From Chris Schoen
It’s time consuming (about 5-6 days) the first time you do it, since you are using only wild yeasts present in the air and on the surface of wheatberries, but once you have your first batch of dough you can pull off a lump to start your next batch, and the development process will go much faster (start to finish in about a day). You can also make yeasted dough and pull a lump from that, if you don’t want to wait a week for your first batch. The important thing is that there is nothing precious about heirloom sourdough starters. That’s just folklore. Anyone can get one going from scratch in just a few days.
The advantages to this method over the quicker yeasted dough method are many. Thicker crust, more developed flavor, better texture, and it doesn’t go stale as quickly either. It is well worth the extra effort and time. And it really is much simpler than it sounds, especially if you already have a good feel for baking bread.
1. Make a little ball of dough (the chef) about the size of a walnut or ping pong ball, by mixing 1/2 c. flour and 1/4 c. water. Put it in a covered container to keep from drying out, and leave out at room temp. The first time you do this it will take about 3 days to ferment, but subsequent chefs will ferment much more quickly (several hours) if you pull them from the dough right before adding the salt.
2. When the chef is active it will soften, and start to fill with bubbles. It will have a nice sour smell. Break it up into small pieces and mix it with 1.25 c. flour and 1/2 c. water, to make a ball of dough about the size of an orange (called the levain.). Let it sit covered at room temperature for about a day and half the first time (just a few hours if started from active dough).
3. When it’s active, mix it with 3 c. flour and 1.25 c. water to make dough for one loaf of bread. (You can modify this refreshment schedule to add more intermediate steps to vary the sourness, or to make larger batches.) Mix or knead dough until the gluten is developed, and the consistency starts to get satiny. Cover with a wet cloth to rise for about 6 hours (1-2 hours if you started with active chef).
4. Mix or knead in 2t salt. (If you want to pull a walnut sized lump as the chef for your next loaf, do it before you add the salt.) Shape your loaf and let rise covered with a flour-lined towel for another 8-10 hours (1-2 hours if you started with active chef). It’s ready to go in the oven when the dough doesn’t quickly spring back when you poke it. It won’t get quite as puffy as yeasted dough, but you’ll be able to tell that it’s gotten active.
5. Slash the top with a razor or sharp knife at a 45 degree angle (if you don’t give the loaf a place to expand it will tear randomly and erratically and this can keep it from rising properly). Bake at 450 for 20-50 minutes, depending on the shape of the loaf (less time for baguettes, more for batards or boules). The bread is done when you thump the bottom and it has a hollow sound.
6. Resist the urge to slice while hot. The inside of the bread will get gummy if you don’t let it cool for at least 30 minutes. Sorry.
Notes and Variations:
a) If you use a KitchenAid or similar mixer, try to use a slightly wetter dough. This will have dramatic results on the texture of the bread. Wetter doughs are harder to shape, but you can be liberal with flour during shaping if you are fast enough. Well worth the effort!
b) I often use a willow basket called a “banneton” to rise the dough, partly to get the cool concentric flour marks on the bread. You can use any kind of bowl to shape a boule. Line it liberally with flour. Wetter doughs tend to flatten out if you don’t put them to rise in some kind of supporting structure.
c) I usually pre-heat the oven to its highest setting for about 30 minutes and then turn it down to 450 when the bread goes in. (It helps that I don’t pay for cooking gas.) Whatever you bake on, a cookie sheet or baking stone (terra cotta tiles also work well), get it good and hot before putting the loaf on it.
d) If you are making a boule, I strongly recommend baking the loaf in some kind of covered container (Dutch oven, Le Crueset, clay pot, romertopf, etc.). The microenvironment preserves moisture which is critical for a thick, hard crust. Bake the same way you would bake a no-knead loaf.
e) When the bread is done, leave it in the oven for a few minutes with the gas off and the door open. This finishes the crust in a really awesome way.
f) This recipe works with any kind of flour, though too high a proportion of rye or other gluten-free flours will yield a much different kind of loaf. I recommend at least 75 percent wheat-based flours your first time.
g) You can add just about anything to this dough. Nuts and seeds, wheatberries/ryeberries, olives, garlic, onions, etc. etc.