June 16, 2013

Making Bread: A Sourdough Pain de Campagne

I love bread; baking it has been an important part of my life for many years. I started out with simple yeast recipes, then moved to using a poolish, a mixture of yeast, flour, and water fermented overnight. I always thought that using a sourdough starter was too difficult and much too much trouble. Besides, I could buy an excellent sourdough pain de campagne at our local co-op. But then the bakers, my friends Helen and Jules Rabin of Upland Bakers, decided to retire 10 years ago; I felt bereft with the loss of that delicious bread. At around the same time I had the pleasure of meeting Jeffrey Hamelman, the director of the Bakery and School at King Arthur Flour, at a party at the Rabins. When I expressed my doubts about keeping a sourdough starter going, how much work it'd be, he simply asked me "do you have any pets? do you feed them every day?". So I decided to take a class on sourdough bread baking at King Arthur flour, which was very helpful, especially in learning how to handle the very wet dough. I've been making my own sourdough bread ever since, about once a week or so.

People have asked me over the past couple of years for a recipe for my bread; I never wanted to post one because it's very long and complicated. But I just decided, why not? So here is a narrative format recipe, with lots of process photos, which is why they are posted smaller than usual. You can still click them to enlarge to see more detail. I am starting here with the sourdough starter, sometimes called a culture, which I just mixed. I got my original starter from King Arthur Flour; you can order some by mail here. It is just flour and water, with wild yeast from the air around you, which is why after some time, your starter would taste different than mine: different location, different yeasts.

So, here's what I do: each morning I refresh the culture. I use a small quart sized pottery bowl, which I cover with a plate. An essential tool in the kitchen is a scale because everything in this recipe is by weight, not volume. I measured the empty bowl, even writing its weight on a piece of tape on the outside in case I forgot. I place the full bowl on the scale, then remove enough culture to leave two ounces. To that I add 1.7 ounces of white all purpose flour (King Arthur of course), and 1 ounce of water. I mix that with a wooden spoon till combined. This is a stiff mixture of sourdough starter, which works best for the bread.

Here's what the starter looks like after it's risen for a day.

When I plan to make bread the next day, I start a levain build the night before. This should rise for 12 hours before the final mixing of the dough, so I usually start it around 8 PM so it'll be ready at 8 AM the following morning. To make this I mix 3.2 ounces of white flour, 1.6 ounces of whole wheat flour, and 1.6 ounces of rye flour. To that I add 1.3 ounces of the sourdough starter and 4.5 ounces of water. I use the tare function on the kitchen scale for these measurements. I mix it all together, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a spot that's around 70º. Don't worry too much about temperature yet; you can worry about that when mixing the final dough.

The next morning, one hour before the levain will be ready, I start mixing the dough. In his book, Bread, from which I adapted this recipe, Hamelman recommends mixing the flour and water and letting it sit for 20 to 60 minutes, which he calls an "autolyse" phase. My amounts of flour are: 15 ounces of white flour, 9.4 ounces of whole wheat, and 3.2 ounces of rye. I very much like the flavor that the rye flour gives to the bread. If you're interested, that comes to 54% white, 34% whole wheat, and 12% rye, so the whole grains are almost half the flour. You can adjust this up or down, depending on preference. After mixing the flours together, I take their temperature. I want the final dough to be about 76º; the only variable I can control is the temperature of the water, but there are four variables: the flour, the levain, the place where the dough will rise, and the water. So 76 x 4 = 304. I put 304 in the calculator, subtract the temperature of the flour, the temperature of the levain (I keep a room thermometer next to it to see, but I also guess a bit), the temperature of the room, and finally subtract 15 for the heat that will be generated by the mixing of the dough; then I get the temperature the water should be. Generally in winter it has to be warmer, in summer colder.

After adding 22.1 ounces of water to the flour, this is the wet mass that results. I cover this with plastic wrap and let it sit in an warm place, around 80º is my preference. I'm lucky to have an old oven that still has a pilot light, which is very useful for rising dough in a cool room.  I also measure out .5 ounces of salt, to be added with the final mixing.

Here's the first mix of the dough in the bowl of my heavy duty electric mixer, a very useful appliance for mixing this very wet dough. It takes a lot of skill to handle the dough; I got completely stuck in it when I took the bread making class. The wet dough creates the delicious moist and chewy texture of the bread, with all the open holes. The curved bowl scraper is an invaluable item for getting the dough out of the bowl, and the blade is useful too.

Here's the levain build, when it's ready to be mixed with the flour. You can see the air holes and how much it's enlarged from 12 hours before. I add it to the bowl with the flours, along with the salt.

I mix on low speed for 30 seconds (another necessary item is a timer), then on the second speed for 3 minutes, never faster than that. At this point the dough will be very wet and not yet springy; as Hamelman puts it "the gluten network should be only moderately developed". If dough is stuck up the side of the bowl, I scrape it down. I measure its temperature: if cooler than 78, I put it in a warmer place, if warmer, it can stay for a while in a cooler spot. I can regulate temperature of my oven by leaving the door more or less open. Hamelman recommends the temperature for rising to be 76º, but I prefer close to 80º. The dough rises in this bowl for about 2 1/2 hours total.

In order to "maximize dough strength", I fold the dough 3 times at 40 minute intervals. Folding is very simple: remove the dough from the bowl with the scraper and put on a well floured surface; hands are well floured too. Press it down pretty flat, pressing out any air bubbles (there will be more with each folding); draw the back end toward you, then each side toward the middle, then the front over the top, pressing down. Dust off excess flour. Put back in the bowl and do it again in 40 minutes, and then again in another 40 minutes. After the fourth 40 minutes I'm ready to shape the dough.

At this point the dough is noticeably stronger. To form a round load, I first press down in a circle, pounding out the air bubbles with the heel of my hand. Then I draw pieces of the dough inwards, overlapping over and over, till it feel tight.

Then I turn it over and with my hands on opposite sides, turn and pull the dough toward me in order to get a tight ball. Then there's another wait, of 6 or 7 minutes, with dough covered with plastic wrap. This gives it time to rest so I can make an even tighter loaf. Then the whole process of flattening and rounding is gone through again. You can see little air bubbles in the dough, which I would press out.

While I'm waiting that 6 or 7 minutes for the dough to rest, I prepare the bowl for proofing the loaf. I use a large, 6 quart, mixing bowl, which I line with a well-floured linen towel. It has to be well floured or the dough will stick to it. I've used this towel for years, so it's seasoned and the dough never sticks.

I plunk the dough smooth side down into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Then I let it rise in an 80º spot for 2 hours. About 40 minutes before I will be ready to bake, I place a 15 inch round pizza stone in the middle of the oven and turn it on to 500º. The stone will then be very hot when I'm ready to bake the bread on it. So when I place the dough in the bowl, I set my timer for 1 hour and 20 minutes. The heating of the oven takes another 40 minutes, which adds up to 2 hours. Sometimes if it's cool, I might rise the loaf for another 10-15 minutes.

Here's what the dough looks like when it's ready to go in the oven. You can see how much it has enlarged.

I flip it onto a well floured peel; now the good side is up. It spreads quite a bit once out of the bowl, and when put in the oven; the profile of the finished loaf is low, not highly rounded. I score the loaf using a single edged razor blade. This helps the bread break in a pattern as it expands in the oven. Then I slide it onto the hot stone. I steam the oven, which helps in making a nice crust: I keep a cast iron frying pan on the lower shelf, so it's been in there getting hot. After putting the dough in the oven I put one cup of boiling water in the cast iron pan, which makes a lot of steam. I bake the bread for 10 minutes at 500º, then lower the temperature to 425º and bake for an additional 45 minutes. I turn the loaf a couple of times because my oven doesn't bake evenly.

When the loaf is done it will be a deep rich brown and the bottom will sound hollow when tapped. I let the bread cool on a wire cake rack then cut it in half. A half of this 3 1/2 pound loaf will last me for about 4 days; because the crumb is so chewy and moist it doesn't dry out quickly like yeast breads. I freeze each half in a plastic bag, finding that defrosted, reheated bread has a thicker crisper crust than bread fresh out of the oven. Each morning I have two slices of bread for breakfast, one with Gjetost, a Norwegian goat cheese, and one with homemade jam and butter. It is an excellent start to the day.


  1. Wow, what a process! I might be up for this one day... it does look very delicious :-D For now I'm just happy to keep my family supplied with yeast powered bread :-D

    1. Claire, I felt the same way you did for many years. Maybe some day you'll give it a try; it's easy once you get the routine down, just time consuming, but very much worth it.

  2. You could reset the scales to 0 after you place the bowl on them. Then you never have to remember a lot of weights for various bowls you might use.

    1. Of course I reset the scale to 0, called "tare", each time I add a new ingredient to the bowl. With the sourdough starter I have to measure the weight of the bowl because I keep the starter in the bowl; it is not empty when I remove enough starter each day to refresh it.