Sourdough Bread

Pain au levain (this recipe in French)

This is bread that is far more substantial than anything I have been able to buy in the store since I left France. Like most everyone, I got my active, working starter from a friend.

I used to use only bread flour; after experimenting with good brands of all-purpose flour, I prefer not to use it because it doesn't yield the nutty flavor I want. Sometimes I'll add a tablespoon of gluten. During much of the process, there is a fermented odor that is usually offensive to new bread bakers; this is nothing wrong and it is later recognized as a sign that all is right with the starter.

Normally, sourdough bread doesn't have the sour taste of San Francisco-style bread, but it does have a substantial flavor and chewy crust to it that Wonder Bread® doesn't have. If you don't tell the children it's sourdough, they'll never know.

Starter

The basic quantity for use in this recipe which makes two standard size ball loaves, similar to what is sold in French boulangeries under the name of boule de campagne (about 30cm in diameter), is between 2/3 and 3/4 of a pint canning jar. I keep my starters in these jars with lids on in the refrigerator. A starter can be theoretically composed from scratch by leaving a mixture of flour and water open to the air for a few days. I prefer getting one that is actively used and proven.

Preparation of Starter

Pour the starter into a glass or porcelain bowl. In the process of making bread, never allow any of the ingredients to come into contact for long periods of time with anything metal. Mix together the following ingredients:

starter
1 tbsp honey
2 cups flour
1½ cups warm water (or up to 2 cups)

Mix adding water until reaching the consistency of thick pancake batter. If the water is too warm, it may damage the starter. Set this aside covered for a few hours or overnight. A proofing box can be used to keep at the optimal temperature of 85° Fahrenheit. This brew should bubble vigorously within six hours and then settle back.

Before proceeding to make bread, set aside about 2/3 of a pint for the next week in the refrigerator.

Preparation of Dough

From the time the dough is prepared, look forward to 1-1/2 to 2-hour intervals in the bread-making process. These are the times between the making of the dough and its first rising, its punch-down and second rising, the formation of loaves and their rising, then, finally, baking. To make the bread dough, here are the remaining ingredients:

6 cups flour
1 tbsp gluten (if desired or using whole wheat flour)
1 cup warm water
1 tsp salt

Mix 2 cups of flour into the large bowl containing the remaining fermented starter. Add gluten if desired. Salt and add the water. Mix well. Add another cup of flour and mix well, then another cup of flour. The dough should start pulling away from the sides of the bowl.

Flour heavily the countertop with a cup of flour. Turn the dough out onto this to knead. (Put the bowl in the sink with a dab of soap and fill to the brim to soak with water during kneading.)

Knead the dough to achieve homogeneity. The dough should start out feeling velvety and changing to a doughy feel by the end of this process. Using my fingertips to fold it, I chase the dough a bit with a good cup of flour (the fifth since starting to prepare the dough) until I can knead it without getting my hands messy. Continue kneading flour into the dough just until you have to press pretty hard to get down to something that will stick to the counter top or the heel of your hand, about 1/2 to 1 more cup of flour for a total of 6. Knead very thoroughly to get good consistency.

Last, sprinkle a bit more flour and set the dough ball on it. Wash the bowl with hot water, dry it and rub it with a light coat of margarine or butter and set the dough in it. Cover with a moist towel.

Setting the Dough to Rise

Place the dough in a proofing box, oven or warm kitchen for about 2 hours. Cover the bowl with a cloth towel soaked in hot water and wrung out as much as possible to keep the dough from drying out.

After it has doubled in size, remove the cloth carefully to unstick it from the dough. Turn dough out onto a very lightly floured surface. No flour should be kneaded into the dough this time. Fold the sides of the dough over into the (sticky) middle over and over while pushing with the heels of the hand to remove gas. Don't mangle the dough ball by breaking up any part of it. Return the dough to the bowl and cover just as before.

Making Loaves

After another couple of hours, turn the dough out as before and cut either in half for very big loaves as described (ø30cm), thirds or quarters (perfect for giving away to individuals or couples). Be especially careful not to break up the dough's slightly dryer upper skin—the one now in contact with the kneading surface—fold from outside to in and knead out the gas. Form the desired shape loaf, a ball, an oval or an elongated, cylindrical shape depending on fancy. Imprint the top skin with a bit of flour from the kneading surface and set onto a peel or pan well dusted with corn meal to keep it from sticking. Cover with a cloth draped a bit between them to guard against them rising into one another. Set aside for 1 to 2 hours.

Baking

Fire up the oven to 450° 15 to 20 minutes before baking to ensure that the oven stone is uniformly and completely up to temperature. With only one loaf on the peel, it can be shaken off with a quick action much like using the peel for pizza. However, with more than one loaf, they have to be carefully scooted by hand off one at a time positioning them on the stone. All loaves from this recipe should fit on a standard, rectangular stone. Carefully slash the top of each loaf with your favorite pattern using an extremely sharp knife before baking; this puts the expansion fissures where you want them instead of being random.

Steam is essential to the crust; there are different ways of adding it to the oven, see Getting that crust on your bread... .

Bake to suit eye and taste—until dark, golden brown. Remove the loaves from the oven with the peel or from the baking sheet, set on a wooden cutting board and cover with dry towels. Don't go near this bread with a plastic bag unless and until it has sat several hours under the towels.