The first sourdough bread I ever baked, four years ago, turned out as hard and dense as a brick. Living in the sourdough capital of the world, I felt like a real loser. I had followed a lengthy recipe, raising my own starter from flour and water, nurturing it for three whole days until it began to bubble and smell tangy. My failure probably had more to do with a weak, newborn starter than anything else, but that was cold comfort. As my starter matured, though, the bread I baked with it came out better and better.
Since then, I’ve raised a few different starters, but I’d always end up killing them out of neglect when the summer months came and it was too hot to fathom cranking the oven up to 500º. Then, last spring, I inherited the most active, robust starter I’ve ever had the pleasure of baking with. I don’t know the origins of this starter, and have suspicions that it may have been started with commercial yeast. But that doesn’t matter to me now. I can ignore my starter in the fridge for weeks, then take it out and feed it with nary a pout or obstinate refusal to rise. Instead, it bubbles up beautifully, like a wagging dog greeting you at the door after you’ve been gone all day, leash in snout, eager for a walk. “No need to make pancakes,” it tells me, “I’m ready for the big guns.” This one’s a keeper.
Over the years I’ve equipped myself with the proper bread baking materials: a baking stone, a coiled willow rising basket, and a lame for slashing the unbaked loaves, as well as the sourdough bible, Nancy Silverton’s Breads From the La Brea Bakery, which includes, aside from dozens and dozens of sourdough loaves, boules and flatbreads, recipes for sourdough pancakes, doughnuts, onion rings, and even a souffle-like sourdough chocolate cake. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in sourdough, novice and pro alike.
Though Nancy has been with me through many a glorious loaf, she also encourages one to strike out on ones own. So I decided to write my own bread recipe.
Most sourdough recipes call for a very little bit of starter, half a cup or so per large loaf, which really bugs me, since I always have such a surplus. I decided to try tripling the amount called for in Nancy’s basic white boule recipe, adjusting the quantities of the other ingredients accordingly. It was the best loaf I’ve baked yet; a bit denser than Acme’s Levain, my naturally leavened holy grail, but every bit as chewy and full flavored, with an open crumb and a nicely caramelized crust.
Any bread you don’t get to can be made into killer croutons. Around these parts, we cube extra bread and store it in the freezer, then fry it in olive oil in a cast-iron skillet, add a sprinkling of salt, and munch them on salads and soups.
Alanna’s Extra Sour Country Boule
Makes one large boule, about 2 pounds
Total time: about 9 hours, not including refreshing starter
refresh starter four hours before beginning recipe
mix, knead and autolyse dough, 1 hour
first rise, 3 – 4 hours (or overnight in fridge)
shape dough, 10 minutes
second rise, 1 1/2 – 2 hours
bake, 45 minutes
cool loaf, 1 – 2 hours
A few notes: Nancy Silverton’s book is an amazing resource for learning about sourdough. This is a nice looking site if you want to learn how to raise your own starter; I haven’t tried his exact method, and I’ve always started mine with white flour, though he calls for whole wheat. (If you live near me, I’m happy to give you some of mine!)
In order to raise bread, your starter has to be refreshed, full of bubbles and vigor. If your starter isn’t doubling within four or five hours when you feed it, it will not be strong enough to raise bread. “If baking is all about patience, sourdough baking is all about more patience.” I read that somewhere. So make sure your starter is active and full of bubbles; if it isn’t, don’t despair; bake some sourdough crackers and give the starter another feeding or two til it’s ready. I keep my starter rather thick and almost gloppy, the consistency of a very thick pancake batter. Thinner starters will make a wetter dough.
I like to weigh my starter, as it is extremely sticky to put it in a measuring cup and then try to scrape out. You also get a much more accurate amount, since the bubbles will drastically effect the volume, by a factor of two or three even. Plus, there are fewer dishes to wash if you weigh everything into one bowl, rather than dicking around with various measuring cups and spoons.
This recipe assumes you have the following accoutrements:
plastic dough scraper
wooden pizza peel (you can use a large, smooth cutting board)
dough slasher or sharp knife
large plastic bag, such as a trash bag, and something to close it with
sacrificial metal pan to put ice in to steam the oven
12 oz. liquid sourdough starter, active, bubbly and ready to go (about 1 1/2 cups stirred down, or 3+ cups at full froth)
8 oz. (1 cup) room temperature or lukewarm water
1 oz. (1/4 cup) wheat germ
5 oz. (1 cup) whole wheat bread flour
8 – 10 oz. (1 2/3 – 2 cups) white bread flour
1/4 oz. (2 1/4 teaspoons) sea salt
Stir together the ingredients in a large bowl in this order until a rough dough forms. Add more bread flour if your dough is very wet. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (a stiff, plastic scraper, which cost about a dollar, is perfect for this), invert the empty bowl over the dough, and let it rest for 20 minutes. (This is called autolyse and allows the flour to absorb some of the water and the gluten strands to begin straightening out; it makes for less kneading in the end, and will prevent you from adding too much flour right off the bat.) After 20 minutes, remove the bowl and knead the dough vigorously for about 10 minutes, adding as little flour as possible to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands and the surface, until it feels smooth, springy and elastic.
Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled ceramic bowl or a large plastic container at least twice the size of the dough. You can mark the outside of the vessel with a piece of masking tape where the dough will be when it doubles, if you like. Cover the vessel tightly with plastic wrap or the lid, and allow it to rise until doubled, three to four hours. The warmer the spot you choose, the faster it will rise, the ideal temperature being 75-85º. You can also let the dough rise in the fridge or a cool place overnight. Let the dough come to room temperature before shaping it, and be sure that it has doubled in bulk to properly develop the glutens.
Gently turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, pressing out the air bubbles. Shape into a boule by tucking the edges under itself, then gently rotating the dough on the surface to form a taught outer layer of dough. Here’s a quick video of how to shape a boule. If you have a rising basket, sift a light layer of flour onto the inside, and place the boule in it upside-down, pinching the seam shut. (If you don’t have a rising basket, place the boule directly on a peel or board dusted with cornmeal or flour.) Place the whole deal in a large plastic bag, such as a trash can liner. Inflate the bag and close it with a twist tie or clip. Let the bread rise a second time until doubled, about 1 1/2 – 2 hours. When the bread is ready to bake, it will hold an indentation of your finger when you press it lightly, rather than springing back.
While the bread is rising, about an hour before you’re ready to bake, remove all but the bottom rack of your oven. Place a baking stone on the rack (or a heavy duty baking sheet), and place a metal pan that you don’t care about sacrificing (it will get rusty) on the floor of the oven. Crank the oven up to 500º.
When the bread has doubled, gently turn it out onto a wooden peel dusted with flour or cornmeal. Holding a lame or sharp knife at a 45º angle to the loaf, draw the blade, about 1″ deep, across the top of the loaf, beginning and ending 2″ from the bottoms of the boule. (Just look at the darn picture, ok?) Fill a 1 cup measure with ice cubes. Quickly slip the boule off the peel and onto the stone, and toss the cubes into the hot pan on the floor of the oven. This will steam the outside of the loaf, allowing it to expand as it bakes. Bake 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 450º and bake another 20 minutes or so, until the bread is a deep, burnished golden-brown. An instant read thermometer inserted into the middle should read 210º, the temperature at which the dough is set.
Let cool completely on a wire rack, one to two hours, before enjoying. At this point, the bread is still “baking” from the residual heat and steam inside the loaf. The best way to store this type of bread is in a paper bag at room temperature for a couple days. After that, I put the whole thing, paper bag and all, into a plastic bag and continue to store at room temp. After a couple of days like that, it there’s any left over, we make croutons.