Photos by Shannon Richardson
If you missed out on the popularity of bread-baking during the early days of the pandemic, there’s still time to start baking at home. Sourdough bread is one of the best ways to start. According to Scott Howard of Baker’s Table—a local, artisan microbakery and community market fixture over the summer—fresh, homemade sourdough is one of the healthiest kinds of bread. “It’s all natural, with no preservatives,” he says. “It’s shelf life is only around a week. The slow fermentation process is good for gut health.”
Howard spent the first part of his career in construction, but in recent years found himself drawn to food. He attended the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder and has worked as sous chef at the Amarillo Club and Northwest Texas Hospital. Bread has become his passion. “I like the pace and precision of baking,” he says.
In this case, the word “pace” isn’t quite an indication of speed. Howard says baking his popular sourdough loaves is a 32-hour process, including an overnight final rise, or proofing, before he gets up to bake the next morning. One of the most important elements of sourdough bread, of course, is the active starter. Howard feeds his every day. “She’s about two years old,” he says. And, yes, she has a name. It’s Wankru. “She’s a combination of several different batches that all came together into ‘one crew,’” he explains.
Despite the detailed instructions he provided Brick & Elm, Howard adds that baking a perfect loaf of sourdough at home often requires some trial and error. “There’s definitely a learning curve to it. I’ve baked a number of door stops and hockey pucks in the process,” he says, describing the overly dense results of bread that rose too much—or didn’t rise quite enough—before baking. But even when mistakes happen, the process is still fulfilling. “It’s a labor of love that has an end result,” Howard says.
Howard’s step-by-step instructions require an active starter that’s already fermented and ready. You can find plenty of videos and instructions online about how to make a sourdough starter. Once you’ve completed that step, it’s time to bake.
24 to 48 hours
45 to 50 minutes
Plastic wrap or other covering for bowls
Bread proofing baskets, colanders, or mixing bowls Dutch ovens or large heavy-bottomed pots with lids
Lame, sharp knife or serrated knife
For the leaven:
1 tablespoon active sourdough starter
75 grams all-purpose flour or bread flour (½ cup)
75 grams water (⅓ cup)
For the dough:
525 grams water (2 ½ cups), divided
1 tablespoon salt
700 grams all-purpose flour or bread flour (5 ½ cups)
Makes 2 loaves
Make sure sourdough culture is active. If sourdough has been in the refrigerator, take it out 2 to 3 days before you plan to bake. Feed it daily to make sure it’s strong and very active before you make the bread. Howard feeds it with a 1:2:2 leaven:flour:water ratio the night before baking.
Make leaven and let it sit overnight. The night before you plan to make the dough, place all the leaven ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly to form a thick batter. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight, about 12 hours.
Test that leaven is ready. Generally, if the surface of the leaven is very bubbly, it’s ready to be used. To double check, drop a small spoonful of the leaven in a cup of water; if the leaven floats, it’s ready.
Dissolve salt. Place 50 grams (about ¼ cup) of water and salt for the dough in a small bowl. Set aside, stirring occasionally to make sure salt dissolves.
Mix the leaven and water. Add remaining 475 grams (2 cups) water for the dough to the bowl of leaven. Stir with a spatula or use your hands to break up and dissolve leaven into the water. It’s OK if the leaven doesn’t fully dissolve and a few clumps remain.
Add flour. Add flour and stir with a rubber spatula until there are no remaining bits of dry flour and it forms a very shaggy dough.
Rest dough (30 minutes, or up to 4 hours). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel. Let dough rest for at least 30 minutes or up to 4 hours. This is the autolyse stage where the flour is fully absorbing the water, while enzymes in the flour begin breaking down the starches and proteins.
Mix in salt. Pour the dissolved salt over the dough. Work the liquid and salt into the dough by pinching and squeezing it. The dough will feel quite wet and loose at this point.
Begin folding dough (2 ½ hours). To fold the dough, grab the dough at one side, lift it up, and fold it over on top of itself. Fold dough four times, moving clockwise from the top of the bowl (or giving the bowl a quarter turn in between folds). Let the dough rest for 30 minutes, then repeat. Do this a total of 6 times, every half hour, for a total of 2 ½ hours. The dough will start out shaggy and very loose but will gradually smooth out and become tighter as you continue folding.
Let dough rise undisturbed (30 to 60 minutes). Once you’ve finished folding, cover and let the dough rise undisturbed for 30 to 60 minutes, until it looks slightly puffed. This dough won’t double in size the way regular, non-sourdough breads will; it should just look larger than it did when you started.
Divide dough. Sprinkle flour on a work surface and turn the dough out. Work gently to avoid deflating the dough. Use a pastry scraper to divide the dough in half.
Shape dough into loose rounds. Sprinkle a little flour over each piece of dough. Use pastry scraper to shape each one into loose rounds—this isn’t the final shaping, just a preliminary round to prep the dough for further shaping. Shape into rounds by slipping pastry scraper under the edge of the dough and then scraping it around the curve of the dough, like turning left when driving. Do this a few times to build the surface tension in the dough (it makes more sense to do it than to read about it!). Flour your pastry scraper as needed to keep it from sticking to the dough.
Rest dough (20 to 30 minutes). Once both pieces of dough are shaped, let rest for 20 to 30 minutes to relax the gluten again before final shaping.
Prepare 2 bread proofing baskets, colanders or mixing bowls. “Proofing” is the final rise of the dough before baking. Line two bread proofing baskets, colanders or clean mixing bowls with clean kitchen towels. Dust heavily with flour, rubbing the flour into the cloth on the bottom and up the sides with your fingers. Use more flour than you think you’ll need—it should form a thin layer over the surface of the towel.
Shape the loaves. Dust the top of one of the balls of dough with flour. Flip it over with a pastry scraper so that the floured side is against the board and the un-floured, sticky surface is up. Shape the loaf much like you folded the dough earlier: Grab the lip of the dough at the bottom, pull it gently up, then fold it over onto the center of the dough. Repeat with the right and left side of the dough. Repeat with the top of the dough, but once you fold it downward, use your thumb to grab the bottom lip again and gently roll the dough right-side up. If it’s not quite round or doesn’t seem taut to you, cup your palms around the dough and rotate it against the counter to shape it. Repeat with the second ball of dough.
Transfer loaves to proofing baskets. Dust the tops and sides of the shaped loaves generously with flour. Place into the proofing baskets upside-down, so the seams from shaping are on top.
Let dough rise (3 to 4 hours, or overnight in the refrigerator). Cover the baskets loosely with plastic wrap or place inside clean plastic bags. Let rise at room temperature until billowy and poofy, 3 to 4 hours. Alternatively, place the covered basket in the refrigerator and let rise slowly overnight, 12 to 15 hours. If rising overnight, bake the loaves straight from the refrigerator; no need to warm before baking.
Heat oven to 500 degrees. Place two Dutch ovens or other heavy-bottomed pots with lids in the oven, and heat to 500 degrees. (If you don’t have two pots, you can bake one loaf after the next.)
Transfer loaves to Dutch ovens. Carefully remove one of the heated Dutch ovens from the oven and remove the lid. Tip the loaf into the pot so the seam-side is down. Repeat with the second loaf.
Score the top of the loaf. Use a lame, sharp knife or serrated knife to quickly score the surface of the loaves. Try to score at a slight angle, so you’re cutting almost parallel to the surface of the loaf; this gives the loaves the distinctive “shelf” along the score line. Cover loaves and bake for 20 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 450 degrees and bake an additional 10 minutes. Resist the temptation to check the loaves at this point; just reduce the temperature and let it bake.
Remove lids and continue baking for 15 to 25 minutes. Uncover the pots to release any remaining steam. At this point, the loaves should have “sprung” up, have a dry surface, and be just beginning to show golden color.
Bake for another 15 to 25 minutes. Continue baking uncovered until the crust is deeply browned; aim for just short of burnt. It might feel a bit unnatural to bake loaves this fully, but this is where a lot of the flavor and texture of the crust comes in.
Cool the loaves completely. When done, lift the loaves out of the pots using a spatula. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Wait until cooled to room temperature before slicing.
Storage: Bread can be stored at room temperature (cut-side down if cut) in a paper bag for up to 3 days, or well wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen for up to 2 months.
Misty and Scott Howard