Bread That Takes Time, but Not Your Time
A recent e-mail reminded me that I promised ages ago to share my sourdough version of the Sullivan St. “no knead” bread popularized by Mark Bittman in the NYTimes. Part of the reason I didn’t get around to it sooner is because it’s basically the same as the recipe I posted for crusty, shaped loaves—although that one uses just enough flour to make the dough kneadable. But the no-knead method probably deserves its own post.
Over time, I’ve developed three basic formulas to work with my sourdough starter: slow, medium, and fast. All three, even the “fast” version, work by letting time do the work that kneading normally does. A longer-than-normal rise enables long chains of gluten to form, and gluten is what forms stretchy membranes that trap the gas produced by the yeast, which is what causes bread to rise. The lack of kneading also means the dough can be wetter, because you don’t have to worry about it sticking to you. When that wet dough is baked it in a covered pot, it creates a steamy environment not unlike a professional steam-blasting oven, and that’s what produces the thick, crispy crust people associate with European-style or artisanal bakery bread. However, I’ve also had pretty good success with a baking stone and a splash of water thrown in a preheated dish on the oven floor (which often gets on the oven floor too, but that’s fine—more water in contact with more hot surface at one time = more steam).
The loaves above show the differences between the two methods—the covered pot method rises a little more and has a slightly nicer crust. Using a pizza stone enables you to make different shapes and slash the top in decorative ways. They were baked at the same time like so:
The “fast” version takes a minimum of 6 hrs for the first rise. The “slow” version, which is the most similar to the original “no knead” recipe, takes at least 18 hrs for the first rise. However, those are 6-18 (or more) hours during which you don’t have to do a thing. Much like the no-knead pizza dough, this recipe virtually effortless. Five minutes to measure out the ingredients and stir them together, another minute or so to shape it, 30 seconds to throw it in the oven and another 30 seconds to add a splash of water at the beginning or remove the lid of the pot mid-way through baking. Even if it takes another few minutes to refresh the starter, the whole process probably takes less active time than making a trip to a bakery where you could buy something comparable.
And, of course, as with anything you make yourself, you can customize it however you want. Here are a few versions:
Choosing Slow, Medium, or Fast
The long rise means it takes a little advance planning—if your starter takes at least 8 hrs to “refresh” (which most do) that means you have to start the process at least 16 hours in advance. So, for example, if you want fresh bread for dinner, you’ll probably want to refresh the starter before going to bed the previous night and make the “fast” version sometime before noon the next day. It’ll be ready to shape and bake that evening. If you want the bread to be done by 7, the dough should be made by 9am. If you want the bread to be fresh and warm for breakfast or a weekend brunch, just shift that all back a little: refresh the starter anytime in the morning or afternoon of the previous day, make the dough in the evening, and it will be ready to shape & bake when you wake up.
You can always let it rise longer than the “minimum”—in fact, the longer you let it rise, the better. So if you have to be out the door by 8am and don’t get home until after 6, you can bake it anytime that night or even the next morning, and it’ll still be great. If I don’t manage to bake it within 24 hours, I usually refrigerate it in a zip-top bag and then let it come to room temperature for 1-2 hrs before shaping and baking it.
Aside from time considerations, which version I use also depends on how much bread I want to make and how much starter I want to use. I usually try to use 2 cups of starter per week—that’s just what works with my starter feeding routine—so if I want one loaf, I make the “fast” version. If I want two loaves, I use the “medium” recipe and double it. If I want a lot of bread or only want to use a little bit of starter (say, if I’m making something else at the same time that already uses a cup or more of starter), then I make the “slow” version.
Can It Be Moar Sour?
The “slow” version produces the most sourdough flavor, despite starting with the least sourdough starter. I assume that’s mostly because the yeast have more time to do their thing, but I’ve never done a “slow” and “medium” loaf side by side to see if they’d be different even if they were allowed to rise for the same amount of time. In general, I get a lot of tang if I let any of the versions rise for 18-24 hours. In warmer weather, as little as 12 hours can be enough to produce a pretty sour loaf.
Probably the best way to maximize the sourness is to let the dough rise for 18-24 hrs and then refrigerate it for 3-4 days. The yeast will keep doing their thing—digesting the starches in the flour and producing acid and alcohol, and the bread will get more and more sour. Eventually, they’ll either run out of food or produce an environment too acidic for them to live in. However, I haven’t run into any problems as long as I bake the dough within a week of making it.
Can It Be More Whatever?
Yes. Just add whatever. Prefer whole wheat? Fine. To make it 100% whole wheat, you’ll need a starter made with whole wheat flour. If you don’t care about the percentage, you can use whole wheat flour with a starter made with white flour. It will be denser than the white wheat version, but will still rise and be tasty. Prefer not to use sugar? Fine. The original doesn’t, but I find that a little sugar improves the oven spring a lot, probably by speeding up yeast activity. Two teaspoons isn’t enough to make it taste sweet—most of it probably gets eaten by the yeast and transformed into gas, acid, & alcohol—so if you want a sweet-tasting bread, add more sugar (or maple syrup or honey or malt syrup or brown rice syrup, you get the idea).
I almost never make the “basic” recipe. I usually use at least 1/4-1/2 cup whole wheat flour and add some oats and sunflower seeds. Other possible additions include olive oil or melted butter, honey, grated hard cheeses, diced cooked or cured meats, herbs, tomato paste, chopped sundried tomatoes, dried fruits, nuts, flax meal, fried shallots, garlic powder or paste, wheat germ, and oat bran. Probably not all at once. Diced pepperoni, olive oil, tomato paste, shredded sharp cheddar or aged gouda, fried shallots, and oregano is a killer combination—like pizza in bread form. Fresh rosemary, swiss cheese and pine nuts are pretty great together, too. It works best if you whisk semi-liquid ingredients like honey, olive oil, or tomato paste into the starter (and water, if using) before adding the dry ingredients so they get evenly distributed.
See the recipe below for suggested amounts of additions, or just improvise. I also included the recipe below for the version pictured at the top, which I made this week. Instead of white bread flour, I used a multigrain flour made by Westwind Milling Co. that contains hard winter wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and corn (available at By the Pound if you’re in the Ann Arbor area). I whisked some gluten into the flour before adding it to the starter because many of those grains have a lower gluten content than wheat. I also threw in some whole rolled oats, flax meal, sunflower seeds, and honey. I used the “medium” version of the recipe, doubled for two loaves, and let it rise for 24 hrs. The result was sour and nutty and chewy and complex and just slightly sweet. It’s denser than the classic white flour loaf, but something about cold weather makes me crave that kind of heartiness. I’ve been loving it slathered with butter and topped with sprinkle of coarse salt or dipped in runny egg yolks.
Recipe: Sourdough-risen No Knead Bread
see this post for advice about making a sourdough starter
FAST (min. rise 6 hrs)
- 2 c. refreshed starter (1:1 flour:water)
- 1/4 c. water
- 2 1/4 c. bread flour
- 2 t. kosher salt
- 2 t. sugar (optional—improves oven spring)
MEDIUM (min. rise 12 hrs)
- 1 c. refreshed starter
- 1 c. water
- 3 c. bread flour
- 2 t. kosher salt
- 2 t. sugar
SLOW (min. rise 18 hrs)
- 1/3 c. refreshed starter
- 1 1/2 c. water
- 3 1/2 c. bread flour
- 2 t. kosher salt
- 2 t. sugar
equipment: a kitchen towel (not terrycloth) and baking stone or covered pot
extras: more flour, cornmeal, wheat bran, or oats for dusting the flour
substitutions: any flour can be used in place of the bread flour—add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of lower-gluten flour; you can use whey or water used to soak dried tomatoes or fruit in place of the water; you can use any kind of sweetener in place of the sugar or leave it out
additions (per loaf): 1/2 cup rolled oats, grated cheese, or dried fruit; 1/4 cup sunflower seeds, nuts, diced cured meat like pepperoni, sundried tomatoes; 2 T. olive oil or any other oil or melted solid fat, tomato paste, honey or maple syrup, fried shallots or garlic, flax seeds or flax meal, wheat germ, oat bran, or fresh herbs; 2 t. dried herbs, garlic powder, or other spices.
1. Whisk liquids & semi-liquids together (starter, water, honey or tomato paste, etc.). If adding gluten, whisk that into the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.
2. Combine all the ingredients and stir just until the flour is moistened—usually about a minute. The dough should be sticky and shaggy. If you can knead it without it sticking to you, add more water 2 T. at a time until it’s too sticky to knead. If it’s so wet it’s more like batter than dough, add flour until it can be shaped into a ball that won’t immediately flatten into a pancake. Getting the consistency right may involve some trial & error, but even too-dry or too-wet doughs will probably produce tasty bread.
3. Cover and let rise for 6-24 hrs. The dough is ready when it has more than doubled. There may be fat bubbles on top, and the dough should be full of air—see the honeycomb texture in the picture next to the ingredient list. The less fiber in the flour and the more sugar in the dough, the more it will rise.
4. Optional step I usually skip: Flour a work surface and scrape the dough out onto it. Fold it over itself once or twice. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest 15 min. I assume that’s meant to make it easier to shape. I usually just shape it in the bowl:
5. Flour your hands enough to keep the dough from sticking to you, scrape the dough out of the bowl and form it into a ball. Dust a cotton towel with flour (or cornmeal or wheat bran or rolled oats) and put the ball seam-side up in the towel. Dust with more flour, gather the ends of the towel, twist and pile on top of the loaf. Let rise for 1-2 hrs—longer is better, but 1 hr is sufficient. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look like it has risen much, it will rise more in the oven.
6. 30 min before baking, preheat the oven at 450F with a covered oven-safe pot inside (like a Dutch oven or Le Creuset) including the lid OR a baking stone and a baking dish on the oven floor. When ready to bake, carefully turn the dough into the pot and cover OR turn onto a piece of parchment paper, slash with a sharp knife if desired, and slide onto the stone. If using the baking stone, pour 1/2 cup water ino the preheated dish on the oven floor.
7. Bake 25-30 minutes, and then remove the lid or turn the loaf for even browning. Bake another 5-25 minutes until the crust is browned on top and the internal temperature of the loaf is between 190-200F. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can check for doneness by tapping the bottom of the loaf. When it’s done, it will sound hollow.
Recipe: Multigrain Bread with Sunflower Seeds, Flax Meal, and Honey
- 2 cups refreshed starter (1:1 flour:water)
- 2 cups water
- 5 3/4 cups multigrain flour (like the Westwind Milling Multigrain Bread Flour, which contains hard winter wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and corn)
- 1/4 cup vital wheat gluten
- 1/4 c. flax meal
- 1 cup oats
- 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
- 2 T. honey
- 1 T. kosher salt
Follow the same method outlined above. Divide in half and rise in two separate bowls if your mixing bowl isn’t large enough to hold the dough once it’s more than doubled.