Natural Starter Bread Recipe

Pain au levain naturel

If you keep an eye on my Twitter feed or subscribe to the C&Z newsletter, you already know that I’ve been trying my hand at natural starter bread for the past two months.

A natural starter, also called a sourdough starter, is a culture of wild yeasts and friendly bacteria that the baker keeps alive and thriving by feeding it water and flour on a regular basis. When mixed with a larger quantity of water, flour, and salt, and left to ferment, these microorganisms act as a leavening agent that will make the dough rise to form an extraordinarily flavorful loaf, one with mildly acidic notes, but not as sour as the typical San Francisco sourdough — unless that’s what you’re shooting for.

The beauty of such starter breads is that their flavor is complex and unique.

The beauty of such starter breads is that their flavor is complex and unique (because they rely on yeasts and bacteria that are naturally present in grains, no two starters are alike, especially from one region of the world to another), they keep very well (“the [friendly] bacteria somehow delay starch retrogradation and staling, and the acids they produce make the bread resistant to spoilage microbes”*), they are more nutritious than breads leavened with commercial yeast (the long fermentation induced by the starter is said to make the nutrients in whole grain flours considerably easier to absorb, as well as lower the glycemic index of the bread), and they’re as close as one can get to the essence of bread: a mixture of flour, water, and salt that does not rely on a store-bought leavener.

I had long been drawn to this bread-baking approach, but had always shied away from it because it seemed work-intensive and forbidding, and I had trouble relating to the people who wrote about it: the discussions were usually so advanced as to be overwhelming for a beginner. And then one day, I stumbled upon Florence’s blog by way of Clea’s, and I recognized a kindred baker spirit: Florence wrote about the process in clear terms, technical enough that I could grasp the underlying science, but practical enough that I could see it happening in my own kitchen. I was excited, and ready to take on the challenge.

The one thing that’s needed before boarding the natural starter bread train is, you’ve guessed it, a starter. You can build your own from scratch, following a five-day process that is an adventure in and of itself, but is well documented on many sites, such as here, here, or here. The specifics may differ, but the idea is always the same: you need to create a water/flour environment that encourages the yeast spores in the grain to settle in it and start a colony. The good news is that the summertime (or late spring to early fall) is the best time to start: the higher temperatures foster the development of micro-organisms, so starter builders report their best successes then.

The other, easier option is to obtain some from another baker: because the yeast and bacteria multiply constantly in a well-maintained starter, it’s easy and harmless to remove a portion and pass it on to someone else. What’s more, the recipient benefits from the complexity of an older starter, which has gathered a more varied assortment of microorganisms over time.

Because bakers develop a fond to obsessive relationship to their starter, it is traditional to give it a name, and I’ve decided to name mine Philémon.

As it happens, I was able to purchase a little pouch of starter from one of the organic baker stands at the greenmarket I go to**, saving time and gaining flavor for a mere 1€. (You may think this baker would be shooting himself in the foot — or perhaps killing the goose that laid the golden eggs — by selling his starter so people could bake their own bread, but the truth is I didn’t really buy his bread before, and now I buy organic flour weekly from him to bake my bread, so he’s really gained a customer instead.)

And so, for the past two months, I’ve been feeding my starter daily and getting to know it: what it likes, how much it needs, and when it needs it. Because bakers develop a fond to obsessive relationship to their starter, it is traditional to give it a name, and I’ve decided to name mine Philémon, after one of my favorite bande dessinée characters*** from childhood.

The daily feeding may seem like a big time commitment, but it really takes two minutes. All in all, it is no more work than taking care of a goldfish, except there is no tank to clean (eww!) and my goldfish never rewarded me with the song of freshly baked bread (perhaps I didn’t pick the right breed).

I have been baking a weekly loaf of pain au levain with Philémon’s help, and the results are both wowing and steadily improving: every time I pull one from the oven, I have to set it down quickly so I can clap my mitted hands and squeal with glee. It is the most gratifying thing I know, to explore an entirely new subject and feel one’s skills develop and strengthen with each new attempt.

So far, I have been building on Florence’s basic recipe for what she calls (with good reason) the simplest starter bread in the world, and from which the recipe below is adapted. I love it because it relies on an easy 1.2.3 ratio: 1 part starter****, 2 parts water, 3 parts flour (in weight), plus 1.8 to 2% of the flour weight in salt. (Speaking of ratios, you have read Michael Ruhlman’s empowering book on the subject, right?)

There is much to learn, but the journey is fascinating, and boy, is there good bread on board.

But there are myriads more recipes, methods, tricks, and techniques I have to experiment with. There is much to learn, but the journey is fascinating, and boy, is there good bread on board. I have to warn you, though: baking with a natural starter is an endless area of study, and once you’re hooked, entire afternoons can pass by in a heartbeat, so engrossed you are in the many blogs and forums dedicated to the subject.

So, without further ado, I give you my starter bread routine, outlined below — this is definitely not the only way to go about it, but it is what has worked for me so far. I have tried to describe it in some detail, but I do hope I’m not making it seem more complicated than it is. If it seems puzzling at first, I encourage you to read a lot from different sources, and you’ll soon familiarize yourself with the terms and techniques, until you feel ready to jump in. After baking a few loaves, you’ll also develop a sense of what the starter and dough should be like at every step, allowing you to bake by feel, tweak, and experiment; and that’s when the fun begins.

~~~

* Page 544 of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.

** I am referring to the marché des Batignolles, which is held on Saturday mornings outside the Rome metro station in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. When you exit that metro station and reach the greenmarket, walk up the left alley: the baker is three stalls down on your right-hand side, just after the florist.

*** Philémon is the eponymous hero of a French graphic novel series created and drawn by Fred in the seventies and eighties. It tells the adventures of a teenager who goes back and forth between the world as we know it, and a fantasy world, poetic and surrealist, in which the letters that spell OCEAN ATLANTIQUE on the map are actual islands one can visit. See this site (in French) for a difficult-to-navigate but thorough look at the significance of Fred’s masterpiece.

**** This ratio applies to what is called a 100% starter, meaning it is always fed equal amounts (in weight) of flour and water. (The percentage refers to the hydration of the starter, so an 80% starter would be fed 80 grams of water for each 100 grams of flour.) The consistency of a 100% starter is similar to that of a pancake batter — thicker than a crepe batter, but thinner than most cake batters.

Natural Starter Bread

i. About my starter
ii. Refreshing the starter (daily)
iii. Preparing enough starter for a new loaf (baking day – 1)
iv. Baking bread

i. About my starter

The chef starter is a portion of the starter that you always keep, and feed regularly so the yeast culture will continue to thrive.

I keep my chef starter on my countertop in a 250-ml (1-cup) Weck jar that would normally be shut with a rubber band and metal clips, but because the starter needs to breathe, I simply place the lid on top without fastening it. The sides of the jar get a bit crusty with flour after a while, so I transfer it to a fresh but identical jar every two weeks or so. (It’s important that the jar be super clean and free of any trace of soap.)

Even though I only bake weekly, I’ve been keeping my starter at room temperature and feeding it daily. Some bakers place it in the fridge from one week to the other, but so far I have avoided that because I’ve read this halts the lactic fermentation but not the acetic fermentation and produces more sour-tasting loaves, which I don’t care for. I have to experiment with that as well.

Natural Sourdough Starter

ii. Feeding the starter (once a day)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 5 minutes

Makes 70 grams freshly fed starter.

ii. Feeding the starter (once a day)

Ingredients

    Every morning, after breakfast, I feed (or refresh) my chef starter, Philémon.
  • the jar of chef starter fed the day before
  • 35 ml (2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon) water (from a water-filtering pitcher, or spring water)
  • 35 grams (1 1/4 ounces, about 1/4 cup) all-purpose wheat flour (I use an organic T65 flour)

Instructions

  1. Using a wooden spoon that you'll preferably reserve for this purpose, stir the chef starter in the jar to smooth it out; its consistency will turn from mousse-like to pancake-batter-like.
  2. Spoon out all but 1 tablespoon of the starter. Throw the excess out or pour it into an airtight container that you'll keep in the fridge (I use a 2-cup tub of yogurt that I've cleaned and saved)*.
  3. Pour the filtered water into the jar of starter and stir it in. Add the flour and stir it in energetically until smooth (this also helps incorporate some air into the starter) -- I usually count to 30. Scrape down the sides of the jar with the spoon, put the lid on the jar, and place the jar on the counter.
  4. Rinse the wooden spoon; it's best not to use detergent on it, or some of it might end up in the starter.
  5. If the starter is in good shape, it will bubble up and rise in the jar to double in volume after a few hours (how many hours depends on the vitality of the starter and the temperature), before settling and slowly sitting back down in the jar (see pictures below).
  6. Starter timeline

Notes

  • Alternatively, if you prefer not to look after it daily, you can feed it a bit more generously, place the starter in the fridge an hour or two after feeding, and keep it in there for up to a week. Let it come back to room temperature (let it sit for about 2 hours on the counter) before feeding it again, or before using some to prepare enough starter for a new loaf (see below).
  • The reason why so much of the starter must be removed is that the starter needs to be fed its own weight in flour and its own weight in water daily. If you keep all of the "old" starter every day, it will triple every day and build up to an exponentially large quantity: you will gradually need more and more flour to keep it happy, and this will be much more costly in the end. Some people just throw out that extra starter, but I prefer to keep it in the fridge and work it into my crêpe, cake, or clafoutis batters, in pizza doughs, etc. -- I will soon post a few ideas to use it up. This extra starter could also be given away to another baker.

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iii. Preparing enough starter for a new loaf (Baking Day - 1)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 5 minutes

Makes 200 grams ripe starter.

iii. Preparing enough starter for a new loaf (Baking Day - 1)

Ingredients

  • 70 grams (2 1/2 ounces) of starter taken from the chef starter that was fed in the morning (stir starter well before scooping some out)
  • 70 ml (6 tablespoons) water (from a water-filtering pitcher, or spring water)
  • 70 grams (2 1/2 ounces, about 1/2 cup) all-purpose flour (I use an organic T65 flour)

Instructions

  1. Using a wooden spoon, scoop the 70 grams of starter from the jar into a clean bowl, about 500 ml or 2 cups in capacity. (This should leave you with about 1 tablespoon chef starter in the jar.) Pour the water into the bowl and stir it in. Add in the flour and stir it in energetically until smooth (this also helps incorporate some air into the starter). Scrape down the sides of the bowl with the spoon, cover the bowl with a small plate or lid, and place the bowl next to the chef starter so they can tell knock-knock jokes to one another all night.
  2. Rinse the wooden spoon (again, no detergent) and go to bed.
  3. In the morning, you'll feed the chef starter as usual, but you won't need to remove any because the extra starter has just been used.
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iv. Baking bread

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 9 hours

Makes one 1-kilo (2.2-pound) loaf.

iv. Baking bread

Ingredients

    I start the new loaf in the morning, and bake it sometime in the afternoon. It then has enough time to cool before dinner.
  • 200 grams (7 ounces) of the starter (sponge) you've left to ferment in the bowl overnight
  • 400 grams (14 ounces) water (again, from a water-filtering pitcher, or spring water)
  • 600 grams (21 ounces) various flours (I generally use a mix of spelt flour, whole wheat flour and light whole wheat flour, with an occasional bit of rye, all of them organic), plus more for shaping and handling
  • 1 tablespoon wheat gluten (optional, but good when working with French flours, which tend to be "soft", i.e. low in gluten; look for it at natural food stores)
  • 10 grams (2 teaspoons) sea salt (I use an unrefined "grey" sea salt such as this one, only it's about eight times cheaper to buy it here)

Instructions

  1. Combine the starter, water, flour, and gluten if using in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on lowest speed for a few seconds, just until combined, and let rest for 30 minutes (this step, called autolysis or autolyse, allows the flour to absorb more water and the gluten strands to shorten, making the dough easier to handle later).
  2. Add in the salt, and knead at moderate speed for 7 minutes (I use speed 1 or 2 of 10 on my KitchenAid), until the dough is smooth and shiny and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. It will still be tacky, because this is a dough with a rather high hydration. Note that different flours have different absorbencies, so you may have to play with the quantities of flour and water from one loaf to another until you determine how wet you want the dough to be.
  3. [You can also knead the dough by hand, but it will take longer and you may want to use a little less water -- say, 360 ml or 1 1/2 cups -- so the dough is less tacky.]
  4. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and place it in a temperate, draft-free spot.
  5. An hour or two later, when the dough has started to rise a little, use a flexible scraper to "fold" it over itself in the bowl, as demonstrated in this video (the dough will be less shaggy that this, but the gesture is the same). This folding step helps give structure to the dough and develops the flavor of the bread. Cover the bowl with the towel again.
  6. An hour or two later, if you can and if you don't forget, fold the dough again.
  7. Six to eight hours after the kneading -- the exact time will depend on the temperature, the vigor of your starter, and the mix of flours you've used --, when the dough has about doubled in volume, it is ready for baking. Another way of knowing is to poke it gently with your finger: if the indentation springs back, the dough needs more time; if it stays hollow, it's ready.
  8. [Alternatively, you can prepare the sponge in the morning and put together the dough in the evening. After the first folding, cover and let it ferment in the fridge it all night. In the morning, let it come back to room temperature for about 2 hours, then continue as written below. This will produce a slightly more tangy loaf.]
  9. Pull out an ovenproof cast-iron pot with a lid (make sure the handle of the lid can take a high temperature without melting) such as this one, or an ovenproof glass casserole such as this one; ideally, the vessel should be about 3 liters (3 quarts) in capacity (and not too much more, or the loaf will spread and won't rise as much). Pour a drop of neutral-flavored oil into the pot, add a good pinch of flour, mix with the tips of your fingers and rub this mixture along the bottom and sides of the pot. This will prevent the loaf from sticking to the pot. Set aside.
  10. Pour the dough out into a big blop on a generously floured surface (I use a generously floured silicone baking mat). It will be a rather shaggy dough. With well floured hands, lift one edge of the dough and fold it over toward the center. Repeat with the opposite side, so you'll be folding the dough in three like a business letter. Give the dough a quarter of a turn and fold it in three again. Handle the dough with determined gestures, but be gentle: you don't want it to deflate it too much and the surface shouldn't tear. The folding should have given it enough structure that you can pick it up; repeat the folding if that's not the case.
  11. Lift the dough delicately with both hands, and flip it upside down as you lower it into the prepared pot; the seam should face down. Using a very sharp thin knife or a razor blade with a handle (such as this incisette), score the top of the bread to form a cross, or the shape of your choice. (See this helpful bread-scoring tutorial for tips.)
  12. Place the lid on the pot and the pot in the cold (not preheated) oven. Switch the oven on with a temperature setting of 240°C (460°F) and leave the bread in for 1 hour (starting from the moment you insert the pot; my oven takes 15 minutes to reach 240°C), until well risen and golden brown.
  13. Remove the pot from the oven, transfer the loaf onto a rack, and check that it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom (obviously, the bread will be piping hot, so be careful). If it doesn't, return it to bake a little longer. If it does, let cool completely before slicing (I insist: if you slice it prematurely, the crumb will be gummy). The loaf will keep for about a week if well wrapped, or you can freeze half and take it out later in the week.
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Natural Starter Bread

  • http://easydoesitrecipes.blogspot.com/ Chris

    my favorite type of bread!!!

  • Austin

    Looks like a lovely loaf. I’ve experimenting with a rye sour lately. When I found I could get local rye flour at the farmer’s market, I just had to.

    There are excellent instructions on obtaining and maintaining natural leavens in Daniel Wing and Allan Scott’s book The Bread Builders. One thing they stress is that the leaven should ferment for a few hours between being refreshed and refrigerated. They suggest 3 hours of fermentation (for a starter that matures in 12-14 hours) if you’re baking once per week but that’s only a rule of thumb.

    There’s loads of other good information on natural leaven baking in there, too, even if you don’t intend to build a wood-fired bread oven in your backyard.

  • http://www.makanaibio.com Flo Makanai

    Excellent post, Clotilde.
    (and boy, am I proud I helped you to take the plunge into that fantastic world of homemade natural starter baking!)
    PS : if you ever encounter a fish that sings that beautiful “just baked bread song”, please tell me, I’ll want one :b

  • kate the bake

    What a lovely looking loaf! I am thinking about having a go with a gluten free version, have you any thoughts or tips?
    Regards,
    Kate

  • http://dailyunadventures.com/2009/06/garlic-scapes-walnut-pesto-recipe.html Katerina

    I tried to make starter once before and didn’t have any success. I plan to try again this summer when I am on vacation. This looks so amazing and is a good inspiration!

  • http://smallkitchenbigideas.wordpress.com Sara

    Very cool.

    I tried using a starter but it didn’t quite turn out right. I will have to give it another shot.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Austin – Thanks for the link and the tip about letting the starter ferment a little before refrigerating it; I’ve edited the post to reflect that.

    Flo – Lovely to have you here! :)

    Kate – The process described here relies on wheat and gluten, so I don’t think it can be made gluten-free without considerable changes. I can, however, point you to Sharon Kane’s blog, The Art of Gluten-Free Sourdough Baking. She seems to have developed a recipe for making gluten-free starter bread.

    Katerina and Sara – I hope you have better success this time. Good luck!

  • Tara

    My mother has a sourdough start she’s kept alive since December 1971 which at that time was already 86 years old. She recently concocted a recipe for herbed sourdough loaf that is cooked in a dutch oven–FANTASTIC! She has each step documented with pictures and instructions. I’ll see if she can send along so you can try it out.

  • Pauline

    Ah, sourdough, a most worthy bug to be bitten by! May I urge you to buy also Dan Lepard’s lovely, lovely book, The Handmade Loaf. Beautifully written, beautifully photographed. Forums and more at http://www.danlepard.com

  • http://www.chiccyclist.com Charlotte

    I have also been contemplating trying again with a natural starter. The ‘trouble’ is that we’re going to Paris for two weeks (no real trouble, actually).

    Clotilde, do you take Philémon on vacation with you?

    I can probably find a solution to this in your links, but I rather like the idea of carrying the starter around with us in a dog crate, or advertising for a “starter sitter” at home.

  • http://chaosqueenskitchen.twoday.net Chaosqueen

    Congratulations!
    I love to bake with my natural starter. Mine is about eight years old.

  • http://nami-nami.blogspot.com Pille @ Nami-Nami

    I posted a photo about my natural starter bread today on my blog, too :) I use 100% rye flour – typical to Estonia – and am very proud of the results as well.
    Thank you for your timely and detailed post, Clotilde!

  • Callie

    Hi Clotilde-

    It is encouraging to read about someone who is in the same stage of sourdough baking as I am. I just started with it a few months ago. It isn’t as time consuming as most people make it out to be. I think the thing is that there is just so much to be learned in regards to it. It is a life-long learning process in my opinion. Sourdough has become a real hobby for me and I love the time I have been able to spend on it and how it gives me something to practice, study, and subsequently get actual results out of. This makes it so very rewarding!

    I look forward to more sourdough baking posts from you and happy baking!

  • Maureen

    Congratulations! I was looking forward to hearing more about your bread baking. Inspired by a workshop with Sandor Ellix Katz on making fermented foods (see his excellent book Wild Fermentation), I tried my hand at homemade sourdough last summer. I just mixed an equal amount of flour and water, stirred, fed it, and was elated when it started to bubble. No starter necessary! The outcome was a delicious addition to a dinner party I hosted. Since I live alone and am more of a cooked grains than bread person, I didn’t keep up the starter, but maybe I will try again since I have guests coming in a little over a week…Looking forward to hearing more about your adventures with bread!

  • milli

    Funny you should write about sourdough! I’ve been on a sourdough mission these last few weeks with some starter a friend gave me. It’s very satisfying to have freshly baked bread that you made.

    I refer to the starter as my pet, Sirius. :)

  • http://savorsoap.com/cookbook/ Lisa

    How wonderful! I really appreciate all the rich detail in your post on how to craft the starter.

    My personal goal is to get a good injera starter going. If I could make my own injera I’d eat it at every meal!

  • http://www.beyondramen.net Anne

    What a beautiful loaf of bread! Pain au levain is perhaps my favorite of all French breads. I am inspired to begin my very own starter. I can only hope that the bread I get from it will be half as lovely as yours–but even if it’s not, I can’t wait to eat some with cheese.

  • http://aiyanalaughed.blogspot.com/ Marian

    I have a potato bread started recipe that I first got back in High school. The starter is fed with potato buds, sugar, and water…so delicious! It’s the only bread starter I’ve ever tried but now I’ll have to try yours too.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    All – Thanks for your comments, and for sharing your own experience and recommendations!

    Charlotte – I don’t think I would travel with my starter. So far I’ve only left it for an extended weekend, and have just kept it in the fridge. If you feed it more generously than you normally do, you can keep it in there for a few weeks. It may take a few feedings to get it going again when you get back, but otherwise it should be okay. Or indeed, you could hire a starter-sitter. :)

    • Steven.D

      You can freeze it when you have to go on a longer trip.

  • http://www.acookonthefunnyside.com crystal

    Hi Clotilde
    Love your site. We travelled with our starter for 3 months while travelling through Canada, including 3 weeks in a canoe! We used to “burp” it every day – open the lid and out the air as the lid would be bulging.

  • http://www.bawwgt.com dofus kamas

    deliciiiiiiiiiiiiiiious.i wish my mother could do same for me ^^

  • http://courtneysconcoctions.blogspot.com/ Courtney’s Concoctions

    Looks fabulous! Once the weather is a bit cooler I am on board for breakmaking once again…

  • Salilah

    Worth checking out a linen lined proving basket – an interesting alternative to the others?

    Here’s an example.

    (hope that works)

    I just killed my starter by not feeding enough – in the fridge for 4 weeks – so watch out for that! New starter on the go in the “airing cupboard” (where hot water tank sits)…

    Thanks for details – will keep trying – my bread tastes good (usually) but is normally far too flat!
    S

  • glenn

    You’re right that there is so much information on the web about starters and because of this one may get lost in tooooo much info. and not try it!!! that said — If one is planning on being away from your beloved starter for the weekend or longer or perhaps you only bake once a week and you are looking for a long-term storage of your starter solution, may I suggest freezing your starter in aliquots prior to your departure/baking cycle. This way you may come home to the prospect of picking up where you left off with your bread making.

  • http://mortadifame.blogspot.com Morta Di Fame

    This is great. Thanks so much for the in-depth instructions. I have been wanting to try to do this and now I am so happy to know how successful it was for you!

  • http://www.surveymethod.net jonathan

    Hello.. pleaseee give me one to try. I am sure they taste incredibly great…

  • Austin

    That Gluten-free Sourdough blog is CRAZY! I didn’t know such a thing could even be done. I’m definitely passing it along to a few of my gluten intolerant friends. Thanks.

  • http://whatilikenyc.blogspot.com Laura

    I highly recommend you check out Dan Lepard’s book A Handmade Loaf. It really does make for some low stress wonderful bread making with natural starters. The man is a genius as far as I’m concerned!

  • http://veggietestdrive.blogspot.com/ Christine

    Now I am wondering whether I have occasional trouble with my starter because she’s been pissed to be left nameless. Will name her immediately, attach a clever label, and try a new recipe forthwith.

  • http://www.cupandtable.blogspot.com gretchen

    i would love to try this. i tend to buy mostly starter breads now, but never have attempted to make my own. i am nervous, but i know it is time to take the plunge into the vast universe that is homegrown starter culture. you are giving me courage.

  • http://mommiez.wordpress.com/ g

    we usually keep some starter in the fridge… My brother in law is the bread baker in our house. After a few too lemony breads :) with the recipes from the bread machine… I suggested taking a ball from these doughs and letting it sit… Then letting it grow… Since then when we make bread, we take a handful and put it in the fridge…
    Now I am visiting family in Turkey… and we buy unbaked bread dough from the bakery almost every week to make pizza, desserts etc. Like you mentioned we go to them everyday to buy baked bread, unbaked bread and other things because they are also sharing their dough with us… This is a great post that talks about basics of baking…

  • http://www.food-medicine.com sharon kane

    Hello Clotilde,
    Just wanted to thank you for recommending my Art of Gluten Free Sourdough Baking to one of your followers. And you’re right, there are some big differences between gluten free sourdough and regular sourdough. It took me a year to figure them out.

    Your blog is beautifully written and I especially like the detailed yet simple way you have of describing the starter process. Thanks again,
    sharon a. kane

  • http://www.wildyeastblog.com/ Susan/Wild Yeast

    What a beautiful loaf and a wonderfully detailed account of your process!

  • Amy Boyd

    I used to work at a Sydney (Aus) bakery who’s Sour Dough starter was 150 years old! I have never tasted an equal to their bread and (almost) wish I’d been dishonest enough to steal just a tiny bit. I’ll just have to live a lot longer to compete.

    My husband keeps saying “We should have a starter . . . ” and I agree . . . You have offically inspired me to get ‘starter-ed’.

  • Chennpug

    Great tutorial and great idea! We whipped up a starter easily, despite the air conditioning and relative dryness of the weather for the last month or two. His name is Rupert and he is delicious. SO glad we decided to try this.

    As a note to anyone having trouble with the oil/flour not being quite enough to be able to pry the bread whole out of your dutch oven, here’s an old pizza-making trick. Instead of flour, add about a teaspoon of cornmeal to the oil in the bottom. No oily, floury film on the crust of your beautiful bread, and no sticking! Works great for us.

  • kathyw

    I’ve been baking bread with natural starter yeast for a long time. I don’t bother to try to keep the yeast for years – it’s easy enough to ‘catch’ some yeast from the air any day.
    Recently, I made a few loaves when I was inspired by reading Patricia Wells’ ‘Food Lovers’ Guide to Paris’ (an oldie but a goodie) in which she includes a recipe from Poilane’s Bakery… Pain Poilane au Levain Naturel.
    It was enough to make me jump up and get started baking again. Now, reading Chocolate & Zucchini has me taking my starter out of the fridge and getting ready to start making loaves again.
    Thanks!

  • Elisa

    Dear Clotilde,
    I discovered your website about three years ago when I was in boarding school in scotland. The food there was terrible, fattening (think deepfried, 6 days a week) and generally lacking nutrition. One day I realized that if I would keep eating that much fat I would likely be very unhappy with my appearance in the future.
    As my cooking skills where somewhat limited I started of with spaghetti with pre made tomato sauce…but at some point i got a bit borre with only pasta so i started searching the internet for recipes that were easy enough for me to try, this is how i found your website, which ever since has been a great source of inspiration for me and taught me not to be afraid of cooking.
    Being a german living in England, I often miss bread that has a real crust aswell as the flavour that only a real sourdough can provide. Last week I managed to cultivate my own sourdough and bake a bread with it and even though it was my first try at bread baking ever it tourned out absolutly amazing.
    Thank you so much for this website, it really is a great inspiration, aswell as your two books!

  • Hannah

    Just want to say thanks… I’ve been baking bread for about 6 months and experimenting with my own starter etc.

    Pulled a loaf of this pain au levain out of the oven last night and it is hands down the best loaf I’ve baked!

    I used a mix of unbleached white, wholemeal spelt and rye flour – it’s bloody delicious.

  • http://tinykitchentales.blogspot.com/ Anne

    I made this loaf last week, and I was so delighted with the recipe that I wrote about it on my blog, which you can see here.

    I was worried that by keeping the lid on the pot the bread wouldn’t brown properly, but it did so beautifully. Thank you for such a fantastic recipe.

  • Lon

    I’ve been baking natural starter breads for over 40 years. First, not all these starters are sourdough. Only those containing species of Lactobacillus or other anaerobic fermenting micro organisms are really sourdough (they produce acids as they ferment due to the low levels of oxygen they consume). I have a few starters that are not sourdough. Each starter produces its own unique flavors. None of my starters are fed daily. Many times they have to sulk in the refrigerator unfed for 4-5 weeks while I am traveling. They always are active when I return and feed them.

  • http://havedogswilltravel.blogspot.com Robyn Sinclair

    Thank you for this brilliant post. I’m now feeding my starter daily and producing gorgeous, crusty sourdough bread that doesn’t have an overpowering sour taste. Brava, brava!

  • http://elegantsufficiency.squarespace.com Gill

    Clothilde, I want to thank you for your excellent post which has given us the motivation and knowledge to get going with our natural starter again. We went on a breakmaking day about six weeks ago and came home with a little bag of “Clive’s Mother”, his 14-yr old starter. In spite of much effort, we have yet to produce a loaf that we want to eat. It’s been flat, chewy and less than tasty. We went on holiday and gave up – but fortunately, Clive advised us to put half of his mother into the freezer “in case of emergency” and thanks to you, we’ve resuscitated her over a couple of days and the best loaf ever has just come out of the oven!

    We are thrilled!

    Thank you for the including every small detail which, though fairly offputting at first, helps to ensure that every base is covered. Splendid advice all round.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Robyn and Gill – So pleased this post was helpful/inspiring to you!

  • Katie

    I love your Philemon’s name! My starter is Alice (after the 70’s song).

    I’ve done one actual loaf dough with mine, otherwise Alice becomes English muffins every week. Nummo.

  • Vidya

    I’ve been wanting to make my own sourdough starter for a long time now…as a student, I think it would help with relieving some of the exam stress. Baking a loaf of bread once a week seems like a good idea. I think I’m going to try an organic recipe that uses crushed grapes.

  • http://the-secret-life-of-daydreams.blogspot.com Rebecca

    Thank you so so much for this recipe and tutorial! I have been trying to turn my lovely sourdough starter into a good loaf of bread for weeks now and yours was the first recipe that brought me what I (and more importantly, my husband) wanted. A crispy crust, soft, chewy inside, and a wonderful tang. Just perfect!

  • http://www.lemontart.ca Tami

    Clotilde, I’ve been making sourdough breads for a few years now, and happy enough with them, I’ve never been completely satisfied with the flavour, but more specifically the crumb texture. I’m so glad I put aside my usual recipe and used this one. I made the baguettes first which were so perfect and so I went ahead and made a couple boules. This to me is the perfect wild yeast bread. I’m not even sure what it is about it that is so much more superior, but its something. I also love how easy it is to remember. Don’t even need to consult the recipe now. Thanks!

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Thanks so much for reporting back with your successes — it couldn’t make me happier!

    • Danielle

      Hi, I hope it isn’t to late to discuss wild yeast starters. I recently discovered your fabulous contributions and most specifically this bread recipe. I have made it 3 times (with a starter I had built from elsewhere). Each attempt, although unique, have been the best bread I have ever made and I thank you for this recipe. I have been experiencing increasing gumminess however in spite of waiting for the bread to cool completely. I have been using bread flour but the one time I was out (and used AP) it was the worst. Thank you so much for this amazing recipe! I live in San Francisco and in spite of the fact that I am making it, it is the best bread I’ve tasted. Seriously.

      • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

        It is never too late to discuss starters! I’m delighted you’ve been happy with your bread baking experiments.

        Regarding the gumminess of the crumb, a possible explanation is that your loaf is slightly undercooked. You can try leaving it for an additional 30 minutes in the oven after turning it off: this will help decrease the moisture content in the loaf.

        • Danielle

          Oh yay, it’s not too late! Thank you, I will try that. I did realize that i had forgotten to add the salt that time. Hmmmm, nothing i could find addressed how salt effects bread baking – at least in laymans terms :) One thing that has been dogging me is that my bottoms always burn (oven: O’Keefe and Merrit, Dutch oven: Le Cruset). Everything else is fine – well cooked crumb, and deep golden crust and the bread tastes great. I don’t want to run the risk of undercooking it.

          I have been making the wonderful English muffins and baguettes (need me a super peel) and look forward to making the crumpets and chocolate bread. I have been making the pain au levain almost daily now for over two weeks. It is a wonderful feeling to make good bread from home. I owe you, girl!

  • Jennifer

    Hi, Clotilde,
    Thank you for posting these instructions! I’ve been really interested in making a starter and baking bread with it, but I had no idea where to begin! Your website is such a wonderful resource; I just yesterday made a pate brisee from your instructions! I would like to try to make the starter bread from your recipe above, so I’ve inventoried my cabinet to make sure I have all that I’ll need. My Pyrex dish has a capacity of only 1.9 liters. Do you think it could be large enough to bake the loaf you describe? Are there any adjustments that you would suggest if I use this dish?

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      Just to be sure it’s clear: the kind of pyrex dish we’re talking about here is one that looks like a pot, with a lid — not the shallow kind you’d use to bake a casserole in.

      The one I use has a 2.5 liter capacity, so if you were to use one that has a 1.9 liter capacity, you’d need to scale the recipe down accordingly (by a quarter), or the loaf will be too big for your dish. Just multiply all the ingredient amounts by 0.75 and you’ll have the right size.

  • Beth

    I know it’s been a while since you posted this, but I just started using the starter and following your instructions. The bread was great!

    But I am wondering: what do you do with the starter that you take out and put in the yogurt container? I hate to throw it out each day, but I don’t know what to do with it.

    Merci!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      Congrats on getting started with sourdough baking, Beth!

      I use a bit of the extra starter whenever I make cakes, muffins, etc. especially recipes that call for yogurt, as I find it can replace a portion of it. See instructions here.

      I also use it to make crumpets and crackers. Have fun!

  • Beth

    Thanks, Clotilde! I just remembered another question, sorry to keep asking…How long do you keep the discarded starter in the refrigerator before tossing it out? Thanks, again!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      There is no hard and fast rule in that regard. In theory, you could keep it for months and months, but it will get more and more acidic over time, which may not be so pleasant in the end result. I generally don’t keep it for more than a month or so. The only situation in which you must toss it is if it starts to smell really foul (not acidic, but really bad, like something rotten) which would mean that unfriendly bacteria have taken over.

  • steven

    Hi Clotilde,

    question about the above instructions (poorly timed to ask because I’m just starting my loaf) you say 400gr water but later you say if mixing by hand you may want to use 360ml water…

    so was the first measurement meant to be 400ml water?

    thank you- wish me luck!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      1 ml water weighs 1 gram, so when it comes to water grams and milliliters are interchangeable.
      Happy baking!

  • Ben W.

    Hi Clotilde,

    I wanted to share a success story with you. When a coworker stumbled upon your post about baguettes and sent it to me several months ago, I caught the starter itch and was amazed. I’ve been cooking for about 5 or 6 years and just recently discovered the joy of baking bread. I’m a potter and printmaker, so the whole hands-on, chemical process of breadmaking seemed like a logical next step.

    After a few hard-earned days of cultivated my own starter, I made the recipe above and I am extremely pleased and wowed by the results. I find your blog an inspiration and an encouragement. It’s a wonderful, artfully-crafted gift to all interested foodies and I can’t wait to try more recipes.

    Thanks, again!

    Ben

  • http://linguistickycountertops.blogspot.com Georgia

    Eeeep! My starter’s name is Adelaide! I just made this recipe – though I haven’t eaten it because I’m dutifully waiting to slice into until it is completely cool. I just inherited a Le Creuset dutch oven, but was very disappointed to see that the handle isn’t rated for temperatures over 350*. Lame. So I covered the pot with a small, flat cast-iron skillet and wrapped it in aluminum foil. Hopefully it worked out, but I will say that the crust isn’t as crispy as I was hoping. Thanks so much for your great recipes and your beautiful blog!

  • Millicent

    Hi Clotilde,

    Another success story here, and a big thank you! I made the bread with 1/3 white, 1/3 whole wheat and 1/3 spelt flour, and it was delicious. And so easy! The dough was easy to work with, no second rise, and very easy to shape because of baking in the pot.

    Thanks again and happy anniversary!

    Millicent

  • Lauren

    Hello,
    Thanks so much for this fantastic blog.
    I have been wanting to try sourdough baking for a while, but I haven’t been very good at starting the starter. i’ve tried begging every baker here in Strasbourg for a starter, but without any luck. Now I am finally going to be in Paris for one brief afternoon (strike/SNCF permitting) so I was wondering if you knew of any bakery that would sell me a bit of starter– maybe I could visit your helpful Saturday greenmarket baker in his
    Thursday location?
    Thanks!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      I’m afraid I don’t know where/if this baker sells his goods on Thursdays. I’ll try to remember to ask next time I go!

  • Mary Jo

    What a great blog! It’s nice to know some one else has named their starter. I am new to this, and am quite pleased with two starters I have–one is three weeks old, started with a little batch of left over dough I had from making pizza crust (compressed yeast used) and I played around with starting up a sour dough mix with that–and it worked! That batch is named Berniece. And then, there is my totally wild batch started with whole wheat flour and pineapple juice named Sydney. Sydney is two weeks old and has a very different character to Berniece. I’m using your baguette recipe to make Sydney’s first loaves today! Thank you so much for your informative, entertaining site!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      Love the names you gave them, Mary Jo. I wish you and your two starters much baking success!

  • Ping

    Dear Clotilde,
    May I ask if it is possible to buy and transport the same starter that you got from the baker you mentioned in Paris? I am new in Genova, Italy, and have a few French friends who travel to and from Paris quite often (in fact, one of them is there for holiday now). Because the problem is that here in Genova, I do not know any baker selling their starter or anyone who bakes their own bread. And I’ve been missing hearty crusty breads (like how the French and German makes them) since I moved to Italy. The italians make some good bread too but they are almost always white. Thanks so much for your help!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      I’m pretty sure the starter would survive the trip, if your friends keep it refrigerated for as long as possible. The only problem is that I’m not sure the baker brings some of his starter every Saturday at the marché des Batignolles, so you should be aware that it’s possible your friends would go there and not be able to buy it.

      In your situation, though, why not start your starter from scratch? There are lots of tutorials out there explaining how to proceed, such as this one or this one.

  • Ping

    Thanks very much for your quick reply Clotilde! :) I think I’ll take your advice and start my own then. And when I can hop over to Paris for a short holiday, I’ll check out the marché and try my luck. Thanks again! :)

  • http://ifoodstory.com/ Yoko

    I started baking bread this January with sourdough starter and now experimenting with yeast water. I made a bread out of raisin water which is now my favorite.

    I read your water kefir post and thought you can probably use it for dough starter if you add little more sugar and waited another few days. I’ve been reading Japanese food blogs and their recipes, using naturally fermented water to raise bread. However I read somewhere these recipes are originally came from Europe. Is it a popular method in France?

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      That is fascinating, Yoko, thanks for sharing. I’d never heard of using kefir or other naturally fermented waters as a leavener for bread, but following your note I did a little research, and found references to it on French forums. I’ll have to give it a try for sure!

  • Kate Kelley

    I just got started on this. A friend gave me some starter. What can be done with the part I just removed from the starter before feeding it? I don’t have anyone to give it to and I hate throwing it out.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      Here’s a list of all my recipes using natural starter, including quite a few that use leftover starter (the crumpets, the cakes, the crackers, etc.).

  • Kate Kelley

    Is it normal or okay to have about a quarter of an inch of liquid floating on top after a night of fermenting? Mix it in or pour it off?

  • http://w6lsn.com/blog dan

    dumb question… I’m an engineer, so please forgive.

    You say that you use 3 TBL of water (35g) and 35g of flour. If you do your water by weight, (on a scale) it would be 35g however if you do it by volume it would be 45g as 1TBL = 15g. Can you clarify?

    Thanks!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      Thanks for pointing this out! It should indeed be 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon, as I’ve now corrected. I’ll note that the extra 10 g of water don’t make much difference in the overall process, so it’s fine to use 3 tablespoons for simplicity’s sake.

  • http://www.joyful-garden.com Katherine

    I have been using your recipe with a lot of success, except for one thing: when I slash my loaf prior to baking in the pot, it collapses at the top–still tasty, but not pretty. If I leave it unslashed, I get a pretty good oven spring, but the loaf does not look as attractive as yours with its decorative slash. I have tried every knife in my kitchen (serrated, unserrated), a lame, razor blades, and even a snip with scissors. The dough is always very sticky when I put it in the pot, slash, and bake. I am measuring all ingredients by weight and use your instrux for feeding by weight, too. Any ideas for me?

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      If the loaf collapses when you slash it, it is very likely a symptom of overproofing, meaning that you’re letting the dough ferment for a little too long before baking.

      Proofing times given in recipes are only an indication, as they vary depending on the health of the starter, the temperature of the ingredients you started with, and the temperature of the room, so they should only be taken as such.

      In your case, I suggest trying to bake the bread earlier than you’re used to — maybe 30 minutes earlier at first, and work back in 30-minute increments to see how that affects the texture of the loaf.

  • Klara

    This is the very first bread recipe I tried that calls for starter instead of yeast. It turned out AMAZING! I am new to the bread making business but thanks to this recipe I am off to a good start.

  • larry kelly

    Hello, I have made your natural starter bread several times. It gets better every time. Think it’s time to try it using some T80 flour but can’t find it anywhere can you help me find a source. thanks

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      I am not sure where you live, but T80 flour is a French type of flour that can be found at natural food stores here.

  • Robyn Daniel

    I just made this loaf and it looks wonderful………I cant believe it looks so brown after cooking in a pyrex casserole !!!
    I am now waiting for it to cool COMPLETELY and will be trying it tomorrow with pumpkin soup…..thank you in advance
    Rgds Robyn

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      Great to hear. I hope you’ll report back when you’ve had a taste!

  • Kristen

    Thank you so much for sharing with us how you care for your starter. I purchased a 10 year old starter yesterday from a local bakery that sells fantastic bread, but their instructions for care are unnecessarily complicated! They also didn’t mention ever pouring any off. I’m sure you don’t have to if you’re a bakery, but I don’t bake bread every day. I fed it this morning per your instructions, and it’s already bubbling. Used the excess in pancakes, and they were wonderful. Great post!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      So pleased to hear it, Kristen! Here’s to a long and fruitful life for your new/old starter.

  • Klara

    I have made this recipe many types so far and it turned out GREAT every single time. I am a novice bread maker but this recipe works great for me. I even passed this recipe onto a friend of mine who have made it several times with great results.

    Thank you for posting this wonderful recipe :)

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      I’m so please Klara, thank you! ^^

  • Stefanie Mark

    This sounds so exciting that I have decided to ring our baker for a starter or start my own NOW. However, your instructions leave me with one crippling question regarding the baking: Do I leave the lid on till the very end or remove 10 minutes or so before? How does it go crispy with the lid on and how do I know it’s brown? Is there a point after which it’s safe to take a look without ruining the whole thing? Thanks so much for this amazing website. Only just found it and haven’t gone back to work since :)

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ Clotilde Dusoulier

      Thank you Stefanie! I keep the lid on for the entirety of the baking — the heavy pot conducts heat well enough to ensure the crispiness and the browning. And to check how it’s doing, you simply lift the pot and peak inside — no harm done at any point. :)

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