Introducing Loaf Classic™

know when to hold them, know when to fold them

It’s been awhile since I last shared a new bread formula, but I have one for you today. Or six, actually, though they all make more or less the same loaf. (More on why there are so many below.)

This new formula is one I worked up for my Sourdough Lifestyle class (there’s still some room in the 4/25 sesh, and another one in May if you can’t make that one). I realized that I may have given people the wrong idea here by leaning on that low-levain, overnight no-knead formula so heavily that it is somehow the best way to make a sourdough loaf, or the only way I do so.

Of course I love that approach and use it all the time still, particularly when I want something quick throw together and more or less hands-off. And I do believe that it can give results as great as most other approaches, despite its simplicity. Which is why I love it as a sourdough recipe for beginners—it’s easy, but it isn’t diminished for being so.

But it does have its limitations:

  • The hydration is a precise 74%, which is exactly as much water as the recipe can withstand while still remaining “no-knead”; any more water and the dough wouldn’t be able to develop sufficient structure while it ferments. Which means you can’t push the hydration up, should you want to.

  • And it’s slooooowwww, since it relies on time rather than kneading or folds to build structure. The flip side of this is that it can’t really be sped up.

  • Because it takes so long, it’s usually left to proof overnight, which means that if the dough reaches maturity early, you won’t necessarily be there to catch it, and it could be overproofed by the time you wake up.

  • It’s kind of in a class of its own in terms of fermentation and structure-building, so using it doesn’t give you a good sense of how most other sourdough recipes are constructed.

  • And finally, it doesn’t really give you much opportunity to get your hands in the dough, at least not at all stages of development and fermentation. Not only is this one of the great joys of bread baking, it also is the best way to get an intuitive, kinesthetic understanding of how to bake.

Which is why I created this new set of formulas, which I am cheekily calling Loaf Classic™, since they yield a similar product to the no-knead “Loaf” recipe, but utilize a traditional high-levain-ratio, multi-fold, and faster-fermentation approach. (I also refer to it more descriptively as a four-fold pain au levain recipe.)

Here’s a breakdown of all the ways these formulas differ from the no-knead recipe:

  • They contain 25 to 35% levain (compared to the 5 to 10% the called for in the no-knead).

  • As a result, the dough ferments in as little as 4 hours time (rather than 12).

  • Because it calls for so much levain and ferments quickly, it cannot be made using fridge-stored levain; the levain must be built fresh. (The no-knead recipe can withstand the use of “weak” starter because it has such a long fermentation.) There are a few options here:

    1. You can build the levain the “usual” way using a 2:2:1 ratio until it is at least doubled, 4 to 6h, just before mixing the dough. This generally means starting early in the morning.

    2. You can mix the levain using a 2:2:1 ratio the day before, let it double, and then store it in the fridge for no more than 12 hours before use.

    3. Or you can mix it the night before using 5% starter (20:20:1) and let it proof at room temperature until it has about doubled, 12 to 14 hours.

  • There is a 1 hour flour-and-water-only autolyse, in order to build as much structure in the dough as possible before fermentation begins (as opposed to the 30m autolyse in the no-knead recipe). Leaving out both the salt and acidic levain avoids anything that would interfere with enzymatic activity during the autolyse. (This can be started an hour before the levain is ready for use, saving time.)

  • There are 4 sets of coil folds, spaced about 45 minutes apart, during the bulk fermentation to build more structure. (Versus 1 fold in the no-knead.)

  • The formulas contain between 75 and 85% water. The more water you use, the moister the resulting bread.

  • Finally, this recipe is flexible, since both the amount of levain and the hydration can be adjusted as needed.

The first and last bullet points get at why there are 6 formulas and not merely 1. I decided in this case to err on the side of more options than simplicity. (When I shared this recipe in class, I took a poll, and most everyone was happy I opted for options over simplicity.) There are 2 options for levain percentage and 3 for hydration, which amounts to 6 different formulas.

Fortunately, it’s not complicated to sort out which one to choose:

  1. Start with the overall hydration, which will determine how wet the dough will be. Beginners should start with 75% hydration. Once you are comfortable working with that formula, you can move up to the next one, 80%, and then finally jump up to 85%. Keep in mind that 85% is very wet, requiring a deft hand and a proofing basket that can resist wet doughs. Eighty-five is my usual MO these days. It’s really satisfying to work with, once you get the hang of it, and the loaf it produces has an open crumb and a super moist texture not unlike that which you get in porridge breads. (But: It’s so wet that I hesitated including it here. The loaf cannot be shaped without the skilled use of a bench knife, as it is too sticky to manipulate by hand. But it is doable, so I have included it should you dare.) 

  2. Then decide how much levain to include, based upon ambient temperatures. For “normal” temps (70˚ to 80˚F), use 25% levain. For winter/colder temps, use 35%. (For very warm temperatures above 80˚F, you can use 12.5% levain by simply dividing the called-for 25% amount of levain in half. The final numbers won't be quite the same ratios, but they will be close enough, and doing so will make the dough slightly drier, something that is not likely to cause trouble.) 

Though the formula, timeline, and number of folds differ from the no-knead recipe, the mechanics are more or less identical, so you shouldn’t have any trouble with this one if you are already comfortable with that one.

Speaking of timelines: I’ve been trying out a new way to represent dough recipes that helps make the progress of steps, intervals, and overall time range more clear. I’m still giving numbered steps in the recipe, but I am also including a separate timeline that (in the case of this recipe) looks like this:

0:00 - Feed levain (4 to 6h, until doubled; can be refrigerated for up to 12 hours if needed)

3:00 - mix flours and water (autolyse) (1h)

4:00 - add levain and salt (45m)

4:45 - coil fold (45m)

5:30 - coil fold (45m)

6:15  - coil fold (45m)

7:00 - coil fold (30 to 90m, until about doubled)

8:30 - preshape (30m)

9:00 - final shape (30m)

9:30 - transfer to fridge (8 to 16h)

16:30 - bake (~40m)

Here’s how to read it: Each step delineates the timepoint at which the step occurs, starting at T-zero. The parenthetical times listed at the end of each stage indicate the amount of time until the next stage, or a range, when it is variable. 

For the class handout, I also created a similar timeline for the no-knead recipe:

0:00 - Mix dough without salt (autoyse) (30m)

0:30 - add salt (30m)

1:00 - coil fold (12 to 16h, until about doubled)

13:00 - preshape (30m)

13:30 - final shape (30m)

14:00 - transfer to fridge (8 to 16h)

22:00 - bake (~40m)

So comparing the two you can see that—even with the levain build—the classic sourdough method is at least 5 1/2 hours faster than the no-knead one.

Okay, I think that’s enough for one post. The recipes can be found here. I plan to add some images and maybe a gif or two soon, but the technical details are all in place now. As always, let me know if anything is confusing or seems off.