My ongoing adventure with baking bread has led me down the path of sourdough, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘holy grail’ for bread making. I won’t lie – baking sourdough is not easy. The high hydration levels typical of this sort of bread makes the dough awkward to handle and certainly when you’re just starting out it is all too easy to produce sub-par loaves particularly when your sourdough starter isn’t quite active enough. I’ve tried quite a few different recipes, sometimes I’ve followed the recipe exactly, at other times I’ve strayed off a little bit and incorporated techniques I’ve picked up from other recipes or tweaked the measurements slightly, all with varying degrees of success. Once you start to get the hang of it though the results are so rewarding and it makes the effort and time spent worth it.
The recipe I’ve decided to share here today is actually one that I’ve come up with on my own but I’ve based it on a basic recipe that was given to me by a friend. The hydration level of this loaf is only about 67%, so it’s not the wettest of doughs especially since I’ve used some wholemeal flour, which tends to absorb more water than white flour. But I would say that it’s a nice dough to start off with if you’re relatively inexperienced and aren’t quite ready yet to tackle the super wet doughs that seem to have a mind of their own and sometimes want to slink off the kitchen counter when you’re not looking.
This bread is also the first one that I’ve made using my new present to myself – a very beautiful Staub cocotte, which is an enameled cast iron pot sometimes called a Dutch oven (or a French oven in this case). I agonized for quite awhile about whether or not to splash out on one and once I had decided to take the plunge I then had to choose between Le Creuset or Staub and a size and shape. But I have no regrets about my Black Beauty, as I am now calling it. Just look at how pretty it is.
A few notes before I move on to the recipe. This method uses the no knead technique, but I’m pretty sure that it will work just as well if you prefer to knead the dough fully and then leave to bulk ferment for about 6 hours or until the dough has almost doubled in volume. In terms of the appearance of the loaf, I need to work on scoring the loaves properly. I’ve been using a regular kitchen knife as I haven’t gotten round to purchasing a lame or razor blade yet, but I suspect it’s more down to technique than the equipment. This loaf has a delicate and subtle sourness so if you prefer your bread more tangy leave your shaped dough to prove in the fridge overnight. The longer you leave the dough, the more the flavour will develop.
Malted grain & honey sourdough 250g active starter at 1:1 ratio, ideally at peak of activity 150g very strong Canadian white flour 100g strong white flour 100g strong wholemeal flour 100g stoneground strong malted blend flour 250g + 10g water at room temperature 10g salt 10g milk powder (optional) 2 tbsp runny honey For the topping (optional) 10g rolled jumbo oats 10g malted wheat flakes
- Whisk together the starter and 250g of water in a large bowl, ensuring no lumps remain.
- Add the flours and milk powder, if using, into the liquid mixture. Mix together using your hands until there are no dry spots of flour. Cover with a kitchen towel or a plate and leave to autolyse for 30-60 minutes.
- After autolysing sprinkle over the salt and add the honey and remaining 10g of water and mix together using your hands. If you feel that the dough is pretty dry feel free to add a bit more water as different flours can have different rates of water absorption. Next you want to do some stretch and folds in the bowl. If you’re unfamiliar with this technique, there are plenty of explanations and videos available out there but what you basically want to do is reach under the dough, right to the bottom of the bowl and pull it upwards, stretching it as far as it will go without tearing the dough then fold it back over onto itself, pressing down lightly. Continue with this action around the bowl – I find the easiest way to do this is to turn the bowl around with one hand and do the stretch and folds with the other. I go round the bowl about 3-4 times or until the dough starts to resist. Leave the dough to rest for 20 minutes then repeat the stretch and folds. Continue to do this for the next 1½ to 2 hours. The dough will be quite sticky initially so my advice is to wet your hand slightly before handling the dough. You will see that the dough gradually becomes less sticky and much easier to handle with each stretch and fold cycle. After about the 5th stretch and fold cycle check gluten formation using the windowpane test and continue with more cycles if the dough does not pass. Once you’re happy that the gluten has developed sufficiently leave the dough to rest in a cool place for anywhere between 4-12 hours, or until the dough has almost doubled in volume. The time it takes for this to happen will depend on how active your starter is and the temperature of your room. Just keep checking and be patient with it. The series of photos below shows the progression of the dough with each cycle.
- The next thing to do is to shape the risen dough. Gently turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a boule using lightly floured hands – again if you are not sure about how to do this there are plenty of tutorials out there by people who are far more experienced and knowledgeable than I am. If your dough is a bit on the floppy side and difficult to shape, you will want to do a preshape. To do this shape the dough loosely in the first instance and leave covered for 15-30 minutes then continue with shaping. Place the shaped dough seam side up in a floured banneton or couche, or in a bowl that has been lined with a lightly floured kitchen towel. Alternatively if you have a Dutch oven, and you’re doing the final prove at room temperature then you can place the dough directly into it. I scattered a thin layer of semolina at the bottom and lined the Dutch oven with baking parchment before placing the dough inside as I didn’t want to risk the loaf sticking. Cover the dough and leave to rest for 30-60 minutes until it puffs up slightly, or chuck it in the fridge overnight. You want to be careful not to overproof the dough as you risk it collapsing – underproofing is much better and you should get good ovenspring.
- When the dough is ready to be baked, transfer your dough from the banneton/couche/bowl and place into a Dutch oven or onto a baking tray lined with baking parchment or a silicone mat. Score the dough (bearing in mind that the shape you choose will affect how the dough expands), brush the top lightly with some water and sprinkle over the rolled jumbo oats and malted wheat flakes if you’re using them. Bake in an oven preheated to 205ºC fan (225ºC if you have a conventional oven). If baking in a Dutch oven, leave the lid on for the first 25-30 minutes then remove the lid and bake for a further 25-30 minutes, or until the crust is a lovely golden to dark brown. If you like the crust really crisp leave it in for a bit longer. I personally prefer a softer crust as I usually toast my bread and I don’t want the crust to get too hard. To test if the bread is done, lightly tap the underside of the bread – it should sound hollow. If you are not using a Dutch oven, you will want to create some steam in the oven. To do this pour boiling water into a preheated roasting tray placed at the bottom of the oven and wait for 15 minutes before baking your bread. Be careful when you open the oven door to place your bread inside as you don’t want to steam your eyes. Just stand back and wait a few seconds before going in with your dough. Bake for 45-60 minutes.
- Remove the bread and place on a wire rack to cool completely. Do not be tempted to slice open the bread too soon as it will affect the texture. Enjoy with some cheese, or butter, or anything you want really.