I’ve baked this loaf, or a variant of it, so many times I’ve lost count. This bread was born when I first got my hands dirty with flour & water. Its parent, if you could call it that, was Chad Robertson’s Tartine loaf with his liquid levain and mix of whole & white wheat that is brought to life not with intensive kneading, but rather a series of folds during bulk fermentation. It’s grown since then and has developed a personality of its own as I’ve expanded my baking repertoire and investigated the many facets of baking naturally leavened sourdough. It’s taken on, and lost, traits from many of the great bakers out there, borrowing from their inspiration and giving me direction to raise this bread into something of my own. A bread that doesn’t entirely taste like anything else I’ve had, and yet, still employs many of the same processes and ingredients. That’s one of the greatest things about bread: it can taste and look dramatically different just by changing the two hands that create it. Calling this post “my best sourdough recipe” is a lofty claim, but honestly, I do believe this is the best bread I’ve made thus far.
Yes it’s excessive in some way, but there’s an excessiveness to ambition as wellJohn Mayer
I sometimes revisit a discussion I had with a few readers of this site and their comments: “bread is just bread, it’s something to be eaten and is something life-giving, isn’t that enough?” I do agree with this, but when something becomes (in my case, unexpectedly) a passion for you, it’s important to set lofty goals and get excited when breakthroughs are made. Isn’t that really the definition of a craft and the relentless honing required? I’ve taken this bread, real bread, from its most nascent form all the way to its current stage and can trace through the years each change to its formula or process — and I’m sure I’ll be changing things well into the future as it continues to evolve — a work-in-progress. Maybe the actual recipe for this bread isn’t the most important part, but rather, the lessons and insights learned along the way as I continually hone my baking proficiency.I’m not claiming this recipe will yield the perfect loaf every single time, but I dare say it comes the closest for me — and that’s exciting. This is the bread that I want to make the most often, the one my family asks for the most often and the one I share most often. I have a special place for whole wheat bread, and taste-wise it might make me want to call that my favorite one day, but the versatility of this bread cannot be beaten. I use it for breakfast with eggs, a brisket and BBQ sandwich for lunch, a bowl of soup on a cold, windy day, and simply torn and on the plate accompanying dinner (this bread also makes incredible croutons, bread crumbs and stuffing/dressing). I bake this so often that my freezer has an entire shelf lined with pre-sliced loaves wrapped and in bags labeled pane perfetto1.
While the actual formula is simply a mix of flour, water, salt and levain, there are many nuances here to pay close attention to, here are a few key things to successfully making this bread:
- An active starter
- A long-ish autolyse
- A high hydration
- Sufficient dough strength
- Warm bulk fermentation
- A long, cold proof
Before writing this I pulled out my trusty Moleskine notebook and paged through the handwritten (and flour-ridden) pages to find any scribbled “ah-ha” moments or little notes jotted down in the margin, along with a few curse words peppered throughout, and have bundled them up into this entry (sans curse words to keep it clean). A compendium of sorts containing my insights, breakthroughs and ah-ha moments.This recipe doesn’t require an exotic blend of hard-to-find flour, a complicated multi-step levain build, or the use of a mechanical mixer. It’s built around making this bread in your home kitchen, just like I do at least once every week.
With that said, the high hydration can be challenging to work with and requires practice. The pre-shape and shape phases can draw out a curse word here and there, and maybe even the desire to raise your hands in the air and sprinkle the dough with choice words like an old Italian grandmother (I have memories of this!). Feel free to adjust the hydration to suit your environment and flour, though, because as we know each bag of flour can be different. If you’re not accustom to working with high hydration dough, please start out somewhere in the middle and slowly work up. If you try to jump in the deep end you might get frustrated and give up altogether.Was that a couple paragraphs of doom & gloom or what?! Ok hopefully I didn’t discourage anyone, let’s get started.
I’ve tried a lot of flour out there, certainly not everything there is but I’ve ordered enough now that the UPS guy thinks I might have a bakery in my backyard. I have baked some memorable bread with Hayden Mills grain & flour (including this wonderful white Sonora Sourdough bread), Central Milling and Giusto’s. Early on I’ve also had great success with some King Arthur varieties (specifically their bread flour when I need a bit of extra strength in my dough). But time and time again I turn to my two favorites: Central Milling Type 70 and Giusto’s Artisan Bread Flour. I like CM’s T70 so much, not only because it’s organic, but also because of the performance and taste. I’ve made some of the best loaves with this flour, I love its strength, enzymatic activity and it coaxes out the most beautifully colored crust. It is a very versatile flour, I’ve used it in everything from sourdough bread to waffles to banana bread and it just tastes delicious each time.
But at the same time Giusto’s Artisan Bread flour calls to me. I have consistently made incredible loaves with their flour, I only wish it was organic. Nevertheless, I find myself ordering a box of it here and there and enjoy the results every time.Of course, as I mentioned before, try whatever is local first (sadly my source for good quality, organic flour is no longer) and what you like. It might require a little tweaking of this formula (specifically hydration) but I know you’re up to the task. When trying new flour remember to hold back more water than you might otherwise, and then slowly add it in at the end of mixing or throughout bulk fermentation.
My Best Sourdough Recipe
Total dough weight: 1800g
Total pre-fermented flour: 6.4%
Yield: 2 x 900g loaves
If you want to halve this recipe just take all ingredients and divide by 2 (I’d recommend keeping the levain build quantities the same, though, it’s already quite small. I’m referring to the actual build here, we will still divide the final amount of levain added to the final mix in half).
|35g||Mature liquid starter (100% hydration)||50%|
|35g||Giusto’s Stoneground Whole Wheat||50%|
|35g||Giusto’s Artisan Bread Flour||50%|
|70g||H2O @ room temperature||100%|
Note that the baker’s percentages listed below are with respect to the final dough ingredients and do not take into account the levain.
Target final dough temperature (FDT) is 78ºF. This dough loves a nice warm ambient environment. Try to keep the dough at the listed temperatures if possible, use your oven with a light on inside, your microwave with a bowl of steaming water, or a proofer. I keep my ambient thermometer near my dough and also use my instant read thermometer to check the dough temperature periodically throughout bulk.
|804g||Giusto’s Artisan Bread Flour||91.67%|
|73g||Giusto’s Organic Stoneground Whole Wheat||8.33%|
|755g||H2O @ 90ºF||86.11%|
|18g||Fine sea salt||2.03%|
|150g||Mature, liquid levain||17.09%|
My method below employs a few subtle changes from previous recipes here on my site. I typically try to avoid adding photos here so the recipe is clean and concise, but in this case I want to show the dough as it’s developing so you get an idea of how it should look at various points throughout.
1. Levain – 9:00 a.m.
Build the liquid levain in the morning and store somewhere warm around 77-80ºF ambient for 5-6 hours. Alternatively, you can build your levain in the evening the night before and leave out at cooler, room temperatures (around 72ºF) and it should be ready in 10-12 hours.
If you haven’t yet read through my last post on my sourdough starter maintenance routine, check it out for some helpful hints on when to use your levain.
2. Autolyse – 12:30 p.m.
Mix flour and water (reserve 50g water for mix, later) very well in a bowl and cover. Ensure all dry flour is hydrated. Store near levain (we want the temperature of the dough to remain warm).
3. Mix, Step 1 – 2:00 p.m.
Note that I split the mixing phase into two steps.
For the first step scoop out the required amount of levain on top of your autolysed (is that even a word?) dough and using about 30g of the reserved water hand-mix the levain into the dough so it’s incorporated very well.
Let fermentation get a head start: incorporate the levain & wait 30m before adding salt
Wait 30 minutes before adding the salt in Step 2. Salt slows the pace of fermentation, giving your levain just 30 minutes before adding salt you will notice quite a bit more activity through bulk2.
4. Mix, Step 2 – 2:30 p.m.
30 minutes later spread the salt on top of the dough and use the remaining water to help dissolve. If your dough is already extremely wet, and you’re getting worried, you don’t have to use all the remaining water. Just spread it out and mix well with your hand, the dough is wet enough already to work the salt thoroughly.
This dough does not require intensive mechanical mixing, in fact, we want to under-develop at mix time and build strength during bulk through fermentation and several sets of stretch and folds. After the salt is incorporated perform folds for about 2-3 minutes in the bowl. Grab under one side, pull up and over to the other side, then rotate the bowl a bit and repeat. I do this probably 30 times or so (it goes fast and easy). At the end the dough should still be shaggy, but it will be a little more smooth and will slightly start to hold itself together more in the bowl.
If you’re a fan of the slap & fold mixing technique I’ve described in the past, you can do this but be aware that at this hydration it is difficult. If you’re up to the challenge (I do it occasionally) dump the dough out and slap/fold for a maximum of 3 minutes until the dough starts to slightly hold its shape on the counter. You won’t get a super smooth dough, even with slap/fold.
I find that the correct strength level of the dough at this point is important. You want the dough to be just a little smooth after mixing, but not well developed. I know those are general terms, but try to remain observant of how the dough looks when you are done mixing and how it looks when you are done with bulk fermentation (take note of how my dough looks through this post). If you find that by the end of bulk you can’t get the dough smooth & strong enough, next time mix a little bit longer to develop the dough a bit more before you start bulk. Alternatively you could add another set of stretch/fold’s in bulk3.
Transfer dough to a tub or thick-walled bowl for bulk fermentation.
5. Bulk Fermentation – 2:45 p.m.
At 78-82ºF ambient temperature bulk fermentation should go for about 4 hours. Perform 6 sets of stretch and folds during bulk. The first three are at 15 minute intervals, and the last 3 are at 30 minute intervals. After these folds (2 hours and 15 minutes have gone by) let the dough rest for the remainder of your bulk fermentation (1 hour and 45 minutes).
I stretch and fold more vigorously at the beginning of bulk than normal since the dough is extremely slack and extensible (due to the high hydration of this recipe). Pick up one side of the dough with both hands and really pull it up, just before tearing, and fold it over to the other side. Rotate your container and repeat 4 or 5 times. That is one set.
Below you can see my dough halfway through bulk, after about 2 hours. No significant rise as of yet, but the edges are beginning to dome and the texture of the dough is smoothing out slightly. We still have several more folds to do and more strength to build.
It is important that the dough be kept near 80ºF as much as possible (minor fluctuations up and down are ok). If temperatures dip down too far you might have to extend the duration of bulk fermentation to compensate, and vice versa. Use your judgement, the signs described below, and be flexible.
At the end of bulk your dough should look very gassy, some bubbles here and there and the edges where the dough meets the bowl should be slightly domed. You can see all these signs in the image below. When the bowl is shaken the entire mass jiggles from side to side — very alive. You’ll also notice that compared with the photo at the beginning of bulk, the dough is smoother and holds its edges, folds and creases more readily (most of the bumps and ridges you see are due to trapped gasses from fermentation).
6. Divide & Preshape – 6:45 p.m.
Divide the dough into two masses, each scaled at 900 grams (essentially the dough mass in half). Lightly shape each mass into a round, cover with inverted bowl or moist towel, and let rest for 20 minutes. Act quick when dealing with this dough and rely heavily on your bench knife. I try to use my hands as little as possible when dealing with the dough at this point.
Let the dough rest 5 minutes exposed to air before shaping
After 20 minutes remove the towel or bowl and let the dough rest 5 more minutes exposed to air. That’s probably the first time you’ve heard that. I find this small step to helps dry out the dough just a bit so it’s not such a sticky mess when you perform that tricky scoop-and-flip before shaping.
7. Shape – 7:05 p.m.
Lightly flour the top of your dough rounds and flour the work surface. With this recipe use a little more flour on the surface than normal, the dough will be extremely sticky and wet. Flip each round and shape into a batard (see notes below) or boule, whatever your preference.
I prefer to shape these as batards and my shaping method is as follows:
- Flip pre-shaped round
- Fold bottom up to about half way
- Fold left side over to about 3/4 to the right
- Fold right side over to cover left
- Stretch top up & away from center and fold down to about half (you’ll now have a “letter”)
- Grab a little of the dough at the sides near the top and stretch it over the center so the dough crosses. Imagine lacing up a shoe where you first grab your laces and cross them over
- Repeat 3 times from top to bottom (the result will look like a laced up shoe)
- Take the bottom and gently roll the dough up to the top and try to seal it slightly when done rolling
Here is a video of Chad Robertson shaping (I’ll have a video up one day!). He does things a bit differently but overall I use the same process.
After shaping, let rest on the bench for a few minutes and then place into a banneton that was lightly dusted with white rice flour. You’ll see below my bannetons give the dough plenty of room to relax and expand in the fridge overnight. While this dough doesn’t rise quite as much as when I use Central Milling’s T70 flour, you still want the loaf to have plenty of room. If your proofing container is on the small side, and you find your dough almost spilling over the edges, it might be time for a larger basket.
8. Rest & Proof – 7:25 p.m.
Cover your banneton with plastic and let the dough rest on the counter for 20 minutes. Then, retard in the refrigerator at 38ºF for 15-16 hours.
9. Bake – Next Morning: Preheat oven at 9:00 a.m., Bake at 10:30 a.m.
Preheat oven for 1.5 hours at 500ºF. Bake 20 minutes at 500ºF with steam, and an additional 25-35 minutes at 450ºF, until done to your liking. I like to bake rather dark so I sometimes extend this second half of baking until I get the crust I’m looking for.
I scored this dough with a single, long slash to get that dramatic opening when baked. I keep the blade at a fairly shallow angle so the taut skin created during shaping will “peel” back as the loaf rises.I steamed my oven in my usual way, described here in my post on how to steam your home oven for baking.
It’s hard to put into words just how much I enjoy this bread. I bake this recipe almost every week (sometimes multiple times if baking for friends & family) and yet every time I pull it from the oven I just smile. The color of the crust, the open and light interior, only the tinniest perception of sour notes and the way it crunches when toasted. I could go on and on.The photos to follow are the results of scattered recent bakes that all followed this process exactly and have a similar-but-not-exact outcome. You’ll notice some are a bit darker, some have more or less flour on them, some expand differently in the oven and some are taller & some are shorter — that’s the nature of baking, every single bake is different no matter how consistent you try to be. It’s the same with my Dad and his Italian restaurant, and the reason I’ll sometimes get a call in the middle of the afternoon: “hey the pizza dough is incredible today, you should head over and grab some.”
As a kid I was known to take slices of bread, cut out the center and just eat the crust. It used to piss my family off because they’d reach into the bread basket only to find slices of only the soft parts. That’s how much I love the crust! Can you blame me, though?
I absolutely do enjoy bread that has a chunky, chewy crust but for me this bread with its delicate and cracker-like crust takes the top spot. Even though I bake these rather dark, the crust remains thin and brittle, crackling under the slightest pressure. I love using the “heel” (the very end) of this bread as a basin for soup or simply hefty slices of cheese. It’s delicious.
I think there’s a balance to be had with bread like this. It’s possible to let the crumb open up too much, but for me this is just right. Scattered open areas with that translucent webbing spanning from wall-to-wall, a dynamic movement to these areas that almost show you how shaping was carried out.
This bread has an almost imperceptible hint of sour and because of this, the wheat flavors from the flour really come forward. It has an extremely tender, soft crumb that almost dissolves in your mouth. It’s one of those rare foods where upon taking that first bite your mouth begins to water.I think in the end bread really is just bread, the staff of life throughout history, but it’s also the sum of what you personally put into it. It’s how it makes you feel when you give some to a friend and they grin ear-to-ear as they take a big bite. It’s the knowledge that you created this thing over the course of a few days that once was a lump on your counter and is now a shiny, incredible smelling piece of food meant to be shared. To me this is real bread and my best sourdough recipe (and with this bread you’ll even find me devouring more than just the crust!).
P.S. Try this bread sliced thick and left out to really get crunchy overnight for some morning French toast — you will not be disappointed!
Thanks Margie for the name suggestion!↩
A nice, wet, warm bowl of food for your levain provides the perfect conditions for rapid metabolization. There’s some more science-y stuff in there somewhere.↩
And in the worst possible case, if your dough at the end of bulk is soupy, extremely shaggy, and just never came together this means you most likely used more water than you flour can handle. Next time reduce hydration by 20g or so and see how that affects things.↩