For the last two years, HP, my husband, spent his Sunday mornings baking bread. I started it all. Inspired by a visit to Ghent, Belgium, and the local Superette bakery cookbook we picked up, I began developing a sourdough starter. Somehow, he took over from there. Based on the instructions he found in the Superette cookbook, in Malin Elmlid’s The Bread Exchange, and in the various Tartine Bread books by Chad Robertson, he developed his own technique. The first loafs did not look very promising. Somehow, they turned out very flat. ‘Haagse Platte’ we dubbed them, flatbread from The Hague. But since the taste enchanted all, he pressed on, and slowly but surely, the breads rose. A visit and personal tour through the famous Poilâne bakery in Paris convinced him that he was on the right track.
Baking bread is a process that starts the evening before, just around bedtime. During the week, he usually keeps two glass jars in the fridge with about 300 grams of whole wheat sourdough starter each (you can find recipes for sourdough starters in the books mentioned above and all over the internet). Since he usually bakes three breads, he divides the starter over three jars and adds 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of water (around 28°C/82°F) to each jar. He lets the starter develop overnight out of the fridge. In the morning, he uses the starter as others would use a leaven. He gets the best results when, after shaping, he lets the dough slowly proof in the fridge for 8-12 hours.
Once you have developed your own starter, you can get quite attached to it. This summer, ours even accompanied us on our train travels through France and Spain. Upon entering an a new apartment or hotel HP immediately put his ‘baby’ in the fridge. It survived our travels perfectly and back in The Hague, it delivered these beautiful sourdough breads pictured here.
The measurements are in grams and not in cups and teaspoons, because precision counts in bread baking.
For 1 bread
140 g sourdough starter
300 g whole-grain wheat flour
150 g medium-strong bread flour
150 g high-extraction wheat flour, plus extra for dusting
440 g water (at around 28°C/82°F)
15 g grey Guérande sea salt
Extra: dough scraper, linen cloth, proofing basket, cast-iron pan with lid, razor blade or very sharp knife, wiring rack
1. In a large bowl, mix the starter, the flour, and the water with a plastic dough scraper. Cover the bowl and let sit at a warm place for half an hour. Fold in the salt using the scraper, cover and let sit again for half an hour. With a wet hand, scrape the dough from the bowl, lift high so it stretches, and fold. Repeat three times, and then cover for yet another half hour. Repeat this process 2-3 times. The total bulk rise should take about 2½-3 hours.
2. Generously dust a linen cloth and the work surface. With a wet hand, lift the dough from the bowl and fold around 8 times in different directions. Move the dough to the work surface, fold the corners of the dough to the middle four times and turn around. Shape the dough by softly pushing it around. It should get a round shape and tension at the surface. Transfer the dough upside down to the dusted cloth and the cloth to the proofing basket. Cover with another linen cloth. Let proof for 8-12 hours in the fridge for the best result (but if you don’t have time, 2-3 hours in a warm place works too).
3. Half an hour before you’re ready to bake, put a roasting tin filled with water at the bottom of your oven and the cast-iron pan with the lid on at a rack in the middle. Heat the oven to its highest temperature (usually around 250°C/500°F).
4. Take the very hot pan out of the oven and the lid off. Carefully turn the proofing basket above the pan. Quickly carve the surface of the dough with a razor blade or very sharp knife. Put the lid on and return the pan to the oven. After 10 minutes, turn the pan 180 degrees. After another 10 minutes take the lid off and reduce the heat of the oven to around 230°C/450°F). After another 15-20 minutes remove the pan from the oven and the bread from the pan. Let cool on a wiring rack. Do not cut the bread until fully cooled.