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How to Make Sourdough Bread

Why this recipe works Despite the “sour” in its name, sourdough breads need not be sour in flavor. What “sourdough” means is that the bread is fermented with a naturally occuring mixture of bacteria and yeasts, rather than with commericial yeast. Many think that sourdough is more complicated than other breads, but once you have a healthy sourdough culture to use, it isn’t all that different. Though creating a culture from scratch takes a few weeks of patience, it is dead simple to do. And it’s well worth the wait: Sourdough breads are among the best the baking world has to offer—crusty without, moist and chewy within, complexly flavored, and superbly long-lasting (the mild acidity that gives sourdough some of its flavor also helps to stave off staling). Once your culture is active, the method for making sourdough is not that different from other loaves we’ve made using commercial yeast. We used a mixture of higher-protein all-purpose flour and wholewheat flour for complex flavor. We sift the whole-wheat flour to remove excess bran, ensuring a light and airy loaf. For convenience and the deepest flavor, we shape the loaf and give it an overnight proof in the fridge. For more information on sourdough cultures, click here. If you can’t find King Arthur all-purpose flour, you can substitute bread flour. Take care when removing the linen towel from the loaf in step 10, as it may stick slightly to the dough. You can substitute a round banneton or proofing basket for the towel-lined colander. (Click here for more information on bannetons.) For a more decorative crust, you can slash this loaf in step 11 using either of the techniques shown here.

  • makes 1 loaf
  • resting time 21 hours 35 minutes to 22 hours 35 minutes
  • rising time 17½ to 18½ hours
  • baking time 1 hour
  • total time 42 to 43 hours, plus 3 hours cooling time
  • key equipment large linen towel, 5-quart colander, baking stone, 2 (9-inch) disposable aluminum pie plates, 2 quarts lava rocks, pizza peel, lame, instant-read thermometer

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starter

  • ¾ cup (3¾ ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (3 ounces) water, room temperature
  • ⅓ cup (2⅔ ounces) Sourdough Culture

dough

  • 1 cup (5½ ounces) whole-wheat flour
  • 2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1¼ cups (10 ounces) water, room temperature
  • 1¾ teaspoons salt

1). For the starter Stir all ingredients together in 4-cup liquid measuring cup with wooden spoon until cohesive dough starts to form and no dry flour remains. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap, let sit at room temperature for 5 hours, then refrigerate for 16 to 24 hours. (Alternatively, starter can sit at room temperature until doubled in size, 8 to 12 hours, and be used immediately; do not refrigerate.)

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2). For the dough Sift whole-wheat flour through fine-mesh strainer into bowl of stand mixer; discard bran remaining in strainer. Whisk all-purpose flour into whole-wheat flour. Stir water into starter with wooden spoon until well combined. Using dough hook on low speed, slowly add starter mixture to flour mixture and mix until cohesive dough starts to form and no dry flour remains, about 2 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed. Cover bowl tightly with plastic and let dough rest for 20 minutes.

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3). Add salt to dough and mix on low speed until incorporated, about 2 minutes. Transfer dough to lightly greased large bowl or container, cover tightly with plastic, and let rise for 30 minutes.

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4). Using greased bowl scraper (or your fingertips), fold dough over itself by gently lifting and folding edge of dough toward middle. Turn bowl 45 degrees and fold dough again; repeat turning bowl and folding dough 6 more times (total of 8 folds). Cover tightly with plastic and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat folding and rising every 30 minutes, 3 more times.

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5). After fourth set of folding and rising, turn out dough onto lightly floured counter (side of dough that was against bowl should now be against counter). Press and stretch dough into 10-inch round, deflating any gas pockets larger than 1 inch. Working around circumference of dough, fold edges toward center until ball forms. Cover loosely with greased plastic and let rest for 15 minutes.

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6). Line 5-quart colander with large linen or cotton tea towel and dust liberally with flour. Repeat pressing and folding of dough to re-form ball, then flip dough ball seam side down and, using your cupped hands, drag in small circles on counter until dough feels taut and round and all seams are secured on underside of loaf.

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7). Place loaf seam side up in prepared colander and pinch any remaining seams closed. Loosely fold edges of towel over loaf to enclose, then place colander in large plastic garbage bag. Tie, or fold under, open end of bag to fully enclose. Let loaf sit at warm room temperature for 1 hour, then refrigerate for at least 12 hours or up to 16 hours.

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8). Remove loaf from refrigerator and let rise (still inside plastic bag) at warm room temperature until nearly doubled in size and dough springs back minimally when poked gently with your knuckle, 2 to 3 hours (remove loaf from bag to test).

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9). One hour before baking, adjust oven racks to lower-middle and lowest positions. Place baking stone on upper rack, place 2 disposable aluminum pie plates filled with 1 quart lava rocks each on lower rack, and heat oven to 475 degrees. Bring 1 cup water to boil.

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10). Remove colander from garbage bag, unfold edges of towel, and dust top of loaf with flour. (If any seams have reopened, pinch closed before dusting with flour.) Lay 16 by 12-inch sheet of parchment paper on top of loaf. Using 1 hand to support parchment and loaf, invert loaf onto parchment and place on counter. Gently remove colander and towel. Transfer parchment with loaf to pizza peel.

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11). Carefully pour ½ cup boiling water into 1 disposable pie plate of preheated rocks and close oven door for 1 minute to create steam. Meanwhile, holding lame concave side up at 30-degree angle to loaf, make two 7-inch-long, ½-inch-deep slashes with swift, fluid motion along top of loaf to form cross.

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12). Working quickly, slide parchment with loaf onto baking stone and pour remaining boiling water into second disposable pie plate of preheated rocks. Bake loaf for 15 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees. Rotate loaf and continue to bake until crust is dark brown and loaf registers 210 to 212 degrees, 45 to 50 minutes, rotating loaf halfway through baking. Transfer loaf to wire rack, discard parchment, and let cool completely, about 3 hours, before serving.

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problem The lame drags.

solution Try greasing the lame.

To get clean-looking cuts, we slash loaves quickly and decisively to prevent the lame from dragging. Properly slashed loaves expand uniformly in the oven. If you have a hard time making slashes without the lame catching, you can try greasing it. Spray the lame (or knife or single-edge razor blade for simple loaves) with vegetable oil spray before slashing.

problem You don’t have lava rocks.

solution Fill a pan with boiling water.

We tested multiple ways to create steam in the oven, and nothing turned out crusts as crisp and crackly as our lava rock method. For the best bread, we highly recommend you use them. However, if you don’t want to buy lava rocks, you can get satisfactory crust (it will be chewier and less crunchy) by using a water pan. Before baking, place an empty loaf pan or cake pan on the lower rack instead of the pans of lava rocks and bring 1 cup of water to boil. When you slide the loaf onto the baking stone, pour the boiling water into the empty pan and shut the oven door.

problem The loaf doesn’t rise.

solution Let the dough sit at a warm room temperature for the right amount of time.

Sourdoughs can take much longer to rise than doughs leavened with commercial yeast. That’s because sourdough bacteria and yeast metabolize starch much more slowly than baker’s yeast, and they also prefer slightly higher temperatures for proofing. For the first rise, let the loaf rise at a warm room temperature (about 75 to 78 degrees), such as above your refrigerator or near a radiator. If you do not have a warm spot, you can place the loaf on the middle oven rack and set a pan of hot water beneath it. This creates a warm, steamy environment—a “proofing box”—that encourages the dough to rise and keeps it from drying out. And for the second rise, before baking, this loaf takes longer to proof than most. The dough gets a lot of flavor from proofing overnight in the refrigerator, but it doesn’t expand very much during this period. It’s only after the yeasts warm up again that they begin to produce enough carbon dioxide to give the loaf good volume. Once the loaf has about doubled in size and the dough springs back minimally when poked gently with your knuckle, it is ready to bake. This should take 2 to 3 hours, again at a warm room temperature. Utilize the oven once again if necessary.

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