A great rustic sourdough loaf
A truly great rustic sourdough loaf must have certain qualities. It is very different from a sandwich loaf baked in a pan or rolls baked on a tray. Rustic sourdough loaves have a satisfying and substantial crust and a fully developed flavor profile.
First, it has to be at least fifty percent whole wheat and made with a 100% whole wheat sourdough starter. The whole-wheat-only sourdough starter gives a sharper, more sour flavor than most sourdoughs. A minimum of half whole wheat for the loaf, combined with the long, slow sourdough fermentation process, qualifies it for a healthy whole food diet. Adding other whole grain flours such as spelt, rye and millet adds their flavors and more body to the loaf.
The interior crumb of great rustic sourdough should be light, even and slightly elastic. This is the result of a three-step rising process taking one to two days. The starter is split and both halves are fed. After two to four hours, at the peak of activity, half of the starter is used to make a sponge by feeding it again with less water(essentially making a stiffer starter) to approximately 2/3 final loaf weight. The sponge is fed using the flours, in proportion, of the final loaf and allowed to double in size. Salt, oil,other ingredients(if used) and flours are added to the risen sponge to make a slightly wet bulk dough which is allowed to double in size. The bulk is kneaded with additional flours and formed into the final loaf which is risen until doubled in a shaped pan or basket.
A substantial crust is essential for the texture and to protect the bread until it is eaten. Get a great crust by turning the risen final loaf into a preheated covered container sprinkled with organic cornmeal. I use a large ceramic casserole with a fitted lid; others use dutch ovens or clay pot cookers. Baking in a covered container also contributes to a good oven spring, producing a lighter, airier loaf.
The making of a great rustic sourdough loaf
1. I feed my starter equal amounts of 100% whole wheat bread flour and filtered water once per day during the week to build it up for weekend baking.
2. Very early on baking day, the starter is fed as usual and given a few hours to become active. Then I split it and make a very soft sponge with one half. The sponge is allowed to double in size and still contains nothing but flour and water.
3. Salt, olive oil, any other desired ingredients and additional flour and liquid is added to the sponge to make the bulk dough for the loaf. This is allowed to rise until doubled. I make this either in a stainless steel mixing bowl with a wooden spoon or in a KitchenAid stand mixer with a dough hook. For whole wheat loaves, I use half whole wheat bread flour(including what is in the starter) and half unbleached bread flour. Liquid us usually filtered water but may also be whole milk, scorched milk or sour milk. My other ingredients are normally freshly ground black pepper and a tablespoon or two of blackstrap molasses for flavor and color.
4. Turn the risen bulk dough out onto a well floured flat surface to knead, using extra flours as needed to keep it from sticking, until the dough is very elastic but still soft.
5. Shape the finished dough into a loaf shape and place into a floured rising basket or towel-lined rising bowl. Alternatively, allow to rise in the actual baking container(this often leads to sticking and difficulty removing the baked loaf). Allow to double in size.
6. When the loaf has risen, preheat the oven and the baking container with lid to 450-degrees.
7. Remove the hot casserole and lid from the oven, remove the lid, sprinkle the bottom generously with organic cornmeal and immediately roll the risen loaf out of the basket or bowl into the casserole. Quickly slit the top of the loaf with a sharp knife, replace the lid and return to the oven.
8. Bake for 25 minutes at 450-degrees with the lid on.
9. Remove the lid, reduce heat to 375-degrees and bake another 20 minutes or until done(should sound hollow when snapped with a fingernail).
10. Remove from the oven and let rest five minutes.
11. Remove loaf from the casserole to a cooling rack and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting.
Notes on great rustic sourdough
This post is about the techniques used to get a great crust, springy crumb and strong sourdough flavor, not an exact recipe. For exact ingredients and amounts, see the post “Making My Favorite Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread Recipe”. Using the techniques in this post will produce the same fine results for sourdough white bread, rye bread and oat bread. Great rustic sourdough bread is not an accident but a process.
Making sourdough at normal room temperatures is a long process. I usually feed the starter at 4:30-5:00 a.m., make the sponge around 8:30 a.m., make the bulk dough by 11:30 a.m., form the loaf at 3:30 p.m. and have it in the oven around 6:00 p.m. This allows further development of the traditional sourdough flavor, improves the nutritional value of the final bread and alleviates the digestive effects of wheat gluten.
The whole process can be speeded up by rising the different stages of dough over large pans of warm water. Warmer rising temperatures favor the yeasts in the starter and lessen the sourdough flavor and other benefits. By rising the dough above bowls of 80-90-degree water, a loaf can be in the oven in as little as 4 hours. The crumb tends to be coarser with larger and more unevenly spaced air holes.
Stretch the process out to two days(if that fits your schedule better) by doing one or more of the rises in the refrigerator. Start the process after lunch or mid-afternoon and do the bulk rise overnight in the refrigerator. Form the loaf when the dough warms to room temperature and continue from there. Longer rising times at cooler temperatures favor the bacteria in the starter and results in a sharper, more sour flavor. More B-vitamins are developed and more gluten is broken down with this method. It also produces a more even crumb with finer air holes.
A huge advantage of sourdough bread over bread made with commercial yeast is extended shelf life. Yeast breads are often stale after one full day and always stale after two days. Great rustic sourdough baked using the techniques in this post with still taste fresh on the second and third days. This is a result of the way the bacteria and multiple wild yeasts in the starter “condition” the dough during the extended rising/fermenting times. Rustic loaves will also last longer that pan-baked sandwich loaves because of the harder, more impervious crust that is formed by baking inside a covered container.