Now that you know how to create your own sourdough starter, (See Getting Started With Sourdough Bread Part 1) it’s time to make your first loaf of bread.
Make sure your starter has been “fed” consistently for at least a few days beforehand. You will also need some sort of baking vessel, such as a combo cooker or a Dutch oven; a large bowl; bench knife or dough scraper; and a razor for scoring. Once you are ready to begin, make a rough bake plan, either written down or just in your head. This plan should include ensuring that you have all the ingredients ready to go and enough time to watch the process unfold. At least the better part of a day, or 8+ hours.
The night before you plan to bake, feed your starter and make sure that you have enough to make bread with. In this recipe you will need at least 200g. This version of your starter is called a leaven, as it will be used directly in the dough to make your dough rise.
For the most basic recipe, start with 1,000g total of flour:100g of whole wheat and 900g of white bread flour. The percentage of all other ingredients is based on the total weight of flour. So, 75 percent hydration would be 750g of water, 20 percent of leaven is 200g, and 2 percent of salt is 20g. If you are adding any of Dr. Cowan’s Garden powders, mix them in with your flour and proceed as usual.
In a large bowl, mix all of the flour, 700g of water (reserving 50g to mix with the salt), all of the leaven, and stir to completely combine. Wait for about half an hour, and then mix in by hand the salt with the reserved 50g of water. Once the rest of the water and salt are added and mixed thoroughly, you begin what is called bulk fermentation, in which the dough is fermented and aerated by the leaven. During bulk fermentation, every half hour you will need to gently grab the side of the dough and stretch it over the top four times. This stretching is for gluten development and ultimately provides structure to your final loaf.
After three hours of bulk fermentation, or once your dough has doubled in size, you can begin shaping. Gently scoop out the dough onto a clean counter. Divide in half or however many loaves you are making and shape into round balls. Let them sit on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the dough to relax. This step is called bench rest. Flour the top of the dough and flip over, and fold the sides over onto itself, making a nice tight package. Put the dough, flour-side down, into a bowl or proofing basket lined with a towel or floured. Let it rise for at least two hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.
Once the dough is done proofing and you are ready to bake, put your baking vessel into the oven to preheat. When the oven reaches 500 degrees, remove your baking vessel and add your dough, flour-side up, into the hot baking vessel. With the razor blade, make at least one large gash in the top. You can make more decorative marks if you want as well. Bake for 20 minutes with the lid on. After 20 minutes, turn the heat down to 450 and remove the lid. Bake until desired brown coloring, which is usually between 20 and 30 more minutes, remove your loaf from the baking vessel and allow it to cool on a wire rack. Do not cool in the hot baking vessel as this will create condensation and introduce moisture into your nice hard crust.
If this process seems daunting, you are not alone. Sourdough bread-baking is challenging to master, and small mistakes can result in big problems in the final loaf. One of the main reasons for using a powdered yeast is that it eliminates variability and yields a very consistent product. However, with anything that is truly wonderful, as is the case with a real loaf of sourdough bread, it takes time and diligence to master. Start with the basics, get to know your starter and how it works. Once you can predict how it behaves, then you can apply that knowledge to a larger mass of dough, and the rest is fine tuning — as well as many, many loaves of delicious bread to savor and share.
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For this project, a special piece of equipment that I use, and you should as well, comes in very handy: a fermentation crock.
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