This is bread that is far more substantial than anything I have been able to buy in the store since I left France. To save my wrists from carpal tunnel flair-up, I used to use a bread machine (though never for baking) and so confined myself to yeast bread baking.
Another reason I baked only yeast breads was because of a bad experience with a sourdough kit that just never took off. This was solved a couple of years later by getting an 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 bread flour 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.
To get the extra sour taste of commercial sourdoug breads, commercial bakers reputedly add more inactive or dead starter cultures. My sourdough bread doesn't have a sour taste like San Francisco-style, but it does have a substantial flavor and chewy crust to it that Wonder Bread® (read: American sandwich bread) doesn't have. If you don't tell the children it's sourdough, they'll never know.
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 liked. (I am happy to culture starter for others.) Last, it is said by some that starters last forever under almost any conditions. I have found that if I don't use my refrigerated starter within two to three weeks, I need to regenerate it once before being able to reuse it. I have only had this happen once since I usually bake at least once a week anyway. When I remodeled my kitchen and was unable to make bread for over a month, the starter died completely and all efforts to resurrect it were futile.
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 plastic or, especially, metal. I add a tablespoon of honey, but don't add any sugar ever again. Add 2 cups of flour and mix slightly, then add 1-1/2 to 2 cups of very warm water until reaching the consistency of thick pancake batter. If the water is too warm, it may damage the starter. This is why I mix in the flour first. Set this aside covered overnight. I use a proofing box I build out of redwood with a 15-watt light bulb that keeps everything at 85° Fahrenheit. This brew should bubble vigorously within six hours and then settle back. It will smell fermented. Before the next step, fill the original pint jar to between 2/3 and 3/4 full for the next batch and return the starter to the refrigerator.
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.
Mix 2 cups of flour into the large bowl containing the remaining fermented starter (next week's has already been set aside, right?). Here I sometimes cheat by adding a tablespoon of extra gluten to enhance the rises later. This is recommended when not using bread flour and for whole wheat. Salt a bit. I don't use as much salt in my kitchen as most Americansonly half a teaspoon hereso maybe as much as a teaspoon is required. Add 1 cup warm water and mix. Then add another cup of flour, mix and still another cup. At this point, the dough will pull back from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough out, scraping the bowl well into the heap, onto a floured surface for kneading. 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. I guess about 1/2 to 1 more cup of flour, certainly not more than 2 more. Knead very thoroughly (it's therapeutic) 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.
I place the dough in my proofing box for about 2 hours. Another possibility is to fire up the oven on its lowest setting for about 3 minutes with the oven stone already in place. Place a wad of hot pads on the stone and the bowl atop these. In both cases, I cover the bowl with a terry-cloth hand towel soaked in hot water and wrung out as much as possible to keep the dough from drying out.
After 2 hours, remove the terry-cloth carefully to unstick the dough. Even if it sticks, some persistence should pull the dough away from the cloth. Dump the 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 middle, sticky parts over and over while pushing with the heels of the hand to remove all gas. Don't mangle the dough ball by breaking any part of it. This should go very fastjust knead it to remove the gas and make another ball. Return the ball to the bowl and cover just as before.
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). Do this with a thin but sharp knife. Set aside all cuts except one. Being especially careful not to break up the dough's slightly dryer upper skinthe one in contact with the kneading surfacefold from outside to in and knead out the gas. Form the desired shape loaf: I use 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 well dusted with corn meal to keep it from sticking. Slash the top with your favorite pattern using an extremely sharp knife; this puts the expansion fissures where you want them instead of being random. Do so the remaining balls. With enough practice and care, all these will usually raise on one peel. Cover with a terry-cloth (I reuse the damp ones) draped a bit between them to keep them from rising into one another and sticking. Set aside for 2 to 3 hours.
Fire up the oven to 375° 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, I find that with more than one loaf, I have to carefully scoot them by hand off one at a time positioning them on the stone. All loaves from this recipe should fit on the standard, rectangular stone.
At firstand every 5 minutes thereafterI squirt the loaves with aspray bottle of hot water I dedicate to this purpose. This compensates for the fact that my oven doesn't have the vapor injection common to commercial ovens (at least in France). This makes for the stupendous crackly and chewy crust that you just can't find much in America except in fine bakeries on the coasts.
Bake to suit eye and taste. I go for the dark, golden brown look myself. Remove the loaves from the oven with the peel, set on a wooden cutting board and cover with dry terry-cloth towels. Don't go near this bread with a plastic bag unless and until it has sat overnight under the towels.
This bread can be cut and served hot or cooled and served as the real bread it is at the table for use with the meal. Containing no sugar, it works well for eating crudités before the meal (a plate of tomatoes with garlic, avocado half bathed in a pepper-mayonnaise sauce, cold cuts, etc.), cheese or saladsomething that American breads just don't do well. After a day or two, it is great toasted and buttered for breakfast or snacks. Past a couple of days and it becomes perfect for making croutons or fodder for pain perdu (French toast)!
The proofing box is optionalmy box doesn't do past the first rise for double batches anyway and I have never been disappointed with the oven-rise method (or even a cold oven). It can be used for the starter and first rise.