This is my favorite, tried and true sourdough recipe. It consistently has a sourdough flavor that is not too sharp but has just the right amount of kick. The crumb is moist and chewy--and stays that way for several days. When made in loaf pans, the crumb tends to be a bit more 'fine' and spongy. When made in a brotform, bread basket, or baguette-shape, the crumb is more airy with larger holes (though not as airy as traditional baguette). By the by, sourdough will stay fresh significantly longer than regular bread because the 'sourdough' bacteria resists mold. Bonus for those of us who don't necessarily consume an entire loaf all that quickly (though I'm sure I could if I really put my mind to it...). This bread also rocks the house as toast with butter, French toast, bread crumbs, stuffing, and other yeasted favorites.
This is a traditional hearth bread recipe with a levain made the night before and allowed to ferment overnight. Levain is a term for one of several different varieties of 'pre-ferments.' Pre-ferments contribute to the leavening of the dough and enhance the flavor and texture of the bread. They are usually a combination of flour, water, and yeast, and the different kinds of pre-ferments vary in the proportion of flour to water. Some common pre-ferments are levain, chef, sponge, starter, and poolish.
Note: If I plan it right, I like to make the levain in the morning before I go to work and then prepare the final dough in the evening up to the step where you shape the loaves. At this point, I go ahead and shape the loaves, but instead of doing the final rise, I put them in the fridge overnight. In the morning, I let them come to room temperature and continue rising (the final rise)--about one hour or so--before baking them as the recipe directs. The idea for this was inspired by the delayed-fermentation method used for some slack-dough breads. I find the overnight rise in the fridge improves just about every aspect of the bread: the crust is more firm and chewy; the crumb has gorgeous, well-developed holes; and the taste is a bit sweeter and nuttier, though still distinctively sourdough.
Traditional Pain au Levain
This recipe is gratefully borrowed from Bread Alone by Daniel Leader.
1 ¼ c. (6 oz) flour (either white or a blend of wheat and white)
1 ½ c. (12 oz) sourdough starter
Mix this the night before and let it sit out on the counter overnight in a container with a tight lid. The levain will double or more in size, so use a container with lots of extra space. Mix all ingredients together at once. This will form a very stiff dough. (Photos on left are from after it's fermented overnight: Photo # 1) Side view of the levain through the plastic tupperware--see all the bubbles? Photo #2) Top view of the levain--kinda gross-looking, huh? That's ok. It's how it's supposed to look.)
2 c. (18oz) levain (entire batch)
2 ¼ c. (18 oz) water
4 ½ - 5 ½ c. (24 - 29 oz) flour (either all white or a blend of whole wheat and white)
1 tbsp ( ¾ oz) fine sea salt (if you use regular table salt, add about ¼ to ½ teaspoon extra)
This is what the dough looks like before you knead it.
Kneading Alternative 1: (This is the traditional kneading technique you'll find in most standard cookbooks) Add salt just before you begin kneading. Begin kneading, adding remaining flour when needed, until dough is firm and smooth--about 15 - 17 minutes total. The dough is ready when a little dough pulled from the mass springs back quickly, or if you poke it, the impression of your finger springs back.
After you're done kneading, the dough should be smooth and pillowy, and it should spring back if you poke it with your finger.
Divide the dough and rest (35 minutes): Deflate the dough by pushing down in the center and pulling up on the sides. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead briefly. Cut into 2 equal pieces, and shape each into a tight round ball and place on a lightly floured board. Let rest for about 15 minutes to relax the gluten.
This allows room for the crust to expand outward as the dough has its final burst of rising. Without score-marks to guide the expansion, your crust will crack on its own (see the horizontal crack marks on the side of the loaf to the left? I didn't score it properly and the crust didn't have enough expansion room. Still pretty and most definitely edible--I'm still getting the hang of this whole thang.) Slide the loaves into the oven and allow to back until the loaves are a rich caramel color (the baker's rule is that if you can see three distinct shades of brown, the loaves are done). My recipe says this takes about 25 - 30 minutes, but I find that it's closer to 30 - 35 minutes. To test the loaves for doneness, remove them from the pan and turn them upside down. Hit the bottom with your thumb. If you hear a sharp hollow sound, like knocking on a door, the bread is done. If not, bake about 5 minutes longer. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack. Don't be tempted to eat them right out of the oven because the loaves actually finish baking while they're cooling and the crust needs to firm up. If you cut them too soon, the loaves can get soggy and sink in on itself.
This bread keeps pretty well for about a week. Many traditional bakers abhor any kind of storage unit and say you should keep your loaves out in the air with the cut-side facing down on the counter. The crust gets really crust, but the inside (theoretically) stays moist. Loaves keep this way for a day or two, and then I personally think they're too hard to chew. I keep my loaves in big ziplock bags. The crust will take in moisture and be more chewy instead of crispy, but I usually like to toast my bread anyway. You can also freeze bread very well. I usually just put it in a big ziplock bag, squish out as much air as possible, and tuck it away. I recommend writing the date and the kind of bread on the bag with a sharpie or dry-erase marker--I started doing this was after the Christmas eve where I had about five loaves on the counter, scrutinizing them and sniffing mournfully at the frozen loaves, trying to find the sourdough loaf I KNEW was in there and really wanted to bring to Christmas dinner. *sigh* Learn from my mistakes, ladies and gentlemen.
If not quite easy-peasy, this is still relatively painless. Takes a bit of practice and perseverance, but you'll get the hang of it, I guarantee. Go forth, bake bread, god speed.