Baking sourdough bread manages to be both incredibly involved and totally basic, an everyday alchemy that gives a new meaning to the notion of baking from scratch.
That’s what I thought I did before, when I used square packets of commercial yeast, warm water that made the yeast bloom in beautiful clusters, airy bread flour and additives like honey, eggs, evaporated milk, and seeds. The dough was gassy and pliable, rising dependably and fast, and pulling my loaves out of the oven — shellacked with egg wash and golden crust — was always gratifying.
Sometimes now, I catch myself laughing at how forgiving that was. I’ll be feeding my sourdough starter its insistent meal of flour and water, or mentally coaxing rounds of dough into rising, or wondering why my crust never achieves that alluring dark-bronzed look. And it occurs to me that the kind of baking I did before was baking with training wheels. That wasn’t scratch. Not like this.
Sourdough baking requires a new level of dedication. You must regularly tend to your sourdough mother — a creature made from wild yeasts captured in the air and possessing of its own moods. You must use quality flour, because when it’s practically the only ingredient, its flavor matters. You must give that flour plenty of time to hydrate, let the gluten develop, allow the dough to eat and burp and create air pockets that become the crumb. You must get your oven as hot as earthly possible, and take care not to get burned when you pour water over hot rocks that act as your steam injector. You must be confident when you slash the ventilation score into the top of your uncooked loaf. A wavering hand does no good.
This slow-fermentation baking is what my bread mentors, cousins Ben and Hannah Rossman of Blue Grouse Bakery in Norwood, built their organic bread business around. Since October, when I took a class they offered and became hooked and walked away with a jar of their sourdough starter, they’ve been teaching me the finer points of their Old-World methods.
It’s a committing process filled with exotic-sounding words like “autolyse” and “boulting,” along with the kind of tinkering and nuance that attracts nerds of the highest caliber. My rate of failure is not small — sourdough is substantially more fickle and demanding than commercial yeast. But still I try.
To know why, all you have to do is lay into one of Blue Grouse’s loaves. This hearth-baked bread is encased in a gorgeous deeply- bronzed crust, with an inside that is chewy and substantial and yawning with a constellation of air pockets. This is not bread used as a vehicle for tasty toppings, or bread as mere utility. It’s bread that celebrates wheat by putting it front and center. No adornments necessary. This is what I strive for.
The long fermentation process used in sourdough bread allows bacteria to better break down carbohydrates and gluten in bread, making it easier to digest and releasing nutrients so our bodies can absorb them more easily.
My foray into this world helped me understand that wheat flour can possess flavor, personality, and texture. That under-appreciated workhorse of kitchens — much of which has been degraded by industrial milling, bleaching, and enriching — can shine, if you only let it. The Rossman’s source whole wheat from small Colorado growers, including spelt farmer Tyler Willbanks, who grows his heirloom variety on a horse-powered farm in Mancos. Willbanks’ wheat is milled in-house, and the coarse flour that results is the foundation of Blue Grouse’s spelt bread — a squat loaf cooked in a pan whose flavor and texture is complex, earthy, and addictive.
My attempts at this spelt loaf, like most of my sourdough baking, have fallen a little short; the loaves lack the darkness of crust and do not rise to the same pointed crest. But the flavor, intense and deeply satisfying, makes up for it. It’s bread that tastes of nutty wheat and bracing sourdough, with a dense texture aided by all that hydration and a crumb enhanced by patience.
Each slice is a story of Colorado wheat fields and small-scale milling operations, of centuries of tradition, everyday alchemy, and baking from scratch.
Blue Grouse Bread Spelt Loaf
Yields 2 ~800g loaves
This recipe assumes the baker has and maintains a sour
7 1/2 cups (891g) freshly milled whole spelt flour, divided
3 cups (713g) water, divided
3 ½ tsp (20g) salt
Quarter size (18g) sourdough culture (from mother)
Large heavy ceramic mixing bowl
Ovenproof pan lined with rocks
PM starter. Starting several days in advance, feed your sourdough starter regularly to get it active. The night before bake day, mix a quarter-size bit of culture with 1 cup of spelt flour and ½ cup warm water and let it sit overnight on your counter for 8-12 hours.
Autolyse. The next morning, autolyse the final dough by mixing just the remaining 6 ½ cups spelt flour and remaining 2 ½ cups water together in a large mixing bowl until there are no dry bits or chunks of flour. Let sit 30 minutes.
Mix. After letting it rest, mix the salt and all but a quarter-size of the sourdough starter with the dough. If mixing by hand, mix for 5 minutes. If using a kitchen aid, use the hook and mix on first speed for 3 minutes. The dough should feel wet. Oil your mixing bowl and place the dough back into it, cover, and let it rest in a warm area for 45 minutes.
Folds. Fold the dough by pulling on each side and stretching it over the mass, four times total. Flip the dough upside down. Let it rest another 45 minutes in a warm area and fold it a second time. Let it rest another 45 minutes and fold it a third time. Let it rest another 45 minutes.
Divide and preshape. After 3 total hours of bulk fermentation, dump the dough onto the counter and cut it in half. Shape the dough into two rounds, using a dough scraper to the pull the dough toward you to create a tight skin, and set on the counter to rest for 30 minutes.
Final shape. Shape the dough into loaves. Do this by turning each round seam-side up and lightly flattening. Fold two sides in to make a triangle shape, and, starting with the small size of the triangle, roll up like a burrito. Place the loaves seam side down in loaf pans coated with nonstick spray.
Final fermentation. If you plan to bake that day, leave pans in a warm place for 2-3 hours. If you plan to bake the next day, leave the pans in a warm place on your counter for 30 minutes, then put them in the fridge overnight.
Bake. Preheat your oven to 500F with a pizza stone on the middle rack and a steaming tray (filled with rocks) on the lower rack. Score the loaves by making a shallow lengthwise cut with a serrated knife or razor blade. Load loaves onto the pizza stone, pour water into the steaming tray, and close the oven. Turn the heat down to 475F and DO NOT peek at the loaves for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the steaming tray, rotate loaves within the oven if they are cooking unevenly, and close the door for another 20 minutes. Cook until desired color is reached. The loaves are done when they make a hollow noise when knocked on the bottom, or when the internal temperature of the loaves is 195F.