Final Five Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread Recipe

I’ve always been something of an improviser around the kitchen, tossing in a smidgen of this herb or that spice by the measurement of my palm, more or less equal to a teaspoon when cupped and expanding to a tablespoon when opened.

That works fine for soup ingredients and such, but not for bread, whose fate depends on a more scrupulous approach when weighing out liquids and solids, all by grams. Once I discovered that accuracy does not intrude on invention, and that in fact it ensures more reliable results, I traded in my palm for implements that provide exact quantities, and made a $20 investment in an EatSmart digital baker’s kitchen scale that measures in grams, ounces, pounds and kilograms.

Bread recipes are called formulas in the industry, I realized, because they function most effectively when bakers hew to precise protocols, from liquid volume to oven temperature. To eliminate any measurement guesswork, somebody way back invented baker’s math.

“Baker’s math, “ George de Pasquale, owner of Essential Baking in Seattle, told us in a Kneading Conference hands-on session, “is the bones of bread-making, and it’s important to understand because as a baker your real job is fermenting, or growing a civilization of microbes. Everything about your bread dough is impacting the way those microbes grow.”

By basing proportions of all ingredients by percentage relative to the total weight of flour, which is always expressed as 100 percent, baker’s math, calculated in grams, removes all confusions that develop from converting liquid ounces to solid ounces, and so forth. If the formula calls for 60 percent hydration and 400 grams of flour (100%), you add 240 grams of water to make the dough, no more or less, and so it goes.

Final Five Sourdough Recipe

Although my wife, Bonnie, dropped the last five pounds she could never before shed by eating a slice or two of my Final Five bread just about every day, none of the ingredients call for diet-friendly substitutes. Like any other naturally leavened sourdough, this recipe comes down to water + flour + salt + nature + heat. It requires about an hour of my time stretched over two or three days. Most of the work is done by the dough itself as it ferments and glutenizes while I’m sleeping, writing, running or otherwise engaged. I pop in occasionally to blend, stir, mold, proof and bake.

Active Time: 45 to 60 minutes

Total Time: 5 to 8 Days

Tip # 1: Clean up as you proceed. Wet dough sticks and hardens as it dries. Use a lot of water and a little soap on bowls and equipment, and just let things soak if you can’t get to them quickly.

Starter

I suggest that you did what I did, surround yourself with experts. Jeffrey Hamelman’s instructions on the King Arthur Flour website combine photos of every starter stage with clear instructions. Hamelman, King Arthur’s head baker, offers his own spin on Peter Reinhart’s starter recipe in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Go to the website for King Arthur and select blog from the top menu. Once there, type “Creating Your Own Sourdough” in the search field. A step-by-step guide will direct you to producing a bubbling starter in about a week. If you screw up, and the concoction smells like wet socks or sour booze, toss it out and start again. Another option, in addition to hundreds of online posts at Breadtopia, The Fresh Loaf and elsewhere, is Andrew Whitley’s new sourdough book or Bread Matters. Both contain excellent starter recipes. A third option is to send away for a pre-made starter on Amazon, a package of granules that you activate at home. Expose any starter to plenty of air and stir twice a day. The microbes thrive on oxygen. The mix should be about as thick as pancake batter.

Tip #2: Use organic whole grain wheat or rye at the beginning of the process, not all-purpose flour. Both contain more nutrients and sourdough-friendly microorganisms. 

Making The Levain

 About 12 to 16 hours before you plan to bake the bread, add ¼ cup (56 grams) of your fermented starter to ½ cup (140 grams) of filtered (non-chlorinated) lukewarm water and 100 grams each of organic all-purpose and whole-wheat flour. Stir vigorously, cover, and set aside overnight in a warm (75ºF) place. It should rise as it ferments and a dollop of it should float in a glass of water.

Tip # 3: You can set the non-metallic bowl down on a plant propagator on top of a folded towel to warm it in a cool kitchen during winter months. 

Mixing the Dough

After experimenting—that is, borrowing and adjusting master-baker formulas—I arrived at multi-grain bread that is dense and filling but not heavy and brick-like. I like assertive sourness countered by a hint of sweetness, so I add a tablespoon of honey. To create the final organic dough I mix 500 grams of whole wheat with 350 grams of all-purpose flour, 250 grams of rye, the honey, 760 grams of water and 25 grams of sea salt. Many bakers sieve the whole-wheat flour to sift out bran flakes that can puncture the air holes. I do and don’t, based on time constraints. The differences for me are minimal.

 Add the levain to the dough. Because you are making bread with a majority of whole-wheat flour, it will not respond by ballooning as robustly as white-flour, high-gluten breads do. To assist the rise, some bakers add 3 to 4 grams of instant yeast to the mix. Hold off on adding the salt, which inhibits gluten activation. To mix by hand, put on an apron, wash your hands, roll up your sleeves and dig in. You’ll find the dough a wet sticky mess at first, but as you continue to churn it—imagine your hands are rotating bicycle pedals—you’ll find that the pulling and stretching begins to build an internal structure that enables the dough, in time, to support itself and in effect, develop tensile strength.

Bakers recommend about 500 or so vigorous strokes. That takes anywhere from 12 to 15 minutes. Insert rest breaks. I find the process to be strenuous—your arms feel it— and meditative at the same time, also informative. As you feel the dough transform you learn to gauge its degree of completion.

Stand mixers offer a second option. I eventually bought a KitchenAid Pro and sometimes use the hook attachment for the first part of the blending at the lowest speed for three minutes, then after a thirty-minute rest, at Position 2 for another three minutes or until it cleans the bowl. I continue to mix by hand until I can feel that it is ready.  You literally want to get in touch with your dough. Either way, let sit for twenty to thirty minutes before you stir in the salt— and optionally 40 grams of water if too dense.

Autolyse is the baker’s term for these critical rest period. It enables the enzymes in flour—amylase and protease—to begin to break down the starch and gluten protein and absorb moisture. Long fermentation techniques allow for the cleaving of bulky gluten molecules, but you do not reduce their ability to provide elasticity and extensibility.


Bulk Ferment

Once the salt is added, I transfer the dough to a large bowl, and use a no-knead process to create smooth, buoyant dough. Every 40 to 45 minutes or so I reach in with a wet hand, grip the bottom of the mix, pull up high then fold gently on top before turning the dough 45 degrees and repeating the exercise. Over five or six sessions, spread over three hours, the dough becomes increasingly more self-reliant.

Dividing & Shaping

First, I flour a work surface and turn the dough out, then I divide it into two equal units using a plastic dough scraper. Using the heel of my palm I stretch each out into a rectangle, fold and stretch again a few times, with a bowl of flour nearby to add to my hands as needed. The dough is moist yet not sticky. In time I fold the rectangle, first overlapping one end about one-third of the way down, then bringing in each of its edges like an envelope  at 45 degrees to create a vertical central line. Once the bottom two edges of the rectangle are turned in the same manner, the top section is rolled all the way to the end. I work this fat cylinder back and forth and cup its edges as I turn it to form a globe.

After working on that for a month or so I began to get the hang of it, which is to pull down slightly on the surface with the side of the hand as I turn, smoothing and making taut that surface “skin” of the dough. Master bakers like Chad Robertson make this a balletic movement, a muscular dance. There are no doubt YouTubes on the technique, but practice alone enabled me to become more proficient. No need to be intimidated: The bread is not being offered for sale on a retail shelf; if its surface is slightly bumpy, so be it.

When both globes are shaped, I cover for 30 minutes with a towel.


Proofing

The second fermentation period, when the globes rise again for a few hours is called proofing because it proves the bread is in fact ready to bake. (You can also refrigerate these shaped loaves to retard fermentation after they proof, and bake the following day. The acetic, souring acid in sourdough becomes more assertive at a colder temperature. Warm to room temperature before baking.) To proof, dust two bowls with flour, as well as the globes, and then flip each upside down—you’ll see a bottom seam— into a bowl. I use wicker-proofing bowls that I eventually purchased for this stage, but any large bowls will do. Cover and let stand. Whitley uses large tented plastic bags as coverings to keep in the moisture.

Baking

Line the bottom of a Dutch oven with parchment paper to prevent sticking, then insert with lid into the oven and preheat to 500ºF for 40 or more minutes. Carefully remove, set down the lid and flip the proofing bowl so that the globe drops into the bottom of the Dutch oven and lands on its seam side. Dough is forgiving. If you don’t drop it straight in, it will reform while baking, no worries. Score the top with a razor or serrated knife to allow gas to escape, cover and bake at 460ºF for 20-25 minutes. Remove the Dutch oven, take off the tops, and bake at 430ºF for another 25 minutes.

These times are somewhat arbitrary, since all ovens perform differently. If you own a meat thermometer, use it. You want to remove the bread when the internal temperature reaches 200ºF, not before. A hollow drum sound when you tap the bottom also indicates that it is done. A reddish, foxy crust just on the verge of darkening to a deep brown is what you’re after. Set on a rack, and resist eating it until it cools in a few hours. It gets better with age over the first few days and stays fresh for a week or more. I enjoy the layered fig-like richness of the whole wheat, balanced by the tanginess of the acids, and Bonnie and I don’t seem to tire of it.

Still, once in a whole for variety I add pumpkin seed, or reverse the proportions of rye and white and add caraway seeds. While the sourdough process does not by itself add nutritional value to the white flour, it slows down the rate of glucose absorption in the bloodstream and improves the bread’s texture. If you eliminate white flour entirely, you’ll achieve  a perfectly edible, quite dense loaf with little rise.

 Baking two at once makes good sense  as a baker based on economies of scale, but what to do with the second loaf? Freeze it. Once cooled, wrap in plastic, then in tin foil. Defrost overnight when ready, heat oven to 350ºF, insert loaf for ten minutes, cool and eat. It retains all of its flavor and texture.