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Baking bread in a bakery is a dream come true. In our bakery, we have access to all the necessary tools to ensure success. With consistent repetition and practice, we can turn out amazing loaves, day after day, with ease and grace.

In comparison, baking bread at home can be difficult and mired in frustrations. Your kitchen counter space is always just a few square feet shy of perfection. Your scale is always low on batteries. Your loaf of bread, by dint of its singularity, becomes the most important thing in the world…leading to constant poking, prodding, and worrying.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way! With adequate time and patience, success is very attainable. What follows is meant to be a set of loose guidelines that, if followed, will yield a loaf of bread you can be proud of. If you’re the scientific type, you experiment with the amount of water and flours used in the dough. If you’re more cavalier, you can immediately throw caution to the wind and replace whole wheat with more interesting flours. Good luck!

Field Company Guide to Sourdough Bread

 

The Night Before

If you don’t already have a sourdough starter at home, make one now, then come back once it’s ready to use.

Right before bedtime on the night before you plan on mixing your dough, you should refresh your starter with 150g of cool (around 70°F) water and 150g of flour (whatever you used to make your starter). Leave it out somewhere in your kitchen that isn’t insanely hot or cold. Go to bed and dream of the accolades and adoration showered upon you by friends and family as you pull your loaf from the oven.

The Morning Of

Wake up and grab your coffee and/or tea. It’s go time. Weigh all of the ingredients listed below except for the salt (this will make it easier for the yeast to start doing their thing) and combine them in a large mixing bowl. Using your hand, mix all of the ingredients together until everything is evenly incorporated and a shaggy mess. Use a dough scraper to scrape excess dough off your hand and the sides of the mixing bowl. Cover the mixing bowl with a dish towel or plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for around 30 minutes.

Sourdough Formula

  • Bread or AP Flour — 400g
  • Whole Wheat Flour — 100g
  • Sourdough Starter — 90g
  • Water — 400g
  • Salt — 10g
  • Total: 1000g

Weigh the salt and dump it over the dough with a few sprinkles of water. Use your hand to massage the salt and extra water into the dough for approximately 5 minutes, until all of the salt is evenly dissolved and distributed throughout the dough. Use the dough scraper to scrape excess dough off your hand and the sides of the mixing bowl. Cover the bowl and let rest for 30 minutes.

Get your hand damp and gently pull up one side of the dough, then fold it toward the center of the mixing bowl. Repeat this until all sides of the dough have been pulled toward the center. This will help to strengthen the dough, redistribute the heat of the dough, and relocate the yeast to fresh food sources in the dough. This step is imperative to the success of your dough and should not be neglected! Use the dough scraper to scrape excess dough off of your hand and the sides of the mixing bowl. Cover and let the dough rest for 60 minutes.

Photo: Lauren V. Allen

Late Morning / Early Afternoon

Repeat the folding technique described in the paragraph above every 60 minutes for the next 3 to 5 hours. Do not feel the need to watch your dough at all between these folds! As long as the mixing bowl is covered and sitting in part of your kitchen that’s between 70°F and 80°F, you’re free to complete small tasks around the house. Take the trash out. Mow the lawn. Feed the iguana.

During these folds you should start to notice a distinct shift in the qualities of your dough. It will transform from a relatively shaggy mess into a cohesive and smooth mass. The initial stickiness will give way to a slight tackiness as the starches in the flour become completely hydrated and the remaining water finds its place in the gluten network that you’re developing with the periodic folds.

Eventually, while you’re folding your dough, you’ll notice that there are some small air bubbles inside the dough. This is a good thing! These air bubbles are the direct result of the yeast doing their thing at the right time and at the right temperature. Once the dough feels like a pillowy mass of tiny little air bubbles that slightly pop between your fingertips as you pinch the dough, then it’s time to move on to the next step. As I mentioned earlier….after adding the salt it should take about 3½ hours until you get to this point.

Early Afternoon

Find a clean spot on your counter or table. Take a healthy pinch of flour (I use whole wheat but you don’t have to) and toss it onto your counter like you’re throwing a frisbee. Make sure there’s an even coverage of flour and don’t be afraid of using a fair amount. There is such a thing as too much flour, but it’s preferable to making a sticky mess because you used too little.

Dump your dough out onto the floured counter and be sure to scrape any scraps of dough off of the sides of the mixing bowl (you work hard for your money). Give the top of the dough a light frisbee dusting of flour and coat your hands in flour. Gently grab the corners of the dough and fold them into the center of the dough, then turn the dough upside down so that the corners are all tucked neatly under the loaf. This step is called “preshaping” and it allows the gluten to organize itself in such a manner as to facilitate more even shaping in your final loaf. It’s not entirely necessary but it helps to create an aesthetically pleasing loaf of bread. Let the loaf rest on the counter for about 10 minutes while you prepare your proofing basket. No proofing basket? No problem: you can use a medium-size mixing bowl or saucepan.

To prepare your proofing basket, place a basket liner or clean kitchen towel inside, then dust it liberally with flour. This shouldn’t take you the full 10 minutes, so use the rest of your time to finish that crossword puzzle you started yesterday.

Give the top of your loaf a light frisbee dusting of flour and gently flip your loaf back over so the tucked corners are now facing up. (You may need the assistance of your bowl scraper to lift the dough from the table if it’s sticking.) Fold the top of the dough halfway down the loaf. Fold the bottom halfway up the loaf. Fold the right side to the center of the loaf. Fold the left side to the center of the loaf. Now pick up the entire loaf and place it into the proofing basket with the seam facing up. If you lose track of the seam, it’s no big deal...your loaf will still be delicious. Don’t sweat the small stuff!

Photo: Lauren V. Allen

Afternoon / Evening

Let your loaf sit at room temperature for about an hour. During this time feel free to periodically poke and prod your loaf. You’ll notice that it’ll stop immediately bouncing back and take a bit longer to react to each poke...this is good, and means it’s ready to bake. (However, you may not be ready to bake your loaf. Maybe you’re running late for a dinner party. Maybe you stubbed your toe and really need to go to the ER. That’s OK! Just put the proofing basket in your fridge and cover it with a small towel. Pull it out the next morning and proceed.)

Place an oven rack at the bottom rung of your oven, but make sure you have plenty of clearance to fit your Dutch oven with its lid on. It’s always nice to do this before your oven is scorching! If you’re planning on baking your loaf today, then preheat the oven to 500°F. Place your Dutch oven on the rack and let it preheat as well, for at least 30 minutes.

Alright….the moment of truth! Lay out a square piece of parchment and lightly dust it (using your newfound frisbee skills) with a generous pinch of flour. Generously dust the bottom (the naked side peaking up at you from the proofing basket) of your loaf with a pinch of flour, rubbing it around to make sure there are no sticky spots. It’s OK to use a lot of flour here, because it’s always easier to dust off a bit of flour from your loaf than to deal with the agony of a sticky loaf.

Using your hand as a support, gently flip your dough directly onto the center of the parchment. Using scissors, cut the parchment into a circle, leaving at least a 3-inch ring around your dough. If you have a bread lame or serrated knife, score the loaf a few times...if not, no worries.

Using some oven mitts or towels, pull the preheated Dutch oven out of the oven and place it next to your dough. Gently lift the parchment paper and carefully lower it into the Dutch oven. Pop the lid on and place it back into the oven.

Shut the oven door and don’t open it for 30 minutes. At the 30 minute mark, uncover the Dutch oven (remember oven mitts/towels!) and behold your masterpiece. It might be ugly. It might be larger/smaller than you expected. It’s yours, though, so you have no choice but to love it. Shut the door and let it bake, uncovered, until it reaches your desired color...usually another 15 to 25 minutes. I prefer pretty dark loaves, but I can certainly understand enjoying a lighter bake. To each their own!

When your loaf is finished baking, tip it out onto a wire cooling rack. It’s always a good idea to let a hot loaf of bread cool to room temperature before cutting into it, but no one will blame you for slathering butter on a warm loaf!

Photo: Lauren V. Allen

Epilogue

Here’s a dirty little secret. You’ll never truly be satisfied with your bread. You may make a stunning loaf the first time through and that’d be amazing! However, you probably won’t make a stunning loaf and that, to some extent, is even better. Bread baking (especially at home) is a process that requires extreme patience and repetition. It’ll require you to change and tweak some of the above instructions and see what happens. It’ll simultaneously engage your curiosity and test the limits of your temper. Feel free to use this as a blueprint for life.