by Paula Marcoux.

If you are not accustomed to baking with yeast, let alone with a natural leavening culture, the length of time this recipe takes from start to finish may seem absurd. But the demands put on the baker are few during those many intervals of fermentation, a complex chain of chemical events initiated in your dough by that industrious leavening culture. While the busy microbes work, you may sleep, swim across the pond, or go to your place of employment for all they care. Certainly, you must play your intermittent part with conviction, working the dough a bit here and there and finally baking it. All told, though, your hands-on time is quite modest, and the dough is pretty forgiving if you should accidentally go birdwatching on the beach or weed the garden when you were supposed to be folding and stretching. The long rest periods the dough gets in this recipe are important for the development of the leavening culture and the resulting accumulation of lactic and acetic acids—the tasty “sour” in the sourdough.

The greatest demands upon the baker are those of judgement:

“Is this starter ripe (i.e., bubbly, risen, and strong, yet subtly verging on collapse)?”

“Is this dough properly hydrated (as in: a dry dough is easy to handle, but a wet one tends to make much better bread)?”

“Is this loaf proofed enough (i.e., sufficiently fermented and ready to bake)?”

And I am here to tell you, as someone who has been baking for decades, these questions are likely to challenge and even bedevil you for your entire baking life. As much as you learn about bread, there is always more.

  • 12 ounces wheat berries
  • 7 ounces warm unchlorinated water
  • 8 ounces ripe natural leavening culture (sourdough)
  • 2½ teaspoons kosher salt

Mill the wheat fairly finely. If you like, you can sift out the coarsest bran and regrind it to taste; experiment and see what you like. You can eliminate some of the coarsest stuff if you prefer and even sub in some organic white bread flour, too. I’ve been known to execute every possible variant on this spectrum, but when I’m in the mood for whole wheat bread, I really want the whole wheat, no foolin’ around. However you go about it, you want to end up with 12 ounces of mealy flour.In a medium bowl mix your freshly ground flour with the warm water and the leavening culture. Just use a fork and mix until it’s a shaggy mess, but all the flour is evenly moistened. Scrape the sides of the bowl, cover it with plastic wrap or a plate and leave it on the counter at room temperature for 20 to 60 minutes.

Toss on the salt and work the dough into a nice cohesive blob. You can use the dough hook attachment in a mixer for this part, but it’s perfectly legit to just mix well with a wooden spoon or your hand until it all comes together and begins to develop some strength. Try to judge its hydration: you want it to feel a little muscular and pull clean off the bottom of the bowl, but not feel so taut that it breaks and shreds when you tug on it. Add water in dribbles, if you’d like to correct; try not to add any more flour at all from now on in. (The coarser particles of the flour will continue to absorb water from the dough over the rest periods, and body will develop in the following steps.)

Cover up the dough ball again and put it in a nice warm place for 40 minutes. The next operation—a stretching and folding regimen, interspersed with warm naps—develops the dough without adding more flour, which would tend to dry it out. (Kneading dough for an extended period on a well-floured counter was the bane of hippie-era whole wheat baking, I’m afraid.) If you have a large, flattish, airtight container (a ‘fish box’ in restaurant parlance), that’s ideal, but you can also execute the maneuver on a clean, slightly wet counter, and then just stuff the dough back in the original bowl.

Here’s how. Scrape the dough into the big flat plastic tub or on the moistened counter. Pat it flat if necessary and confidently but gently wedge your damp fingertips (or a steel dough scraper) under the eastern edge of the dough and quickly and lightly pick it up, stretch it up from the mass without tearing at all, and pull it across the center line toward the opposite side. Do the same with the western edge and then with north and south. If the dough still feels relaxed enough, revisit the whole compass again. Close up the dough airtight in the box or the covered bowl and return to warmth.

Repeat this brief but satisfying activity every 40 minutes for 3 hours or so; you’ll find that it gets easier each time, as the dough gets more organized and robust thanks to your ministrations.

While this is going on, get a bead on how you intend to bake the thing. A wood-fired oven is most fun, but failing that, you can come closest to that result by using a cast-iron pot with a lid, or a baking steel or stone. In all those cases it’s best to do the final fermentation, especially of a wetter dough, in a well-floured cloth-lined basket. (If you don’t want to mess with any of this folderol, you can just shape the loaf and proof and bake it on a cookie sheet or in a buttered bread pan.)

In any case, to shape it, turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured counter. Gently mold it into a smooth round form with a nice taught outer skin (your hands will learn over time), tucking the raw edges to the inside, incorporating as little flour as possible. Make sure the top, though, is nice and floury, as well as the cloth, as you gently deliver it into the basket, top-side down. Flip the corners of the cloth up to cover the dough, and close up the whole thing in a big plastic bag. Put it in a nice warm place for about 2.-3 hours. (You can also give it one room-temp hour, then put it in the fridge for as long as 18 hours. That technique—retarding—gives you lots of logistical latitude, plus tangier flavor.)

An hour before you think you’ll want to bake it, place the baking steel or stone or cast-iron pot in the middle of the oven and turn it to 475 degrees. If you are using any method besides the iron pot with lid, put a junky pan on the bottom rack of the oven, and put on a kettle of hot water to simmer on the stove.

For the remainder of this recipe, recall that steam is hot and 475-degree cast iron things are even hotter. Always have sturdy pot-handling pads at hand and keep them dry. And remember to leave the oven door open as little as possible, as it is astonishing how quickly the ambient temp can drop.

The dough shows that it is ready for baking by being slow to return to form after you poke it gently with your finger. If you are using the cast-iron pot, carefully remove the lid and set it aside, turn the loaf onto your floured hand, then ease it into the pot, topside up. Quickly slash the top of the loaf, restore the lid and close it up in the oven. Or, if you are using the baking steel or stone, sprinkle a peel with some semolina or cornmeal or bran you sifted out of your flour, turn the risen dough out onto the peel, score it, and pop it onto the hot baking surface. If you have the bread in a pan, score the proofed loaf, and just, you know, put it in the center of the oven. To crank up the steam if the bread isn’t enclosed in an iron pot, carefully pour an inch or less of boiling water into the junky pan on the bottom of the oven.

If you are using the cast-iron pot, remove the lid after 20 minutes. In all cases, check the loaf after 25; you may need to turn it around if your oven bakes as unevenly as mine. If it looks nice and brown, bake it another 4 or 5 minutes, or at least turn off the oven and leave it in for that much time. That last bit of baking really delivers a lot of flavor.

Cool on a rack and resist the urge to cut it while hot. You’ll be glad you did because it’s still busy working—improving for you—during the cool-down period. Console yourself by remembering that even the crappiest bread tastes good hot from the oven. Great bread has legs.

Makes one 1½-pound loaf. This recipe can be multiplied ad infinitum. Just as easy to make two as one; you can bake one right off, and retard the other one overnight. I quadruple it to justify firing a wood-fired oven.

Read Paula Marcoux’s Life in the Counter Culture here. 

~PM