Sourdough Country Loaf
Bread has become so important to our daily lives. We rely on it for pretty much everything. I’m not sure who would enjoy eating their eggs without a nice buttery piece of toast, or a curry without a warm and soft chapati or tandoori naan. Bread is so important that we even use bread to symbolise important parts of religion and include it in our prayers. Bread truly is something that we need in our lives.
Last time we spoke, I had introduced you to the wonders of sourdough and how to create your own. I hope that by now you are seeing a ton of bubbly activity in your sourdough and is smelling nice and sour - mine smells like sour apples! This is my go-to recipe for a traditional country-style loaf. The loaf is one of those no-knead doughs, which is somewhat false because you are still kneading it, just not in the same way that you would say, a pasta dough. It is a very simple dough, only three ingredients if you don’t include your starter. This recipe is a great beginner’s recipe to bread!
Country-style bread (pain de campagne) began in France as a way to create multiple loaves from a single source of yeast. Just like you created a sourdough starter, it begins with the mixing of a levain. This levain can then be used to create multiple loaves. In our case, we will only create one loaf, but you are more than welcome to take your time to double or triple the recipe to fit your needs. This loaf is further categorised as a pain de levain, simply meaning that it is a loaf made from a levain that “are characterized by their thick crust, spongy crumb and sweet-sour flavour” (Robuchon & Montagné, 2009, p. 131). There really is nothing bad about this bread, I love it!
In a bowl, combine the ingredients for the levain - sourdough starter, water, and flour. Mix these until it forms a well-combined dough. That’s it for step one! Leave this to rise and ferment for a minimum of two hours. The longer (and colder) the better the flavour of the final result will be! I love letting my levain rise for 24 hours, it makes an immensely sour bread that makes you salivate at every bite.
Once your levain has done its thing and you can see it has massively increased in size and looks buoyant, its as simple as mixing together all of the other ingredients - the flour, water, and salt. Mix it together to make one cohesive ball and we’ll let it rest for half an hour. This stage is what we call the autolyse when the flour takes its time to hydrate with the water, so you get a more consistent dough, rather than just kneading it from here. I like to leave it in a greased bowl, just so that the next step is not too cumbersome.
After the half-hour is up, we will do what we call a stretch-and-fold. It is very simple and the easy way out of kneading dough. This technique is very traditional and has stood the test of time for a reason. To complete your first stretch and fold, first wet your hands with a bit of cold water so the dough doesn’t stick to you. Grab hold of a part of the dough at 12 o’clock and stretch it up in the air. Once you think it’ll go no further, fold it over itself onto the mass of dough still in the bowl. You’ve done your first stretch and fold! To complete the rest, turn your bowl 90 degrees in one way and do another stretch-and-fold. Keep turning your dough until you’ve stretched and folded all the way around the dough. Let this rest for half an hour before you go back to it again with the same technique. You want to do this process about four to six times, with a half-hour break in between each. The reason we do this is to develop the gluten in the bread.
Gluten, without going too far into it, is nothing more than a bond created by proteins and water - there is no such thing as gluten pre-existing in flour because it can only form with the introduction of water. Gluten-free flour mixed have flours that are made from grains that do not have the proteins necessary to make gluten. When you form gluten in the bread, it traps the carbon dioxide that the yeast makes and that’s what makes the bread rise. Without proper gluten formation, there is no rise. How do I tell if there is proper gluten formation? That’s an amazing question. Just like I showed you the float test to see if your starter is ready to use, for gluten testing we have what is called the windowpane test. Its very simple. Just take a small blob of dough from the mass, and tuck a few fingers underneath the dough and stretch at it. If you are able to pull away to create a thin dough that you can see the light and shadows through it, your bread is ready for the next step, if it just tears as you try to stretch it out, keep doing your stretch-and-folds! Check out this video to see what the windowpane test is.
Once your dough has passed the windowpane test, we are going to let it rise. This is called a bulk ferment, or a bulk rise. With wet hands again, take your dough and fold it onto itself so it forms a taught dough ball. With the dough still in your hands, regrease your bowl and put the dough back in the bowl. Cover the bowl with some plastic wrap or a bowl cover (with a small hole for air to escape), you want something that doesn’t let in any air, as that can form a skin on the outside of the dough, which would negatively affect the next step. We will let your dough do what’s called a cold ferment, fermenting in the fridge. I like to let my dough ferment for 12 hours, but you could go longer which will again increase the flavour of the bread.
After the cold ferment, take out your dough and place it on a floured work surface. Shape it into a very tight ball and pinch together a seem at the bottom. I like to let my dough rise in a bowl that is lined with a floured cloth. If you have a banneton, you can flour your banneton and let your dough rise in that, but that is absolutely not necessary. Let your dough rise for 2-4 hours.
After your dough has completed its last rise, preheat your oven to 450F. I like to use a dutch oven for my bread, to create a steamy environment, allowing the dough to have a really nice oven spring (the rise in the oven). If you don’t have a dutch oven, you can use a baking stone and an inverted oven-safe bowl, or even an oven-safe pot. They all work just fine and all achieve the same results. Regardless of what vessel you decide to bake your bread in, place them in the cold oven before you preheat it, and let them come up to temperature with the oven - you want them to be hot!
When your oven is preheated, invert the bread onto a small piece of parchment (just so that it is easier to transport). If you would like to make some designs in your bread, now is the time. I use a clean double-edged razor blade, some people also use really sharp knives. Once you have cut the design you want, quickly open the oven, place your dough inside the hot dutch oven, or on top of the baking stone, and cover it. Let is bake covered for 30-40 munites until it is visibly not expanding anymore. Uncover the dough and let the oven brown it - you’re looking for a deep golden brown, more towards the brown.
Let the bread cool for at least two hours before you cut into it. Too early, and the bread won’t hold its shape. You want to allow the steam to escape naturally so that you can retain the crunchy crust and the spongey interior. I love to have this bread with some salted butter, maybe some jam if I’m feeling really good about something I’ve done. This bread is great to be eaten with just about anything - it is really amazing!
This recipe is adapted from the Cold Ferment Baguette recipe in Bread Bread Bread by Martin Johansson
Yields one 1kg loaf
For the levain
25 g sourdough discard
70 g unbleached bread flour
50 g water
For the bread
530 g unbleached bread flour
340 g water
10 g salt
Combine the ingredients for the levain in a bowl and mix to create a homogenous dough
Allow the levain to rise for 2-24 hours
Add the ingredients for the bread to the levain and mix to combine. Let rest for half an hour
Perform a series of four stretch-and-folds, turning the dough 90 degrees in one direction after each fold. Place the dough back in a greased bowl.
Let the dough rest for half an hour and perform three to five more series of stretch-and-folds, with a half-hour break in between each.
After completing all of the stretch and folds, test the dough’s gluten structure with a windowpane test to see if more stretch and folds and necessary. If not, continue.
Form the dough into a taught ball and place back into a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let ferment in the fridge for 12-24 hours.
Pull the dough out and reshape into a taught ball and place in a bowl that has been lined with a floured cloth. Cover and let rise at room temperature for 2 hours.
Preheat the dutch oven inside the oven at 450F.
Invert the dough onto a small piece of parchment paper and score the surface of the dough. Place the dough inside the preheated dutch oven in the preheated oven, and over. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until it stops expanding.
Uncover the dutch oven and continue baking for 10-15 minutes until the surface of the dough achieves a deep golden brown colour.
Take the dough out of the oven and let cool for 2 hours before indulging.