I resisted making the Rustic Country Loaf from the bread baking bible Tartine for years. I somehow had it in my mind that it was complicated and fussy. I already made great bread (even sourdough) so I just never looked into the details. Then one day, on a trip to the local library with my girls, I saw the book beckon me from the shelves. I took it home and made a leaven according to the directions that very night.
The next day I mixed the leaven with the flour and water using my hand. I was not impressed with the mess since I almost always used my stand mixer for dough making, but I was committed to following the directions exactly for my little experiment. Aside from the clumpy mess with the addition of the first ingredients, the process was very simple.
Once the dough rose, I formed my loaves, let them proof, and set the oven to 500 degrees. I preheated my dutch oven, placed my little dough baby inside, and scored it carefully. After the initial period of baking, I removed the cover so that the loaf could brown. I was absolutely elated with what I saw (and wondering why I had been so stubborn). The loaf wasn’t even finished and I was already sold. The crowning moment was once it was cooled, I sliced it down the middle, revealing the open crumb and incredible fragrance that I had been trying to achieve during all of my years of baking.
When I started sharing about my experience, I got feedback that people were having a lot of trouble with their sourdough. Part of the difficulty was from inexperience. Beginners just don’t know how things look and feel when they are correct. It was also, and maybe primarily because there is just too much information and too many opinions available. All this info overload causes crazy confusion. Should you add the salt when you add the flour to the leaven or wait 30 min? How rough should you be when you make your turns during bulk fermentation? Should your dough be cold when you put it in the dutch oven or room temperature? Every recipe says something different and some of the beginner recipes are actually the most confusing.
It is a true desire of my heart to help others enjoy their time in the kitchen as much as I do, so I set out to test each variable. I spent several months making many, many loaves of bread, each with tiny differences in the process. I made pages of notes which evolved into the recipe below.
This recipe is by no means intended to replace Chad Robertson’s genius offering to the world of bread. If you use this recipe and catch the sourdough bug, you must invest in Tartine. The purpose of the method that follows is my effort to simplify and explain how to bake a loaf of bread, in plain English, that will work and thrill you the very first time. My greatest inspiration, Julia Child, is known for recipes that go on for pages and pages. Rather than this making a cook feel daunted, her detail is what carries you through to grand success. I hope what follows would make her proud (and want to make a loaf of bread)!
Before you cringe in fear of the measurements in this recipe, I will restate (although I’ve droned on about it in other blog posts) that the one piece of equipment that will make or break your success is a kitchen scale. Almost all of the other things on the equipment list have alternatives, but you really must have a kitchen scale to make this bread. The amounts for ingredients like starter and salt are very precise. The measurements do not translate well into teaspoons and cups. The scale will also save you a lot of dishes! When you measure the ingredients for the leaven and dough, you can add each one into the bowl used for mixing and tare (zero out) the scale between additions. When you are finished, you won’t have a bunch of measuring cups and spoons to wash!
One last note before we start – This recipe calls for an active sourdough starter. If you have a starter that you have been feeding and growing out on your counter, “discard” and feed it 24 hours before you make your leaven. If you have your starter in the refrigerator, pull it out 2 days before you make the leaven, discard and feed it, leaving it on the counter overnight twice. I’ve added lots of info to the Sourdough Starter post about how to do this and what to do with the discard. A highly active starter is what helps this dough develop a great, open crumb, so don’t begin until it’s bubbling away and happy.
Since first posting this recipe, I’ve made innumerable loaves of bread! Every single time, I evaluate my last bake and make tiny adjustments to the process without fail. I’ve learned that how I do my turns has a great deal to do with how the crumb turns out. The pattern of the score impacts the height and shape of the final loaf… and there are some steps that can be adjusted and even skipped for simplicity.
I’m going to leave the recipe as it is because it is what helped me gain confidence and make great bread in the beginning but I’m also going to share some alternatives. I encourage you to try both and your own variations if you are interested in finding the perfect loaf at the end of your baking rainbow. You’ll find the new material by looking for *Alternate method as you read.
Small Non-Metal Covered Bowl (leaven)
Large Non-Metal Bowl or 4 Quart Cambro (rising)
Spatula & Dough Scraper
9.5 Inch Round Banneton or 10X4 Inch Rectangular Banneton or Bowl (rising)
Tea Towel If Using Bowl For Rising
Lame or Very Sharp Knife
Covered Dutch Oven – 6 Quart or Larger
The best time to make leaven is right before bed so that it is active and ready for your bread making when you wake up in the morning! If you put the leaven on late, expect to give it a few hours in the morning as well. Especially in the cooler months. The leaven should be bubbling with life before you start your loaves.
25 grams of Active Sourdough Starter
100 grams Water 78-80 degrees
50 grams Spelt Flour
50 grams Bread Flour
In a medium bowl, add 25 grams of starter and tare your scale. Now add 100 grams of water and move the bowl onto the counter. Place your clean fingers or non-metal whisk into the starter and water and swish it around until it is combined and has some bubbles. I’ve come to really like the whisk! Put the bowl back on the scale and add the 50 grams of spelt flour and 50 grams of bread flour. Keep using this method of tarring the scale for each ingredient for the remainder of this recipe.
I like to incorporate the flour into the starter and water for leaven with a spatula instead of my hands. Using the spatula will help you scrape down the sides of the bowl until they are nice and clean once the ingredients are combined. If you leave the sides of the bowl messy, the bits of leaven will dehydrate and turn it into difficult to clean cement.
Once well combined, cover the leaven with plastic wrap (or use a bowl that has a top) and leave it on the counter for 8 hours or overnight. You will know that it has worked well because the leaven will smell sweet and have a wonderful lattice of bubbles when ready.
The more leaven I’ve made and learned how vital it is to the rest of this process working well, the more I’ve come to prefer using only bread flour for my leaven. It starts the loaf out with a little safety belt of structure that makes my dough stronger. Now, even if I am making rye or spelt loaves, I start the leaven with 100 grams of bread flour rather than the mix suggested above. When mixed with the starter and water, everything with is quite thick almost like biscuit dough, but much stretchier.
Once your leaven is lovely and active, begin your bread. You may start this process in the morning and then bake bread on the same night you’ve made the dough. You can also place your loaves in the refrigerator to proof overnight and bake them the following morning. I will provide instructions for both schedules.
My preference is to start my loaves at about 11:30 AM. It takes a few minutes to pull out the ingredients and get everything measured and mixed. By 12:00, the dough is ready for its first rest and so the process continues. At 2, I do my final turn and then a 2-4 hour rise until 6PM. I like a 4-hour rise in the winter. It can be as little as 2 in the summer.
I form the loaves as explained below and have them taking a long winter’s nap in the fridge by 7ish. This makes them perfectly ready to bake when I rise in the morning. I preheat the oven while I make coffee and bake them off during my morning tasks. This way they are done before the day really gets going and I’m not stuck in the house waiting for timers to go off. There’s more below about scheduling bread into your life.
200 grams Leaven
700 grams Water 78-80 degrees
900 grams Bread Flour (add up to 140 grams of flour to adjust for humidity)
100 grams Spelt Flour
Place a large bowl or container on your kitchen scale. I like to use a 6-quart cambro for this purpose. Measure 200 grams of mature leaven and 700 grams of water into the container. Use clean fingers or a spatula (use an all silicone spatula) to disperse the starter into the water until it is mostly combined and bubbly. Now measure 900 grams of bread flour and 100 grams of spelt flour into the leaven and water.
Place the container onto a firm surface and use your hands to fully incorporate the flour into the liquid. This will take a few minutes and the dough will stick terribly to your hands. Hang in there because the final result is worth the trouble. When I go about this process, I put my cambro on a stool that is quite a bit lower than my kitchen counter so that I can reach into it easily. I also use just one hand for mixing. That way, I have a clean hand free to move the cambro around and scrape dough off of my sticky hand, into the container at the end.
At this stage, your dough will be quite rough and clumpy. If you must, add another tablespoon of water to hydrate all of the flour. However, keep in mind that in the next step, you may add more water to properly incorporate the salt. You don’t want to end up with dough that is too wet. Humidity really does have a serious impact on how much water you need so pay attention to the weather. If it’s pouring rain when you are making the dough, cut back on the water a bit. You can always add more.
Cover your bowl or container and allow the dough to sit undisturbed for 30 minutes. This process, called autolyse, gives the flour time to fully absorb liquid, allowing the glutens to swell and form the chains that trap gas released during fermentation. It also is important to start the fermentation without added salt which retards its natural process.This is what causes your naturally fermented dough to rise so don’t skip this step!
Some really successful bakers do add salt during the first mixing and skip the next step altogether. I’ve tried this enough times to know it’s not my preference. If you want to try too, go for it!
After Autolyse Add –
50 grams Water 78-80 degrees
25 grams Fine Sea Salt
Place your bowl or container back on the scale and add 50 grams of water and 25 grams of salt. Use your hand to squeeze the dough firmly between your fingers. It is helpful to sweep around the sides of the bowl or container and scrape the bottom, bringing the dough into the middle and squeezing again.
At first, it will seem that the water will never incorporate into the dough. Just keep going! After a few minutes, it will start to magically mix together. The dough will develop a bit of a stretchy texture now. Continue turning and stretching until you have a large mass that holds vaguely into a ball. It is helpful to try to leave the sides of the container as clean as possible by scraping it down well at this stage.
Set a timer for 30 minutes.
I have stopped adding any water with this step in the last few months and like the result much better! There is a fine line between high hydration dough that still has plenty of structure for amazing lift during baking and dough that is just too wet. I’ve decided I think it’s too wet when I add the extra water and the salt incorporates into the dough perfectly without it.
If you want to try this, sprinkle the salt all across the surface of the dough when you measure it into the container. Squeeze and turn the dough as described above. You will feel when it has melted and there are nary is a crunchy salt grain between your fingers. That’s when you’re done!
The next stage of making this sourdough boule, called bulk fermentation, takes 4 hours. During this stage, you will be developing the structure of your dough by turning it every 30 minutes for 2 hours and then letting it sit undisturbed 2-4 more hours. By turning the dough, you will gently disperse the pockets filling with carbon dioxide during fermentation into layers throughout the dough. These turns, along with the dough forming technique, described later, are essential for an even, open crumb.
When the timer that you set after adding the salt and water goes off, you will do the first set of turns. This is a simple process. Starting at the right of your container, run your fingers under the edge of the dough and stretch it across to the opposite side. Pinch the edges of the dough together gently if needed to cause the two sides to adhere. Repeat this same movement stretching the top edge to the bottom, the left across to the right, and then the bottom up to the top. If the dough is very smooth, you can stop. If there are shaggy spots, do another few turns until the mass is shiny and smooth.
Repeat this turning process 3 more times in 30-minute intervals. Each time you will notice that the dough has more structure and is developing lots of good bubbles. Take care as you stretch it out, that you are not popping these bubbles. After the last set of turns, set a timer for 2-4 hours (shorter in a warm house and longer if it’s chilly as I discussed above) and leave the dough undisturbed. When it goes off, you will be ready for bench rest and loaf forming.
Flour two banneton or clean tea towels inside of 2 medium sized bowls.
When the timer goes off, flour your work surface and very gently remove the fermented dough from its container. I like to remove the dough like another series of turns so that I encourage the final shape during this steep. Use a bench scraper or long, sharp knife to cut the mass of dough in half. Push the dough pieces away from each other a bit so they don’t spread and stick back together and stretch them out ever so gently. Cover over the dough gently with plastic wrap or a tea towel and bench rest (let the disturbed dough relax) for 20 minutes.
Loaf forming is similar to dough turning in that you will stretch each side across to its opposite and adhere the edges. When the 20 minutes of bench rest have elapsed, start on the first loaf. Stretch the right-hand border of the dough far to the right and then over itself to the left. Press the edges together to adhere if needed. Now move to the bottom edge. Stretch it toward your body and then up to adhere to the top edge. Repeat left to right, and then top to bottom. If necessary, pinch any stray bits together, making sure that the dough feels tight and firm. Place the loaf into the floured banneton or bowls lined with a floured tea towel.
Plain bread flour works just fine for flouring your banneton or tea towel-lined bowls. I much prefer to do this with fine rice flour though. It is super inexpensive and helps create a more defined pattern when you score and bake the loaf because it doesn’t brown as fast as wheat flour.
I also don’t usually do a 20 min bench rest anymore. I pull the dough out as described and then assemble my bowls and tea towels while it sits on the counter uncovered. I see no noticeable difference in the final result and shave a good 15 min off of my bread prep time.
Once your dough is safely in its floured banneton or bowl, it needs to rise. You can do this out on the counter and bake it off the evening that you formed the loaves OR place the dough in the fridge overnight for a slower proofing.
I prefer the overnight proof for three reasons. First, the taste of this bread is slightly more complex and zesty with the longer ferment. Second, I bake sourdough for health benefits! The longer fermentation gives the starter more time to transform antinutrients in the flour, making it healthier and easier to digest. Last, I like to score (mark before baking) cold, firmer dough. It is easier to handle than room temperature dough and I find my final product is more beautiful. If you are in a hurry, please go ahead and bake your bread the day you formed the loaves. It works wonderfully!
If you would like to bake the same day as you ferment and proof your loaves, the dough will rise best in a warm room between 75 & 80 degrees. Place your covered bowls of dough aside and set the timer for 4 hours. When the time has elapsed, proceed to the baking section of this recipe.
If you would like to retard the fermentation, place your covered dough in the refrigerator overnight. It can continue to rise slowly for up to 12 hours. This will slow, but not stop, the fermentation process. The longer you leave it, the more complex in flavor it will become.
One of the key tools of the success of this bread is that it is baked in a dutch oven. Since home ovens do not have the steam features of a baker’s oven, the dutch oven allows us to mimic it, creating incredible rise and crumb in your loaf. The banneton or bowl you choose needs to be an inch or two smaller in circumference than your dutch oven so that your loaf has plenty of room to grow as it bakes.
You will need two additional tools for baking. Before placing the dough into the oven, you will need to score your bread. Scoring is cutting slashes into the loaf before baking to allow for expansion. These cuts can be very serviceable lines across the top of the bread or beautifully decorative. If you’ve used rice flour, you can smooth out what sticks to the loaf so that the surface has a uniform amount everywhere. I also use a lame, a baker’s scoring tool that was gifted to me from a lovely friend, to make my cuts. It gives me great control and is easily made sharp again by replacing the blade.
Neither of these tools are needed for great bread! You can use regular flour before you score and your bread will still be beautiful. You can also use a very sharp kitchen knife instead of a lame. I find that it is most fun to try things first without fancy equipment because I can relax and experiment without the pressure of a big investment. Enjoy the process and don’t look for perfection. Even bread that doesn’t look like a magazine cover is delicious!
When you are ready to bake, place the covered dutch oven on the lower, middle rack of your oven and set the temperature to 500 degrees. Allow the oven to heat for about 30 minutes, even if the preheat signal sounds before this. While you are waiting, prepare your tools. You’ll want to dust the loaf with more flour if needed and score it quickly once you remove the dutch oven so that it stays very hot. Have everything ready to go!
When your timer goes off, CAREFULLY remove the dutch oven and place it on a heat-proof surface. I always put mine on the stove using heavy, silicone oven mitts. (Make sure you close the oven door during this point or you will lose all the heat) Turn the dough into the uncovered dutch oven, doing your best to get it centered. This will be terrifying the first time you do it and second nature with a little practice.
Dust the loaf with flour, score it with the design of your choosing, and replace the dutch oven top with a mitted hand. Return the covered dutch oven to the oven now and close the door. Immediately turn the temperature down to 450 degrees and set the timer for 30 minutes. When the 30-minute timer goes off, remove the dutch oven cover. Set the timer again for 20 more minutes.
When the 20 minutes have elapsed, your bread may be done or may need just a few more minutes, depending on your oven. It’s important to note that this type of bread gets quite dark during baking and this does not mean its burnt. Baking a cold loaf in a covered pot gives you some flexibility in how dark you make the bread. You can pull it out when it is golden brown, or wait until it is dark caramel. Try it both ways and note how long the second phase of baking takes for your version of perfect.
When the loaf is baked perfectly for you, pull it out onto a heat-safe surface and remove the loaf from the dutch oven onto a cooling rack. Now the hardest part in the whole baking process… You must wait at least an hour before slicing and eating your loaf! The bread will actually continue to bake during this time and will be gummy and very difficult to slice if cut into too early.
To continue baking your second loaf, cover the dutch oven and place it back in the oven, increasing the heat to 500 degrees. Wait at least 10 minutes and then repeat the process above. If the dutch oven has lots of flour in it, carefully shake it out into the sink so that it doesn’t burn before doing this preheat process.
I have started to leave the oven at 500 degrees for just the first 10 minutes of the baking process before I turn it down to 450. This tiny bit of extra time at higher heat seems to give my loaves extra lift. I watch it more carefully at the end so that I can pull it out at just the right moment which for me is golden brown which some extra dark bits on the edges of the score. If setting the timer 3 times during one bake for adjustments seems like too much, then it probably is and your loaves will be beautiful without the extra step. Try it both ways if you are interested in the difference.
If you have made it this far in this recipe, you may feel daunted! There are lots of little steps and details that seem complicated when you first read about them. I want to encourage you that with a little practice, you can fit these steps easily into your day!
I usually make 2 of these kinds of loaves a week for my family. Friday and Saturday are the days that I have the most time to give it my attention. Knowing this, I take my starter out of the refrigerator Wednesday and feed it. This takes less than 5 minutes. On Thursday, I make my leaven right before bed. This also literally takes 5 minutes since I keep my scale, flour, and bowl together.
Friday morning, I make my dough. It takes about 15 minutes to measure my ingredients and mix it together by hand. While I’m waiting to add the salt and extra water, I eat breakfast and do the family’s dishes. Once the salt is added, I set my timer for turns and just carry my container of dough around with me. I’ve even taken it in the car when I have to go places. The only thing I need is a place to wash my hands. Later in the day, it takes me about 10 minutes to form the loaves and clean the counter.
Saturday morning is when I bake. This requires me to be home for a few hours but there are only about 15 minutes of active work for the flour dusting and scoring. The rest of the time, everything is happening in the oven. Once the bread is cooled all day, one or both loaves can be wrapped tightly and frozen without any loss of quality. I do this sometimes if we will be busier than usual and not home to eat both loaves within five to seven days.
The reason that I go into my personal baking schedule here is that I want you to see how easily the little spurts of effort required to make bread, can fit into a day. Once you invest some energy to learn the steps I’ve described here (in very fine detail), you will only need to briefly refer to the measurements as you bake. The rest will come to you with the same second nature as riding a bike or driving a car. Baking bread is relaxing, even meditative, and will bring you great satisfaction. Please do not be intimidated and message me your questions. I want your loaves to be a grand success!