All of us have that one food we're snobby... wait, connoisseurs... about. From coffee to wine, from to tacos or pastry. For me it's bread. Actually sourdough. I've worked most of all my adult life in and around an organic, wood fire, stone milled, artisanal (and so on) bakeries. So, having good bread literally at my fingertips for so long became second nature. It wasn't until we moved away to Vancouver that I began to really see that I had taken it for granted. Landing in Vancouver I was 1) shocked to see that good bread really didn't exist in the same way I was used to, and 2) if it did, it cost an arm and a leg. So two years ago out of desperation, I began making my own bread at home and haven't looked back since.
Today, most store-bought bread gets a bad wrap, and with good reason. They are often filled with sugars (like corn syrup), colours, potassium bromate (which is banned nearly everywhere but the west), and l'cysteine which is made from either chicken feathers or human hair!! Beyond these, they often contain a trove of ingredients you'd never want in your kitchen let alone your body. Homemade bread (especially sourdough) on the other hand is a different story, and for me, it’s a love affair.
In an age where gluten and bread are often seen as evils, sourdough is like the shining star that can prevail. Unlike yeasted bread which is rushed for proofing and often loaded with a mile-long list of ingredients, homemade sourdough is a slow process that involves fermentation and basically just three ingredients- flour, water, and salt. The lengthy preparation means that the protein gluten is broken down by amino acids making it more digestible and suitable for those with gluten sensitivity. It is still not suitable for celiacs - I will share a gluten-free sourdough soon! Plus, it contains Lactobacillus. This means the phytates found in flour are neutralized, allowing more minerals and vitamins to become available to you. Happy tummy indeed! This lactic acid slows down the rate in which glucose is released into the blood meaning it even has a lower glycaemic index compared to yeasted bread.
While just starting out, getting into bread making can indeed seem like such a daunting endeavour. I’ve decided to break down my "choose your own adventure" method just to show you how easy making nutritious bread can be.
Get my recipe for Gluten-Free Sourdough HERE!
All bakers will agree that to bake you need a scale, and this is never truer that when it comes to bread making. I have an inexpensive digital scale (from here) that I don't love all that much, but places like Amazon sell loads of inexpensive varieties you can choose from. When looking for a scale try to find ones with proper buttons, as the buttonless (touch screen type) ones often have issues working and zeroing (a frustration I deal with regularly).
Using the best flour you can get your hands on is key. It’s like that old saying about the quality of your work being as good as your worst ingredient. Look for brands that don't use additives (many of which are banned in most parts of the world outside of North America). Keep it simple with just one ingredient, the grain. Of course, if you can get local, strong bread flour, that is an added plus. I love to use locally ground flour that is stoned milled such as GRAIN. They are my favourite local brand and they’re offing readers 15% off with the code WHOLEHEARTED15.
Anytime you ferment something in a city or urban environment, from pickle-making to yoghurt making, you'll have to use filtered water. Water additives like chlorine inhibit fermentation, so bottled or filtered is best. That being said, I've used city water and I still ended up with a tasty loaf of bread.
Since we're not all rocking the wood fire oven in the back yard ;), a dutch oven is the next best vessel to bake in. I often use a Staub pot, but any heavy pot will work, just make sure it doesn't have a plastic handle like some le Creuset.
To score your bread, you'll need a lame, or a razor blade (I stole some from Adam's shaving kit), but a good sharp knife (that is not serrated) will also do.
CREATING A STARTER
You can make your own starter (The Kitchn has a great tutorial), or if you're like me and put off by all this work, you can simply get some from an established batch. Lots of the bakeries sell a coffee cups’ worth of starter for a couple of dollars, so don't be afraid to ask your local bakery. Another option is asking around in your friend groups or online. People won't mind sharing a tablespoon. Finally, if you find a group of avid bakers in your city, they will be thrilled to share, so check online for Facebook groups and express your interest.
FEEDING A STARTER
The idea of feeding a starter is daunting! And my forgetfulness/laziness about remembering to feed things dissuaded me from making one for years. Truth be told, starters are resilient. Sometimes I feed mine weekly and sometimes a month or more will go by and I'll forget to feed it, but it always works out in the end. This is not ideal care, but it's good to know if you forget about it for a while, it can be revived.
To care for a starter, keep in in the fridge unless you're using it daily. Otherwise, the night before you want to make bread, take the starter out and compost all about 2 Tbsp. Feed this remaining starter an equal ratio of flour and water (if you're making 1 loaf below you'll need 100 grams of this mixture, so you'll want to make a little extra to keep your starter going. I recommend feeding it 75 grams flour and 75 grams room temperature water). Cover this mixture with a plate or lid and let ferment overnight. The next day go on with making your bread, returning the extra fresh starter to the fridge. On weeks when you don't make bread, follow this same method but use less flour and water (say 50 g of each).
If you get a starter and want to change it over to a different type of flour (say rye, or even gluten-free), you can feed your starter in the method stated above, but instead of returning it to the fridge, keep it on the counter feeding it every 12 or so hours. After a couple of feeds, your starter will consist of nearly all the intended flour.
PROBLEMS THAT CAN ARISE WITH STARTER
- Liquid - Sometimes you'll get a layer of greyish liquid on top of your starter. This is called hooch. It occurs when the starter isn't fed enough (like when I forget to feed it for months on end.... 😉 ) and it's basically going hungry. If there is lots of this liquid on top you can pour it off, but I often just stir it into the next feeding, no problem.
- Apricot / Alcohol Smell - This is again a sign that your starter is hungry. It is consuming itself and you’ll need to feed more often. If this happens, feed your starter as you normally would and continue using it.
- Mould - I've never seen this happen, and it will only happen if you use an unsanitary jar. If you do see mould you can treat it one of two ways. If there is a little mould on the top, remove it with a clean spoon. Take a little bit of the starter and feed it. Continue feeding it for a couple of days to ensure there is no mould growth, then return the starter to the fridge until you need to use it. If the mould is beyond just the surface area, your starter is garbage and you'll need to start over.
- Heat- I've had this happen to a couple of friends who have left their starter in the oven (to keep it slightly warmer) and accidentally turned it on. In cases like this, your starter is cooked and you'll most likely need to start fresh.
BREAD MAKING SCHEDULE
You'll want to start your bread two days in advance. 99.9 % of this time is inactive waiting, with only about 40 minutes of total work. This is a tentative schedule for how I'd make bread.
- STEP 1—9:00 p.m. Friday- Make leaven
- STEP 2—10:00 a.m. Saturday- Make bread dough
- STEP 3—10:30 a.m. Saturday- First fold
- STEP 4—2:00 p.m. Saturday- Place dough in the fridge
- STEP 5—8:00 a.m. Sunday - Bake
- 10 grams of sea salt
- 500 g grams flour (I like 50% sifted and 50% whole grain-but use any ratio)
- *100 grams leaven (made the night before)
- 375 grams of water (room temperature)seeds or nuts (see below)
Two Night Before-Make the Leavan
Two nights before you want bread, you’ll need to make the leaven (a word from French to “give rise”). This is usually the last thing I do before I go to bed. Take out about 1-2 Tbsp. of your starter from the fridge and mix it with 50 g of room temperature water and 50g of flour (sifted, whole grain, spelt, or a combo, whatever you prefer as long as the flour to water ration is 1:1).
Cover the bowl with a plate and leave it on the counter to ferment overnight (a minimum of 8-12 hours). The next morning you know you can begin making bread if you pinch a little bit of the leaven off and it can float on the water’s surface (this means it’s full of fermented gas). If the ball of dough sinks, let the leaven sit out a little longer to ferment. If you can’t get to making bread until later in the evening, that shouldn’t be too big of a problem.
Morning Before-Mix + Autolyse
Once your leaven is ready you can get started on the bread. Combine 100 g of the leaven with 350 g of water. The remaining leaven can go in the fridge as the base for your next loaf, keeping the starter alive. Add the flour to the water mixture and using your hands mix to combine.
Once mixed, cover with a tea towel and let sit anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour. This gives the flour time to absorb the water and is called an ‘autolyse”. After the bread has had time to rest, add the remaining 25 g of water and the salt. Mix well until combined. If you want to add flavours or seeds to your bread, now is the time.
After you’ve mixed in the salt you can do your first fold. To do this begin by getting your hands damp (it’s less sticky that way) and reach under the dough on the opposite side of the bowl from you. Pull the dough up and over towards you.
Repeat this so the side closest to you folds over to the side away from you and the side on your left folds towards you right, and your right folds towards your left. Think of it as wrapping a package.
Next, scoop your hands under the ball of dough and flip it over completely. This completes one “fold”. You will do one of these complete “folds” every 30 minutes for 3 hours (perfect reading or Netflix time!) for a total of 6 times. I like to write down each fold I do just to make sure I haven’t lost count. After the 6th and last fold, let the bread sit for a final 20-30 minutes.
To begin to shape your dough, gently scoop it out of the bowl, and using lightly floured hands (or a bench scraper) form into a rough ball. Let this dough rest on the counter for another 20 or so minutes before the final shape. In the meantime, get your banneton dusted with flour, or if you prefer, layer a clean tea towel in a medium mixing bowl and dust the cloth liberally with flour.
To finish shaping, flour the surface with just a touch of flour. Too much flour will prevent the dough from sticking to the surface and getting taunt. Turn your bread over onto the counter and gently fold it up like a burrito (see this video), then flip it over so that it’s seam side down and use your hands to cup and roll the dough.
You want to make as much surface tension as possible without tearing the outside of the loaf. Once shaped, turn the loaf into the lined and floured bowl (top-down). Gently flour the top of the loaf (which is, in fact, the bottom) before covering with the edges of the towel.
Pop this loaf in the fridge overnight for a next day’s bake. You can keep a loaf in the fridge for two days, but I do think it is better after just one day of fermenting. If you don’t want to retard your loaf to bake it later, let it rise on the counter (in the prepared bowl) for 3-4 hours.
PREHEATING– The next day, take one of the racks out of your oven to create space. Place your dutch oven in the oven and preheat the oven to 260 C (500 F) (or as hot as your oven can go, up to 500F). After the oven has come to temperature, let it heat for another 30 minutes to get the dutch oven fully heated.
SCORING – After the 30 minutes is up, take your bread out of the fridge. Gently invert the dough onto a piece of parchment paper that will be large enough to lift your bread into the dutch oven. With your lame or knife, gently score bread. This allows the loaf to expand and prevents any bulges. If you need some inspiration, check out this link.
BAKING– Working fast, take your dutch oven out of the oven carefully. Remove the lid and gently lift the parchment and bread into the pot, being super careful not to touch the sides. Cover the pot with the lid (be careful, it’s hot!) and put the entire dutch oven back into the oven. Turn down the heat to 230 C ( 450 F ) and bake for 20 minutes.
After the 20 minutes are up, gently take the lid off of the dutch oven (be careful of steam) and bake for another 20- 25 minutes (I like mine a little darker, personally).
Once cooked, remove the pot from the oven and gently lift out the loaf by lifting the parchment paper. If that’s too hard, just let the loaf cool in the pot.
STORING – I prefer to store my loaves in the cupboard or a bread box. If the loaf is whole, I don’t wrap it, but if it is cut, I like to wrap it in a beeswaxed wrap like this. Other good wraps include cotton bags designed for bread, or just leaving the cut side down. What you don’t want to do is wrap your bread in plastic (which will soften any crust) or put in the fridge )which will dry it out and cause it to go mouldy faster).
*The more white/sifted flour used means you’ll have a lighter loaf - the more whole grain, the denser.
You can add nearly anything to your basic loaf to make it something special or go with any meal.
SPICES- cumin, fennel, cinnamon, dried herbs, turmeric, cardamom powder, and anise are great ones to start with.
FRUIT +VEGGIES - cooked beets and another root veg like purple sweet potato or mashed pumpkin. Dried apricots, dried cranberries, raisins, dates, candied lemon or orange peel add a sweet touch. Soak your dried fruit in boiling water for 30 minutes. Let it drain and chop it before adding to the bread.
FANCY- chopped fresh garlic, pitted olives, cheese, lavender, or sun-dried tomatoes.
SEEDS + NUTS- toasted nuts like walnuts, pecans, or seeds like sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds are all amazing.
GRAINS- cooked and cooled polenta, cooked oatmeal or millet porridge, and sprouted grains bring a new texture to loaves.
Seedy Loaf - I used 100% Sifted Spring Wheat and mixed in 1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds, 2 tsp crushed fennel, and 1 Tbsp. poppy seeds after the autolyse. Before retarding the dough, I sprinkled some more seeds and some coarse salt on top.
Turmeric + leek - This loaf is 100% Sifted Spelt. After the autolyse I added one cooled sautéed leek, a tsp. of turmeric, and a pinch of black pepper.
Walnut Rosemary - For a slightly lighter loaf, I mixed 200 g of whole red fife flour with 300 g of sifted red fife flour. I also tossed in about 100g toasted walnuts (chopped) and 2 Tbsp. chopped rosemary after the autolyse.
Fig and cinnamon - Made with 300 g Whole Red Fife, 200 g Sifted Spring, 200 g soaked-drained- and chopped dried figs, 1 rounded tsp. cinnamon.