When I moved out of my parents’ house I was no stranger to yeast. My mom is an excellent baker and has taught me the ways of leavening quite well. When I lived with the girls at the Yellow Cottage I would usually bake bread a couple of times a month. I settled on my favorite multigrain honey bread, a recipe which required that I make at least two loaves, because the first one would usually be gone within 10 minutes of my roommates getting their hands on it.
When I married Jer, I figured I would continue making my sweet bread of yeasty goodness. But Jer has other ideas. Confident in my baking powers, he not-so-subtly suggested that perhaps I should switch to sourdough bread. Now, I have always loved sourdough bread, but I have never worked with it, and my perception was that it was a lot of hassle and I would never actually get it to work. However, in the fog of romantic love and conjugal bliss I agreed to start the experiment.
So I did some reading and researching and found that starting a starter wouldn’t actually be that hard. In theory. According to the recipes, you just mix together some flour and water and watch the magic happen.
Let’s just say it took a lot longer than I thought. And a lot more recipes than I thought. I feed our starter (we call him Odo, since he sleeps in a bucket) every day, building up his taste and leavening power, and then when baking day comes I take the chance that all my work will not go to waste. I’ve made no-knead bread and super-kneaded bread. Recipes that took 24 hours and ones that took 4. Dutch ovens, baking stones, preheated ovens, cold ovens, wood-fire grills. I’ve made the worst baked goods of my life struggling with that starter. Flat, hard bread, only useful for breadcrumbs (which I rarely need) or bread pudding (which I am not really a huge fan of). Through fail after fail, Jer encouraged me and ate the rejects.
There have been a few successes in the story, but overall I have not been satisfied. I had dreams of the soft, tasty sourdough bread I used to eat growing up, bread which I am sure was full of dough conditioners and other such chemical additives but nevertheless made me happy. A slight sourdough tang, a chewy crust, a soft interior. Such bliss.
BUT. It was this weekend that we finally reached the pinnacle of the sourdough bread. I have been reading a lot about sprouted flour and soaked grains and how proper preparation makes grains healthier for you and more easily digestable. Hopping from blog to blog I stumbled upon the recipe that would be the gamechanger. I read the title-Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread-and I was filled with hope that perhaps here was the recipe that would marry my love for honey-sweetened multigrain bread with Jer’s visions of sourdough loaves.
It was easy. It worked better than it said it would. And it was, categorically, the best bread I have ever made in my life. And so my friends, I share it with you. Let me know if you want a little bit of my sourdough starter to get you, well, started.
Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
from Kitchen Stewardship
This requires some planning ahead because of the overnight proof, but it actually is one of the easier sourdough recipes I have tried. Your starter should be fed a 1:1 ratio of filtered water and flour, and to keep it most active, you should feed it every 8-12 hours and keep it at room temperature for a couple of days prior to use (I usually feed Odo every 24 hours). I’ve heard some recipes say that a sourdough starter can’t handle a dough with eggs and butter, but my starter loved it, and the loaves rose like nobody’s business. I think having an active starter helps a lot.
1 1/2 cups whole wheat sourdough starter
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup mild honey
2 large eggs
6 cups (divided) whole wheat flour, plus extra for kneading
2 teaspoons sea salt
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
The night before you want to bake, combine the starter, milk, and 3 cups of flour, creating a shaggy dough (much like a no-knead recipe). I used a mix of whole wheat flour and bread flour (the extra gluten makes a difference) but feel free to use whatever you like. Cover and keep in a warm place overnight. The best idea is to turn on your oven and preheat to 350 while you make your dough, then immediately turn it off and place the covered bowl in the oven. Leave the door open slightly so the light stays on.
In the morning, your dough will have puffed up and be covered in air bubbles. Stir gently with a wooden spoon and add in the honey and eggs one at a time. Mix until completely incorporated. Add the remaining flour, salt, and butter. If you have a mixer with a dough hook, use this and knead for 5-7 minutes. I didn’t find that I needed a whole lot of extra flour this way. If you don’t have a mixer, knead by hand on a lightly floured surface for 10 minutes, then let rest 10 minutes, then knead again for another 10 minutes. Dough will be moist but not sticky, with good elasticity.
After kneading, put your dough in a greased bowl and cover. Go ahead and do the same thing with the oven: preheat, turn off, put in dough, leave door open slightly. Allow to rise until doubled; the recipe said 2-4 hours, but mine took about an hour and a half. That’s one benefit of having an active sourdough starter!
When dough has doubled, remove, divide in half, and shape into two loaves. 9×5 loaf pans are recommended, although I suppose you could try making boules and placing them on a cookie sheet. Repeat your oven proofing technique, allowing the loaves to rise to just above the edge of the pan, about an hour.
Take the pans out of the oven and preheat it for reals this time, to 375. Place a sheet pan in the bottom of your oven and get 2-3 cups of water ready. Slash the tops of your loaves. As soon as you place your loaves in the preheated oven, pour the water into the sheet pan and then quickly shut the door. This creates a steamy environment for your loaves, so they can develop a nice crust, as well as the series of romance novels that will fund your retirement.
Bake for 35 minutes. The loaves should get golden brown on top, and sound hollow when you tap them. Remove from oven and cool on wire racks. It will be tempting to cut into them immediately, but you need to let them cool down a bit before you slice. If any of the bread makes it past the first tasting, allow it to completely cool before wrapping it up and storing it in a cool place. The recipe states it keeps for a week, but I doubt it will last that long. You can also freeze the extra loaf, wrapping it in foil before sealing it in a freezer bag.
There you have it folks: the grand triumph. This bread is awesome with just a little butter, or toasted with honey or jam, or as a sandwich. I made Jer a PB&J with this and I swear he ate it in less than a minute. He then apparently ate four more slices while I was at worship practice! I’ll be lucky if the two loaves last the week. But hey, anything for my man.