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
- 1/2 c. whole grain rice flour for dusting the proofing basket
- 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
- 1 c. whole grain rice flour for dusting the proofing basket
So much of baking bread at home has to do with technique. Our fool-proof recipe for 100% whole wheat sourdough bread is served by the techniques I’ve gleaned studying alongside professional bakers. In a professional bakery, the focus on temperature is emphasized. I mean all temperatures; dough temp, room temp, water temp! Translating this to a home baker is relatively straightforward with an instant read thermometer. It’s not essential but it really helps. As a home baker you can achieve stunning bread without having to take a temperature read on all the elements, but knowing the dough temp and room temp can help with more predictable results.
STEP 1: Making the levain 12 hours ahead of time
Levain is active sourdough starter that was fed flour and water in equal amounts. To prepare the levain for one loaf of bread you will need 120 grams of levain. To make the levain, remove a small amount of your sourdough starter, approximately 1 TBLS. add 75 grams of water and 75 grams of flour and stir well. Double this if you’re making two loaves.
Begin with your levain that was fed 12 hours previously. In other words, if you made the levain at 10:00pm then you can start mixing your dough at 10:00am. This assumes 75 degrees dough and room temperature. If your home is cooler, then it might take longer. If your home is warmer, in the summer for example, it will take a shorter period of time. One can take a read on the levain temp by inserting the prong of the thermometer directly into the levain. A good guage for when the levain is ready is to drop a small teaspoon full into a glass of water. If it floats or sinks slowly it is ready. It should be bubbly and light and have a mild boozy arouma.
STEP 2: MIXING the DOUGH.
Using a digital scale, measure out the correct amount of water in your stand mixer. I use filtered water. Add the levain that you last fed approximately 12 hours before, (see starter instructions) to the water. Mix gently with a wooden spoon. Add all the whole wheat flour and salt and mix on 1st speed for 3 minutes making sure all the flour is incorporated. Mix on 2nd speed for 3 more minutes. 6 minutes total.
STEP 3: REST.
After you’re finished mixing transfer the dough to an oiled (I use olive oil) large non-reactive bowl, 13x9 glass pyrex baking dish, or food storage bin or large stainless steel bowl. Let the dough rest 40 minutes. Check your ambient and dough temperature. The closer it is to 75 degrees the more likely your dough will respond according to this formula. If it’s cooler, rest the dough longer. If it’s warmer, rest for a shorter period of time. Once you get a hang of this formula you’ll learn to work with your kitchen at different times of the year.
To help regulate temperature in the winter one can use either their microwave. Boil a large glass measuring cup of water in the microwave, this will warm up your microwave. Or if you’re like me and you don’t have a microwave, you can use your oven. Warm your oven slightly then turn it off, and place your dough in the slightly warmed oven.
STEP 4: STRETCH AND FOLD.
With wet hands, stretch and fold 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. Give the dough 4 ‘stretch and folds’ rotating the dough one-quarter turn for each stretch and fold. Use your rounded pastry scraper to help get the sticky dough off the sides of the dish and your hands. The stretch and fold technique replaces kneading.
STEP 5: REST.
Let dough rest for 40 minutes at room temperature of 75 degrees.
STEP 6: STRETCH AND FOLD.
With wet hands, ‘stretch and fold’ the dough for the second time. Rotate the dough one-quarter turn for each stretch and fold, four total stretch and folds.
STEP 7: REST.
Let dough rest for 40 minutes at room temperature of 75 degrees.
STEP 8: PRE SHAPING.
Pre shaping the dough builds structure. Sprinkle the top of the dough generously while it’s still in the baking dish where you did the stretch and folds. Prepare a dry workspace on your counter by sprinkling flour in an area slightly larger than the dough size. With a dough scraper, scrape the dough onto the counter so that the top of the dough, with the flour on it, will now be on the bottom, touching the counter. Sprinkle the top of the dough again with flour and flour your hands. The dough will be very loose and sticky. If you’re making two loaves, divide the dough in half using a bench knife. Quickly shape the dough by loosely pulling the four imaginary corners of the dough up and over towards the middle of the dough (kinda like making a burrito). Flip the dough over so that it’s seam-side down leaving a smooth, round top.
STEP 9: REST.
Once the dough is pre shaped, let it rest on the counter for 20 minutes at room temp of 75 degrees.
STEP 10: PREPARE YOUR PROOFING BASKET.
Place a good amount of brown rice flour into a small hand-held sieve. Shake the rice flour to coat the bottom and sides of your proofing basket. You can also use your hands to apply the rice flour but I find the sieve works better. 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 10: PREPARE A DUSTING BOWL.
Chose a mixing bowl that is comfortably larger than your dough. Mix ½ cup of whole wheat flour (Red Fife or Sonora) and ½ cup brown rice flour. Combine the flours in the bottom of the bowl and set aside.
STEP 11: SHAPING. For the final shaping one wants to create surface tension. To do this sprinkle flour on your work surface again. With floured hands, shape the dough as before by folding all four sides up, onto itself as shown in the photo. Flip the dough upside down so the seam in on the counter. Pull the dough across the floured 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 12: DUSTING BOWL.
Very quickly pick your boule up and place it seam-side down in your dusting bowl. Roll the dough around in the flour so that flour sticks to the bottom and side surfaces of the dough.
STEP 13: PROOFING.
Place the boule, seam side up, into your floured proofing basket. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let the dough rest for 2 ½ hours at 75 degrees room temperature, or retard the dough.
STEP 14: BAKING OR RETARDING.
The dough can be baked after proofing for 2 ½ hours- see step 16. Or, the dough can be retarded and baked later, see step 15.
STEP 15. RETARDING.
Retard means to delay or hold back the progress. One retards 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, once you place the dough in your proofing basket 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.) If you don’t have an empty wine frig place your dough in the wrapped towel in the refrigerator. I usually let it retard over night and bake it the next morning. You can also retard the dough for longer periods of time. A longer fermentation time results in a more sour flavor because the lactobacillus in the sourdough consumes the sugars in the flour removing most of the sweetness.
STEP 16: 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 17: TRANSFER.
After an hour, remove the dutch oven and carefully drop in the boule, seam side down.
STEP 18: INCISE.
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 19: BAKE.
Bake 30 minutes, then remove the lid of the Dutch oven and bake until the boule is a deep brown—about 10 more minutes. Insert an instant-read thermometer into the loaf—when done, it will be within a few degrees of 210 degrees F. I usually aim for 208 F.
STEP 20: COOLING.
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 on your kitchen counter. Don’t store the bread in plastic on the counter or else it will 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, one 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.
*Most sourdough bread recipes do not add the salt during the initial mixing. However, with 100% fresh milled whole wheat flour the salt will slow down the fermentation and also protect again oxidation. This will produce better flavor and texture.
- 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 that in turn nourishes our family and protects our air and water.
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