The Fresh Loaf

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Whole Wheat Sourdough

obrien1984's picture

Whole Wheat Sourdough

For several months now, I have been baking whole wheat breads based on recipes in Peter Reinhart's latest book. For the most part, I have met with success.

 I am now attempting to modify these recipes to accomplish two goals: to eliminate commercial yeast from my breads, and to simplify the baking schedule (which includes using less equipment, making less mess, and adjusting the rise times to occur while I'm at work).

I wanted to share some techniques with those of you who might have similar goals. It's quite simple, and probably nothing new to those of you who have been baking a while.

First, I followed Peter's recipes for whole wheat bread, replacing the "biga" with sourdough starter. Instead of adding yeast in the final mix, though, I simply let it rise all day while I was at work (about 10 hours). This accomplished two goals: first, obviously, no commercial yeast. Second, I was able to jump right into shaping when I got home, since the first rise was accomplished throughout the day. This cut a good 2-3 hours off my after-work baking schedule.

Second, instead of using baking stones, I preheated a large, cast-iron skillet in a 500F oven. This eliminated the need to use a utensil (like a peel or baking sheet) to transport the dough from the bowl to the oven, as well as eliminated the need for baking stones. Additionally, I think the skillet retains heat better than the baking stones, and since the transfer needs to take place outside the oven, I think it actually gives the dough a bit of a head start on rising. You get all the benefits of "oven spring," but without having to worry about the bread forming a crust too soon.

I tried this for the first time yesterday, and ended up with my first loaf of whole wheat bread made entirely without commercial starter. The crumb was moist and full of holes, but not grainy, mushy, or too chewy. My only complaint is that the bread was much too tart for my own taste. It really overwhelmed all the other flavors. It wasn't bad, but it's just not to my liking. I'm not sure if this is due to the long, 10-hour rise, or to an overly-acidic starter. I'm inclined to believe the latter, because my starter smelled very strongly of alcohol and vinegar. However, it rose beautifully, so I know it's active.

Anyway, please let me know what you think!




GrapevineTXoldaccount's picture

and I appreciate, not only the tricks of the trade, but the very fact that you felt confident enough to venture beyond Peter's words.  That is the most wonderful thing about being involved in the bread journey when learning from a true master, the confidence.  I'll always say that it was Peter Reinhart's simplicity that showed me the way and gave me the courage to, 'wing it'.

Now, to answer your question.  Oh my!  I'm sorry, I am not as adept at this bread making thing as others, but from my own experience I find that one of two things will happen:

A white bread will sour more a day or two after having been baked.

A whole-wheat bread will mellow.

These are my observations and surely others will have theirs, they will also be able to better explain the transitory nature of all things sourdough.

Enjoy!  Happy baking to you.

knit1bake1's picture

Joseph, did you have the bread in the cold skillet (cold start)? I guess not, if you say it was preheated. I'm confused as to how you transported the dough: how it was different from your normal method? I do understand why you wouldn't need the baking stone. Does that mean you also didn't add steam?

 Thanks for sharing your method. Much of the bread I make is the struan from that book, which I make with sourdough rather than biga. But I'm still using the yeast in the second stage.


obrien1984's picture


I preheated the skillet, so yes, it was quite hot. In fact, I managed to burn myself as I got distracted and, not thinking, reached for the handle. Yikes!

As for transporting the dough, typically I would transfer it from the couche or bowl to the floured peel, where it would more often than not stick, then from the peel to the baking stone. Really, it's not that big of a time saver. I just don't have to clean off a peel afterwards!

Yes, I add steam, although I have considered putting an oven-safe bowl upside down over the pan, thus capturing the steam from the bread and keeping it close to the dough. (There was a no-knead recipe popular last November that used this technique).

Thanks for your comments!


leemid's picture

I agree that sour ww is not really a good flavor combination for me either. I prefer commercial yeast for ww to keep it 'sweeter' but crank up the sour for other breads.

But I disagree on heat retention between a cast iron skillet and at least my baking stone which is 3/4" thick black marble having considerably more mass that any CI skillet. Mass is the first thing in retaining heat, color might be the next, and both are black which transfers heat better which is really what we want. It is of no value for something to retain heat if it won't give it up too. The purposes of baking stones is first to transfer heat to the baking item, and second to have a lot of heat to transfer in order to maintain more consistent heat during the baking process.


obrien1984's picture

Lee, My baking stones are not as thick as yours (I use ceramic tiles, which are probably 1/4 inch thick).  I never thought about the fact that  certain materials might not release heat as well as others, though. That is a good point. I use my CI skillet for cooking and baking many things (such as cornbread), so I thought, why not bread? I guess in this case, I'm just using what I have rather than buying something new.  Thanks for your comments! Joseph 

home_mill's picture

I am also using PRs book and making the same transition as you from yeast to sourdough. I still think yeast has its place and will continue to use it though.

In the past I also did end up with a WW sourdough that was too strong.

However now that i have returned to making sourdough my last two loaves had just the right amount of sour and I don't agree that WW and sourdough do not go together.

I think the 10 hour ferment is too long and could account for the overly sour taste. I think you want to let it rise until double or until it hits its peak which for me is 4 to 6 hours. Its been really warm here lately (90s) and the last one took only 3 hours to double. But then on the final proof I got a really tall rise but it fell when I slashed and put it in the oven. I think I let it go too long, but it still tasted great. That always seems to be my downfall, trying to get the final rise too tall.

I am also baffled how you get the loaf onto a 500F skillet without moving it. 



obrien1984's picture

The 10-hour ferment does seem a little excessive now. I would still love to find a way to stretch out the first rise while I'm at work, so that I can get started with shaping as soon as I get home. I was hoping that the sourdough starter would be much slower than yeast.

Do you think I could use less starter (or even less yeast if using a biga) and be OK with the long first rise?

I didn't do a very good job describing how I got the dough into the skillet. It's quite simple, really. Remove the skillet from the oven (with glove) and dump the dough from the couche or bowl straight into the skillet.

 Thanks for your comments!



home_mill's picture


 Although I don't have a lot of experience with sourdough rising times, my understanding is yes that if you use less starter the rise or ferment time will be longer. Also if you can lower the temperature or put the dough in the refrigerator for a portion of the time that will also increase the time.

buns of steel's picture
buns of steel

Joseph, Richard Bertinet (in his book Crust) does a long 2nd rise in a banneton (his schedule is: ferment plus 30 minutes, "resting" 2 hours, 2nd rising 17-19 hours (as a formed loaf in the proofing basket), baking 30-45 minutes). Other miches I've made have a long 2nd rise in the banneton.

So I would say scrapp the idea of shaping after work, I would be doing the 2nd rise or proof in a proofing basket while at work, then you're ready to pop the sucker in the oven when you get home. You can put your feet up and have a cocktail while your stone and oven heat up.

Bertinet says ideal temp for that rise is 62-64F, a little cooler than "normal". Depending on the temperature you use, if you played with it, it would even be conceivably possible to set the thing up very last thing before bed, then bake when home from work (?), or set it up before work, and bake as soon as you got home.

I say abandon the idea that the FIRST rise is while at work, it should be the 2nd rise or proof in my opinion.