Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Best-Ever 7-hour Loaf of Sourdough Bread

I started this blog to share my experiences in the constantly evolving life of a meat-eating hippie. Latest in my related obsessions is sourdough baking--I created a starter from instructions in Wild Fermentation a few months ago and never looked back. I found a wonderful site on sourdough baking that, while not specific to whole grains and the digestive benefits of sourdough, has some of the best information on the care and feeding of and baking with a sourdough starter that I have seen. Mike Avery, its author, gives instructions on how to make a 100% whole-wheat loaf of bread using sourdough, adapted from the Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book, which I have adapted further to be NT-friendly (i.e. a total rise time of about 7 hours). I actually don't think that 7 hours is strictly necessary anymore, as long as the flour is alive and freshly milled, but this takes almost that long anyway. Here it is:

7-Hour Sourdough Whole Wheat Bread
Makes 2 loaves

1.5 cup sourdough starter
1.5 cups water
5 1/3 cups freshly milled hard red wheat flour (WonderMill "Pastry" setting)
2.5 tsp sea salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp honey

Pour starter into a mixing bowl. Add the water, salt, honey, and oil. Whisk together.

Add the flour a cup at a time and stir (at first, I used the dough hook on the "Stir" setting on my KitchenAid Pro600, which is effectively 1, then as I got used to the recipe, I used setting 2, but you definitely do not want the mixer to knead any faster). Make sure the dough is well mixed, feeling it to see if the water has been incorporated through the dough. If you find it has not, mix the flour into the dough and get it moistened. Add flour until the dough completely balls up and starts to clean the sides of the bowl, and is not sticky.

Mike Avery now recommends letting the dough rest covered for 10 minutes at this point, before continuing to knead, so that it has a chance to absorb more liquid. Not doing this can yield a dough that is too stiff or too slack, and I've gotten much better results since incorporating this rest period into my routine.

Next, knead on KA setting 2 until it passes the windowpane test, probably 5 to 10 minutes. If you double the recipe, it will take twice as long.

Form the dough into a ball, and then, holding the ball in two hands, tuck the surface of the ball into the bottom of the ball, which will cause the surface of the ball to stretch and form a gluten cloak on the outside of the ball of dough. Don't stretch the dough so much that you tear the dough. Put the ball of dough into a very large bowl and cover it (my dutch oven lid fits perfectly on my largest mixing bowl, so that I don't have to use the evil plastic wrap), and let the dough rise about 3-4 hours in a covered place, at about 80 degrees F. To achieve something resembling this temperature, I put the bowl in an ice chest along with one of those seed or rice bags that you can heat up to put on sore muscles--I heat it for about 3 minutes in the microwave so that it is hot to the touch but doesn't burn my fingers. YMMV, just make sure you don't overheat it or it could burn your dough, or at least raise the temperature beyond the optimal yeast/lactobacillus activity range. Others recommend heating pads combined with cardboard boxes to hold the heat in, and I am thinking of investing in one soon.

When the dough feels spongy and a finger poked into it leaves a dent that doesn't fill in, it has probably risen enough. The dough ball at this point has grown substantially but probably not doubled in size. If the whole dough ball makes a sighing noise and seems to deflate a bit when you press it, it's gone too far--let it rise less in the next cycle. Gently deflate the dough by pressing your fist into the ball, then use a spatula to pull the dough back from the sides of the bowl. Fold over the sides of the ball to form it into a new ball, and put back into the mixing bowl, fold-side down. Again, let the dough rise covered in a warm place until not quite doubled and following the other rise-time criteria outlined previously, which will be about half as long the first rise (about 1.5-2 hours).

I now add in another step here after having carefully read through the Laurel's Kitchen Bread book, as I get bread that rises much better this way. Gently deflate the dough and separate into two halves--I usually use a dough scraper, but you might do OK with a butter knife, nothing too sharp. Round the dough into two balls; each piece of dough should be flattened out to a circle about 1" thick. Take the top edge and fold it towards you to about the center or a little further, then take the right hand corner and fold it almost into the center, going around like the petals of a flower until you have almost a ball. Pick it up and with the heel of your hand press the "petals" underneath so that the top is nicely rounded, and set it down and cover it with a bowl or something that will keep it from drying out. Repeat with the second piece of the dough. And then let them rest for 10 minutes. This has something to do with the gluten relaxing and thus producing a better rise--read the Laurel's Kitchen book for more details, as it is very informative. While it's resting, you can butter your bread pans or wash the bowl.

Finally, form 2 loaves. With each ball of dough, flatten into a 1" thick circle again. Fold the top edge towards you almost in half but not quite, so that it looks like it's smiling at you, pressing from the center of the fold line out to each corner to remove air bubbles. Next take the corners and fold them each 1/3 of the way in, pressing the folds again to remove air bubbles and flatten this piece until it's about 2/3 as long as your bread pan. Roll the top edge toward you like a jelly roll, then pinch the seam and either end together. Pick it up so the seam is on the bottom and put the whole thing into a greased 4 x 8" bread pan, using the back of your fingers to gently press the dough flat so that it fills in the pan. Put the loaves aside to rise a little bit, which should be a bit faster than the second rise (approximately 45 minutes, or a little less). Don't let it over-rise; this cannot be stressed enough. Don't worry if it has hardly risen past the edge of the pan--these loaves seem to rise in the oven in the first half hour if at all, so err on the side of less rise time before baking.

Preheat the oven to 350 F about 15-20 minutes before you think the rise will be done; earlier if you have let any of the previous rise periods go on too long, as you may need to put it in the oven early. When you think the rise is done (criteria are similar to the above, but err on the side of less time), put bread into the oven. After half an hour, look at it. If the loaves are quite brown, reduce the temperature to 325 F. If the bread is pale or pinkish, raise the temperature to 375 F. You may want to use those temperatures for your next batch. If you are at high altitudes, or you use glass bread pans, you may need to adjust the temperature further.

If you've removed it from the pan, set the loaf directly on the oven rack and let it continue baking another 15 minutes (with glass pans, this can help the bottom brown as evenly as the top). Pull the bread out and check it for doneness. Mike prefers to pop a loaf out of the pan and stick a quick reading dial thermometer into the bottom of the loaf; this used to work for me, but I no longer do it. I just go by how brown the outside is. At any rate, it's probably done when it reaches 200 F inside at sea level, or the outside is nicely browned. (At sea level here, this was 1 hour total baking time when using a non-convection oven, or 40-45 minutes in a convection oven).