I have tried many methods and recipes for making whole wheat sourdough bread. However, I had little success until I learned the proper techniques of bread baking in general. To do that, I had to take a step back, if you will, from what I considered “good for you” bread and (Gasp!) learn using white flour first. Bread baking is an art form that only gets better with practice. You may have to throw out a few loaves here and there, but that, too, can be a good learning opportunity. Here are some of the resources that helped me:
1. Buy a starter (cost of a stamped envelope) from Carl Griffith online or Northwest Sourdough
2. Read and Reread www.northwestsourdough.com. I found her instructions to be the least intimidating and easy for a new-comer to follow
3. La Cloche Brick Oven, made by Sassafras, bought from Amazon.com (see side link) has been helpful for me to get the correct heat ratio in the oven. Or, I’ve heard some people use “quarry” tiles on the bottom of their oven, along with a using a spray bottle of water for steam. The tiles can be bought from The Home Depot and cut to fit the bottom of your oven. The purpose of these is to achieve good heat retention in the oven.
4. Round basket/colander or something to hold the dough while it rises along with a tea towel or linen cloth. You will then sprinkle it with a ratio of 1/4 rice flour and 3/4 rye flour (or whole wheat).
5. Wooden pizza peel (or something to remove the hot loaf from the oven).
6. Organic hard red winter wheat berries (or whichever variety you prefer).
The important thing is to make sure that you have all of the right equipment out and accessible. It’s not fun to bake if you have to spend a lot of time finding all of the right tools! I keep my WonderMill on the counter top along with my starter (so that I don’t forget to feed it everyday).
Also, I purchased some books online from Peter Reinhart (a baker/teacher):
I wouldn’t say this is necessary, I just wanted more of a professional approach. I have found that almost all of the “health food” recipes for sourdough have been heavy as bricks and sour as lemons. No matter how healthy it is, if it doesn’t taste incredible, why eat it??
Once I had all of the right tools, I began to feed my starter. When it was ready, I began making a 1 1/2 -2 pound loaf per day for about 3-4 months. This helped me to learn about sourdough variables: temperature, texture, taste, oven spring, etc. I used “Better for Bread” brand unbleached white flour. After I got that down, and the bread was irresistible, I began adding a cup at a time of whole wheat (in the beginning, you may want to use store bought in case you end up throwing it away). Once I mastered that, I’d add one more cup. A week later 3 cups (about 2 cups white, 3 whole wheat). I was then able to make all wheat; however, I found that I like at least 1-2 cups of white (not for health, just taste). I found that the routine would only take about 15 minutes a day (as long as everything was out) and about 30 minutes of baking. Also, I would vary the proofing/cooking times in order to make 2 loaves per day if needed. In addition, after the first proof, I began to experiment with different fillings such as: date and anise seed, sausage, Parmesan and fresh basil, sun dried tomatoes, etc….
STEPS FOR BAKING A LOAF OF BREAD:
1. Add 1 cup water + 1 cup flour to the starter the night before you plan to bake*
2. Around 2-3 pm, add 1 1/2 cups of starter, 2 cups non-chlorinated water, 3 cups freshly ground whole wheat flour, and 2 cups unbleached bread flour (such as Better for Bread brand) Note: If you are just learning, replace the wheat with white flour.
3. Mix in Kitchen Aid, or knead by hand. This has a three-fold purpose: to hydrate, stretch the gluten, and distribute fermentation. Dough should be slightly sticky, but not wet. Be sure to knead it long enough so that you see it beginning to stretch the dough and form a ball. It should look soft.
4. Let rest for 20 minutes.
5. Knead briefly to see if it needs any more flour or water. You will find that when working with whole wheat, it tends to absorb water at a slower pace than white. And, it may need a little more water, or it may be just right.
6. Cover with food grade plastic or a damp towel and set aside to rise for 4 hours or until it is doubled. How long it ferments will help to determine how mild or sour it is. I prefer mine to be mild, so I am sure not to let it go much past this point.
7. Gently punch down and add 2 tsp. finely ground moist gray sea salt. Distribute while gently kneading. If possible, try to retain some of the existing air pockets. Shape the loaf into a fine loaf, tucking the bottom under with the palms of your hands to gain height of loaf. Note: This is the point also that you may wish to add any other ingredients or you may want to make different shapes of dough, such as a baguette.
8. Let rest for 5 minutes and further shape without flattening again. You just want to use gentle motions to add height. The gluten will soften slightly and better hold the shape you desire.
9. In a colander or proofing basket lined with a tea towel or linen cloth, sprinkle a few tablespoons of flour to prevent sticking (for best results, use 1/4 rice and 3/4 rye put through the “course” setting of your WonderMill grain mill), then gently place the loaf in the basket. Drape the ends of the towel over the dough and place colander in a plastic bag. Tie the bag loosely (be sure to leave room for the dough to expand). The plastic will prevent unwanted moisture loss.
10. Place bag in refrigerator overnight. **
11. At 6 am, or when you first get up, remove dough and open the plastic and the towel. (If your towel sticks, you may add a small amount of water to it. Never pull it off as you will flatten to top air pockets). Let it warm up for about 2-3 hours (or as long as you can wait : >)
12. 1 hour before you are ready to bake, place La Cloche in the oven and preheat at 450-500 degrees (450 for white flour, 500 degrees for wheat)
13. Just before you are ready to bake, invert the colander of dough onto a floured (rice/rye mixture again) pizza peel. Quickly and precisely score the loaf in an “X” or whatever design you wish. Be sure that your knife is sharp or you will flatten your air pockets. Or, you may wish to buy a bread scorer.
14. Immediately, open the oven. With a high temperature oven mitt, remove the top of the clay baker. Quickly slide the loaf into the baker and cover with the hot top. Close the oven.
15. Bake for about 30-35 minutes.
16. Once done, remove the bread (I leave the clay in the oven to cool down slowly to avoid cracking) and place bread on a cooling rack so that air can circulate under as well. Now, here’s the hard part…let it cool for at least three hours or longer. The baking process actually continues as it cools down even though it is not in the oven any more. If you cut too soon, it will appear “gummy” or sticky and you will loose some of the desired air pockets.
17. Slice and enjoy with lots of raw butter and/or honey or arrowroot fruit jam.
At first it may seem strange and cumbersome, but in time, you will form a rhythm that feels natural and your family and friends will love the bread!
Another note of encouragement…I have had MANY “bad” batches of dough (as my husband can attest to!) There have been bricks that would have made better bombs than food. But, like any art, it’s worth the effort to persevere. Remember, people have been making bread for over 4,000 years, and even today bakers are learning new things with the advent of refrigeration and climate control. If you are like most people, it may take some time. Stay with it and you will be rewarded!
*A note on keeping fresh starter: Starter can be keep in the fridge or the counter. You will want to feed it once or twice per week if it’s in the fridge. If it’s on the counter top, once a day will do, or even twice (if the temperature is warm..say, above 74 degrees..) It is alive and it will get sour if it goes too long without food. If this happens, simply discard all but a 1/2 cup and start adding flour and water again. I usually add 1 cup water and 1 cup flour to feed it.
** You can also make this in 8 hours, skipping the overnight fermentation. Just follow steps 1-9, then leave out for 4 hours on the counter top, then proceed to step 11. The taste will not be as developed, but it will still be good!