If in your whole life you want to bake just one and only sourdough bread, this is the recipe to go for. It’s the epitome of sourdough perfection.
I thought I knew it all. I thought I was perfectly well versed in the mysteries of hydration, autolyse, window panes and discards. I was completely blasé about sour starters and loaves, to the point of being bored with them and turning my hand to basic white yeasted. I might even have started thinking that, post-pandemic, sourdough was quite overrated and over the hill.
And then I came across Claire Saffitz’s YouTube video, How to Make Sourdough Bread and traced it back to its accompanying New York Times Cooking guide.
I think it drew me in because Claire is such a lovely, no-nonsense presenter who doesn’t exactly make things look easy but, more importantly, makes them look totally realistic. There are no ‘I-made-this-one-earlier’ specimens and everything appears 100% reliable as she’s making it.
What is special about the recipe?
There is nothing special! The particular characteristic that allows it to produce the best ever sourdough loaf is that it puts together the knowledge that I, for instance, already had but in a scattered way.
I’d fail to do autolyse even if I did add salt in the correct manner. Or I’d skip cold retarding of the shaped loaf overnight, eager to bake and get it done.
Details like that, Claire includes them all, additionally providing lucid and comprehensive explanations why all the steps need to be followed just so. Simply perfect.
So if you want to give it a go, I wholeheartedly recommend you beg, steal, borrow or buy a small quantity of mature starter and let the journey to the best sourdough commence.
Hand or machine?
Claire makes her dough by hand but if you have a standing mixer with a dough hook attachment, use it – it won’t make a difference to the end result. I have tried both methods and the artisan, hand work is very exhausting albeit satisfying.
If you want to go that way, follow Claire’s video and I won’t be offended. For the machine-assisted method, keep reading.
The whole process takes three days, beginning with feeding the starter twice on day one, morning and night. If your starter is lively and recently refreshed, you might do just one, evening feed. You aim for bubbly, vigorous, airy mix on the morning of day two.
To check if it’s mature enough, scoop a teaspoonful of it and set it in a bowl of water. If it floats, it’s good to go.
But before the starter is added, the flour mixed with just water should rest and hydrate for at least half an hour. This process is called autolyse and it serves to develop a gluten network in the dough.
The best flours mix is the bulk of strong white bread, stoneground if available, with the addition of wholemeal and dark rye. But you can use just one of the latter types if that’s all you have.
After the autolyse, add the required amount of the starter to the dough. There will be some left, which can go live in the fridge waiting to be refreshed for a new loaf.
There’s no need to be precious about the starters. To be honest, I don’t look after mine terribly well – they sometimes go for a couple of months without feeding and still come back to life when refreshed twice.
Use the standing mixer with dough hook to incorporate the starter into the dough, but just briefly.
Only then salt should be added, with a little extra water to help it get absorbed. Again, mix it in briefly and let it then rest for 10 minutes, so the dough can relax since adding salt makes the gluten contract.
To cover the dough in the bowl at any point you can use a damp tea towel. Alternatively, use a clean bin liner to shroud the bowl in the standing mixer, the machine and all.
The next step done by hand is a laborious half an hour, at least. In the standing mixer all you need to watch is that the dough doesn’t climb up the hook and onto the mechanical element, which doesn’t necessary wreck your appliance but makes for a long and sweary cleaning process.
Working the dough will take about 15-20 minutes at medium speed. You can perform the windowpane test to check the gluten development, by stretching a clump of dough in your fingers to see if it lets light through before it tears. If it doesn’t but still looks strandy, stringy and elastic, it will be fine.
Stretching and folding
The next bit is fun: transfer your dough to a wide container or bowl to make the exercise easier, and every hour grab the underside of the dough with wet hands, stretch it as far as it will go and let it fold onto itself.
Do it from all four sides, turning the bowl or container after each stretch, then re-cover the bowl and stash it back into the warmest place in the house.
How many stretch and folds?
It takes between 3 and 6 for the dough to achieve the required volume, strength and billowing fullness, depending on the flour, the weather, the temperature and sourdough mojo. You will most likely know when it’s ready: it will feel almost alive, fluid and plump like a happy pillow.
Complete the rise after the last stretch with a final hour’s rest in the warm place, then you can proceed to shaping.
Pre-shaping and shaping
Turn out the dough gently onto a floured surface. To pre-shape, you can try and pull the sides into the centre, like gathering edges of a picnic blanket into a bundle, flour the top and turn it over, but if the weather is warm the dough might be too sticky for that. In which case flour the top of it and tuck the edges underneath it with a dough scraper, to shape as tidy a ball as you can without mauling the dough ball too much. Cover it with a tea towel and let it rest for 20 minutes.
A banneton or a proving basket of 1 kilogram capacity, lined with a cotton insert, will be useful. If you don’t have it, use a clean linen cloth to nestle in a medium sized bowl.
In either case, dust the inside of the proofing container liberally with flour. A mix of rice and bread flour is ideal as rice flour doesn’t stick to the dough but slides around it. But if you think it’s pointless to purchase special flour just for dusting, use wholemeal flour.
The best way to flour your container evenly is to use a small sieve or a tea strainer filled with the flour mix, shaking it all over the linen cloth.
When the proofing container is ready, it’s time to shape the loaf. Claire’s method is simple and genius.
Using one or two dough scrapers and floured hands, turn the dough bundle over onto its well-floured side.
Gently stretch it into a square, then fold over the left side towards the centre, then the right side over it, obtaining a long log. Starting from the end close to you, roll it up into a short, fat bundle.
Grab it with floured hands and place in the proving basket, seam side up. Flour the top and cover the basket with a cloth or place it in a bin liner with plenty of space around the dough. Tie up the end of the bin liner or secure it with a rubber band.
Leave the dough to proof in the kitchen for an hour, up to an hour and a half. When gently pressed the dough should not spring back immediately but retain and indent – that’s the sign it’s fully proofed.
Now it can go into the fridge for a cold retardation of between 12 and up to 48 hours. Longer than that is still okay but the bread will not spring as lively in the oven because it will be slightly overproofed. Wrap it in your bin liner, blow into it gently and bundle up the end with a band, so the plastic doesn’t touch the dough and God forbid, stick to it.
Baking in the morning
Baking straight from fridge is easy and a no-brainer: with the temperature of the oven of 250C, even hotter inside the cast iron dish, 10 or 20 degrees more or less colder dough is not going to matter one jot. Don’t waste time bringing the loaf to room temperature – spend that time preheating the Dutch oven.
For a loaf this size, a cast iron casserole dish about 23cm/9 inch wide will be perfect.
If you haven’t got a suitable cast iron dish, you can use any oven-proof pan with a lid, stainless steel or ceramic, briefly pre-heated. In the worst case bake the bread on a heavy baking sheet, spraying the inside of the oven with water to create a humid environment.
To turn the loaf out of the basket, measure a length of parchment the width of the basket but much longer so you have an overhang to handle it with. Flour the top of the dough as the flour tends to evaporate in the fridge, place the parchment over the dough and turn it over.
Peel off the basket and the lining and you can brush excess flour off the dough if overly floured bread annoys you.
Now with utmost care remove the hot Dutch oven dish from the oven, using oven gloves.
Grab a baker’s lame, a serrated or a very sharp knife and give your loaf a good slash. Decisively cut along one side, directing the blade towards the centre of the loaf, like making a Joker’s smile.
Grab the sides of the parchment and lift the loaf, then lower it carefully into the pan with the parchment. It won’t make a breath of a difference to the crustiness of the loaf bottom.
Put the lid on and bake in super-hot oven for 30 minutes. After than time carefully remove the lid and admire your oven spring. Turn the heat down a little and bake for further 15-20 minutes, depending how deeply baked you like your loaf.
You can also turn the (electric) oven completely off after 10 minutes post-uncovering and leave the bread in the oven for longer.
And then you’ll just have to put your self-restraint to a test, waiting for the loaf to cool down enough to cut it, breathing in the divine baking scents.
More sourdough recipes
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San Francisco style sourdough is the top rated sourdough bread recipe. The history of the San Francisco sourdough bread goes back to the California Gold Rush of the late 19th century.
Sourdough baguettes on wheat starter, fermenting over 36 hours. They taste like they came from a French boulangerie, and just look at those air bubbles!