters. And, though I previously had resisted the call to make bread from scratch, imagining it to be incompatibile with my hectic schedule, I too have fallen headfirst into the mystical world of sourdough.
Before I proceed with the recipe, a few disclaimers: sourdough bread has been the biggest challenge I have ever faced in the kitchen, and even though I’ve been baking loaves almost every day for over a month, I still feel like an absolute beginner. There are so many factors contribute to the success or total failure of a loaf: the strength and peak of your starter, the temperature of your kitchen, the quality of your flour, the minerals in your water, etc, etc. All of these factors can greatly lengthen or shorten rising times, which makes writing and accurate recipe close to impossible. But (and this is a big BUT) there is absolutely nothing that can bring your more satisfaction than a successful loaf of homemade bread.
I began the hard way, without a Dutch oven. I used a baking stone for the first 3 weeks of my bread journey, and then the clouds parted and Le Creuset sent me a beautiful, sky-blue enameled cast iron Dutch oven that completely changed the game. Besides being a beautiful compliment to the kitchen, and an extremely versatile cooking tool, dutch ovens are ideal for making bread. They distribute heat all around and the bread, allowing it to bake evenly. While it’s baking the bread also produces steam which is trapped inside the pot, giving the bread extra lift. (If you’re interested in buying one, scroll to the bottom of the recipe for a discount code.)
I urge patience and curiosity when approaching this recipe; it is long and there are many steps to follow over 2 days of time. Read it carefully all the way through before your first attempt. Fortunately, I had my very own bread guru, Laura Lazzaroni, a close friend and seasoned baker, to talk me through every step, including making my own sourdough starter from scratch. Below you’ll find her recipe, slightly modified be me, based on my experiments and experiences in the kitchen this last month.
Sourdough country bread
- 700 g (25 oz) organic Type 1 flour
- 300 g (10.5 oz) whole wheat flour
- 3 1/4 cups room-temperature water
- 3/4 cups (7 oz/200 g) sourdough starter, at peak
- 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
- Semolina or rice flour, for dusting
For 2, 2 lb loaves
Autolyse with starter:
Prepare a big glass bowl or food safe plastic container. Pour in the flours and mix well with a whisk. Add the sourdough starter and begin pouring in about 2 1/2 cups of your water. Roughly mix flour and water until all water is absorbed: stop once you’ve obtained a semi-cohesive mass, with lumps in it. Scrape the sides of the bowl clean, cover with plastic wrap or with a lid and let it rest for 30-40’. This stage kick-starts fermentation.
Mixing and bulk rise:
Uncover your bowl. Prepare a small bowl with some water in it for wetting your fingers between folds. Add the salt and some of the remaining water and mix vigorously for a couple minutes, using the “folds” method. Wet your fingers, slide your mixing hand under the dough, pull up a flap of dough and fold it over at the center. As you do this, rotate the bowl: you should fold 4 times per round, and keep folding until the dough starts developing tension (see this video about the folds technique). As you fold, keep adding the remaining 3/4 cups water slowly and little by little. Make sure you keep wetting your fingers as you fold.
Once the dough starts developing some tension, stop and cover the bowl. Keep giving it a few folds every 45’ for 3 hours (I use the coil folds method, as demonstrated in this video). Always cover the bowl with plastic wrap in between folds and make sure not to stress the dough too much: if it starts ripping, stop. As the gluten matrix builds, the dough should become smoother and more elastic. Stop folding after 3 hours, cover the bowl again and let rise for another 1-2 hours. The dough is ready when its internal temperature reaches 84°F, it should double in size and appear almost spongy, with a few bubbles on the surface. If the ambient temperature is too cold, place the bowl near a radiator or another source of heat (but not in direct contact with it).
Pre-shape, bench rest and shape:
Uncover your dough. Prepare a metal bench scraper. Dump your dough on your work surface (smooth wood, marble or steel), delicately removing it from the bowl with the help of a plastic bench scraper, in one piece. Using a metallic bench scraper, divide dough in two and pre-shape, rounding your dough up tightly (as seen in this video), then let it rest for 20’.
Prepare a cloth lined bowl or a proofing basket, dust it generously with semolina or rice flour and set aside. Dust your bench with a little flour. Using the metal scraper, pick up the dough and flip it over (the top side should now be under) on the floured area of the bench. After this point make sure not to dust the dough with flour anymore as this prevents it from sticking to itself. Proceed to shaping your dough using the technique you prefer. There are countless techniques for shaping sourdough that you can explore on YouTube, but I follow the following method: I gently pull the dough out from the bottom, then from the right and left sides, then fold the bottom up and over, and the side parts towards the center, making them overlap completely. I then pull the dough out from the top and fold this flap over. Finally, starting from the top and moving towards the bottom, and using the tip of my fingers and both hands at the same time, I pinch the dough from the sides and stitch it at the center, creating a vertical line of stitches. I pat each stitch with my fingers to help them stay closed. Finally, with the help of the bench scraper, I lift the top part of the dough and gently roll it over itself. You can see this shaping technique illustrated in this video.
Once shaped, pick up the dough with a scraper and gently tip it over in the bowl or proofing basket, so that the top part is at the bottom of the basket. Refrigerate it for 8-12 hours. Refrigerating (or “retarding”) your dough serves 2 purposes: it helps the dough tighten (making it easier for it to detach from the basket) and it promotes the development of acidity.
When you’re ready to bake your loaf, take the dough out of the fridge and prepare a Dutch oven and a scoring blade (alternatively you can use a sharp paring knife). The Dutch oven provides an easy baking vessel for the home ovens: when the lid is on the steam rising from the dough is enough to keep the loaf moist while allowing it to rise a little more (this final rising push is called “oven spring”). After you remove the lid the surface starts solidifying and the crust forms.
Preheat your oven to 475°F and place the Dutch oven in it, with the lid on, to preheat as well. Prepare two rectangles of parchment paper, about as wide as the bottom of your Dutch oven, but a bit longer.
When oven is hot, take the Dutch oven out, and place it on your work surface. Remove 1 of the bread baskets from the refrigerator and press a rectangle of parchment paper to adhere to the surface of the dough. Carefully flip the whole thing over, and remove the basket (the smooth dome-shaped side of the dough should now be on top). Score the surface with the blade then grab two sides of the parchment paper and carefully lower the loaf (with the paper) into the Dutch oven (careful not to burn yourself). Put the lid back on then place the Dutch oven back in the oven. You can alternatively flip the dough over a strip of parchment paper, then carefully lower the paper with dough into the Dutch oven. After 25’ take the Dutch oven out, remove the lid and place the pot back in the oven, lowering the temperature to 425°F. Bake for another 25’, or until the crust is golden and appears glassy. Take the bread out and let it cool on a cooling rack for 1 hour before cutting into it. Repeat baking process with other loaf.
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