While I wouldn’t say sourdough bread baking is an “art”, I would definitely say that it may take a little trial and error to get the perfect sourdough bread. Every time I make sourdough, I’m amazed that such delicious bread comes from simply flour, water and salt.
A few tools that make the job easier, but .not completely necessary are:
A clay baker, or cloche, or “lacloche” is most helpful for making bread with a nice, thick, dark crust, but yet tender inside. I also have a round clay baker. I like the one shown in the photo because of the handle on top. That makes it very convenient for removing the cover and allowing the bread to continue browning. Even though the clay bakers are a bit expensive, if properly cared for, they will last for years and years.
Another item I love is the proofing basket, or brotform.
In the photo above, you will see that I have both the oblong and the round proofing baskets. I also have both the oblong and round clay bakers. Do not be discouraged when you look at the prices for these items. First, you do not have to have them to make delicious bread. Once you feel like sourdough, or bread baking in general, might be something you really love, you can invest in these items. I find that they make the task so much easier and more reliable.
Over the next few days, I will give some examples of various recipes and techniques, some involving the above mentioned items and some not.
Today, I made what I call basic sourdough.
The night before my bread making day, I make the “sponge”. It’s simply 1 cup of well fed sourdough starter, 1 cup water, 3 cups of flour and 2 tsp. kosher salt. Some starters are more wet than others. Depending on the wetness, or dryness, of your starter, you may need to add a little more water or a little more flour. Stir the water and sourdough starter together. Add the flour. Stir til mixed well but do not knead or continue stirring. The dough will be quite shaggy.
The photo above is my dough the next morning.
You can see that the dough has begun to bubble and come to life . . it no longer looks like a bowl of flour and water. If you stand and watch the dough, you can actually see it breathe . . a hole will form here and there where air has escaped.
Once your sponge is fully active, the bread making process can resume. At this point, I only add enough flour to be able to shape the loaf. I do not knead at all. I sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of flour onto the countertop, and shape my dough either into an oblong loaf or into a ball for a round loaf.
For the bread I made today, I used the oblong proofing basket. There is a fabric liner in there but because this dough is easily deflated, and sometimes in the process of getting my hands under it, I manage to deflate it, I line the basket with plastic wrap which has been sprayed with cooking oil.
You’ll note that the ugly side (or seam side) is up. This is because when I dump the dough into my baking dish, the seam side will then be down and the smooth side will be up.
The dough is then covered with more oil coated plastic wrap and set aside to rise.
It takes a little practice to know how long to let the dough rise. If it rises too much, it’s very easily deflated and it will be too flat. If it doesn’t rise enough, it will also be too flat and will be quite dense.
Preheat the oven to 500º. Place the clay baker in the preheated oven for at least 10 minutes. I usually stick it in the oven when I turn the oven on and then by the time the oven is 500º, the clay baker is heated too.
Remove the plastic wrap from the top of the dough. Hold onto the edges of the plastic wrap that is lining the basket. You do not want the plastic wrap to touch the hot baker.
Cover the baker with the lid and reduce the oven temp to 450º and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake or an additional 10 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
Notes: If baking on a baking sheet, bake at 375º for 30 – 35 minutes. You may get a deeper, darker crust by placing a pan in the bottom of the oven and filling with 1 or 2 cups of water or, you might try misting the sides of the oven with a sprayer to create steam.
If you do not have a clay baker, you may get good results using a covered iron Dutch oven.
If you’re apprehensive about knowing when the bread is done, an instant read thermometer should read 190º when poked into the middle of a completely cooked loaf of bread.
Whatever tools you have and use, you can make delicious sourdough bread. It may take a few tries to get it right but like so many things . . it’s definitely worth the effort and if you stick with it, you will get it right! The texture, the smell, the taste — nothing beats good, crusty sourdough bread.