This is a five-part article. Here are links to the parts.
Part 1: The basics
Part 2: Creating a starter
Part 3: Mixing dough
Part 4: Baking
Part 5: Upping your game
THE STORY BEHIND THIS RECIPE
I love great bread, but really great bread can be hard to find. For that reason, I decided more than a decade ago to try baking my own. I experimented with a lot of recipes and methods, but I had trouble finding any recipe or method that worked consistently, time after time. As a beginning baker, I was frustrated.
Dwight Hobart at Liberty Bar pointed me in the right direction. He showed me a new book he’d added to his library: Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson of the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. It described, in detail, a method for making sourdough bread at home. A method that required no kneading of the dough. None.
I gave it a try.
The Tartine method produces a beautiful sourdough boule, with an open crumb and a golden, crispy crust.
If you do much cooking or baking, you’ll have most of the required equipment on hand. The most important pieces of equipment that you may not have on hand are these:
Digital scale. Bread baking requires precise measurement. Units of volume, like ‘cups’ or 'tablespoons' — are too variable and unreliable, so grams and kilograms are used instead. I use an OXO scale that can toggle between kilograms and pounds. Mine is ten years old, but OXO sells two successor models, and I’ve spotted the less-expensive model on the shelf at Ace Mart Restaurant Supply. Here's info on the successor models -- one and two. Both have a feature I really like: the display component pulls out several inches from the base, which means it won't be hidden by big bowls.
Three sealable containers for storing flour — one for whole wheat flour, one for bread flour, and one for a mix of the two, which you’ll use for your starter. I use a lot of flour, so I bought some big containers with snap-on lids, available from our neighborhood restaurant supply stores.
To make our sourdough bread -- and the sourdough starter on which it's based -- we'll be using a mix of whole wheat flour and bread flour. King Arthur flours found at both H-E-B and Central Market stores are what I used when starting out. I still recommend them.
It was a lot of work at first, because it required equipment and methods that were new to me, and it also required that I make my own sourdough starter from scratch.
But the method worked, the very first time.
And the next time. And the time after that.
By now, I’ve baked hundreds of boules and batards without a single failure. That’s not to say I haven’t made mistakes, but the Tartine method is exceptionally forgiving, so those mistakes have never led to failure.
And the bread is great. The New York Times has described the bread that results from the Tartine method as ‘a wonder, the holy grail for the serious home baker.’
I recommend the book — it’s lovely, and it has lots of recipes. However, it’s not the best way to learn the process. It lacks clarity, it wanders, and it takes forever to get where it’s going. Before I tried baking my first bread under the book’s direction, I had to extract the instructions and rewrite them in useable form.
You could also try the New York Times recipe, but it goes to the other extreme. It’s brief and clear, but I think it assumes too much confidence and experience on the part of the baker. It’s definitely not for the beginner.
So I’m giving it my shot.
I’ve taught the method to multiple people. That includes a seven-year old who absolutely nailed it on her first try — and she really did it on her own; I taught her via Zoom from a thousand miles away.
HOW WE’LL DO THIS
I’m going to walk through this in four steps.
First, I’m going to cover the basics. I’ll explain what sourdough bread is, I’ll briefly outline the Tartine method, and I’ll run through a list of equipment you should have before you get started. I’ll do part one right here in this article.
Creating a sourdough starter
Second, I’ll show you how to create your own sourdough starter from scratch. Yes, you can buy starter online, but there’s no real reason to do that. You can create your own, and it will be real, native, Southtown sourdough starter. You’ll find those instructions in a separate article, here: Part 2: Creating a starter
(By the way, if you have trouble making it work, let me know and I’ll give you a bit of mine. Just click the Contact button and send me a message.)
Mixing the dough
In the third part, I’ll show you how to mix your dough and shape your first boule of sourdough bread. You’ll find those instructions here: Part 3: Mixing dough
Baking the bread
Next, I'll show you how to bake the bread, using a cast iron combo cooker to simulate a commercial baker's oven. You'll find those instructions here: Part 4: Baking
Milling your own flour
And finally, if you want to go a step further, I'll describe how you can mill your own flour -- where to get the grain and what equipment you'll need. I've even included a recipe for a nice cranberry pecan bread that uses fresh-milled flour. That's all in Part 5: Upping your game
AN OVERVIEW OF THE METHOD
There are three ways that the Tartine bread-making method may differ from the methods you’re currently using.
First, of course, it’s a sourdough bread. It doesn’t use commercial yeast to get rise. It uses a live, bubbling sourdough starter.
Second, it’s a no-knead bread. Before I tried the Tartine method, I kneaded bread. It was hard, boring work. The Tartine method skips all the kneading. Instead, it relies on a natural process called autolysis which occurs when you allow your dough to ‘rest’ after mixing the flour and water, and it includes folding the dough now and then during its initial rise.
Third, it’s baked inside a cast iron dutch oven or combo cooker. That creates conditions for your bread that mimic those in a commercial baking oven. In commercial ovens, steam is injected at the start of the baking process. Home ovens don’t have that capability, but when you enclose your dough in the combo cooker, the dough itself produces steam, and the combo cooker captures it.
Bread is pretty simple. It has three ingredients:
Of course, you can complicate things a great deal as you get experienced and stretch yourself. You can add fruits and nuts and herbs and spices and milk and oil. You can choose alternative flours, like rye or einkorn or spelt. You can even mill your own flour from grain. But the basics are these: flour, water, and salt.
To get started, you’ll need two flours:
Whole wheat flour (a five pound bag)
Bread flour (a five pound bag)
Whole wheat flour is pretty basic -- it's wheat berries that have been milled.
Bread flour is also milled wheat berries, but it is sifted (‘bolted’) to remove bran, because bran interferes with your bread’s ability to rise. And -- unlike pastry flour or all purpose flour -- bread flour is made from high-protein wheats, which are better at producing gluten and holding the gases that help your bread rise.
For what it’s worth, when I started out, I used King Arthur brand flours, available at both H-E-B and Central Market, and I still recommend them for your first breads. (In a future article, I’ll talk about upping your game with some alternative flours).
Salt and Water
You can get as fancy as you like, but I use regular table salt and San Antonio tap water. They work fine.
The two pieces of equipment that are absolutely essential are a Lodge cast iron 'combo cooker' (or, alternatively, a cast iron dutch oven) and a digital scale capable of measuring kilograms. My OXO scale has a display that can be pulled out several inches, which is handy when you've got a big bowl on the scale.
A few other things you’ll need which you probably already have around the house:
A large mixing bowl
Several light dishtowels or tea towels
Several empty jars to hold your starter (you'll want multiples so you can swap in clean ones occasionally). I use pickle and peanut butter jars, along with their lids. My big pickle jars hold three cups of water; my peanut butter jars hold two cups. Punch a hole through the lids to allow some air.
Cheese cloth to cover the jars and keep fruit flies out of your starter.
Rubber bands of a size to encircle the jars and hold the cheese cloth in place
There are also a few useful gadgets that are not required, but they are fairly cheap, and they're handy if you get into this in a big way:
A cooling rack -- something like this.
A bench knife -- something like this.
A dough scraper -- something like this
A lame for scoring the dough — here's the one I use
Collect your supplies and equipment, and let's move on to Part 2: Creating a starter.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.