Achieving the Impossble: Whole Grain Sourdough Bread!

A friend somewhat changed the course of my life when she brought me a warm, fresh out of the oven, loaf of sourdough one Sunday morning at church. Of course, I had eaten sourdough bread before, store bought, and probably not really organically sourdough. But one bite of this bread with its crunchy crust, tantalizing chewy center, and just-right amount of “sour” made me realize that no matter what the cost, I must become a sourdough bread baker.

And there is a cost…for example, tending to the starter, “whom” my husband MIke and I have affectionately named Bubbles is most certainly like taking on a pet, with demands to be fed on time, kept comfortable at a certain temperature, and is somewhat of a problem when going on vacation.

In spite of all of the above, I took the plunge. The first thing I noticed is that if you read fifty accounts of people’s experiences and instructions about how to make the perfect loaf of sourdough, you will get just about fifty different opinions! It’s enough to make one’s head spin.

So wading through all of that, I sought to find at least some common principles that I could latch onto. Disappointingly, one principle that seemed to be almost universal that one must use all or at least some white wheat flour in order to have a successful loaf. That was a problem for me since I am sensitive to wheat and Mike and I are fully committed to whole grain bread. The bread we were given at church was white/wheat, but I can handle wheat once in a while in small portions, and a little splurge on white bread once in a while never hurt anyone.

But for the long haul, we wanted whole grain, and we wanted to use spelt and rye, since these grains sit well with us. So I practiced, and practiced, and practiced. The first loaves, of course, rather resemebled good sturdy doorstops, but eventually, I started achieving the coveted “holes” which make for an “open crumb” in sourdough land language, along with the crunchy crust.

Sift the flour until most of what you have left is bran.

I found that I had to cheat just a little on the whole grain commitment, and use a sifter to sift out some, but certainly not all, the bran in the flour. You might ask, so what’s the point of using whole grain? Good question. Even when sifted, the grain still retains a good deal of germ and bran, as is evident by the brown color. And I don’t throw the bran in the sifter away! I sneak it into other recipes, in small quantities, such a my healthy banana bread.

But, back to the sourdough, I sift the whole grain first, using a good sifter. This really lightens it up enough for the starter to push through and give it a good lift.

Another secret I have found in making whole grain sourdough is to keep the dough wet. Already, sourdough dough is very sticky and wet compared to “regular” bread dough, but when I make regular bread and want to handle it without having it stick to my hands, I put flour on my hands and the bread board, but with sourdough, I put water on my hands and breadboard. If you are used to making yeast bread, this wet dough seems very strange, but it is the wetness that gives the starter the ability, again, to push through the dough and give it lift, which makes for a good rise. And I believe it is the very high temperature at which sourdough is baked that keeps the bread from being soggy after allowing all that dough wetness.

So without further ado, I will share the recipe that works for me. Just one more important point about sourdough making. The best advice I ever got on rising times, etc is that if you want to be in the sourdough hobby for the long term, find a schedule that best fits your life and lifestyle. The preparing, resting, and rising times in this recipe best fit my personal life style. But feel free to experiment. Sourdough making is more flexible than many people let on.

If you do not know how to make starter, here’s are some tips from “Mary’s Nest”

Mix together with a whisk:

1/2 cup starter

1 1/3 cup water (approximately, until you have a sticky dough)

1 Tbsp. honey (optional)

For dry ingredients mix with a whisk:

4 cups sifted whole grain flour (I use all spelt or 3 cups spelt and one cup rye. Whole grain wheat can also be used. We use fresh-ground from our grain grinder) If you start with four cups of flour, and sift out 1/2 cup bran, you will still end up with four cups of flour, because now it will be “fluffy flour”!

1 1/2 tsp. salt

(If you add anything like caraway seed for rye, add it now)

Mix wet and dry ingredients together with a good size spatula and let rise in a covered bowl (with cloth) for about one hour. After the hour, move dough to a bread board. and cover with a bowl (a cloth will get too sticky) I usually let just a tiny bit of air in under the bowl so everything can “breathe” a bit. If it is winter and chilly in the house, I use an incandescent light bulb to keep the dough warm. Every so often, stretch the dough from four sides. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it strengthens the gluten and encourages some air bubbles in the dough.

A loaf pan with a lid or a cast iron dutch oven, either plain cast iron or enamel coated, works well for sourdough.

If I make the bread in the mid-morning, I begin preheating the oven at 450 degrees at about 4:00 pm. I preheat my dutch oven or loaf pan starting from a cold oven so that these pans don’t exprience shock and break (of course a full cast iron pan won’t break, but I use enamel coated or stoneware, which can crack or break from temperature shock) Preheat at least 20 minutes. You will need a pan with a good-fitting lid.

Using two dough scrapers is really helpful to move the dough into the pan.
whole grain sourdough

After the 20 minutes, carefully lift the pan out of the oven, remove the lid letting steam out AWAY from you, place the dough in the pan (I sprinkle a little flour in the pan first) replace the lid and place back in the oven. 450 degrees is, of course, extreemly hot so be careful! After 30 minutes, remove the lid (again very carefully) and place back in the oven to crisp the crust for about 7 or 8 minutes.

As you see, the outside comes out crunchy and the inside is full of holes, which in sourdough is a sign of a successful “crumb.”

That’s it!

This is my first loaf, kind of small and compact, but practice makes perfect!

Just to let you know, when you make starter, you need to “discard” some of it every day before you feed it. So at least sometimes, rather than just wasting that flour used in the discard, you can make fun things using the sourdough discard, like this pizza I made with discard! I’ve also made yummy waffles, pancakes, etc. But most of the time, we just have to resign ourselves to throwing away the discard. It’s just part of the whole process of sourdough-ing!

Sourdough pizza dough, yum

So how does my whole-grain sourdough measure up to the delicious white loaf that my friend gave me? It measures up well, I think. Because what it may lack it lightness, it gains in whole-grain flavor…amd super nutrition!

PLease write a comment if you have questions or comments.

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