Iliana Regan is the owner and founder of Elizabeth, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago, and the author of Burn the Place, a National Book Award-longlisted memoir. Sourdough bread is a fixture on her foraged and farm-to-table menus, and she teaches bread-making classes. Since closing her restaurant on COVID-19 lockdown orders, she has created a new sourdough starter and is baking daily at home. Read her essay about cooking in quarantine here.
Tools and products needed:
• Medium sized mixing bowl
• Plastic or metal bench scraper
• Proofing baskets (boule)
• Sourdough starter
• Bread flour (I use King Arthur)
• Whole wheat flour (I use lonesome stone, Great River Milling)
• Cast-iron combo cooker
• Brown rice flour for dusting proofing baskets
• Scoring blade or sharp knife
Maintaining your sourdough starter
To make sourdough bread at home, you must first maintain a healthy and active sourdough culture, a.k.a. starter. The culture leavens bread—the way yeast or baking soda does in other recipes—and gives it its sour flavor. (Ed. note: If you can’t get some starter from a friend who bakes sourdough, the King Arthur flour website has a good free guide for making one from scratch.) Feeding your sourdough culture on a regular schedule will ensure that when you are ready to make a loaf of bread, you have a sourdough culture that is ready.
Feeding your starter
• 20g sourdough starter
• 100g 76-78F water (lukewarm)
• 50g all-purpose flour or high gluten flour
• 50g whole wheat flour
It’s best to feed your starter once a day if possible. Don’t worry, though, if for some reason you cannot get around to it. Just make sure to feed it the following day. When feeding, take 20 g out of your starter culture. The amount that is left in the container can either find use in other recipes (e.g. pancakes, crackers) or simply be thrown away. Mix that 20 g of reserved starter with water and flour in the amounts given above. If you can, keep your culture in the same container, in an area of your kitchen that is relatively stable in temperature and light exposure. Feed your starter 12-16 hours before you plan to make bread to ensure a healthy active culture that will produce a great loaf.
The stages of making bread
Whole wheat sourdough loaf: Yields four 500g loaves, or two 1000g loaves
• 200g whole wheat flour
• 800g bread flour
• 250g healthy starter culture (fed roughly 12 hours before use)
• 700g 76-80 degree water
• 29g salt + 55 g water
The above recipe is the exact one that my wife and I use daily. It produces caramel-colored loaves with a sweet and slightly tangy flavor throughout. If you’re new to sourdough, take the recipe at face value. As you start making more and more bread, it may be worth researching what the ratios above mean in terms of baker’s percentages. This knowledge will allow you to make adjustments that you see fit as you develop your own voice.
Testing the starter
The first thing you should do, even before gathering your ingredients, is take a small piece of your starter culture and drop it in a glass of water. If your starter floats on the surface of the water it is ready to use. If your starter sinks, let it sit for another hour or two before checking again. This float test is a sure method of confirming your culture is ready to use. Using a starter culture that is not ready can yield loaves of bread that are pale in color and flat in volume.
Making the dough
When starter culture is ready, proceed with gathering all the ingredients listed above, along with a mixing bowl and scale. Weigh out your 700g of water along with your starter culture and lightly mix together with your hands. Place the bread flour and whole wheat flour into the same bowl and, mixing with your hand or a plastic bench scraper, combine until the dough comes together and there are no large clumps of flour.
DO NOT ADD THE SALT NOW!
This is simply a resting period that follows your initial mixing of the dough. For this recipe, the resting phase should be 45 minutes. Once the 45 minutes are up, you can now add your salt and the additional 55g of water to the mixed dough. Lightly massage the salt water into the dough.
Stretching and Folding/Bulk Fermentation
Now that the resting phase of mixing your bread dough is finished, you can begin to develop the gluten that gives bread its chewy, airy structure through a series of folds and stretches. Compared to kneading, this method is a much gentler approach to developing structure in your bread dough.
With the dough in the bowl, gently pick up the top quarter, at 12 o'clock, and drop it into the center. Repeat at 3, 6, and 9 o'clock. Perform four series of stretches and turns on your dough with 40 minute intervals between each turn.
During the entirety of this phase, you should aim to have your dough be as close to 76F as possible. This temperature allows for the most efficient and effective fermentation, which gives the dough the airy and bubbly structure. Once you have completed your turns, you have a bread dough that has been building strength for roughly 3 hours. At this point, the dough should be about 45-60 minutes from being ready to begin shaping. During this last 45-60 minutes, a.k.a. the bulk fermentation, it is important that you leave your dough untouched in an area that is slightly warmer than room temperature to ensure proper fermenting activity.
After your dough has gone through its turns and proper bulk fermentation, it is ready to shape! To begin, it is easiest to shape your loaves of bread into boules or use bread pans to bake pan loaves.
Lightly turn out your bowl of dough onto an un-floured work surface. Lightly dust the top with the brown rice flour. Scale out four portions at 500g each or 2 portions at 1000g each. It is important to use the least amount of flour possible when shaping to ensure the flour is not added into your dough, but use as much as you need to begin and each time you make bread focus on using a little bit less!
You can now do your first shaping by lightly stretching out the corners of the dough and folding them into the center, the same as you did in the bowl, only on the surface of the table now. Once you have lightly shaped your dough into the rough shape of boules, allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before proceeding onto your final shaping.
During this 10-15-minute resting period, take the time to tidy up your work area and lightly dust your proofing baskets with brown rice flour.
Perform the final shaping technique that is like the turns you did. Place the dough seam side up into your lightly dusted proofing baskets or place the 1000g gram pieces into loaf pans seam side down.
At this point, you have two options for the final rise on your dough before baking. You can either allow the boules to sit out in a 75-80F place for 3-4 hours or depending on your schedule or you can place your shaped boules into your fridge for 12-16 hours before baking. I personally prefer the latter method as it allows some flexibility in my bread schedule as well as the dough is much easier to work with when cold. Allowing the boules to slowly rise in the fridge also aids in the development of a more complex tasting loaf of bread.
Before you are ready to bake, place your cast iron combo cooker into an oven preheated to 500 degrees. Allow the combo cooker to heat for at least 30 minutes before using to bake your bread. This method of baking mimics what a commercial, steam-injected oven does in a commercial bakery. Once the combo cooker is properly heated, take it out of the oven very carefully with oven gloves or thick kitchen towels. Lift off the lid and turn out your proofed loaf of bread. Lightly score the top with your scoring blade and place the lid back on the combo cooker. Cook with lid on for 15 minutes.
Turn the oven to 450. After 10 minutes, remove the lid then cook another 10-15 minutes to allow loaf to color for until the desired color is achieved. Carefully take your loaf out of the oven and allow it to cool on a cooling rack for at least 40 minutes. If you cannot wait the full 40, don’t worry, it is quite a treat to cut into a very fresh loaf of bread!
Storing your bread
This type of bread is best eaten fresh. If you can’t finish it all in a day, you can store your bread cut side down on a cutting board, no container or cover is needed. The next days you will find it best to warm your bread in the oven or toast it in a pan with a little bit of butter.
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