My own journey with bread baking began in 2015, when I read Michael Pollan’s Cooked.
I was intrigued, and promptly attempted to make a starter, which never really reached full vigorous health. Through weeks of late nights stretching dough and early mornings baking, I never quite succeeded in achieving the bread that Pollan raved about. My bread was stodgy and without the praised holes characteristic of sourdough, and while tasty was nowhere near as delicious as I had hoped. It was only once I purchased a copy of Chad Robertson’s Tartine bread book, which is referenced extensively in Pollan’s Cooked that my bread baking improved thanks to the obsessively-detailed instructions.
My preferred recipe follows the Tartine process with 75% hydration, but in a halved quantity, as the two of us don’t get through that much bread bread that often. This means that instead of 750 grams of water to 1000 grams (1 kg) of flour, I have 375g of water to 500g of flour. I break my flour down to 50% white flour, 25% wholewheat, and usually 12.5% each of whole rye and whole spelt flour, depending on what’s in the pantry. I get my wholegrain flours (wheat, rye and spelt) come from a local health food shop and cafe in my city, run by Seventh Day Adventists who organically grow their grain locally. For those living in New Zealand, you can order their flours (and other goods) here.
Fabled Food’s household bread
To bake my bread, I follow a process which I have adapted to fit my lifestyle and my need to go to work during the day. It looks like a long recipe, but is honestly simple, requiring short spurts of energy over 24 hours – and the reward of fresh bread is well worth it.
Ingredients – leaven
100g strong white flour
100g wholewheat floor
Dollop of sourdough starter
200g warm water
In the morning, prepare a leaven by mixing 200g of warm water with 100g each of white flour and of wholewheat flour, to which I add a good dollop of starter. Mix it well, cover it with a tea towel and leave it in a warm sheltered spot, and go to work.
Ingredients – bread
1kg flour, split as follows:
250g strong white flour
125g wholewheat flour
125g whole rye flour (which can be split which whole spelt flour, if you like)
350g warm water + 25g warm water for later use
In the early evening (and as soon as possible when you get home (to avoid a late night) test your leaven to ensure it’s aerated well. Fill a cup with warm water and gently drop a spoonful of leaven in. If it floats, it’s ready. If it sinks, warm the oven on the lowest temperature possible for 5 minutes, turn it off and pop the leaven in, allowing the heat to liven up the yeast and encourage them to eat the sugars up and excrete that all-important carbon dioxide. Keep an eye on the leaven and watch for the spurt of activity.
Weigh your 500g of flour into a large bowl. Add 100g of leaven and 350g of warm water, mix with your hands, and leave to ‘soak’ the flour for 40 minutes. Meanwhile be sure to stash the remaining leaven in a container to use as a starter in the future. Ask me how I know!
You’ll find a timer is very useful for the following steps!
After the 40 minutes is up, add the final 25g of warm water (to take you up to 75% water) and salt. Squish the salt and water into the dough with your hands – the dough will already feel different to the first mix; satisfyingly squashy and more cohesive, and won’t stick to your hand so badly. Once the salt and water is added, leave it for 30 minutes.
You’ll now be able to start developing your dough over the next few hours. This is known as the bulk fermentation, and is a time-consuming but low-effort process. Rather than kneading, you’ll be stretching the dough – with a dough this wet kneading on a countertop would be messy and tear-inducing. Keep it in the big bowl and wet your hand and forearm. Slide your hand between the bowl and dough to the bottom, cup your hand and lift the dough up and away – I stretch it outwards, over the rim of the bowl, but you’ll find the stretching technique that works for you. Fold the dough onto itself, rotate the bowl by 1/3, and repeat twice more. Cover your bowl again, leave it in its sheltered spot, and repeat this stretching process every 30 minutes for the next three hours.
By the third hour the dough will be getting pretty aerated – you should start to see trapped air bubbles as you stretch the dough, and the dough won’t stick to you as much, and it will feel tense: the third and fourth stretches will be stiffer and harder to stretch the dough out and fold. Treat it gently as you’re folding it from 2.5 hours – no punching down the dough! After about 6 stretching cycles, you’ll be ready to start shaping the dough. Use your intuition and feel the dough to judge how it’s going – if it’s not looking very aerated or is still sticking more to you or the bowl than itself, stretch it a few more times.
Using your hands, gently coax the dough out of the bowl onto a clean, floured work surface. Cup the dough in your hands, and gently but decisively turn the dough in circles, twisting so that you get some tension in the surface. You want the bottom of the dough to grab at your counter top so it forms a nice ball. Cover the dough with a tea towel, and leave the dough to rest for another 20 minutes.
You’re now ready to shape the loaf. Shaping is essentially adding structure (in the form of layers) within the loaf so it rises better.
With a round of dough in front of you, slip your hands under the dough until about 1/3 of the dough is in your hands. Lift it up slightly, and stretch the dough away from you, before folding it backover the top of your dough. repeat for the left and right sides of the dough, and finally the last quarter of the dough nearest to your body. This time, as you fold the dough over itself, roll the bread over so it’s upside down, with all the folds underneath. Twist the rounds a few more times to give the loaves some more tension, and let the dough rest for another 20 minutes.
Gently place the boule into a medium sized bowl, lined with a smooth tea towel that has been dusted with rice flour, and let the final rise occur overnight. In the winter, I let this rise occur at a cold room temperature, but in the summer (or for warmer climates) leave the boules in the fridge, loosely covered by the tea towel to avoid drying out the dough. Place your baking dish (we use cast iron pots with lids), into the cold oven, and head to bed.
In the morning, we need to be at work by 8am, so have developed the following routine for baking:
6:00am: Turn the oven up as high as the temperature will go. If the boule was in the fridge, take it out to take some of the chill off.
6:20: Take your hot baking dish out, remove the lid, and carefully tip the boule into the dish. If you want to score the loaf, do so now with a sharp blade, and replace the lid and pop back in the oven. Turn the temperature down to 230 degrees Celscius.
6:40: Take the lid off your baking dish, but leave the loaf in the oven to brown.
7:00am: Remove the baking dish and your loaf from the dish, placing it on a wire rack. Make tea and stare hungrily at your beautiful loaf, which is filling the house with the smell of deliciousness.
The loaves need time to ‘set’ so they slice more easily, which I find takes about an hour, but I usually get stuck in much sooner as the morning rush overtakes me and the need for breakfast kicks in.
I thoroughly recommend investing in the Tartine Bread book, which is so detailed and precise that the process from starter to bake takes 23 pages, with lots of photos to assist you along the way. Many people freak out at the detail – but knowing the process of bread baking is important to achieving a good finish, and when you break it down to actual work you find the effort comes in such short increments that it’s actually easy.
Remember that bread making is a process requiring multiple senses, and is something that should be enjoyed. Every loaf will teach you something different, and before you know it you’ll be confident enough to try different flour combinations, hydration levels, and possibly even to join the Recipes from Tartine Bread Facebook page, which is full of inspiration. Happy baking!