Finding the Levain % Sweet Spot (Formula Included!)
One of the most intriguing questions in my (admittedly short!) sourdough adventure thus far has been: How do I create a loaf that I can consistently proof in the refrigerator and bake straight from that cold environment, without it under or over-proofing? While the length of bulk fermentation is important in this calculus, it’s not the only part.
The following is the formula I've developed for one large loaf that is created specifically for a long proof in the refrigerator. The instructions are for a boule, but it could easily be shaped as a batard. Roughly 20% levain (by total weight, 40% by baker's percentage) seems to be my sweet spot for a long, cold-proofed loaf that can be baked straight from the fridge (i.e., proofs fully in the fridge at about 45 degrees F, but doesn’t over-proof!). I’ve baked this formula five times with great results...it can be modified to include more mix-ins, and even a significant percentage of whole grains.
The 78% hydration, long autolyse, chill during bulk fermentation, and long, cold proof yield a custardy, open crumb! The long autolyse also contributes to gluten formation, which make the final dough much easier to handle.
200 g active 100% hydration white starter (however you want to create that levain)
400 g all-purpose flour (I love King Arthur)
290 g cool water
11 g (sea) salt
15 g sugar
5 g malt powder
1) Mix together flour and cool water, and set aside to autolyse at room temperature for anywhere from 6-12 hours. Make sure to mix the water and flour very well before this long autolyse; don't be afraid to really mash the dough down with a wet hand. You don't want any dry bits lingering, because they will be difficult to incorporate later. If you mix it well, it will be such smooth sailing when you mix in the levain, I promise!
2) Combine autolysed flour and water with the starter, salt, sugar, and malt powder. Squeeze the dough through your fingers to fully combine for the first two minutes or so, then stretch and fold for 2-3 minutes more.
3) Fold the dough every 30 minutes for the next 2 hours. When I stretch-and-fold, I like to give it as many turns as I feel the dough “needs.” To perform a fold, I reach under the dough and pull it over itself, rotating 90 degrees every time. At every 30-minute interval, I stop when the whole mass of dough begins to pull up out of the container. This is anywhere between 4 and 20 folds (that is, between 1 and 5 full stretch-and-fold turns).
4) Allow the dough to rest at room temperature between 2 and 4 hours, or until 70-80% increased in size. I realize that this is a bit more increase than is called for in some formulas, but it is my preference in this case!
5) Place the container of dough in the refrigerator for at least one hour, and up to 6 hours.*
6) Remove the container from the refrigerator. Sprinkle flour over the top of the dough and spread it. Loosen the dough from the sides of the container, allowing the flour to fall around the edges of the dough. This will create a nice floured gluten cloak at the bottom of your dough.
7) Pour the dough onto a work surface so that the floured surface is on the bottom. Pull the edges of the dough towards the middle to form a very loose boule -- this is the pre-shape. Rest for ten minutes.
8) After ten minutes, pull the edges towards the center and pick the ball up, twisting in your hand to create tension. Form a tight boule, however you’re most comfortable doing that.
9) Place the boule seam-side up in a floured banneton or brotform of some kind, and cover in plastic.
10) Allow it to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
11) Place in the refrigerator to proof for at least 8 hours, and up to 22 hours. The longer it proofs in the refrigerator, the more open and gelated the crumb will become.
12) Remove the banneton/brotform and release it onto a piece of parchment paper.
13) Score the boule, and bake at 475 F for 20 minutes with steam, then 20-25 minutes without steam.
*Alternatively, you could place the dough in the refrigerator directly after the two hours of stretch-and-fold, and then remove it later to sit at room temperature until increased 70-80%. Either way works great; I do stand by having a chill on the dough at some point during bulk fermentation.
Some loaves for which I've used this formula:
The Basic Formula (As Torpedoes and Boules):
80% Whole Wheat with Toasted Seeds and Cranberries:
Brown Ale and Spent Grain Torpedoes:
Everything Bagel Seasoning-Topped (Crowd Favorite!):
Thanks to all for your wonderful photos, formulas, and advice. TFL has just been the greatest resource as I navigate my first year of baking!