Recipe: Sourdough Ciabattas

Besides baguettes, ciabattas are my other favorite loaves to make. Once I learned Master Chef Markus Farbinger’s recipe, I was hooked! Ciabattas are SO easy to make. Whether you use the standard recipe that I linked to above, or use a sourdough starter, it can be a same-day bake! Though if you go the sourdough route, I suggest doing an overnight bulk ferment, which I’ll explain below.

With this particular recipe, I’m going for a much lighter crumb and am using bread and AP flour. I know that I have eschewed using white flours, but the enzymes in the sourdough starter help break down the flour to make it more digestible, so while the flour may not be as nutritious as whole wheat and high-extraction flour, we’ll still get plenty of nutrition from the bread. That said, let’s get started!

Ingredients

Levain

Starter200 grams
Unbleached Flour150 grams
Water (90°-95° F)150 grams
For flour, I use a high-extraction flour from Azure Standard called Ultra Unifine Bread Flour.

Final Dough

Levain500 grams
Unbleached Bread Flour250 grams
Unbleached AP Flour500 grams
Water*550-600 grams
Salt20 grams
Instant Yeast** (optional)2 grams
*With water, you have to gauge it. 550 grams will get you to 80% hydration. But depending on your flour, if the dough is a little stiff, you’ll want to add more water. The initially mixed dough sh9uld be the consistency of a stiff batter.

**Using a bit of instant yeast is purely optional, but I’ve found that it is very helpful on cold days. I wouldn’t use it on hot days where I can rely on the ambient temperature of my kitchen to keep the microbes super-active.

Instead of using separate containers for the levain and the final dough, I just use a 6-quart Cambro tub. When my levain’s ready, I just add all the ingredients to the tub. It’s much more convenient. I’m going to provide some times as guides during the process. By no means are they hard and fast, especially with varying kitchen temps where the bulk and final fermentations can be shorter or longer depending on the ambient temperature of your kitchen.

Make the Levain

  1. Feed your starter so you can produce 200 grams of starter. When the starter’s ready, transfer 200 grams to a large mixing bowl or a large plastic tub. Note that the starter doesn’t have to be active and at its peak. My daily grape starter is maintained at 400 grams total, so I just use 200 grams from my mother culture, then feed her. Works like a charm!
  2. (4:00 pm) To the 200 grams of starter, add 150 grams of unbleached flour (here’s where I use my high-extraction flour, but you can use any unbleached flour that you want) and 150 grams of water. Mix thoroughly until smooth.
  3. (4:15 pm) Place the levain container in a warm place to ferment. It has been cold as of late, so I put my levain container in my oven with the door cracked to get a little heat from the oven light.
  4. (8:30 pm) If you have a fairly active starter, your levain should be actively bubbling by now. If it’s not, I suggest waiting until it’s really active.

Mix the Final Dough

  1. (8:40 pm) There’s no autolyse with a ciabatta, so just add all the final dough ingredients to the levain and mix thoroughly until you’ve incorporated all the dry ingredients and create a shaggy mass (about 5 minutes). Note: If you’re going to do a same-day bake, I suggest turning on your oven to 250° C or ~485° F now.
    1. It’s a bit messy, but I prefer to mix the dough by hand, alternating squeezing the dough through my open fingers, then using a stretch and fold motion to turn the dough. I’ll do this until I feel comfortable that the salt and yeast have been totally incorporated.
  2. Clean off your mixing hand and let the shaggy mass rest for 20 minutes.
  3. (9:05 pm) Using a wet hand, do a series of stretch and folds until you feel the tension in the dough building. When it kind of fights you, then let the dough rest for another 20 minutes.
  4. (9:25 pm) Dump the dough onto your well-floured work surface – it should be really well-floured – making sure you clean and scrape all the excess dough left in the container, then wipe the container with a paper towel.. Using quick motions, pull the dough into a rough rectangle, then do letter folds, front to back, and side to side at least three rounds. Make sure that when you fold, you also pull flap, then fold over. Once you feel that the dough strength has been built up (it will fight you a bit), roll the dough onto its seams, then using your bench scraper, form the dough into a ball.
  5. (9:30 pm) Spray the container with a light coat of olive oil (I use one of those PAM olive oil spritzers) then gently pick up the dough ball (you can form it up a bit more to make it easier), then drop it into the container.
  6. So here we have two alternatives:
    1. Let the dough rest for 5-10 minutes, then put the container in your fridge for an overnight bulk ferment.
    2. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes, and you’ll be ready for shaping.

Dividing and “Shaping”

Again, depending on how you do the bulk ferment there are two routes to take. The steps are similar, but different enough to warrant discussing them in separate sections.

Same-Day Bake

  1. After 20 minutes, again liberally sprinkle flour on your work surface, then slide the dough ball out of the mixing bowl.
  2. Using quick motions, gently tug the ball into a rough rectangle, then divide the dough into equal pieces. If I’m making loaves, I cut the rectangle in half.
  3. Technically, you’re not supposed shape the ciabatta dough. You pull it into a basic form. But I like to make my loaves into little rectangular pillows, so I gently letter fold the divided dough pieces, being extremely careful not to degas them.
  4. Once you’ve formed the loaves, gathering them from the long ends and cupping under the dough, transfer them to a well-floured couche, seam side up.
  5. Sprinkle the loaves with a bit of flour, then cover them and let proof for 10 minutes.
  6. After 10 minutes, check the loaves for springiness using the finger dent test. You want to have some spring. If there’s a bit too much; that is, the dough immediately springs back, let it rest another 10 minutes.

Overnight Ferment

If you did the overnight ferment, check your dough in your fridge. It should have at least doubled in size. If it hasn’t, you’ll have to wait. My retarder is set to 39° F and it takes 10-12 hours for my dough to double. So if you’re dough’s ready, turn on your oven now and set it to 250° C or about 485° F. Do not proceed until your oven is up to temp, then divide. If you’re using a baking stone, wait at least an hour before proceeding.

  1. Gently slide the fully fermented dough out of the bowl or container on a very well-floured surface. It should easily slide out since you oiled it down.
  2. As above, gently tug the ball into a rough rectangle then divide the dough into equal-sized pieces. Personally, the anal-retentive part of me, can’t resist scaling the pieces so they’re all roughly the same weight.
  3. (optional) As I mentioned above, you don’t have to shape the loaves, but I always do a simple letter fold, then place the loaves on seam side up on a well-floured couche.
  4. Sprinkle the loaves with flour, cover them, then let them rest for 20 minutes.
  5. At this point, I transfer the loaves, seam side down to my transfer board, covered with parchment paper. If you’re not going to use a baking stone, you can use a parchment-covered metal baking sheet.
  6. Sprinkle the tops with flour, cover them, then let the loaves rest for 20 minutes.

Bake

  1. Bake the loaves for 20 minutes (250° C/485 F) with steam (I now use a broiler pan on the bottom rack of my oven and pour a cup of scalding water into it).
  2. Remove your steaming tray after 20 min. Turn down the oven to 200° C/400° F) and continue baking for another 15 minutes, though check for doneness at 10 minutes.
  3. If you want a real crunchy crust, turn the oven off, then leave the loaves in the oven with a slightly cracked door for 10-15 minutes to cure the crusts.

As with my other recipes, I realize that I’ve been a bit long-winded. But I want to make sure I cover as much nuance as possible.

Recipe: Sourdough Baguettes

As I’ve often mentioned in the past, baguettes are my favorite bread to make. Nothing gets me in the zone as much as making baguettes. The reason for this is that though they seem so easy to make on the outside, they’re actually incredibly difficult to get right. For me at least, making baguettes requires me to be on my game every step of the way; forcing me to be absolutely mindful of what I’m doing because one misstep can result in total disaster. Which explains why I haven’t released a sourdough baguette recipe until now. I’ve had quite a few disasters and I didn’t want to publish a recipe until I had a few successful runs.

As with all my baguettes, I make them for the express purpose of being a platform for sandwiches. But they work just as well for tearing up and dipping into olive oil and balsamic vinegar. They’re also optimized for baking in a domestic oven, so they’re more demi-baguettes than full sized 60-80 cm loaves.

Also, these use a hybrid rising technique using a levain and some yeast. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear the sourdough purists out there screaming, but I prefer the results of the hybrid technique over a pure levain-risen dough. I’ve baked several permutations and I have to be honest: While I love the flavor profile of a pure levain-risen dough, it’s far too extensible, and backing off the hydration creates too tight of a crumb. The small amount of commercial yeast used here helps lighten the crumb.

This is a two-day process. On the first day, you create the levain and mix the final dough. The second day, you shape and bake. This is in contrast to the traditional poolish-based baguette where you make the poolish the night before, then mix the final dough the next morning and bake.

Day 1

Levain

Mature, Active Starter150 grams
Whole Wheat Flour25 grams
Unbleached Bread or High-Extraction Flour300 grams
Water325 grams
I’m assuming your starter is 100% hydration. If it’s a stiffer starter, it’s not a problem. Just do the calculations to create 100% hydration levain.

For the starter, take some of your mother culture and create a starter to make 150 grams. I do this early in the morning when I’m feeding my room temperature culture, or just ramp up my refrigerated mother (I only keep about 50 grams of refrigerated mother) and wait a few hours until it becomes totally active.

Once the starter’s nice and bubbly, mix all the ingredients above together at the same time. Make sure you mix thoroughly until smooth. This will be wet. Cover the mixture then let it rise for a few hours until it doubles and is nice and bubbly.

Note that making the starter and levain will take the better part of the day. I start activating my starter around 7am, then mix the levain by late morning. I don’t mix the final dough until late afternoon. You can push the process a little bit by putting your container in the oven with the door cracked so the oven light provides a little heat.

Final Dough

Levain800 grams
Unbleached All-Purpose Flour*600 grams
Water (90° – 95° F) ꝉ350 grams
Salt20 grams
Instant Yeast5 grams
* I recommend either King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill AP flour, or another brand as long as the protein content is above 11%. Most generic, grocery store AP flour is around 10%, while Bob’s and KA are around 11.7% protein. It may not seem like much of a difference, but believe me, it makes a world of difference.

ꝉ Though I provided a temp, the idea is to get the final dough temp to be around 75°-80°
  1. (autolyse) Mix the levain, AP flour and 300 grams of the water together until no dry ingredients are present. This should be a shaggy mass. Let the mixture rest for 30 minutes.
  2. Dissolve the salt in the remaining water, then pour over the dough, then evenly sprinkle the yeast over dough as well. Mix thoroughly until the salt and yeast are fully incorporated. The dough will still be a little shaggy.
  3. Rest for 30 minutes, then do a stretch and fold of the dough to build strength, making sure that you do enough stretches and folds to where the dough fights you a bit. This is important!
  4. Rest for another 30 minutes, then do another stretch and fold of the dough.
  5. Rest for 30 minutes, then cover the container and pop it into the fridge for 12-18 hours.

Day 2

Whew! Still with me? I know, this seems like a long process, but it’s not complicated. There are just lots of steps and things to consider and I want to make sure I cover as much as I can. Here are the steps for shaping and baking:

  1. Preheat your oven to 480-degrees Fahrenheit (250-degrees C)
  2. Gently turn out dough onto an unfloured surface, gently pull on the dough to shape it into a rough rectangle, then divide it into six equal pieces. I use a scale to measure out approximately 295 grams each.
  3. Using letter folds, gently pre-shape the pieces into rough jelly-roll-like logs.
  4. Once the pieces have been pre-shaped, lightly flour them and cover with a cloth and let rest for 20-30 minutes.
  5. Rather than try to explain how to shape the baguettes, view this video. This is the ABSOLUTE BEST shaping technique I’ve learned, and best yet, it is focused on baking in a domestic oven!
  6. Place each shaped loaf on a well-floured couche. I can’t stress how incredibly useful a couche is! If you don’t have one, you can use a towel, but a linen couche holds flour better.
  7. Let proof for 30-45 minutes. Note: You want the loaves to be slightly under-proofed, so when you do the finger dent test, you want the dough to have just a little spring. It is important you don’t take it out to full proofing because that will affect the oven spring.
  8. Transfer loaves to a loading board or square peel and make sure there’s at least 3/4″ between each loaf.
  9. Score the loaves. Here’s Chef Markus again, demonstrating how to score baguettes.
  10. Transfer the loaves onto a baking stone. If you don’t have a baking stone, a flat baking sheet will work as well, but I’d recommend preheating it in your oven.
    1. If you do use a baking sheet, line it with parchment paper otherwise your loaves will stick!
  11. Apply steam to the loaves for the first 12 minutes of the bake. I use the bottom portion of a broiler pan on the bottom rack and put a cup of scalding water into it, and I also throw a couple of small ice cubes on the bottom of my oven (I don’t have coils there, so it’s safe).
  12. After 12 minutes, remove your steaming container, and vent the steam.
  13. Turn down the oven to 400-degrees F (~200-degrees C), and set a timer for 10 minutes. But check for doneness at 8 minutes. My own oven can be a bit wonky with temperature sometimes, and on cooler days, I extend the final baking time at 400-degrees a few minutes.
  14. If you want a really crunchy crust (I love that, btw), then turn off your oven and crack the oven door with an oven mitt (see the picture below). This will slowly release the heat from the oven and cure your crust.
  15. Remove loaves and let cool for 30 minutes!
Curing the crust after the bake using an oven mitt to slowly release the heat from the oven.

Experimentation Sometimes Sucks!

These past several bakes I’ve been experimenting with different AP flours as I use a three-flour blend of whole wheat, high-extraction, and AP flour depending on the types of bread that I’m baking. I’m pretty much set in the whole wheat and high-extraction flour area, but I’ve been trying out different AP flours for one simple reason: cost savings. Flour expenditures add up and I need to be as economical as I can considering how fast I go through it.

Now you might be thinking, Just get some King Arthur AP flour. But here’s the rub: It’s almost $7.00 per 5-lb. bag! I go through 10 pounds of AP flour a week. No doubt, it’s a high-quality flour, but the cost adds up. Bob’s Red Mill AP flour is great as well and it’s only $5.00 per 5-lb. bag. BUT, Gold Medal and grocery store “house” brands (let’s call them generic flours) are less than $4.00 per 5-lb bag, making them excellent alternatives, at least cost-wise.

On the surface, the cost-savings is great, but from a practical standpoint, there is a cost, and that is that the generic flours are very low in protein. Whereas Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur AP flours are just below 12% in protein, generic flours are around 10%. That might not seem like much of a difference. But it’s huge.

The picture I included at the top of this post is of high-hydration sourdough loaves that I baked over the last couple of days (~85% hydration). They were all made with half Gold Medal Unbleached AP flour, 20% whole wheat flour, and 30% high-extraction flour. The crumb in each of the loaves is nice, but the oven spring was horrible! And developing the gluten in these loaves was incredibly difficult.

Granted, the high-hydration dough doesn’t want to hold up once shaped. But with proper gluten formation, it will not lose its shape readily, and with the whole wheat and high-extraction flour, I thought I’d have plenty of protein to give me some structure. But with these loaves, no matter how much I worked the dough, I just couldn’t get them to hold together. I even did an overnight cold ferment to help set the dough, but even that didn’t work.

As a result, the loaves are a little flat. Without a doubt, they’re delicious. But I can’t say that I’m not disappointed with the end result. I’m actually extremely disappointed. It takes a long time to make bread, so it sucks when things don’t turn out as expected. Technically they were all supposed to be batards, but they ended up being more like ciabattas. I swear that I spent lots of time with the loaves, developing an outer skin, but to no avail.

Now, one way of approaching this is to add some vital wheat gluten. I actually did that with the uncut set of loaves in the picture. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time developing the gluten, but all those loaves went through six sets of stretches and folds over the course of three hours. But for the life of me, I couldn’t get the dough to “fight” me in any of the sets. I’d feel a bit of tension, but not really appreciable tension. Even my regular ciabatta dough develops great tension!

So it kind of boils down to this: Generic, grocery store AP flour is great for things like cakes and cookies. But for bread, there’s a base threshold. I just can’t go below it. Luckily though, my favorite mill, Azure Standard, carries an AP flour that I can’t wait to get delivered. It’s unbleached, unbromated, and organic. I ordered 20 lbs. and I can’t wait until it arrives!

In closing, despite my disappointment, the bread didn’t go to waste. We made sandwiches from the cut loaf, and I gave the other loaves away. Like I said, they were delicious, so I didn’t have any worries in the taste department. But when you’re after an aesthetic, you expect the aesthetic, and falling short can be frustrating to say the least.

I’m Making Nancy Silverton’s Grape Starter!

I’ve resisted making a sourdough starter for a long time. It wasn’t that I was completely averse to it. It was just that I didn’t want to divert my focus from the other steps in bread production. To me, a levain is just a leavening agent, a tool. But it’s a tool that needs time to develop; honestly, time that I just didn’t want to spend, having developed and maintained a culture in the past.

But I got to the point where I’ve gained enough confidence in my process, so I started to create starters (yes, plural). I have one that I feed every day that focuses on the yeast that I use for baguettes and ciabatta. And I have one in the fridge that I use to really bring out the sour notes in my bread, and just this past weekend, I started creating a grape starter, inspired by acclaimed chef and restauranteur, Nancy Silverton.

I’ve been intrigued by this sourdough starter ever since I read about it in some random blog post. To be honest, I had known about Nancy Silverton for a long time, but I had no idea she had made her starter from grapes! When I read that, I started doing research and vowed that once I had the time, I’d make this starter. Well that time came a few days ago.

Nancy’s recipe calls for unwashed organic grapes. This is important because they’re covered with natural yeast. That said, even washed, organic grapes will still have microbes on them, but if you look at fresh-off-the-vine grapes, they’re covered with a dusting of natural yeast.

Luckily for me, my best friend works at Eden Rift Vineyards in Hollister, CA. So I took a day trip down to Hollister this past Saturday and after drinking some VERY GOOD wine, he clipped a cluster of grenache grapes from one of the vines. Talk about fresh! If you look at the picture of the cluster above, you’ll see the dusting of yeast all over the grapes.

For recipe guidance, I referenced two different articles from Food.com and The Quest for Sourdough. If you reference the Food.com article, the “real” instructions are actually in the first comment in the comments section. I used the “The Quest…” article as simply a reference for the weights as I didn’t have the same weights listed in the Food.com article.

So now I’m on Day 3. What I’ve noticed with this particular starter is that the fermentation bubbles are actually much smaller than with my other starters. I forgot to take a picture of the starter before I mixed it, but I was amazed at the difference between how those wild yeasts act vs. the wild yeasts from my regular starters (which I suspect has a lot of commercial s. cervisiae).

The smell is fruity of course and quite alcoholic. With that grape juice, wine is also being made – those fine bubbles that I mentioned above are reminiscent of champagne bubbles – very cool. Taste-wise, the sourness is actually much milder than I expected, though I imagine it’ll get more intense once the two-week process to grow this starter is complete.

I’m SO looking forward to using this starter!

I’m Not Going to Name My Damn Starter…

…or my peel, or my freakin’ fermentation container for that matter. If you want to do that, go ahead. It’s all good. And no, I wouldn’t dream of ridiculing anyone who does this. I’m just not that sentimental when it comes to baking and cooking.

Shit! If I was going to name anything, I should probably name my cast iron skillet that I’ve been seasoning for almost 30 years. But a starter? I’m not so sure.

However, when I was feeding the starter in the picture the other day, I harkened back to Anthony Bourdain’s book, “Kitchen Confidential,” where in one segment, his bread guy called him and said, “Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch!” referring to his starter. When my wife walked into the kitchen while I was in the middle of remembering this passage, she asked me, “Watcha doin’?” I laughed and replied, “I’m feeding the bitch!” That got a weird look and I didn’t explain myself…

So maybe I’ll be a copycat and call it The Bitch… Nah… I’m just not attached enough to it to personify it. It’s just another tool. To me, it’s a consumable, like seasonings. Granted, I have to build up and maintain a starter, but even still, it’s something I consume in the process of baking.

That said, though I may not name my starter cultures, I do intend to classify them based on what I want out of them. Yes, I’m going to build up a few different starters. This particular starter is probably going to be my “daily” starter that I use for everyday baking. It has some classic banana esters that are pretty damn cool-smelling! I’m also going to be building up a couple of different grape starters based on Nancy Silverton’s grape starter recipe that will mostly be held in cold storage. I’m getting the grapes from the Eden Rift vineyard in the Cienega Valley in Hollister, CA tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to getting those starters built up!

But no, I ain’t gonna name them!

My Master “Sourdough” Recipe

I purposely put quotes around “Sourdough” because even though the bread has a slightly sour taste, it is not made from a levain, but from a pre-ferment; specifically a poolish. What? Sourdough bread from a poolish? Well, give it a bit of time and it’ll turn sour, then when added to the final dough, that will give the microbes plenty more to feed on, and it’ll produce a very pleasing, sour taste throughout the loaf.

One might argue that a bread like this will not be as complex in taste as a traditional sourdough bread. But I disagree. Just as with cooking, complexity can come from several sources. I’ve joined the school of thought that doesn’t depend solely on the microbes to provide the flavor complexity. The combination of the flours I use plays an immense role in influencing the flavor and texture of the bread.

If you read this blog, you know I’ve written another batard with poolish recipe. That one works great, and even though the proportions are exact, the fundamental difference with that recipe and this are the number of stretch and folds that are done with this recipe. The original had just four folds, this has six. The extra two folds make a HUGE difference in the structure of the dough!

Here’s the recipe:

FlourWaterSaltYeast
Poolish250*2500.40
Final Dough750**500†192.6***
Totals1000750193.00
Bakers %100.00%75.00%1.90%0.3%
* Whole Wheat Flour (fine or extra-fine ground)
** You can use regular, high-protein bread flour here, but I recommend using a high-extraction flour such as Type 85.
*** Add a bit more yeast (up to a gram) if your kitchen is around 70-degrees. The amount listed here is for 75+-degree kitchen, like mine is in the summer.

†You really want to have your dough be in the 75-80 degree range. So take the temperature of your flour with a food-grade thermometer, then use the table in this article to determine what your water temp should be.
  1. In a separate container, make the poolish mixing everything together until smooth. This is wet, and you don’t want any lumps.
  2. Allow the poolish to rest for at least 12 hours, but probably not more than 16 hours. With this long of a resting time, make the poolish at about 8-9 PM at night, and it’ll be ready in the morning.
  3. When you’re ready to make the final dough, transfer the poolish to a large mixing bowl or a stand mixer bowl. Add most of the water and whisk until the poolish is dissolved. Then use the rest of the water to rinse out your poolish container so you get everything.
  4. Add the flour to the poolish mixture, and combine until there are no dry spots. It’ll be shaggy. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let it autolyse for 30 – 45 minutes. It’s important not to mix to a smooth state because all we’re trying to do here is help the flour with water absorption and not start to develop the gluten structure. Note that with the poolish in there, fermentation will start, but that’s okay.
  5. Once autolyse is complete, sprinkle the salt and yeast evenly over the top of the dough and start mixing until smooth. Admittedly, I do this with a stand mixer because it does it better than I can with my hands. I used to do this step with my hands but using a stand mixer saves me a little time; especially when the bulk fermentation takes over three hours.
  6. One the mixture is smooth, transfer the dough to the container you’ll be using for fermentation. Once transferred, immediately do a stretch and fold of the dough to form it into a ball. Then turn the ball over onto its folds. I use Ken Forkish’s stretch and fold technique and stretch and fold in my fermentation container. There are lots of others but I started out with Ken’s technique and it’s what I’m used to. In any case, once you’ve done the stretch and fold, cover your container and put it a place where you can reasonably maintain the temperature of your dough.
  7. Repeat step 6 every half hour for the next 3 hours. Yup… you read that right. This one takes time, but it is SO worth it! Also, note that you want to treat the dough gently and not degas it. When you stretch and fold in the bulk fermentation stage, you want to be gentle and not tear or press down on the dough.
  8. After the last fold, let the dough rest for 45-60 minutes. You should see nice bubbles in the dough, but it shouldn’t be going crazy. Your dough should be a bit jiggly from the air pockets that have formed.
  9. Now, carefully pour the dough onto an unfloured work area. You don’t want to degas it and ruin all the work the microbes have done. Divide the dough into two reasonably equal portions, then lightly flour the tops of the pieces. These will be the tops of your dough.
  10. Take a portioned piece and flip it over onto the floured side (with a little flour on your board). Try to gently move the dough. If it sticks, just lift it up and sprinkle some flour underneath the sticky area. Pre-shape the piece into a nice, tight ball then flip it over onto the seams. Repeat this with the other piece.
  11. Lightly flour the tops then cover with a floured cloth and let them rest for 15 minutes.
  12. Once the balls have rested, shape them into the type of loaf you want and place them into an appropriate proofing container, seam side up.
  13. Place the containers in separate plastic bags, then put them in a cool, dark place place to proof for up to 2 hours. Check after an hour though and if your dough passes the finger dent test, then it’s ready to bake.
  14. While the dough is proofing, preheat your oven to 475-degrees. If you’re using a Dutch oven, place it in the oven now. I use a baking stone and it needs a minimum of an hour to come to temp. If using a baking stone, also place a metal baking pan (I use a 9″ cake round) on the bottom rack of the oven.

Baking

Dutch Oven

Remove your preheated Dutch oven from your oven, then place a loaf directly into it. Carefully score the top of the bread, cover the pot, then put it back into the oven. Bake covered at 475-degrees for 20 minutes, then uncovered for 10 minutes to harden the crust.

If you only have one Dutch oven, then pop the other container in the fridge while the first loaf is baking. Once it’s done, you can transfer the chilled dough directly to the Dutch oven.

Baking Stone

Before you transfer your loaves to your peel, put about a cup of hot water into the metal baking pan to start generating steam. If your oven doesn’t have heating coils at the bottom, you can help with the steam by pouring a little on the bottom of the oven. Immediately close the door, so your loaves will enter a humid environment.

Now, transfer your loaves to your peel, then score the loaves. Now, as quickly – and safely – as you can, place your loaves onto your baking stone and get the door shut as quickly as you can. You can do the water at the bottom of the oven to get the steaming process going again.

Bake at 475-degrees for 35 minutes.

After 20 minutes, remove the water pan from the oven to allow the crust to set and harden for the last 15 minutes.

Final Thoughts

The cool thing about this is that with the stretch and folds, I recently started doing this because my previous loaves kept on collapsing on my peel. You have to expect a little collapse, but these were laying out too much. It was perplexing because I knew I nailed the proofing times and I’d get a big ear and an open crumb – just not much vertical rise. So I thought I needed to work the dough a bit more to get some more structure.

It turns out that this is exactly what the famous Tartine bakery in San Francisco does! I just read several Tartine recipes by various people (yes, even the famed NY Times recipe) and each had six stretch and folds over the course of three hours! Pretty awesome!

Look, I Just Want to Make Great Bread

The Covid lockdown has had an interesting effect across the world: Lots of people started baking bread. I’m one of them and I’ll be the first to admit that I jumped on the bandwagon! And all throughout this time, there seems to be this one term that gets thrown around by beginners and experts alike when it comes to baking artisan bread: sourdough.

It seems, to me at least, that the term sourdough has also seemed to become synonymous with making artisan bread. There’s so much buzz about sourdough that when you go on online forums, all anyone talks about with respect to baking bread is baking sourdough bread, as if it’s the ONLY valid way to make bread. Of course, that’s not true. There are different ways to ferment flour and water.

I’ve felt so inundated by the term sourdough, that I’ve developed a bit of a mental aversion to the term. And to be honest, I feel just a little guilty about having this aversion to it which is why I’ve been writing articles in an attempt to articulate why I feel this aversion. But after a lot of careful thought, I think I can finally explain why I feel this way.

It boils down to this: Once you add a leavening agent to flour and water, the process is pretty much the same. Of course, you have to react to variants in hydration and environment, but irrespective of your leavening agent, you react to those variants in the same way. Hot room? Shorter bulk and proof times. Higher hydration? Stretch and fold; and you pre-shape with a scraper, forming a ball with the rotate and pull method. Whether you started with instant yeast or a poolish or a biga or a sourdough starter, after that, you handle the inoculated dough the same damn way!

Sure, there is an art to creating and maintaining a sourdough starter. For instance, I’m totally blown away by Nancy Silverton’s (of La Brea Bakery fame) Grape Method (look it up, it’s cool). But to me, the real art is in the actual manipulation of the fermented dough to produce loaves of bread. It may start with the starter, but it becomes bread through working the dough. And also, though I’m still pretty much a beginner at this, I’ve developed this sense that the actual craft of artisan bread is not just creating a single loaf of bread, it’s in creating different types of bread in a consistent fashion.

For instance, here are a few pics from recent 2-pound batards I made:

I just pulled the loaf on the far left out of the oven a few minutes ago. The thing about these loaves is that they all look, feel, and taste pretty much the same. Of course, that’s due in large part to my proofing baskets. But still, they’re all pretty similar. To tell you the truth, I’ve only just reached this point in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been working hard on consistency in my process; working on the craft.

And herein lies my slight aversion to the word sourdough. The starter is only a single piece of the puzzle. You have to construct the dough and build and shape its gluten structure for it to become a great loaf of bread. And for me, as I entitled this post, I just want to make great bread, no matter what leavening agent I use!