Updated: May 26
Sourdough baking is all the rage lately, and I have to admit, having much more time at home during our lockdown is wonderfully conducive to the tending that sourdough baking requires. It's so delicious and nutritious, it's become a highlight in our COVID-restricted lives. Since it's just my hubby and me at home, I bake these diminutive boules in a dainty 2-quart cast iron Dutch oven. That way it never gets stale or requires freezing.
I use only whole-grain flour because I don’t want to miss out of the nutritional benefits from whole wheat’s bran fiber and nutrient-rich germ. 100% whole-grain loaves will be denser and have a small crumb than white loaves, but in my opinion, the taste is absolutely supreme, moist, a bit tangy, with a fabulous crust and bursting with flavor.
Whole-grain sourdough, fermented by wild yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria, offers many health benefits vs conventional loaves; it increases the bioavailability of folate, minerals, and antioxidants, is more digestible by lowering gluten levels, and is better at controlling blood sugar levels. (see https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/sourdough-bread#section5).
To rise properly sourdough loaves need some salt or else their proteins become slack. Instead of rising properly, you end up with a sloppy mess. I use the absolute minimal amount to keep the wild yeasts and bacteria in check and the bread rising as it ought –
4 g for this 400 g boule, for a 1% ratio of salt to flour.
Practice makes perfect and while it’s a lengthy process, each step actually requires very little involvement on your part. You just need a day that you’re available to tinker with it now and again as it rises. Baking these boules has become a passion and a pastime, a source of pride, and a sensory experience that truly brightens up our days.
Hint! To make a full-sized boule, just triple the recipe ingredients, bake in a 5-quart Dutch oven, increase baking times to 25 minutes covered and 30-40 minutes uncovered, or until it’s a lovely chestnut color on top.
Prep time 1 day to pre-feed plus 6-8 hours to ferment and rise Baking time: 40 minutes
Makes a 400-gram loaf (0.8 lb.)
• a 2-quart cast iron pot • 1 digital scale accurate to 0.1 gram • 1 small digital scale accurate to 0.01 gram • a 3-quart glass bowl with lid (or plastic wrap or dampened kitchen towel) • parchment paper • a bench scraper • a curved plastic bowl scraper
400 grams whole wheat flour
340 grams unchlorinated water
80 grams ripe sourdough starter (1)
4 grams salt
1) For my rye or whole wheat sourdough starter recipe see https://www.cathyskitchenprescription.com/product-page/sourdough-starter-free
The day Before you Bake
· If you tend your mother dough regularly with frequent feedings, feed it very well before you go to bed the night before baking day so that it is ripe and actively with bubbles come morning.
· If you’ve neglected your mother dough for a while, start daily feedings as much as a week beforehand. You want it fully active before you mix your dough.
In the morning weigh the water and add to your mixing bowl. Stir in the flour, mixing very well. Cover and set a side for 1-2 hours. Autolyzing the flour and water hydrates the flour very well and begins to activate the wheat’s gluten and enzymes. It will give fermentation a head-start.
· Mix the Dough
Weigh out your sourdough and add to the bowl, pulling up the dough from the edges to cover the sourdough, pinching it and twisting the dough, rotating the bowl as you go. Continue until the starter feels integrated. The texture will be soft and stretchable (extensible). Next weigh out the salt with your smaller scale. Dissolve the salt in a tiny amount of water and pour over the top of the dough, pinching, pulling, and twisting the dough as with the starter, rotate the bowl as you go. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap or a damp clean kitchen towel. Rest the dough for 10-15 minutes.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and knead the dough in its bowl, by pulling up an edge of the dough, stretching it up and over the top, and pushing it down. Rotate the bowl 90° as you go. The dough will start very extensible (stretchy and sloppy), but soon the salt and gluten in the dough will tighten up its texture and the dough will become elastic (snaps back after stretching). Cover and set aside for an hour in a temperately warm place (70-80°F is ideal), if it’s too cool in your kitchen fermentation will take longer and too hot will speed up fermentation but faster isn’t better when it comes to taste and texture.
· Bulk Fermentation
This stage is where the wild yeast and lactobacilli bacteria do their magic, fermenting the dough and releasing carbon dioxide bubbles that make the dough rise. After an hour, wet your hand, slide it down the side of the bowl and pull up that side of dough, stretch it up and gently over the rest. Turn the bowl 90° and repeat 3 times Do these stretches and pulls gently and not more than 4 each cycle, so that you don’t overwork the dough and disrupt the bubbles developing within. Cover and set your timer for 1 hour.
Repeat this last step every hour over 4 to 7 hours. It’s a little unpredictable how many cycles your sourdough will require before we move to the next step; it will depend on the weather and the vitality of your starter. You’ll know when to stop when the dough has risen significantly and suddenly feels lighter, airier, teaming with life. You should begin to see large bubbles developing under the surface here and there. Try not to disturb them.
This is a short step to prepare the dough for its final shaping, tighten up its gluten strands, and continue to rise.
Very lightly flour (or lightly spritz water on) a large cutting board. Wet your curved bowl scraper and slide it gently around the sides of the dough, transferring it to the board. It will spread. Pat it lightly into a circle. Then, with floured (or wet) hands pick up a side and fold it over the middle, repeating on the other three side which will create a mounded round ball. On a clean part of your cutting board turn the dough upside down and place on the board. Using floured (or wet) hands with fingers laced together and on the far side of the dough, gently pull the dough towards you on the board…just an inch or two. Rotate the board 90° and repeat. This gentle method will create tension on the outer layers without damaging its fragile interior structure. Repeat a few times as needed to achieve a nice round boule shape but don’t overdo or you’ll tear the outer dough layers and lose volume. Cover the dough with the empty bowl and allow to rest for 15-20 minutes.
· Final Shaping
Repeat the pre-shaping steps once again. When you’re done, use your bench scraper to transfer the dough to a clean bowl, lined with parchment paper, keeping the smooth side on top. Choose a bowl similar in size and shape to the Dutch oven you’ll bake with.
Place shelf rack in the lower third of your oven, preheat the Dutch oven at 500°F/ 260°C.
Cover the dough with a loose lid, plastic or a damp towel and allow dough to rest for 1 hour. One test to see if the dough is adequately proofed is to gently poke with a wet finger. If it bounces right back, it needs a little more time. If it slowly expands but not completely, you’ve nailed it! If it remains indented, it’s a little over-proofed and you’ll know to reduce the bulk fermentation next time.
Carefully remove the VERY hot Dutch oven and place on the grates of your stovetop.
Remove the Dutch oven lid and picking up the boule by the parchment paper liner, transfer the boule with the parchment to the Dutch oven.
Now normally, this would be the moment to score the dough using a lame/razor/scalpel, typically slashing the top ¾- 1” deep in one smooth motion. The purpose of scoring is to enable steam to escape and facilitate the bread's rise in the oven ("oven spring") without haphazard tearing of the crust.
However, when it comes to high hydration soudoughs like this one with a water-flour ratio of 85% (anything over 70% is considered high), scoring serves little purpose: The sticky dough will impede the blade from scoring cleanly and the cut will simply reclose as it bakes. No worries, high hydration loaves expand uniformly all on their own and any benefits from scoring are simply lost on them.
Replace the Dutch oven lid and transfer the pot immediately to the oven, lowering the oven temp to 475°F/245°C. Bake for 20 minutes.
Remove the Dutch oven lid. The boule should have risen and taken on a lightly golden hue. If it is still pale, leave cover on and return to the oven for an additional 5 minutes.
Remove lid, Lower oven temp to 450°F/230°C. Bake for an additional 30 minutes or until the top takes on a deep chestnut color.
Turn off oven and open oven door about 10”/25 cm., leaving the boule in the oven for a final 10 minutes.
Remove Dutch oven and transfer boule to a cooling rack. Allow to fully cool which could take a few hours or even overnight. The bread will continue to develop as it cools, so use restraint and wait (it’s hard!).
Sourdoughs are marvelous also because they don’t get stale quickly. Once I’ve sliced into the boule, I just leave it uncovered with the cut side down on a small piece of parchment and there it rests until it’s fully consumed.
Congratulations! You did it! I hope you’ll enjoy these little whole wheat sourdough boules as much as I do! You’ve just raised your bread bar substantially and may never go back to conventionally leavened, store-bought bread.