Patience is key when baking sourdough bread.
You have to wait for your starter to mature. You have to wait for the dough to rise. Sometimes you have to wait longer than the recipe says and beg a little. Sometimes you even have to wait to make loaf number one into croutons and then try again!
I will give you some sloppy tips today, but if you really want to tend a sourdough, you must check out my friend Sarah’s Definitive Guide to Sourdough.
On Keeping Your Starter Happy
I think sourdough starters are kind of like…toddlers. I never really know what they’re going to do, but I keep feeding them and watching them.
Basic Sourdough Feeding Tips
- Feed your starter every day if it’s at room temperature or higher, with any grain and sometimes water.
- Stir well, scraping all the way down to the bottom of the jar/pot/bowl.
- Keep your starter warm by leaving it on the stovetop when you cook. I generally get great bubble action when I do this, which sometimes results in this.
- Store your starter in the fridge if you don’t bake often. You still need to feed it once a week if it’s in there long term. I usually let it sit out to ferment at room temp when I feed it, then refrigerate again.
- Be sure to feed your starter every time you take some out for baking. How much? Most recipes say to replace what you took out – like if you use a cup of starter, mix in a cup of flour and a cup of water. Depending on your plans for your starter, you can add more or less and be just fine. As long as you have some starter left to continue your culture, nearly anything goes. Katz of Wild Fermentation claims that the starter clinging to the sides of the jar is enough to keep it going.
- Some recipes say to “discard” half your starter every time you feed it, so that’s where the lingo in this week’s recipes comes from. I don’t. I just feed and feed and feed – so if I’m getting too close to the top of my jar, I better use some! You can just use any starter for this week’s recipes. Once you take some out and give it a bigger feeding, it will be even more ready for bread baking, in my experience.
Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread Recipe
- The night before you are going to bake bread, make a sponge by mixing the starter with the milk and 3 cups of flour.
- Cover and leave at room temperature overnight, or better yet, in the oven with the light on. I always turn the oven on to 350 degrees for one minute exactly when I’m trying to get my sourdough yeast to be most active.
- (I use a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook to knead my bread – I could NOT do it without that tool!)
- The next morning, stir the sponge before beginning.
- Then, add in the honey and eggs, stirring until incorporated.
- Add the remaining flour, salt and butter and use your dough hook to fully mix, then knead for 5-7 minutes, adding more flour as necessary. Here’s where we radically depart from conventional yeast bread. Don’t add too much flour. That’s how you get a doorstop loaf, aka “straight to crouton,” (see below) or worse yet, a brick, aka “straight to breadcrumbs.” I add just barely enough to get the dough pulling away from the sides ever so slightly. (see photos below)
- Look for "developed gluten" which is sticky and stringy and holds together quite well.
- Cover the dough with a towel and put it back in the oven with the light on, 350 degrees for exactly one minute and then off. Sourdough takes longer to rise than commercial yeast, so expect anywhere from two to four hours, depending on the strength of the starter and the heat in your kitchen. I almost always leave it for four to six, or longer if necessary! Have patience.
- Butter two 9×5-inch loaf pans.
- Once the dough has doubled in size, pour it into the loaf pans. I’m serious. Pour it.
- Cover the pans again and put them in the oven – you know the drill by now – with the light on, 350 for a minute and off. This is a great time to baby your starter, too, so keep it in that nice warm oven.
- When the dough has risen at least to the top of the pans or a half-inch above, which takes an hour and a half to three hours, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. (Take the loaves out first.)
- Slash loaves down the middle, then immediately bake until they are honey brown and sound hollow when tapped on the top, 35-40 minutes. Be careful not to overbake this bread or it will be dry.
- Carefully remove the loaves from the pans and let cool completely on wire racks before slicing.
* Feel free to use 100% water instead of the milk for a more frugal, dairy-free version. The loaf may be slightly softer with milk, but it's good either way!
* I also forget to set the butter on the counter sometimes and have replaced it with coconut oil in a pinch with fine results (dairy-free version).
adapted from Sarah at Heartland Renaissance, who adapted it from Essentials of Baking cookbook.
Photos so You Know What to Look For
In the morning, the sponge should look bubbly like this:Lots of rising action here already, even in the sponge. If I don’t see this, I might need to offer extra time on the rising for the loaves.
Remember that I add just barely enough flour to get the dough pulling away from the sides ever so slightly. It looks like this: Does that look like any self-respecting bread dough? No way. That is why I couldn’t do this with my hands! When trying to figure out if you’ve kneaded enough or added enough flour, keep in mind that developing gluten, the substance in grains that enables a rise, is your goal. “Developed” gluten is sticky and allows you to stretch the bread dough. Elasticity would be a word to keep in mind. This bread dough below, for example, does not have developed gluten. I didn’t get that part. We’re still eating the croutons from November!
This an “oops I let the dough rise too long in the pans” moment: When my starter was less mature or is less active, I could leave my loaves forever (it seemed) without consequence. Some days the rising action is just working so well that I actually have to keep an eye on things or risk overrising the dough! If this happens to you, just bake with a cookie sheet underneath to catch the dough that will fall down. The bread is still good, if odd-shaped! (My mom has just trimmed off the overhanging dough just before baking with good results.)
What is slashing loaves? This took me a while to figure out, but it’s basically the chef’s way of telling the bread where to expand, like here:
instead of here:
Oops. You can use a sharp serrated knife and make a quick sawing motion or a small sharp knife to cut about 1/2 inch in. This sticky dough is a bit difficult to slash –you have to convince it to stay.
- I changed the original recipe by adding a half cup starter because I was worried I wouldn’t get it to rise. Now that I’ve had success, I’m afraid to take it back out, and I’ve even read since then that more starter decreases the overall sourness of the finished product, which is the opposite of what I expected! I also added a cup of flour to the sponge, taking it from the next day’s dough. My intent was simply to get more flour soaking overnight for more total phytate reduction.
- I use half and half traditional (red) whole wheat and white whole wheat, red for the gluten content and white for the lighter flavor. Sometimes I also use part spelt or rye flour (remember that rye is highest in phytase, so a great flour to use with sourdough). The recipe is very versatile!
- In my research on the health benefits of sourdough bread, I came across a source that said that any sponge that includes milk would inhibit the fermentation process. I tried this recipe with 100% water instead of the milk, and it was equally as good! The milk and eggs both will serve to make the final loaf softer, so if you’re nervous about good results, go ahead and use the milk. Once you’re confident with the bread, give water a try. It’s more frugal, too! (I have not tried it without the eggs.)
- I also forget to set the butter on the counter sometimes and have replaced it with coconut oil in a pinch with fine results.
- It does take a long time to do proper sourdough bread. I generally knead the dough at breakfast and shoot to get it in the loaf pans around 3:00 to bake for dinner.
To keep the fresh-baked crusty and crunchy crust, just store the entire loaf out in the air. Once cut, you can put the heel back on the end to keep it fresh or stand it on end on a cutting board. If you’re willing to give up on crunchy crusts, put it all in a bag or other airtight storage. I always at least let the loaves sit out overnight on the rack.
Many say that homemade bread doesn’t last very long, but in my experience, you can’t hardly convince this stuff to mold. I’ve read elsewhere that because sourdough is a fermented food, it does have the added longevity you would expect from a ferment.
Don’t refrigerate bread (it will get stale but not moldy), but you could freeze it for the future if you like. If you freeze it, give it a day after baking before storing to increase the nutrient density even further, believe it or not. Slice it first if you like so that you can remove and toast individual slices any time.
How does it taste?
We love this bread! It’s not a perfect sandwich bread, but I think it makes good grilled cheese, and my kids will eat it as sandwiches. It slices so evenly that my mother-in-law couldn’t believe it wasn’t storebought. We love it best toasted with butter and honey – I think my kids could eat a slice at every meal and snack and be thrilled.
We like it so much I’m almost afraid to branch out, although my husband does think this multigrain sourdough bread is even better. If I have a cup of leftover oatmeal, I’ll make that one, but it’s a compromise because it has a few cups of white flour.
Other Sourdough Posts elsewhere:
- Sourdough Home – layers of information, including a starter primer and 100% whole wheat recipe.
- Breadtopia also has a whole grain sourdough recipe and is often recommended by readers, along with their no-knead bread method.
- Keeper of the Home’s troubleshooting – like me, Stephanie advocates a longer rise time if you don’t get what you want. Just keep waiting and don’t bake until you have reached a good-looking loaf! Her sourdough bread recipe is really simple.
- Here too is the Nourishing Gourmet’s Everyday Sourdough Bread.
- Bake at 350 has the most drool-worthy pictures of her bread. If only white flour was better for me!
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