Sourdough bread-making methods, The Sourdough Journals
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Whole wheat sourdough with America’s Test Kitchen recipe

So far I’ve made eight loaves of whole wheat sourdough sandwich bread using the  Sourdough Home recipe. While some of the loaves were moderately successful, others were less so. I’m ready to try a new formula. Besides, I’d like to try my hand once more at a free-form artisan loaf.

Unfortunately, my searches have yielded not a single other 100 percent whole wheat sourdough recipe. Time to adapt! I’ve decided to try America’s Test Kitchen 24-Hour Sourdough Bread recipe on their Cook’s Illustrated (CI) site. While it calls for unbleached flour, I will substitute whole wheat flour, which makes this recipe a risk, but a calculated one. After all, America’s Test Kitchen should have worked out the kinks on the white flour side. Some of its success will work in my favor. I hope.


The first thing I notice about the CI recipe is that they don’t rely entirely on their starter to get the rise. Even with white flour, they add yeast. That suggests I’m in for a long learning curve, because, as you know if you’ve read me from the start, one of my goals is to learn how to make good whole wheat bread entirely from wild yeast sourdough starter.

Right off the bat, I’m changing two main factors in the ingredient list: Substituting whole wheat flour for unbleached, and omitting the yeast. When I measure out the starter, flour and water for the sponge, though, I’m surprised to find yet another issue I must resolve.

The flour, water and starter ingredients make nothing close to the “thick pancake batter” consistency called for in the recipe. Working the dough, er, sponge by hand, I cannot incorporate all the flour. I add one more ounce of water and work until all the flour is moistened and the sponge wet, if not flowing like batter. Concerned about adding too much water, I decide to give this mixture a go. We will see what happens.

After two hours, the sponge has doubled nicely and is fluffy, moist and spongy. I measure out water for the dough and stir it in with my spatula. With the dough attached and the mixer speed on low, I add the flour, one-half cup at a time.

Once all the flour is in, I continue kneading until the dough forms a nice ball and is fairly smooth, about eight minutes. Then I cover the dough with plastic and let it rest twenty minutes. From Sourdough Home (see link earlier on this page), I learned this rest allows the flour to fully absorb the water.

Following the rest, I make a pocket in the dough and add the salt, then knead the dough several minutes. It refuses to form a ball! Thinking the dough is too dry, I add a little water and the lump curls and crawls up the side of the bowl and over the lip of the dough hook’s top.

What’s more, my mixer is struggling with the effort to push this much dough around. Apparently, it’s not built to handle two loaves. Pressing on, I continue to knead, stopping every couple of minutes to do the windowpane test.

At last, when I stretch a small ball into a rectangle, I get a good, translucent “windowpane.” I forget to take a photograph, but it worked, and the dough was pliable, not sticky.

Per the CI instructions, I turn the dough out onto my board and knead by hand. It takes longer than the 30 seconds they recommend to form a nice ball, a couple of minutes. I turn the ball into my greased bowl and check its temperature, a surprising 80 degrees! Guess my mixer’s motor wasn’t the only thing heating up with all that kneading.

According to CI, if the temperature is over 78 degrees, I’m to set the dough in a cool room to rise, where the temperature is around 65 degrees. Ha! That’s about what we have here in San Francisco today, and we haven’t any heat in the apartment, so the dough should do fine on top of the fridge.

Nearly four hours later, the dough has finally, and barely, doubled in size. I’m disappointed with myself for having taking its temperature earlier right in the middle of the loaf. That puncture hole is ugly! Next time, I’ll take it in the bottom, before I place the loaf in the bowl.

Working quickly, I shape the dough into an oblong piece and cut it neatly in half using my chopper-scraper. (See my review of this inexpensive tool on Squidoo.)  My eye was a little off. One wedge is slightly bigger than the other. Oh well. I roll each piece into a ball, cover them loosely with unbleached waxed paper and set them in the refrigerator to proof overnight.

Next morning, the loaves are still rather small. I set them to rising at room temperature. By 12:30 p.m., they’ve nearly doubled in size, but we are leaving in twenty minutes, so I set them in a cool spot and head out for some fun with my family.

When I return in the evening, the loaves have not risen and fallen, as I feared they might. In fact, they are still barely double their original size. This does not bode well for nice, bubble-filled bread under a crispy crust. Is my starter too weak? Checking the recipe, I realize that I neglected to feed my starter three times in the days preceding making my bread. Three times! I fed it only twice, and not using the quantities CI recommends.

CI instructs us to feed our starter a lot of flour and water, discarding most of it each time. Wasteful! But I can’t help wondering if this is the reason my dough took so long to rise. Or perhaps it’s because I did not rely on that yeast boost. Too late now. Gotta bake what I have.

Placing my pizza stone in the oven, I set the preheat to 500 degrees (Fahrenheit) and my timer for 30 minutes. To slash the loaves this time, I’ve purchased a single-edged utility razor that has a high sharpness rating, according to my local hardware store. It does a fairly nice job, once I get the hang of it, and makes nice deep gashes in the loaves. I completely forget to take photographs of any of this.

When the timer goes off, I dust my pizza peel with corn meal and set both loaves on it, careful not to disturb them, then I gently slide them onto the hot stone, spray them with water, shut the door and lower the oven temp to 450.

Twice more in the first five minutes of baking, following CI instructions, I open the oven door and carefully spray the loaves with water. Then I shut the door and leave them to the heat.

After 35 minutes, I pull the loaves and check their internal temperature.  It reaches barely 200 degrees. I put them back in the oven for five more minutes, and the temp climbs to 206. It’s late. I’m tired. I forget to take more photographs, and I’m ready to call it quits for the night. I dub the loaves done and set them on the rack to cool.

Temperature reads barely 200 degrees

Temperature reads barely 200 degrees

They look pretty good. Look at all those uneven bubbles in the slashed areas! I expect a tender, moist  crumb inside these loaves. Goodness knows they’re plenty crisp and more brown on the outside than these photographs show.

The loaves are smiling prettily enough, hot from the oven

The loaves are smiling prettily enough, hot from the oven

Ah, but no. When I slice into the first loaf the next morning, the top two-thirds of the slices have some holes in them, but the bottom third is dense and a little under-done. Perhaps I should have let them rise longer. Or perhaps I should have put them back in the oven for that last five or ten minutes.

Ah, but no, the loaf is dense and unevenly baked

Ah, but no, the loaf is dense and unevenly baked

The flavor is good, but my sweetheart and I both decide, by the time we cut into the second loaf, that the sour taste is too strong. We want some of the nutty wheat flavor to shine through.

As it turns out, we cannot eat two loaves of bread, even small loaves like this, just the two of us, before the second one goes dry and hard. I end up throwing half in the compost bucket, too hard even to cut into cubes and freeze until I’m ready to make bread pudding.

I have a lot of problems to solve before I tackle this recipe again, but I will try it a time or two more, because I want to give it a good shake. For sure, this was not a 24-hour bread for me. I started feeding the starter the night of the seventeenth, and we didn’t get to take our first bites until the morning of the twentieth. I chalk this up to my inexperience and lack of understanding of the delicate chemistry of bread baking.

Next time, I’ll do more research, and I’ll be sure to use starter I’ve fed well in the days preceding sponge-making. I will also halve the recipe–easier on my mixer and less bread to eat before it goes stale.

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