Bread from Le Pain Quotidien's recipe is on the left; it is burnt on the outside (in a bad way) and gummy on the inside. My bread is on the right; it is crispy on the outside and chewy but tender on the inside. The breads are made from identical ingredients; only the techniques used to make the bread and the baking times differ.
I’m not complaining about the ten days it took to make sourdough starter. Good starter takes time. I’m ignoring the massive amount of waste in the recipe; the authors want you to dump 4 pounds (14 cups) of organic whole wheat flour in the garbage. I figured out a way to use what Le Pain Quotidien wanted me to throw away.
What infuriates me is that after I finished the elaborate starter, the recipe didn’t work. As written, it is impossible to successfully make in a home oven. As one example of the recipe’s many problems, it directs the reader to bake a single 4 1/2 pound loaf for 70 minutes at 464°F (240°C); a guarantee of burnt crust and gummy interior.
I’m mad at myself because I knew the directions were wrong but went ahead and, sheep-like, followed them anyway. Based on Le Pain Quotidien’s lofty reputation, I overruled my own judgment and obeyed the egregiously bad recipe.
Around forty years ago, Mother was cruising the aisles of a local department store, and impulsively bought a sourdough cookbook. The book came with a packet of starter powder. When she got home, Mother made the starter and a family tradition was born.
Although she doesn’t bake bread, Mother makes sourdough waffles or pancakes at least one Sunday a month. She has done so ever since buying the cookbook. She mixes the batter on Saturday night (called “setting” the sourdough). In the morning, the batter is bubbling and ready to be turned into pancakes or waffles.
If properly fed and watered, sourdough starter can be kept alive indefinitely. Mother is still using a descendant of the starter she mixed up forty years ago. She’s killed a jar or two from neglect. But Mother widely shared her starter, so has been easily able to replace the dead jar with one of its cousins.
My dad jumped in with sourdough lore of his own. Many years ago, one of his best friends, Don Campana, was on a Forest Service crew working up near Lake Ozette, in the northwest corner of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The cook for the crew wanted to make bread, but needed a sourdough starter. He started by digging a hole in the ground. When the hole was done, the cook poured a mixture of flour and water directly into it.
Over time, the flour and water mixture began fermenting from the natural yeasts in the soil. After it started bubbling, the cook carefully removed the dirt-free center of the sourdough. Once the cook had the starter, the crew enjoyed sourdough baked goods for the rest of their time on the Olympic Peninsula.
Back with Mother on the phone, I griped about the unnecessarily complex recipe (the bread was still rising, so the ranting stage hadn’t yet started). She suggested simplifying it by setting the sourdough the night before, rather than trying to do everything in one day.
Bucked up by Mother, when I pulled the charred loaf out of the oven, I decided to try again the next day. I pulled out the sourdough starter I’d stored in the refrigerator, mixed it with flour and water, and left it to set overnight. The next morning the top of the starter was covered with bubbles, a sign its yeasts were active.
I mixed and kneaded the dough, relying on my years of bread baking experience instead of the book’s directions. To ensure it cooked evenly, I shaped the dough into 2 normal-sized loaves, rather than one massive loaf as directed by the book. I baked these loaves the way I bake all bread: starting in a hot steamy oven and turning the heat down midway so the crumb can cook without burning the crust.
After the bread was out of the oven and cooled down, I cut a slice. I’m glad I persevered. The crust was crisp and crunchy, the flavor delicious: definitely sourdough, but balanced by white whole wheat’s sweetness. The crumb was light, open, springy, and perfectly cooked.
I'm delighted by my version of Sourdough Whole Wheat Bread, and look forward to enjoying it many times over the coming years. My sourdough starter is in the refrigerator; waiting.
Sourdough Wheat Bread
Makes 2 loaves (1 1/4 pounds each)
Inspired by Le Pain Quotidien: cook + book memories and recipes by Alain Coumont and Jean-Pierre Gabriel
The starter for this bread takes 10 days, but you only need to make it once. When the starter is done, you can keep it indefinitely in the refrigerator and use it for future loaves of bread, so long as you feed it every other week or so. Don’t worry if the stored sourdough separates as it sits in the refrigerator, it is fine; just stir the liquids and solids together. As you are making the starter, if you don't want to discard half the starter each morning and evening, use it to make Old-Fashioned Baguettes. You can also give the discard halves to friends, along with the recipe, so they can make their own sourdough.
Whole wheat flour or all purpose flour
Day 1 morning: Mix 2/3 cup flour and 1/3 cup water in a stainless steel, glass, or pottery bowl. Cover with a plate and leave at room temperature.
Day 1 evening: Add 2/3 cup flour and 1/3 cup water to the starter, and stir just until the ingredients are combined. Cover with a plate and leave at room temperature.
Day 2 through Day 9 morning and evening: Discard half the starter. To the remaining starter, add 2/3 cup flour and1/3 cup water and stir just until the ingredients are combined. Cover with a plate and leave at room temperature.
Day 10 morning: Stir 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water into the starter.
The starter is now ready for use, starting either on the evening of Day 10 or at a convenient time in the future. To store the starter for future use, put it in a glass jar and refrigerate until the day before you want to bake.
Sourdough Whole Wheat Bread
If you have more than the 2 cups of starter needed for this recipe, store it in the refrigerator for future use, or give it to a friend. I like using white whole wheat flour because it is slightly sweeter than red whole wheat flour; both types contain the entire germ and bran, they are just made from different types of wheat. I prefer using a baking stone when I make bread as it helps my home oven maintain an even temperature and gives the loaves a crisper crust. I also have an old baking sheet with edges that I preheat and throw water on to create a steamy environment for the bread. Don’t throw water directly on the oven floor or it will warp. A good baking sheet will also warp, which is why I have an old baking sheet, rusty and warped, that I use only for baking bread.
2 cups sourdough starter (1 pound)
2 cups very warm water
5 - 6 cups whole wheat flour (or half whole wheat flour and half all-purpose flour)
1 Tbsp. salt
Setting the Starter:
On the evening before you want to make bread, mix the starter, water, and 2 cups whole wheat flour (or 1 cup whole wheat flour and 1 cup all-purpose flour) in a bowl large enough for the contents to expand. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, secure the wrap to the bowl with a rubber band, cover with a dish towel, and leave at room temperature overnight.
Mixing the Dough:
The next morning, the contents of the bowl will be bubbling. In a stand mixer using the paddle attachment (or by hand), mix in 2 cups of flour at low speed, and then at high speed for 3 minutes. Mix in 1 cup flour, and beat at high speed for 2 minutes. Let the mixture rest for 20 minutes to fully hydrate the flour.
Continue mixing in flour 1/2 cup at a time until you have a moist, slightly sticky, dough. Remove 1 cup of the mixture, which will be your starter for future loaves of bread. See Sourdough Starter recipe (above) for how to store the starter.
Mix in the salt and 1/2 cup flour. Switch to the dough hook attachment and knead for 4 minutes (or 10 minutes by hand), adding flour as necessary to prevent the dough from sticking.
Leave the dough to rest in the bowl, with the dough hook in place, for 1 1/2 hours. Every 30 minutes (3 times total), turn on the machine and knead the dough with the dough hook (or by hand) for 20 seconds.
Flour a board or counter, and dump out the dough, kneading in flour as needed to make smooth, soft, supple dough. Divide the dough in two even pieces.
Shaping the Loaves:
To make the loaves, press each half of dough into an 8” x 8” square. Fold each corner of the square to the center, with the corners slightly overlapping where they meet, and firmly press all the corners together at the center. Repeat: fold each corner of the new, smaller square to the center, with the corners slightly overlapping, and firmly press all the corners together at the center. Turn the dough over so the seams are on the bottom.
Pull, push stretch, and roll the dough into long loaves. Place parchment paper on a wooden bread peel, or on the flat bottom of an upside down baking sheet. Flour the parchment paper well. Place the loaves on the parchment paper, far enough apart so they can rise and bake without touching. Lightly flour the bread’s top surface, cover with plastic wrap, and then with a clean dish towel. Put the bread in a warm place and let the dough rise until it has doubled in size, about 3 – 4 hours.
Baking the Bread:
Directions with Baking Stone: At least an hour before you begin baking, place a baking sheet with rims on the lowest shelf of the oven, and put the baking stone on the shelf immediately above. Preheat the oven to its highest temperature (for my oven this is 555°F) with the baking stone and baking sheet inside. When the bread is fully risen, use a sharp razor blade to cut diagonal 1/2” deep slashes in the bread and quickly slide it, still on the parchment paper, from the peel (or upside down baking sheet) onto the baking stone.
Directions without Baking Stone: At least 30 minutes before you begin baking, place a baking sheet with rims on the lowest shelf of the oven, and move an oven rack to the shelf just above it. Preheat the oven to its highest temperature with the rimmed baking sheet inside. At least 10 minutes before the loaves go into the oven, place a thin metal uninsulated baking sheet in the oven. When the bread is fully risen, use a sharp razor blade to cut diagonal 1/2” deep slashes in the bread and quickly slide it from the peel (or upside down baking sheet) onto the preheated thin metal baking sheet.
Just before closing the oven, dump a cup of water onto the rimmed baking sheet (which is on the shelf just below the bread), quickly shut the door, and turn the heat down to 450°F. Bake for 20 minutes, turn the heat down to 325°F and bake for 15 - 20 minutes if using a baking stone (or 25 – 30 minutes if you don’t have a baking stone). The bread is done if it sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom, or the temperature in the center of the bread is 200°F.
Place the bread on racks to cool for at least one hour before cutting (the bread finishes cooking from retained heat after it is removed from the oven).
This is my entry for this month’s Apples & Thyme, hosted and created by Vanielje Kitchen and The Passionate Palate.