It’s 2020, you bake now. Your grandma and I welcome you into the world of gluten with open arms.
My name is Lizzy Lawrence and I’m here to guide you through your new life of loaves. Let me disclaim, I’m only a graphic designer who loves baking and am still in the midst of my own bread journey. I’m no expert, no food scientist, no professional baker, so if I can bake bread, you can bake bread. Besides the great sense of accomplishment, baking sourdough bread makes you feel like a mad scientist, a pet owner, and — I’m sorry, but have you tried freshly baked bread? It’s pretty damn good.
Why + What
Sourdough starter is all you need to make bread rise. It’s the only thing people used to use before commercial yeast was popularized. Starter is a fermented mixture of flour and water that has trapped microbes and natural yeast from the surrounding environment, imparting a tangy depth to bread’s flavor. Each starter is a special snowflake that contains different cultures; thus, each behaves differently and creates unique flavors. Learn more about starter science from this podcast.
A note on precision: Perhaps this is just my pixel-pushing, graphic design ethos speaking, but the more detail-oriented you are with this, the better. Consistency is key when you’re dealing with the unpredictable wills of living culture. The more factors you can control in your baking, the more predictable your end result will be.
- Kitchen scale. Baking with weight is way more accurate than baking with volume in measuring cups.
- Dutch oven. This traps moisture from the dough, so your bread steams itself and is able to fully rise.
- A large bowl. Or a lidded food storage container, to make your dough in.
- Bowls lined with clean dish towels. Must be ones you don’t mind getting flour all over. Flat woven towels without loopy texture work best. Or bread proofing baskets.
- Something very sharp. I use a razor blade, but you could also use a bread lame, an X-Acto knife, your sharpest kitchen knife, or Timothée Chalamet’s jawline.
Bonus Round Essentials
- Shower caps. Hear me out: Cover lidless bowls and trap in moisture without wasting plastic.
- Bread knife. Though I have nothing against tearing into a loaf with your hands.
- Big paper bags. To store loaves or give them to friends.
- Bench knife or plastic dough scraper. These make handling and working with dough a lot easier.
- Sifter. To evenly flour surfaces.
- Parchment paper. For extra nonstick powers during baking.
Levain (the portion of your fed starter that you’ll use in the dough)
- 20g unfed starter (make your own with flour and water in a week’s time, or buy from a local bakery)
- 150g flour
- 150g water
- 800g bread flour*
- 200g whole wheat flour
- 20g salt
- 800g water
- 200g levain
*Can’t find flour at the grocery store? Consider supporting a small mill across the country. Bread flour is a loose umbrella term used to avoid over-complication, but can actually refer to any type of hard wheat that’s been milled to remove the grain’s bran and germ, typically called “00” milling.
Pro Tip: The Baker’s Percentage
Forget real math for a second. In bread recipes, a “baker’s percentage” is calculated by dividing the amount of one ingredient by the total amount of flour. The flour content of any recipe is always considered to be 100%. So in this recipe, water’s at 80%, salt is 2%.
The Good Stuff
You’ll need to create your levain 12 hours before you intend to start making the dough by feeding your starter. In a large clean jar, mix 20g starter, 150g flour, and 150g water until the concoction is smooth. On the outside of the jar, mark the top of the dough with a rubber band or piece of tape so you can tell when it’s doubled in size. Leave it on your counter overnight with a lid loosely secured.
Pro Tip: Whatever starter you don’t use to make your levain is now your “discard.” Instead of throwing it away, store it in the fridge to later make sourdough pancakes, crackers, or other discard recipes.
12 hours later, your starter should be doubled in size and at peak activity level. Weigh 750g of water at room temperature into your large container. Add 200g of the fed starter — this is the levain and should float. Mix with your fingers until it is evenly dispersed. Add 800g of bread flour and 200g of whole wheat flour. Mix with your hands until there’s no more dry bits. Lid the container tightly to trap moisture (or you can use your shower cap here). Let it rest for 45 minutes while the flour hydrates. Package and refrigerate the 100g of starter you have left over — this is your starter for next time.
Add 20g of salt and remaining 50g of warm (not hot) water, pinching into your dough like you have lobster claws until the salt fully dissolves. The dough might break apart — this is totally okay. Cover again and rest for 30 minutes. You have now started the bulk fermentation. If you want to include any additions like olives, toasted black sesame seeds, butterfly blue pea powder (for blue loaves!), fresh rosemary, etc., add simultaneously with salt.
Every 30 minutes for the next 3 hours, you’ll perform a series of folds on your dough — we’ll call this one “fold session.” The goal is to gently organize your gluten and build tension around the outside of the dough. To perform a fold session, wet your hand and arm, tilt the bowl sideways, and gently scoop underneath the dough to fold onto itself. You’ll do two or three folds each session, for a total of 5 fold sessions.
With wet hands, scoop underneath your dough in the container and pour out onto a floured work surface. Divide into two equal pieces with a bench knife or spatula. To shape the dough: Imagine there are four corners of your amorphous bread blob, like a compass. Making quick and confident movements, grab the right and left corners. Fold the right onto left, then left onto right, then top to bottom, then bottom to top. Flip the whole thing over on its new seam. Use cupped hands or a bench knife to drag the dough along the counter. It should slightly stick to the counter to build tension. Imagine a shell around the ball of dough getting tighter and making the ball rounder — this is the hardest part to master and just takes building muscle memory. If you mess up, just wait 10 minutes and repeat this step. Repeat with the second ball of dough.
Leave each to rest on the counter for 10 minutes, covered with a bowl or kitchen towel. In the meantime, line two bowls with towels. These are your bread proofing baskets. Flour heavily.
Flour the tops of each dough ball and then flip them over to expose the unfloured seam. Repeat the package-making part of step 5, then place each dough ball seam-side up in a bowl. You want the smooth side on the bottom. Cover each bowl with your trusty shower cap and refrigerate to proof overnight. You could also cover each bowl with a plastic grocery bag and tie shut with a rubber band.
The next day, preheat your oven to 500ºF with your dutch oven inside. Remove one dough basket from the refrigerator and lightly flour its seam side. Invert the dough onto a parchment paper lined (or floured) plate. Using your sharp tool, deeply score down the middle of your dough at a 45º angle. This creates room for the bread to rise while baking. Remove your preheated dutch oven from the oven. (If the lid of your dutch oven is flat, use this as the base for additional safety precaution.) Carefully slide the dough off the plate and into your preheated dutch oven. Cover with the other half of your dutch oven and place back in the oven. Turn the temperature down to 450º and bake for 20 minutes.
Remove the dutch oven’s lid and bake for another 25 minutes uncovered. Next, remove from the oven and let cool for an hour, so the middle of the loaf can fully set, before cutting. Listen closely to your loaf while it cools to hear some crackling ASMR (it’s literally my favorite part of the entire process). To bake the other loaf, set the temperature back to 500º and repeat step 8.
Your loaf should store well in a paper bag for a few days. Do not refrigerate! After a few days, slice up whatever you have left and store tightly sealed in a gallon ziplock in the freezer for future toast.
9 p.m.: Step 1 Feed starter
9 a.m.: Step 2 Mix dough
9:45 a.m.: Step 3 Add salt and any extras
10:15 a.m.: First fold
10:45 a.m.: Second fold
11:15 a.m.: Third fold
11:45 a.m.: Fourth fold
12:15 p.m.: Fifth fold
12:45 p.m.: Step 5
1:00pm: Step 6 & 7
Next day any time: Steps 8, 9, & 10
If you got this far, tag @TheRecreationalist in your bread Instagrams to make me feel heard in this crazy world.
This recipe is my own adaptation of Chad Robertson’s Basic Country Loaf from Tartine Bread.