Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread Recipe
Here’s one of the simplest whole wheat bread recipes that makes a spectacular 100% whole-wheat loaf using sourdough starter. I originally found the recipe through a Mother Jones article using a formula developed by Jonathan McDowell from Washington State University’s Bread Lab. I’ve adapted their recipe with techniques from the San Francisco Baking Institute. If, as a home baker your question is “can I do this?” the answer is yes, absolutely! Bread baking requires practice and it might take a while to get your technique and rhythm down, but the reward is worth it. You’re not only producing one of life’s most elemental and ancient foods, but the practice of baking sourdough bread is inherently satisfying. Just wait until your family and friends start asking when you will be baking bread again.
Note: the entire process requires a few days.
5 quart Dutch oven- A heavy-duty pot with a tight-fitting lid will capture the steam from the dough to create the thick, blistered crusts one typically can only get from commercial baking ovens. Dutch ovens like Le Creuset with their enameled surface work especially well but can be quite expensive. However, a cast iron dutch oven will also work. If you buy one, make sure it is well-seasoned so the bread does not stick.
Digital kitchen scale- A good digital kitchen scale is essential for bread baking. Make sure it has the “tare” or “zero out” function.
Instant read thermometer- A regular meat thermometer does the job but takes time to get an accurate read. This means you’ll be taking the bread out of the oven for longer periods of time. An instant read thermometer gives an accurate read in 2-3 seconds.
Stand mixer with the bread hook attachment- In order to properly autolyse the dough you will need the strength of a stand mixer with its bread hook.
Small wood spoon, straight or half-round pastry scraper (also called a bench knife) and a non-reactive bowl or 9x13 glass baking dish- These important tools will make your life much easier and keep reactive materials, like aluminum, from touching your bread.
Proofing Basket- A traditional rattan proofing basket is optional, but it will both shape your loaf while it retards and make the gentle circular pattern on your loaf that gives it a professional look. A colander lined with a clean, floured linen towel will also work.
- Ingredients for one loaf
- 290 grams Sonora whole wheat flour
- 290 grams Red Fife whole wheat flour
- 506 grams water, at room temperature
- 120 grams Sourdough Starter
- 12 grams salt
- Ingredients for two loaves
- 580 grams Sonora whole wheat flour
- 580 grams Red Fife whole wheat flour
- 1012 grams water, at room temperature
- 240 grams Sourdough Starter
STEP 1: MIX. Measure out the correct amount of water in your stand mixer. Add the mature sourdough starter (see starter instructions) to the water. Mix gently with a wooden spoon. Add all the whole wheat flour. Do not add the salt at this time. Mix on 1st speed for 3 minutes making sure all the flour is incorporated. Turn off the mixer.
Now test for three things:
- Tackiness: does the dough easily stick to your fingers?
- Elasticity: when you gently pull on the dough does it resume its previous shape?
- Extensibility: how easily can the dough be stretched without breaking?
To test the dough for readiness, wet your hands and gently pull a good pinch of dough between your fingers, being careful not to tear the dough. It won’t be ready after 3 minutes of mixing but this gives you a baseline measurement. Touching the dough develops the baker’s hands. Over time you will begin to be able to judge the dough’s readiness as you become more familiar with how sticky it is, how quickly it resumes its shape, and how easily you can stretch the dough. After this initial 3 minute mixing it will be sticky and very easy to stretch.
Next, mix on 2nd speed for 3 minutes and test again with wet hands. It should be less sticky and a little less slack.
Mix on 3rd speed for 30 seconds and retest. This time it should be much less sticky and resist being stretched compared to the first time it was mixed. Your dough will almost certainly need a fourth or even fifth time for another 30 seconds, although this is very individual to your kitchen and its temperature. The dough will mix more quickly on warmer days. In my kitchen in Marin, California, I usually mix five times. The desired result is dough that when touched with wet hands is not sticky, pulls back to shape fairly quickly and stretches without breaking. It is possible to over mix. Over-mixed dough becomes tough because the gluten bonds overdevelop resulting in bread that will be too dense. Bread is both an art and a science. The amount of time needed also depends on your mixer. After working with dozens of different home mixers in bread baking classes, every mixer runs at a different speed and has a different sized bread hook. The larger the hook the quicker your dough will be mixed. Over time your ability to read the dough will improve.
STEP 2: REST. This is known as the autolyse step. After you’re finished mixing and have achieved the desired readiness, let the dough rest 30 to 40 minutes in the bowl of the stand mixer covered with a clean dishtowel.
STEP 3: STRETCH AND FOLD. Transfer the dough to an oiled (I use olive oil) large non-reactive bowl, 13x9 glass pyrex baking dish, food storage bin or large stainless steel bowl. Sprinkle the salt on top of the dough. With wet hands, fold in the salt, stretching and folding the dough to develop gluten. My friends call this, “bread yoga: stretch and fold.” Try not to tear the dough when you are stretching and folding. Use your rounded pastry scraper to help get the sticky dough off the sides of the dish and your hands. Repeat this process 8 times, rotating your dish one-quarter turn each time – in total, that is one stretch and fold.
Let dough rest for 30 minutes. Over the next 2-3 hours, you will need to stretch and fold every 30 minutes 6 “stretch and folds” in total. The dough does not need to be kneaded. The stretch and fold technique replaces kneading.
STEP 4: SHAPING. Prepare a workspace on your counter with a heavy dusting of fresh flour as well as a wet area on the side. Scrape the dough onto the wet side of the counter. Wet your hands and shape the dough into a round by gently folding it over on itself, leaving a smooth, round top and a seamed bottom. This is known as a boule.
STEP 5: SHAPING CONTINUED. For the final step in shaping you want to create surface tension. Pull the dough across the floured side of the counter (the flour will grip the dough) to create surface tension on the top of the dough. Ideally you will see the surface membrane of the dough stretch and become thinner. Don’t worry if you can’t do this in the beginning. Your bread will still turn out!
STEP 6: PREPARE YOUR PROOFING BASKET by placing a good amount of brown rice flour into a small hand-held sieve. Shake the rice flour through the sieve until you have coated every your proofing basket completely. You can also use your hands to apply the rice flour but I find the sieve works best. If you do not have a proofing basket, you can line a round colander with a linen cloth and dust it generously with rice flour (one can use a fine mesh cotton cloth, but linen is best). Make sure there is ample rice flour covering all surfaces, and also be sure that the bowl is deep enough to really shore up the sides of the boule.
STEP 7: PROOFING. Very gently place the boule, seam side up, into the floured proofing basket. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let the dough rest for a minimum of two hours or retard the dough (see step 9).
STEP 8: BAKING OR RETARDING. The dough can be baked after resting for 2 hours- see step 11. Or the dough can be retarded and baked later, see step 9.
STEP 9: RETARDING. Retard means to delay or hold back the progress. I prefer to retard the dough in the refrigerator. I retard the dough for two reasons: it provides flexibility as to when you wish to bake the bread and it enhances the flavor profile of the finished loaf. To retard the dough, take the basket of dough and cover it lightly with a linen cloth. Next, gently wrap a thick towel around the basket, making sure that the towel doesn’t rest on the dough surface. The towel insulates the dough as home refrigerators are a little colder than what is optimal. (A 55 degree wine refrigerator is actually an ideal place to retard bread. If you happen to have a wine frig and it’s low on wine bottles you can place your dough inside with a dishtowel.) Once the dough is wrapped in the towel, place it in the refrigerator. I usually let it retard over night and bake it the next morning. I have also retarded the dough for as long as six days. Waiting this long is fine, resulting in a very sour loaf because the lactobacillus from the sourdough consumes most of the sugars in the flour removing most of the sweetness.
STEP 10: PREHEAT THE OVEN AND DUTCH OVEN. One hour before you want to bake, preheat the oven to 500 degrees and put the empty Dutch oven with lid, into the oven, for one hour so that it will become blazing hot.
STEP 11: After an hour, remove the dutch oven and carefully drop in the boule, seam side down.
STEP 12: Make an INCISION along the top membrane, about ¼ inch into the dough's surface, to help with the loaf expansion. One can use a straight razor or a sharp serrated (bread) knife. Cover with the lid and place in the oven.
STEP 13: BAKE 30 minutes, then remove the lid of the Dutch oven and bake until the boule is a deep brown—10 to 15 minutes more. Insert an instant-read thermometer into the middle of the loaf—when done, it will be within a few degrees of 210 degrees F. I usually aim for 208 F.
STEP 14: COOLING. Remove from the Dutch oven and let cool on a metal cooling rack for at least one hour. 4-6 hours is optimal to let the loaf develop flavor. Once completely cool, store in a heavy paper bag, rather than plastic on your kitchen counter so the bread won’t mold. You’ll be surprised how long the whole wheat loaf stays fresh because of the gorgeous healthy fats which are naturally part of fresh milled whole wheat flour. The sourdough fermentation also naturally preserves the freshness. The bread should last at least a week, if you don’t eat it first! After several days on the counter, you can sprinkle some water on a slice of bread and then toast it. This is called “refreshing” and the bread will taste like it just came out of the oven. You can also slice the loaf when cool and freeze part of the loaf.
Making sourdough bread has helped bring a rhythm to my life, and you will find that making bread becomes both a way to care for those at your table and a way to center yourself. I also derive tremendous joy in giving a loaf away every week.
The health benefits of sourdough bread are at multifold. Here are some of the most important:
- Sourdough fermentation breaks down the phytic acid in the dough, freeing up the nutrients. Without sourdough, many nutrients are not bioavailable. So, bread baked with commercial yeast is less nutritious than sourdough bread.
- Sourdough fermentation almost completely breaks down wheat gluten making the bread easy to digest and beneficial for the gut.
- Sourdough bread has a much lower glycemic index than other bread, (allowing you to save your sugar for a delicious berry tart or chocolate chip cookies!)
- Sourdough bread has a longer shelf life. Mine usually lasts at least a week stored in a heavy brown paper bag on the counter.
Using organic heritage wheat in your bread also contributes to healing the soil in our communities. As more people switch to these grains, farmers will convert their crops to pesticide- and irrigation-free varietals. These grains pull carbon from the air and distribute it under ground, where it has a good purpose: nourishing the soil which grows our wheat and in turn nourishes our families and protects our air and water.
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