Baking A More Traditional Sourdough Bread

No knead bread baking is here to stay, but try this and tell me if you think it’s just better bread. The longer, slower proofing times really help bring out maximum flavor in the grains.

Ever since reading an article in the January 1995 issue of Smithsonian magazine touting Poilâne bread of Paris as “the world’s most-celebrated loaves”, I’ve wanted to experience for myself what all the fascination is about.

This is a bread that historian Steven Kaplan, in his book “Good Bread is Back”, describes as simple, delicious and famous: “Fleshy, tender, with a taste that lingers in the mouth, bursting with odors of spices and hazelnut.” A Poilâne style miche (round loaf) also graces the cover of Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”. Reinhart spent time honing his craft in Paris and seems to have some inside knowledge on how it’s made.

Finally, for my birthday party in March (I called it my “bread-day party”), I joined the likes of Robert De Niro, Lauren Bacal, Steven Spielberg and the tens of thousands of mere mortals who are regular Poilâne customers and ordered one for myself and my guests to enjoy. I figured $48 for a loaf of bread was a bargain compared with a trip to Paris. Besides, these are monstrous loaves, weighing in at over four pounds. ( I can rationalize what I want with the best of ‘em. )

The bread was certainly excellent, although amongst my friends it received mixed reviews. Even though the late Lionel Poilâne felt the bread reached its peak of flavor three days after baking, I think it would have been better the same day. In any case, this got me started on trying to duplicate the recipe. A few attempts at Reinhart’s version resulted in a fine whole wheat bread, but I wasn’t able to come close to duplicating the Poilâne experience. I even sifted out some of the bran as suggested and used Normandy gray sea salt. “What?” you say, “Normandy sea salt isn’t the magic ingredient that will transform my ordinary bread into something world class?”

Now, I realize it’s pure hubris on my part to even think about duplicating Poilâne bread at home or anywhere else for that matter. I should at least have a wood fire brick oven to bake in. But I did ultimately meet a fellow amateur baker who spent 20 years in Paris and felt he had come extremely close to nailing the recipe. I agree.

I’ve posted his recipe, instructions and accompanying video here. Whether or not it approaches the supreme heights of Poilâne bread itself, I thought the results were fantastic. Certainly the best (mostly) whole grain bread I’ve baked and on par with some of the best whole grain bread I’ve had anywhere. I can hardly wait to get that wood fired oven built!

Start the recipe in the evening…

Evening of Day 1: Mix together:

  • 200 grams (7 oz. or 7/8 cup) water
  • 120g (4 oz. or 1/2 cup) sourdough starter
  • 236 grams (8 1/3 oz or 2 cups) whole wheat flour

Ferment (let sit out at room temperature covered loosely with plastic) at 69F for 12 hours.

Morning of Day 2: Add to Day 1 ingredients:

  • 274 grams (9 2/3 oz. or ~1 1/4 cup) water
  • 85 grams (3 oz. or 7/8 cup) rye flour
  • 250 grams (8 3/4 oz or 2 cups) white bread flour
  • 170 grams (6 oz. or a tad over 1 3/4 cups) spelt flour
  • 13 grams (scant tbs.) salt

Knead, place in plastic covered bowl and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Morning of Day 3: Form a boule (round loaf) and ferment (let sit out on counter) 5 hours at 69F.

Bake at 485F for 40-45 minutes.

Notes: The recipe was created using grams for measurement. For those without a kitchen scale I have translated to ounces and cups. Some of the measurements don’t translate all that nicely, but what I have here is close enough.

Thanks to Franz Conrads for calculating the dough hydration levels in baker’s percentages terms for this recipe.

Don’t sweat the 69° proofing temperatures too much. If you come close, great, but I go with whatever my house temperature is at the time. If it’s summer and your house is very warm, do try and find the coolest spot you can. Temperature does impact results but unless you are running a bakery, you may enjoy the varying outcomes.

The original recipe calls for 20 grams of salt. Too much in my unqualified opinion. 13 works just fine. Feel free to experiment.

Regarding baking time and temperature, all ovens vary somewhat and you might have to make some adjustments here. After the first couple of times with this recipe, I found the bread baked just right in my La Cloche at 485 F for the first 30 minutes, then 10 more minutes at 450 with the lid off.

If you treasure “big holes” in the crumb, experiment with increasing the hydration. You’ll get a flatter loaf, but more open crumb.

Jan. 4, 2010 Update: Breadtopia reader, Wil, contributed this great recipe variation with herbs.

Apr. 26, 2011 Update: See Joe Doniach’s variation of this recipe with photos that tell a story by themselves.

Here are some photos of the actual Poilâne loaf from my bread-day party…

ActualPoilane

ActualPoilane

ActualPoilane

ActualPoilane

Here’s a particularly gorgeous example of this bread by Jacquie of Aptos, California.

Jacquie's whole grain sourdough

467 thoughts on “Whole Grain Sourdough

  1. Justin Shnieder

    I have just baked then rye bread loaf in my La Cloche and I’m disappointed to find that the bread has stuck to the bottom! I have made this bread a few times and on each occasion it has just popped out of the La Cloche without any problem. What could be the problem?

    • bearnails

      You could always add a small piece of parchment paper to the bottom of La Cloche, but if it’s been preheated it should form a non stick crust quite quickly.

      • Justin Shnieder

        Thanks Bearnails for your reply. Parchment paper is an obvious solution, but I don’t understand why the bread stuck this time when it has never happened before.

        • bearnails

          If you think it had enough kneading then maybe there wasn’t enough flour sprinkled on the inverted bottom of the loaf before it was placed in the hot cloche. You could also use a spoon full of corn meal in the bottom of the cloche. But all you can do is try again and take note of everything you do is according to the book.
          Believe me, I know how frustrating it can be when things don’t go the way you hoped, and after many days of preparation. The wild birds in my garden are looking healthy for eating my failers! Good luck next time. It’s worth it.

          • Justin Shnieder

            Thanks for your suggestions Bearnails. I’ll take them on board and hope for some better reults!

  2. Janice

    Can this bread be baked in a cast iron pot, or does it have to be a clay baker?

    • Col

      Cast iron is fine.

  3. lynn

    I tried this recipe twice and the bread just flattens out in the baking stage; I’m getting discouraged with wild yeast bread. Any advice?

    • Hi Lynn,

      It’s hard to know why your bread is flattening out. The starter might not be healthy. Or you might just need to add more flour. Or you may be proofing it too long. You can also just bake it in a vessel with sides that shores up the dough. Like an oblong cloche, a Romertopf, a Bread Dome, a 4 quart Dutch oven.

      • Huckleberry

        I agree. Overproofing could well be the cause. I observed something similar the last time I made this bread.
        Overall, I like this recipe a lot. I have never been disappointed by the taste of the bread.
        I’d like to ask 2 questions with respect to the making of the bread.

        Do you really think it is necessary to let the bread warm up for 5 hours after the 24 hour refrigeration period? For instance, Ken Forkish in Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast says that you can take the bread straight form the fridge to the oven for the few recipes that he uses such a long, cold retardation.

        Also, do you think one could employ a similar stretch and fold in the bowl that Emmanuel and Hadjiandreou describes in his book? Did you discuss such questions with him during your recent visit the UK?

        Regards,

        Tom

        • I’ve never tried going straight from the fridge so I don’t know how well it would work for this particular recipe. As for the stretch and fold, I’m quite sure that would work. I think a series of stretch and folds is all you ever really need when ordinary kneading is called for.

          • lynn

            Thanks for the response! I’ll keep trying.

            • Col

              I suspect not enough folding. I like to use the ‘eightfold’ method for first shaping with a round, really drawing out the edge till it almost starts to tear each of eight times moving around the round. Then with the the scone shaping envelope fold, take the fourth flap right over the piece, tucking it underneath. I find used right these can make even a very high hydration slack dough manageable and keep it’s shape for baking.

              I tend to fold more intensively as a dough too, rather than doing a kind of envelope fold, sort of drawing the piece into a spiral, first along and then across. With small batches you can use an eightfold, again really stretching out the flaps before folding. It’s all about adapting to how the dough develops though really, observing the texture and how it’s progressing, and responding appropriately.

            • Col

              Second not scone!

  4. Christine Krause

    Hi For the last two summers, I’ve been totally immersed in using my bread machine to make the poolish, sponges, etc., and the first kneading and rising period of the dough. Then I follow the rest of the recipe for baking. I tried twice to bake bead in my bread machine (a Breadman that my dearest hubby gave me for Christmas) and both times the window on the top was a mess of unbaked starter, and the “loaf” wasn’t.

    Then I tried sourdough starter and my family was hooked. Now all they want is sourdough bread. However, there are some recipes, like the chocolate bread in the BH&G Breads from Your Bread Machine, Oatmeal-Honey Bread, and filled sandwich buns (tomato sauce, cheese and pepperoni) that aren’t sourdough.

    Do you have any advice on how to make sourdough from a regular bread? I’ve tried using sourdough for 1/2 of the water, for all of the water and just adding 1 cup of sourdough to recipes made with 4 cups of flour (that fits in my BM). Needless to say, none of them worked.

    Is there a method to turn a “regular” bread into sourdough?

    • Janice

      Can you share your sourdough bread machine recipe please?

    • Col

      The thing to get right is the total proportion of water, the hydration, usually given as a percentage.

      Say your leven is 50:50 flour and water, subtract the weights of flour and water in the leven from the original list. It is typical to add per kilo total flour in recipe, 200g of a ‘young’ leven (eg. Tartine), or around 350g of one fed the day before (eg. Hamelman).

      Oil and butter are retarding agents to sourdough, so wherever possible mix all the other parts for 30m-1hr then mix those in.

      Rising times will have to be adjusted too!

  5. Justin Shnieder

    I have made sourdough bread for the past two weeks. The bread is delicious with a good crumb, nice big holes and a tangy tasting crust. I find, however, that the loaf is very heavy in weight. Is this how it’s supposed to be? The bread is made with a mix of strong wholemeal flour(15og) and white strong bread flour (450g). In England, “strong flour is what is used for bread making as opposed to all purpose flour used for normal baking.

  6. Ann Cue

    My starter went through all phases in 2 days! (I grind my own flour from organic hard wheat.) And the bread is wonderful!

  7. Arun

    Tried this today. I’m new to sourdough – this is my third sourdough loaf, and my previous two were almost purely white flour. This time, I used a proofing basket and a Dutch oven and got my best oven spring yet – even given how much whole grain flour there is in the recipe. I halved the recipe since I’m the only one in my family who eats bread.

    • Nina

      When you halved the recipe did you change the cooking time?

  8. Francisco Pinto

    Did you used spelt flour or whole spelt flour? Thank you.

      • Francisco Pinto

        Thank you very much for your atention. Greetings from Brazil.

  9. Lynn

    I made my first Poilane-Style Miche from page 242 in the BBA book with my Ankarsrum!!

    • Perfect crust color. Looks wonderful.

  10. Jason

    Hi,

    I’m going to try your Whole Grain Sourdough recipe. I don’t have a round baker, mine is the oblong shape. Should I adjust the baking time/temp?

    Thanks!
    Your web page is a lot of fun and helpful.

    Jason

  11. Jodie

    Hi. I’ve just acquired a clay baker but don’t have instructions on how to use it. I’ve read on some sites that it should be soaked in water before baking in it. Is this really necessary?

    • No, it’s not necessary. I don’t soak mine.

    • Annie

      There are different kinds of red brick colored clay bakers; one has a glazed surface inside. The other is just like a terracotta pot with no glazing and has a cover (Romertopf). I have both. I got the plain one used and have never soaked it. The glazed one I got new and the instructions that came with it said to soak it which I did but then I ended up giving it away; didn’t like the idea of having to soak it every time and it didn’t have a top anyway, which I really like.

      There is another type of clay bakeware that is also a kind of stoneware and is an off-white color. I bought one of these and it works very well—no soaking required. I use it for yeasted whole wheat bread.

      Here’s the one I got:
      http://www.amazon.com/6003-Stone-Bakeware-Rada-Cutlery/dp/B0037FW8LE/ref=sr_1_1?s=home-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1403544028&sr=1-1&keywords=stoneware+loaf+pan

      • Jodie

        Thanks for the feedback. I just made a loaf of 50% whole wheat, 50% kamut and it came out beautifully! I’m so excited, lol. This was purely experimental as I’ve only made sourdough a dozen times or so and have had success with each loaf. I’m loving my clay baker so far :) And it was only 2 bucks!

        • Annie

          Super!! Beautiful loaf!
          $2! That’s good shopping. I thought I got a good deal when I paid $2.99 for mine at the Goodwill. You win!

          • Jodie

            2 bucks is an awesome price! I went to a garage sale yesterday but never expected to find a clay baker. It was on my wish list for later. Apparently someone heard my wish, lol. After today’s success, I’m sure I’ll use the clay baker regularly. And I didn’t soak it in water either. I’ve since cooled and cut my loaf of bread, it’s great on the inside too. Does anyone else ever feel the urge to bake another loaf even before the current one is gone? :) I sure do!

  12. Huckleberry

    First of all a big thanks to you for creating this wonderful website. You provide truly outstanding advice and information.
    I made a sourdough starter according to your instructions, and I think it turned out alright. I tried to make sourdough pizza but the dough hardly rose at all. Next I went straight to the sourdough whole grain bread, probably on day 8 or 9 of having begun the starter.
    The dough did not rise much after the initial setup, the morning of Day 2. I followed your instructions nonetheless except for using 12 grain bread flour instead of the spelt flour (I couldn’t find all spelt flour). There was not much of a rise after 24 hours in the fridge. After reading around a bit more I decided to leave the dough in the fridge for another day after which the dough had risen a tiny bit more. On Day 4 I took it out of the fridge, kneaded and folded it over several times and let it sit for 5 hours. I baked it as suggested but left it in the oven for 25 min after I removed the lid of the Dutch oven. The temp. measured 212 F when I took it out. It may have baked a tad too long.
    The bread, however, looks fantastic. Many thanks again.
    Tom.

  13. Marie-Pierre

    I made a mistake and let the day 2 dough on the counter for 5 hours before putting it in the fridge. Should I do a shorter rise tomorrow?

    This is my second time making this bread. It was so perfect the first time! I hope I didn’t mess it up!

  14. We bake miches in our wood-fired oven at our bakery, Serenity Farm Bread. I like to leave them in our oven for well over one hour. I never cut into the miche before 24 hours pass and don’t store in plastic. Our oven likes the 2 kilo size loaf. The crust is great and keeps the inside of the loaf from drying out. We use 18 oz of the real celtic salt in 110 lbs. of dough. We use Heartland Mill org. ubue all purpose flour, whole wheat, and whole rye flour. It works for us!

    • Annie

      David, that sounds so wonderful. I want YOUR bread!! What does “miche” mean? I’m trying to guess. Is it a large lump of dough that you divide into loaf-sized pieces? Just wanting to guess LOL

  15. Nice instructions – complete and easy to follow. One question – how will it effect the bread to bake it on a baking stone without an enclosure?

    • Annie

      It will bake fine only be a bit flatter of a loaf making more oblong shaped slices.
      Go for it!

    • Annie

      I just went to your website. Oh My Dog!! Beautiful looking loaves! Wish I lived near YOU!

  16. Col

    For our bread that gets refrigerated, we leave it at room temperature for the first hour to get started. Maybe try that Tom? How you train the leven is probably more important than age – feeding it at regular times, using only a small amount of previous (like a teaspoonful) will make it more vigorous (though potential less resilient when not fed)

  17. Tom Deacon

    This is a tricky bread.

    My dough spent 24 hours in the fridge as indicated but didn’t rise. Only rose after 24 more hours in a room environment. Then the final rise took 7 hours at room temperature instead of 5.

    I think this is because my starter is only 4 weeks old. Not enough oomph. So, if I were to make the bread again, I would add 1/4 tsp instant acting yeast to the mixture before the second rise, or perhaps even at the beginning in order to get things moving properly. Not such a big compromise over a “pure” sourdough.

    I split the dough in two so that I could give one loaf away as a present but baked the loaves in one large oblong Le Creuset Dutch oven.

  18. Tom Deacon

    This is a tricky bread.

    My second rise in the refrigerator produced little rise or movement in the dough. So, I removed the dough from the cold environment after 24 hours and let it sit at room temperature for another 24 hours. This time the dough had actually risen.

    The final rise took place in a warmish environment near the stove with plastic and a thick towel to cover the dough. But here again, I went beyond the 5 hours, finally putting the dough in the oven after 7 hours.

    My feeling is that my sourdough starter – only 4 weeks old – does not have enough oomph to get this fairly heavy dough to rise properly if one follows the recipe to the letter.

    If I were to make the bread again, I would add 1/4 tsp of instant acting yeast to the mixture, in order to compensate for the relative youth of my starter. Not such a big compromise in the end, I feel.

    Incidentally, I divided the dough into two loaves which I baked side by side in the same Dutch oven, so that I could give one of the loaves away as a present.

  19. Jake Yoder

    This is a superb recipe. The attached pic is my first loaf with the recipe. Since then I have tried using a bit less flour for a moister dough and a coarser crumb, and this has worked well. My starter is quite young and has not reached its full potential, so I add about 1/8 tsp of yeast on the first day. I am the only bread eater in my home, so I have made smaller loaves, but still need to freeze some of the bread. Although not ideal, this breads stands up well when thawed.

    • Joshua

      I agree Jake, I freeze half my bread and it thaws wonderfully. I keep the bread in a bag as it thaws at room temperature to retain moisture. This bread makes great croutons, and breadcrumbs for recipes.

  20. Is it possible to make sourdough bread that is fermented without using salt? whole grain i mean too

    Thanks JD

    • Sure. Salt isn’t necessary for fermentation and may even retard it some. The only downside is that bread without salt (or perhaps some salt substitute) is incredibly bland by itself.

  21. Steve

    This bread is so good my children are demanding that I make two loaves a week.
    I was discouraged by three attempts at making starter, but on the fourth(this time with pineapple juice) it worked. After a couple of overly sharp (pineappley) loaves the real grain taste started to come through.
    Really enjoying the baking. Our weeks are punctuated by the whole process. Great fun.
    Thanks for all your useful information.

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