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One hundred years ago, back in April 2020, I had 25 pounds of bread flour delivered to my apartment. It made me feel wealthy, though not in a dollar sense.
It wasn’t very expensive. With the delivery fee, the flour came to about $40 — really not much more than what you’d pay for the same amount of flour in a supermarket. But I felt wealthy in a material way, like the merchants of olden times must have felt: I had a store of something useful, something precious. It was a huge satchel not only of sustenance but also of joy.
Baking bread is a joy. To me, it feels like alchemy. Mix together water, flour, yeast, and salt, and it looks like a gloopy, sticky, unappetizing mess. This is the “before” photo of the rye sourdough I recently made.
But give that mess time, a bit of love, and put it into a cauldron (or a cast-iron Dutch oven), stick that cauldron into the most ferocious inferno you can safely summon onto our earthly plane (an oven set to 500 degrees will do), and out comes something, well, magical. Here’s my finished loaf of rye, straight from the oven.
That sense of triumph is why I don’t just love baking — I enjoy watching others do it, too. It’s why I love The Great British Bake Off. The contestants aren’t really competing against one another; they individually compete against chaos. It’s so easy to let chaos win. To let something burn, to have a dough be underproofed or overproofed, or to have an ice cream cake melt in a tent on the hottest day of the year. But, if you can wrestle with the forces of nature — of chemistry, of biology, of physics — and subdue them carefully enough to create 12 perfect sticky buns, that’s a victory for humanity against the cruelest aspects of the natural world.
Luckily, the triumph is easier to accomplish at home than on a TV show. Here, at home, I have to make only one loaf; there’s no countdown clock. I can claim victory over chaos on my own terms. And it feels good.
In the US, we’re facing a long, dark pandemic winter. Despite recent good news on vaccines, Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths are still increasing. Our lives will still not be “normal” for some time. Maybe you’re not compelled to pick up a new skill; not everyone is inclined to be a baker. I wouldn’t force a hobby on anyone who doesn’t want one.
But if you are interested in baking bread, here’s my advice: Buy a huge amount of flour (I purchased mine from Lindley Mills), separate it into 5-pound portions in ziplock bags (to keep bugs out), store those bags in a cupboard so that when you open it up it looks like you’re running a big-time drug operation, and then make bread throughout the winter. It will warm your home, your belly, and perhaps even your heart.
Here’s how to make some of that magic for yourself.
The basic recipe I use comes from my friend Adriana, who got it from her cousin, Rolando Lora, who used to run a bakery in Bolivia. (His bread and pizza recipes are currently being baked at the Rústica pizzeria in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.)
There are two components to the recipe: the sourdough starter, and the bread recipe itself.
Sourdough starters seem intimidating. It’s something alive; it’s something that needs to be cared for. But it has a huge advantage over store-bought yeast: You will never run out of it (as long as you have flour). When you’re low on starter, you just cultivate some more. And you don’t have to baby it too much, either. I’ve left sourdough starter in my refrigerator for four or five months without tending to it. And it bounces back. (Heck, an archaeologist once revived a 4,500-year-old piece of ancient Egyptian yeast, and it worked just fine. So, you’re unlikely to completely kill a starter.)
Starter is basically a collection of yeast and beneficial bacteria that lives in a pool of flour and water. Before you bake a loaf of bread, you refresh the starter, “feeding” it more flour and water. That “feeding” sort of wakes up the yeast and bacteria. The yeast gets ready to turn the sugars in flour into carbon dioxide (which causes the bread to rise), and the bacteria get ready to ferment it, which imparts a sourish flavor.
You can create your own starter colony with just flour, water, and some patience. But, easier: Find someone with a starter and nab a piece of it. That’s what I did. My starter came from Adriana, who took a piece from her mom, who took a piece from Rolando. When I bake with Adriana’s starter, I feel like I’m tending to a family heirloom. I feel loved by the fact that Adriana entrusted me with it, and I want to take care of it in return.
To make Rolando’s starter, add 15 grams of a previous starter to 200 grams of room-temperature water in a medium-sized bowl. (To follow this recipe, you’re going to need a kitchen scale. They’re inexpensive. I’m using gram measurements because I find them easier. Many bread recipes are written in grams as opposed to ounces.) Mix until the starter is suspended evenly in the water. Then add 100 grams of white-bread flour. Mix to combine. Then add 100 grams of whole-wheat flour. Mix again. (Note: Rolando’s starter recipe is enough to make two loaves. You can halve the starter recipe to make just one; you’ll still have 15 grams left over to start a new batch.)
Pour that mixture into a jar or quart container. It will look like this:
Then wait around 10 to 12 hours, and it will look like this:
You know the starter is ready to use when you see some bubbles at the top and it smells sour (and a little bit funky). Also, this is perhaps intimidating for beginners, but a lot of sourdough bread recipes will call on you to use your senses. But it’s not like you’ll immediately know what a ready starter is “supposed” to smell like. Don’t worry. That knowledge will come in time.
Rolando’s recipe is very riffable. You can use a higher proportion of whole-wheat flour in the dough if you want more fiber in your diet and/or a denser, earthier loaf. Or, like me, you can replace 110 grams of the white-bread flour with rye flour and add caraway seeds to make a rye sourdough loaf. That’s my favorite variation.
Note: I don’t know what all the steps in this recipe necessarily do, precisely, when it comes to the science of breadmaking. But I follow them because it works. If you ask me, all recipes ought to have some steps that trace the edge between science and magic.
Particularly, in this recipe there’s a step that requires you to “cover dough with a bowl and leave it 10-30 minutes without air.” I have no idea what this step does. I like to think it’s there to give the dough a moment of privacy, to compose itself before its final journey into the inferno. Whatever this step does, it’s a part of this recipe’s lore, and I respect it.
Ready to make some bread? Heck yeah you are!
First, make sure you have an active, bubbly starter as outlined above. Next, make sure you have six to seven hours. Yes, this is a long recipe, time-wise. And yes, you already spent 10 hours waiting for the starter to be ready. But you’ll only be hands on for about 30 minutes, tops.
Remember: The greatest ingredient in the kitchen is patience. Let’s begin.
1) In a large bowl, add 120 grams of starter to 400 grams of room-temperature water and mix until no clumps are visible.
Next, add 550 grams of white-bread flour and 60 grams whole-wheat flour and mix well. (Rolando prefers the King Arthur brand of flour. Again, you can play with exact proportions — just have the total weight of the flour reach 610 grams. That said, think of the whole-wheat flour as more of a flavoring than the base. Too much whole wheat, and the loaf won’t rise very well. I’ve found 50 to 100 grams of whole wheat works out nicely.)
Rolando’s recipe says to mix “with hands,” but I often use a spatula. The dough will be sticky and elastic, and I hate to waste any of it by having to wash some off my hands in the sink.
At this point, you can put the remaining starter back in the refrigerator. (You can use more of it for a second loaf within a day. At some point — I’m not sure exactly when — it will lose its potency. You’ll need to “feed” it again, per the instructions above.)
2) In a separate clean bowl, mix 12 grams of salt and 20 grams of water. Transfer the dough from the first bowl into this new bowl (so that the dough is on top of the puddle of salt water). Now take an outer edge of the dough, and fold it across the dough. Repeat folding around the circumference of the dough.
If you don’t understand what I mean by folding, take a look at this YouTube video.
Fold the dough until all of the salty water is incorporated. Don’t worry if it looks a mess right now. Don’t worry if the dough got a little tough to fold and you more or less mashed the salt water into the dough instead of elegantly folding it. Everything is going to be okay. The magic is about to begin.
3) Cover the bowl with a towel or plastic shopping bag and let it rest for 30 minutes. Then fold again a few times, and turn the dough upside down in the bowl (to maintain the tension you created by folding the dough, a tip I picked up from Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast). Cover again for 30 minutes. Repeat this process — folding around the circumference, flipping, covering, waiting 30 minutes — three more times. Each time you’ll notice the dough getting dryer, suppler, and more like a baby’s bottom.
The yeast and bacteria are transforming this shaggy mess into something divine. Thank them.
4) After four cycles of folding, put a tiny bit of olive oil on a clean kitchen counter, place the dough on the counter, and shape the dough into a ball. Here, Rolando says to “cover dough with a bowl and leave it 10-30 minutes without air.” Again, I have no idea what this step does. Sometimes I just skip this part (I haven’t noticed it to make a difference).
Here’s what it should look like after four rounds of folding:
5) Now, dust a round banneton (a.k.a. a proofing basket, though you can just use a bowl lined with a clean towel) with white flour and, if you have it, some fine-ground cornmeal (it will help stop the dough from sticking to the basket). Rolando now says to “pull dough like pizza dough and fold trapping air inside, keeping a round shape.”
Basically: Flatten out the dough into a 10-inch disk and then pull the edges into the center to make a ball. Then dust the dough itself with some flour and cornmeal, and place it in the banneton seam-side down. Cover with a towel or plastic.
Note: There are many ways to shape a loaf of bread. You can get sucked into YouTube rabbit holes watching tutorials on how to do it perfectly. But no matter how poorly you shape the loaf, it’s still going to become edible bread.
6) Leave the dough to rise at room temperature for around three hours. It won’t quite double in size but will look noticeably poofier, and it will have crawled up the side of the banneton a bit. After three hours, you can bake.
Or, like me, you can decide to put the covered banneton in the fridge overnight. The overnight rest in cold temperatures increases the sour flavor of the final loaf, which I enjoy. I always do this. I know, spending 18 hours making bread seems ridiculous. But again, patience is the best ingredient you have here.
7) Okay. Here we are. Time to bake, baby!
Heat your oven to 500 degrees. Place a Dutch oven (I use a 4-quart; it’s the perfect size for this, but larger is fine) into the oven without the lid and preheat it for 15 minutes. Now, carefully remove the Dutch oven from the inferno. Turn out the dough from the banneton (I just catch it with one hand), and carefully place it in the pot (the side of the dough that was pointing toward the sky in the banneton should be touching the bottom of the pot). It’s okay if you don’t get the dough dead center in the pot. It’ll be fine. I promise. Rolando says you can use a wooden spoon to push the dough toward the center and keep the round shape. Just don’t fuss with it too much once it’s in the pot — it’s really easy to burn your hands here.
You can score the top of the loaf in a criss-cross pattern with a sharp X-Acto knife or kitchen knife, if you’d like. That will help it rise evenly. But I usually skip this. I like having the bread split naturally as it rises. It never splits the same way twice. Each loaf is unique, and I find beauty in that.
Now put the lid on the pot and put it in the oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, carefully (it’s hot!) take the lid off and bake for another 20 minutes.
(Tip: If your oven is like mine and tends to scorch the bottom of baked goods, you can put the lid or a small sheet pan on a rack underneath the pot.)
“Depending on your oven,” Rolando writes, “the last 20 minutes can be shorter or longer. If top of bread is getting darker, take bread out of oven. If still light, leave a bit longer.” Use your judgment. I err on the side of dark.
8) I know I just walked you through an 18-hour recipe, but yes, you should let the loaf cool before cutting into it. Ugh, I know. Consolation: Your home will smell amazing. Your neighbors will be jealous. Take this time to get some butter to room temperature for easy spreading.
If all goes well, it should look like this. I like to eat my bread toasted, topped with a thick smear of soft butter and some sea salt and kissed with a crack of black pepper. It is magic, and it can be yours. Enjoy.