Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve been baking bread pretty regularly. Thanks to Andrew, who set me up with a recipe, sourdough starter, banneton, dough whisk, and bench scraper, I had no excuse but to make bread. And over time, I got pretty good at it; by accident and on purpose I modified his recipe and tried all sorts of things with it. And now I feel comfortable sharing what I’ve learned with all of you. The master dough that I’ve developed can become almost anything with proper handling: I have used this dough to make bread (all kinds of shapes), pizza, bagels, pita, and rolls. They’re all exemplary, and very easy to make.
Keep in mind that the flour and starter I use are likely different from yours. My oven is, too. The key to happy baking is staying open to what your materials are telling you and adapting accordingly. Keep your expectations reasonable at the outset, and you’ll have a fine career baking; nothing is written in stone (except the importance of having a stone). Don’t give up after a few attempts; it takes time to get into a groove with the habit, and it takes numerous attempts to train your senses to provide the feedback you need to bake well. Good bread uses and gratifies all five senses as much or more than any other food, so revel in it.
Here’s the master dough; everything is the same until the shaping.
400g white flour
110g whole wheat flour
105 rye flour
375g water (use non-chlorinated so you don’t impair your microbial helpers)
160g sourdough starter at 100% hydration*
16g salt (fine sea salt is best)
Already this is incomplete; I vary the flour proportions almost every time I bake. When I say “white,” I use a locally grown and ground organic Italian-style 00 flour that’s ground with all of the germ. It’s powdery like cake flour, but high-protein and light brownish. I love it. If you can’t find it, don’t worry. Use good organic white instead. Sometimes there’s spelt or triticale in my mix; feel free to experiment with the flavors and textures that you know and love. Try making loaves using nothing but whole wheat and rye; you’ll find that it hydrates differently so you’ll need to adjust the water some. I often leave out the whole wheat and do a 400g/215g mix of the 00 and rye (that’s the photo up top; the boule below has whole wheat). As long as it adds up to 615g, you should be in good shape. You may find that you want 5g more or less of water to get the perfect consistency; amend your recipe accordingly.
Sorry if grams freak you out. Get a scale. Period. Cups are for kids.
Mix all the flours together in a large bowl on a scale. Combine the water and starter in another bowl and stir to combine them. If you’re baking on an accelerated (same-day) schedule, this is the time to maybe add a pinch or two of dried yeast to give it a bump. A little honey will also speed up the yeast. Stir the wet into the dry until throughly combined. Form into a roundish lump and let sit, covered, for 20-30 minutes. This stage, called the autolyse in French, is a vitally important step for gluten development and makes a big difference to the result. Salt prevents it from working, though, so don’t add it until after the brief rest: pat your lump out into a flattish shape and sprinkle half the salt on it, gently dissolving it with wet fingers. Flip it over and do the second half. If the added water has made it too sticky, dust it with flour and turn it out on the counter. You may need to dust it again once or twice if it’s still sticky; you’ll know when it’s just right. Knead for 2-8 minutes to mix in the salt and further develop the gluten, then cover and put somewhere warm for 8-12 hours. The kneading number is vague, because for a long ferment you don’t actually have to do it beyond getting the salt distributed, but it does seem to make a difference, especially for pizza. I usually make dough in the evening after dinner and let it rise overnight.
Here’s a look at the sort of gluten development that an overnight ferment will give you:
Once risen, the best thing you can do is put the container in the fridge for 24-48 hours. This retarding slows the yeast down but allows bacteria to keep souring the dough. If you don’t have time, fear not: the result will still be excellent. If you fridge it, let it come up to room temp for 30-60 minutes before continuing. Whether you retard it or not, next comes the shaping, which is where this versatile dough becomes whatever you want it to. The three things below were all made with the same batch of dough:
It’s worth noting here that a big $4 tile from a local home center makes an excellent bread and pizza stone. Keep it in the bottom of your oven (measure before you head out to buy a tile). Don’t throw your money away on some yuppie bullshit that costs ten times as much.
For a boule, turn the dough out on a lightly floured counter and gather it together on top. Turn it over so the seams are underneath, and gently rotate and tighten the surface. (If your ball of dough is a globe, put your hands on the equator on opposite sides and rotate the ball while also sliding them both down towards Antarctica). Once you’ve got a ball with a nice shape and tight skin, flip it over into a floured banneton or colander lined with a floured tea towel. Let it proof there for 30-60 minutes (depending on ambient temperature) while your oven heats to 500˚. Invert it carefully onto your peel, score it with a cross or asterisk, and slide it onto the tile. Turn the oven down to 450˚ and bake for 40 minutes.
For rolls, divide the dough into 8 pieces (or more, or fewer, depending on their ultimate use). Roll them into round or oblong shapes and rest them under a towel for about 30 minutes. I like to brush the tops with water and then sprinkle them with Maldon salt and minced rosemary. They bake in no time–about 10 minutes, depending on the size.
For added elegance, bake them off in small preheated terra cotta flower pots set in muffin tins for stability. It’s an excellent presentation for parties.
For pita, divide the dough into 8 pieces, shape them into balls, and roll them out into circles about 1/8″ thick. Let them rest under a towel for about 30 minutes. Heat an iron skillet or heavy pan over medium high heat and put a round in the hot pan. Leave it alone, and it will begin to puff up, gradually inflating entirely.
Flip it to brown the other side. You will be blown away by how exactly like the store-bought ones there are, only they taste a million times better and aren’t dry and powdery. Eat them as soon as possible, with butter or with a dense and fragrant stew/curry/grilled kabob of some kind. Or halve them and fill with all manner of sandwichitudinous goodness.
For bagels, divide into 10-12 pieces and roll them into snakes about one inch thick. Connect the ends, Orobouros-style.
Let sit under a towel for about half an hour, then boil for a minute on each side.
Remove from the water with a slotted spoon, drain on a rack, and sprinkle with the topping of your choice while still shiny and sticky. Togarashi makes a fabulous bagel topping.
Bake them for 15-20 minutes.
For pizza dough, divide into quarters, form into balls, and roll or stretch into circles. I like to roll them out thin to just shy of the size of my peel. Top them as you will (on the floured or corn mealed peel) then slide them onto the stone in a 500˚ oven. They usually take 7-9 minutes, and if you have a convection fan, use it. It will ensure that the top is brown and bubbly at the same moment that the bottom is crisp and slightly charred.
For other shapes, practice. Baguettes and ficelles are as simple as rolling out fat or thin snakes, then proofing and scoring them:
Go ahead and braid that shit if you feel like it. If you like to bake in a loaf pan, make a roughly cylindrical lump and plunk it seam side down in the pan to proof and bake. If you like the preaheated Dutch oven school of no-knead baking, just dump your boule into the vessel of your choice. To approximate that crackling crust without a Dutch oven, invert a big disposable aluminum baking pan over your loaf on the stone for the first 30 minutes. The smaller environment will be moister and make for a luscious crust. Remove the cover for the last part of baking to get a good brown on the top, just like you would the lid.
Experiment. There’s no reason why this recipe shouldn’t undergo some changes on its way to becoming yours, the way Andrew’s did as I played with it. Learn to determine when a loaf is done by looking at it or thumping the bottom (a nice hollow sound means yes). Get used to your oven and the flour you can buy locally. Make the bread you want to eat; there’s nothing wrong with liking regular sandwich slices if that’s how you eat your bread–use a loaf pan. If you make cheese, use the whey in place of water when you bake bread. Try different grains so you learn how they behave. Or don’t; if you nail something you love on the very first try, feel free to never deviate from it ever again. It’s your bread.
*Bill Alexander has a good post on how to create your own starter. Please do it. It makes everything better, and it’s not hard to maintain once you have it going strong. Unwaxed organic apples are teeming with wild yeast, and they want to reproduce. Be their pimp. Once your starter is thriving, just feed it every time you bake: add equal weights of flour and water. I add 100g of each every time I feed; since I usually use 160g each time I bake, there’s always enough. If you neglect it and it starts to smell funky, take a small spoon of it and stir it into a fresh jar of at least 100g each of flour and water, then let it sit somewhere warm for a few hours to revive. Don’t forget that climate matters, too. Your starter will explode all over your counter on a hot summer day if you leave it for even a short while, while in the winter it will be as sluggish as you are. I find that the overnight ferment allows for a consistently good result, whether you knead or not. If you feed your starter a few hours before making the dough, you’ll get a much faster rise time. I often feed it right after I make a batch of dough, since it usually has all night to rise, but these variables are yours for the tweaking depending on how baking fits into your life. What matters is that you find a way to include it in your rituals; it’s therapeutic, fun, and I promise that after a couple of tries you will be hard pressed to remember why it was that you used to buy bread.
I know I’ve been talking about this for a long time, so here it finally is. I’ll be updating this with some further variations later on, but in the meantime you should all stop complaining about how lazy I am and go bake some bread.
Also, too, I’m putting in a link to yeastspotting, because they enjoy the baked goods.