Baking School In-Depth: Sourdough Boule

Baking School In-Depth: Sourdough Boule

There’s more than just wild yeast in sourdough—there’s wild spirit. Unsurprisingly, this particular loaf has been intrinsic to the American pioneer identity. California gold prospectors carried their starters in their backpacks, traveling from camp to camp with their magical “sponge,” as they called it, the base for biscuits, flapjacks, and, yes, bread.

Distinguished by a dramatic open crumb, chewy golden crust, and signature tangy flavor, sourdough is a significant benchmark in the baker’s journey. It’s a test of the baker’s patience and dedication, requiring one to nurture and build a starter, a microbe-rich flour-and-water mixture that’s been fermented and fed for several weeks.

Then you need to sacrifice a part of this precious thing—only a couple of tablespoons, don’t worry—to be baked into an air-pocked boule that has equal parts height, texture, and taste. With our in-depth guide and a little help from the brand new and revolutionary Le Creuset Bread Oven, we’re demystifying the incredible but easy process. Soon, you’ll be on your way to becoming a bona fide sourdough obsessive. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson, or keep scrolling to view our digital lesson.
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Williams Sonoma and Bake from Scratch present: Baking School

New to baking sourdough? A little intimidated by baking your own boule? Join us Monday, March 28, 2022 at 8pm, EST for our Baking School In-Depth class! Brian Hart Hoffman will be teaching all things sourdough. He will be taking an in-depth look at sourdough bread, showing you every step of the process, from making the levain to shaping and scoring your boule. The final piece to the sourdough puzzle? Getting that perfect bake with the new Le Creuset Bread Oven!

Tool Talk
Great recipes require great tools. Here’s our must-have equipment to creating sourdough magic.

Le Creuset Bread Oven: For the best oven spring and the crispiest crust, we bake our sourdough boules in Le Creuset’s new enamel-coated, cast-iron oven. Every detail of the oven was crafted with the artisan baker in mind, from the matte black interior that makes for easy clean-up to the ergonomic knobs and handles. (See Le Creuset Bread Oven Baking Science.) You can also make this recipe in one of Le Creuset’s beautiful 5- to 7-quart Dutch ovens. (See How to Bake in a Dutch Oven.)  

Banneton: With such a high-hydration dough, it can be difficult to transport proofed dough from bowl to baking dish. A banneton, made of cane, will easily release dough after proofing. Alternatively, a regular bowl will work as well.

Kitchen Towels: Made with breathable cotton, linen kitchen towels are another way to line the banneton to keep the dough from sticking. They also make an excellent cover for proofing dough.

Large, Glass Bowls: When proofing our dough, we need to see whether the dough has doubled in size. This can be hard to do with an opaque container. Large glass bowls allow us to have a window into the proofing process.

Bench Scraper and Bowl Scraper: Sourdough is a high hydration dough, meaning it wants to stick to everything. Metal bench scrapers will help you clean up your surfaces while a plastic bowl scraper will help you separate your dough from your mixing bowl without tearing it.

Lame: A lame (pronounced lahm or lam) will help you score your dough. We prefer it to a razor because we can replace the disposable blade as it dulls, and the handle gives us the best ease of movement and feels like an artist’s stylus. In a pinch, a sharp paring knife will work as well.

Le Creuset Bread Oven Baking Science

Baking bread in this revolutionary oven creates a high-heat environment that quickly kills the yeast and forces the bread to rapidly release its gases into an intense wave of steam, a process known as oven spring. Industrial ovens used in professional bakeries do this naturally, but at home, we need help from the domed oven lid to trap and circulate the steam in with the bread, hydrating the dough, effectively conducting heat, and helping it gain extra height. The steam also interacts with the starches on the bread’s surface, creating a crust with a subtle gloss. It leads to an epically crusted and crumbed sourdough loaf, every time.

Sourdough Boule

Sourdough Boule
 
Makes 1 (1½-pound) loaf
Ingredients
  • Levain:
  • 2 tablespoons (33 grams) levain (instructions follow)
  • ½ cup (120 grams) lukewarm water (85°F/29°C to 90°F/32°C)
  • ¾ cup (95 grams) bread flour
  • 3 tablespoons (24 grams) whole wheat flour
  • Dough:
  • 3 cups (381 grams) bread flour
  • ½ cup (63 grams) whole wheat flour
  • 1¼ cups (300 grams) to 1⅓ cups (320 grams) lukewarm water (85°F/29°C to 90°F/32°C)
  • 1 tablespoon (9 grams) kosher salt
  • ½ cup (134 grams) levain
Instructions
  1. For levain: In a medium bowl, add 2 tablespoons (33 grams) levain. Add ½ cup (120 grams) lukewarm water. Add flours, and stir thoroughly with spoon or hands until smooth and no dry bits of flour remain. Loosely cover and let stand at room temperature overnight (or 8 to 12 hours before you plan to use).
  2. For dough: In a large bowl, stir together flours. Add 1¼ cups (300 grams) lukewarm water, and stir until a rough dough forms. Knead in bowl until no dry bits remain, 30 seconds to 1 minute. (If dough isn’t coming together after 30 seconds, slowly add remaining 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (20 grams) water until flour is hydrated but isn’t super sticky. How much water you use will depend on the humidity at the time of mixing. Dough will not be smooth.) Cover and let stand (so flours can hydrate) for 20 to 30 minutes.
  3. Sprinkle dough with salt. Add ½ cup (134 grams) levain. (See note below about what to do with remaining levain.) Using your hand, pinch and squeeze dough (this is not kneading) to help incorporate levain into dough until cohesive and uniform in texture, about 3 minutes. (Dough will not be smooth.)
  4. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C), and place a small bowl of water on your workstation. Dipping one hand in water, fold dough every 20 minutes for a total of 4 folds in 1 hour and 20 minutes. (To complete a fold, grab underside of dough, stretch it up, and fold it to center of dough. Do this 4 times around the bowl and then turn dough over so folds are facing down.) (At the end of folding, dough will be smooth and elastic and pass the windowpane test; see Notes.) Let rise until doubled in size, dough jiggles when bowl is tapped lightly, and dough passes finger dent test, 1 to 2 hours. (See Notes.)
  5. For final shape, turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Using your fingertips, gently press dough into a 1-inch-thick circle. Stretch out bottom third of circle, and fold to center. Stretch right side out, and fold right third over to center; repeat with left side. Finish by folding top third over previous folds. Roll dough away from you to seam side down, and using both hands, cup dough and pull it toward you to seal. Rotate dough 90 degrees, and pull again until a tight, smooth boule forms, 5 to 7 times. Place, seam side up, in a banneton (proofing basket) or a small bowl lined with a kitchen towel heavily dusted with bread flour. Loosely cover dough with towel, and let rise until puffed, dough jiggles when bowl is tapped lightly, and dough passes finger dent test, 1½ hours to 2½ hours. (Alternatively, cover refrigerate to cold-ferment overnight. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before baking.)
  6. Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). (See How to Bake in a Dutch Oven to bake in a traditional Le Creuset Dutch oven.)
  7. Turn boule out of banneton or bowl onto a round piece of parchment paper. (Alternatively, dust the base of Le Creuset Bread Oven with semolina flour, and turn out dough directly onto base.) Using a lame or sharp paring knife, score top of boule. Place boule, still on parchment paper, in Bread Oven. Cover with lid, and return to oven.
  8. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove lid, and bake until deep golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted in center registers 205°F (96°C) to 210°F (99°C), 15 to 20 minutes more. Immediately remove loaf from Bread Oven, and let cool completely on a wire rack.
Notes
With the remaining levain, discard all but 2 tablespoons (33 grams) and repeat feeding it with ½ cup (120 grams) water, ¾ cup (95 grams) bread flour, and 3 tablespoons (21 grams) whole wheat flour.

To use the windowpane test to check dough for proper gluten development, lightly flour hands and pinch off (don’t tear) a small piece of dough. Slowly pull the dough out from the center. If the dough is ready, you will be able to stretch it until it’s thin and translucent like a windowpane. If the dough tears, it’s not quite ready. Let rest for 20 minutes, perform another fold, and test again.

To use the finger dent test, lightly flour the surface of the dough, and gently press your finger about ½ inch into the surface. If your dough has properly fermented, you should be able to watch the dough spring back slightly but still show an indentation. If the dent disappears, the dough is underproofed and needs more time.

 

How to Bake in a Dutch Oven 
Use these instructions if baking with a Dutch oven.

  1. Proceed with recipe through step 5. 
  2. When dough has 30 minutes left to rise, place a 5- to 7-quart enamel-coated Dutch oven and lid in cold oven. Preheat oven to 500°F (260°C).
  3. Turn boule out of banneton or bowl onto a round piece of parchment paper. Using a lame or sharp paring knife, score top of boule. Carefully remove Dutch oven from oven; remove lid, and place boule, still on parchment paper, in Dutch oven. Cover with lid, and return to oven.
  4. Immediately reduce oven temperature to 425°F (220°C). Bake for 20 minutes. Remove lid, and bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted in center registers 205°F (96°C), 15 to 20 minutes more. Immediately remove loaf from Dutch oven, and let cool completely on a wire rack. 

The Levain
Call it the starter, the mother, or your own pet name, the levain is the cornerstone of all sourdough bread

Tools & Ingredients:

Clear Glass Jar or Container: The levain will live— literally—in this container, so choose a high-quality glass container with plenty of room to grow. To track the rise and fall of the levain, place a rubber band around the glass jar at the original levain line on day one.

Digital Scale: This is essential for calculating the proper amount of each ingredient to add or discard.

Flour: We use a 75/25 blend of bread flour and whole wheat flour.

Water: Distilled or purified water, but depending on the quality of your local water, tap is fine, too.

How to Start Your Levain

DAY 1 | MIX: 120 grams lukewarm water, 95 grams bread flour, and 21 grams whole wheat flour

REST: 48 to 72 hours, at room temperature, loosely covered with lid or towel

DAY 3 | DISCARD: All but 2 tablespoons (33 grams) of starter mixture

ADD: 120 grams lukewarm water, 95 grams bread flour, and 21 grams whole wheat flour

REST: 24 hours, at room temperature, loosely covered with lid or towel

NEXT 1 TO 2 WEEKS | REPEAT: Every 24 hours, repeat process from day 3 (discarding half and replenishing with the above ratio) for 1 to 2 weeks, or until levain shows consistent activity and rises and falls.

Day 1: Once mixing together water and flour, the levain should have a thick, paste-like consistency. Now you’ll let it rest for a full 48 to 72 hours.

Day 3: After two to three days of rest, there should be some activity (namely, bubbles of carbon dioxide and a faint sour, tangy smell). There should be a slightly discolored skin on the surface of your starter. Remove the skin and begin discarding and feeding once a day.

Day 5: At this point, the sourdough culture should be showing significant activity, with plenty of good bacteria creating a noticeable sour smell and plenty of air pockets. In two weeks, it’ll begin to rise and fall on a regular basis—this is considered routine behavior and is a mark of a robust, healthy starter.

Levain Pro Tips:

Measure the jar or bowl you plan to keep your levain stored in. That way, when you go to discard your remaining levain, you don’t have to use a new vessel every time.

Use your hands to mix your levain as the healthy bacteria from your hands will give you an extra active levain.

Do not fully cover your levain; it needs to breathe. We like to poke holes in the lid of the container we use.  

Use the levain when it is bubbly and has risen. If it has fallen back down, don’t use it to make bread.

If you don’t want to feed or make bread everyday, you can store your levain in the refrigerator. Store fully covered up to 1 month. You don’t want to store the levain right after it has been fed. Wait until you’ve made your loaf, and store the leftover levain that has had time to rest after a feeding. When you are ready to use it again, remove from refrigerator and let the chill come off before feeding (45 minutes to 1 hour) and plan to feed it at least 2 times before you use it to make bread.

Feed the Levain 

      

For levain: In a medium bowl, add 2 tablespoons (33 grams) levain. Add ½ cup (120 grams) lukewarm water. Add flours, and stir thoroughly with spoon or hands until smooth and no dry bits of flour remain. Loosely cover and let stand at room temperature overnight (or 8 to 12 hours before you plan to use). For less messy dishes, mix your levain in your levain container. The freshly fed levain should have a milkier, thicker appearance than regular levain and a sweeter aroma. The fed levain ensures that you have all the strength of the active bacteria without the acerbic sourness that is signature to the unfed levain.

Mix the Dough

               

For dough: In a large bowl, stir together flours. Add 1¼ cups (300 grams) lukewarm water, and stir until a rough dough forms. Knead in bowl until no dry bits remain, 30 seconds to 1 minute. (If dough isn’t coming together after 30 seconds, slowly add remaining 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (20 grams) water until flour is hydrated but isn’t super sticky. Dough will not be smooth.) Cover and let stand (so flours can hydrate) for 20 to 30 minutes. How much water you use will depend on the humidity at the time of mixing.

Mix the Dough

          

Sprinkle dough with salt. Add ½ cup (134 grams) levain. Using your hand, pinch and squeeze dough (this is not kneading) to help incorporate levain into dough until cohesive and uniform in texture, about 3 minutes. (Dough will not be smooth.) Your hands get dirty on this one, but you don’t want to wash the dough down the drain. The easiest way to clean your hands is by taking a large pinch of flour in your hands, then rub the flour over your hands and it helps remove the dough!

Folding Your Dough

 

Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C), and place a small bowl of water on your workstation. Dipping one hand in water, fold dough every 20 minutes for a total of 4 folds in 1 hour and 20 minutes. (To complete a fold, grab underside of dough, stretch it up, and fold it to center of dough. Do this 4 times around the bowl and then turn dough over so folds are facing down.) Each time you fold, it will get harder and harder to stretch—that’s a good thing, because your gluten is developing! Each turn stretches the gluten and helps the dough develop a chewy consistency, much in the way a proper kneading would.

Bulk Fermentation

       

At the end of folding, dough will be smooth and elastic and pass the windowpane test. Let rise until doubled in size, dough jiggles when bowl is tapped lightly, and dough passes finger dent test, 1 to 2 hours. Dough will rise depending on dough temperature at the end of folding and ambient temperature of the room. If your kitchen is warm, the dough will rise faster than if it was cold. This proofing time is known as bulk fermentation, a time for the dough to gain gluten structure and complex flavor. Don’t rush the bulk fermentation process as it can ruin the final product in the future. Make sure your dough passes the finger dent test and has doubled in size to ensure it is properly fermented. 

Shaping the Dough

         

For final shape, turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Using your fingertips, gently press dough into a 1-inch-thick circle. Stretch out bottom third of circle, and fold to center. Stretch right side out, and fold right third over to center; repeat with left side. Finish by folding top third over previous folds.

Shaping the Dough: Rounding

   

Roll dough away from you to seam side down, and using both hands, cup dough and pull it toward you to seal. Rotate dough 90 degrees, and pull again until a tight, smooth boule forms, 5 to 7 times. When you pull on the loaf, you need to use your pinkies to help the loaf seal on the bottom.

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