Sourdough bread-making methods
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America’s Test Kitchen Whole Wheat Sourdough Loaf 4

Hoping to build on my success and tweak this loaf just enough to get it right, I’m following America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) method for the fourth time.

With the third ATK loaf, I experimented with omitting the overnight refrigerator proof, letting my dough rise in the oven, warmed slightly by the oven light. The loaf rose nicely but was more dense and too tough to slice easily or to chew with comfort. We composted most of that loaf.

This time, I’m changing the process in a different way. I will do the recommended overnight refrigerator proof, but I will give the dough a head start rising at room temperature.

Day 1

ATK recommends refreshing the starter three times before making bread, with no more than twelve hours between feedings. Beginning Saturday morning I feed the starter for the first time and set it in the oven to incubate.

As I always do, I measure the starter, flour and water in grams. I have exactly 242 grams starter, so I add 121 grams each filtered water and organic whole wheat flour.

Four hours later, the starter bowl is full. Setting aside one full cup to make sourdough biscuits, I immediately feed the rest and set it to doubling. This second round, the starter doubles in just three hours.

To avoid having to make the dough late in the day, and to prevent my fresh yeasties dying off, I set the starter in the refrigerator, fully expecting to feed it a third time before bed. I’ll start the loaf first thing in the morning.

Unfortunately, I fall asleep early, and do not refresh my starter until eight-ish the next morning, more than twelve hours after the second refresh. I’m disappointed that I’ve broken the 12-hour time frame ATK  recommends, but hey, this is only flour, water and time.

Day 2

The cold starter, now fed a third time, doubles after about four hours and is ready to make the sponge.


The sponge looks pitifully small in the bottom of the mixing bowl. Once again, it is nothing like the pancake batter consistency the recipe specifies. I consider adding water to get that consistency.

Since I’ve had trouble with too-moist dough the last few times, I decide to keep the sponge on the doughy side.

Placing the covered bowl in the oven with the light on to rise, I turn my attention back to that cup of starter I saved out yesterday to make biscuits.

We have some lovely apricots on hand, so I chop and add them to the dough. So good! We couldn’t even wait to get a pic of the full batch before we each grabbed one to eat–the two of us and our visiting granddaughter.

YayYay's Whole Wheat Sourdough Biscuits with Apricots

YayYay’s Whole Wheat Sourdough Biscuits with Apricots

Within in three hours. the sponge doubles. I add ingredients to make the dough and knead it with the dough hook on the mixer for about six minutes, then cover it and let it rest for 20 minutes.

After the rest, I make a pocket to add the salt, then knead on the machine until I get a smooth ball.

To test elasticity, so critical to getting a high-rising loaf, I pull off a walnut-sized piece, make it into a ball, then stretch the edges gently into a rectangle. The goal is to get a translucent rectangle that does not tear.

Stopping the machine to check the dough for elasticity every few minutes, I finally get a windowpane on the third try. That’s a nice bit of light through the dough! Time to do the last hand kneading and set the ball to rising.

First, I knead the dough by hand just a bit, then check its temperature. Good. It’s right at 78 degrees Fahrenheit.  Shaping the ball, I roll it in the bowl to oil it all round, then set the lid loosely and place it in the oven with the light on for a little added warmth.

Four hours later, the dough is nicely doubled in size. I’m encouraged by that big gas bubble in the upper left hand corner. Perhaps this loaf will be full of big bubbles.

Shaping it quickly into an oval-shaped loaf, I set it to rise on my pizza peel, which I’ve dusted with cornmeal, for easy sliding onto the pizza stone when it’s time to bake.

By now, of course, it’s night-time, and without natural light, the colors in my photographs turn orange. Seeing the night-time light, can’t you just imagine how comforting it is to have bread rising in the kitchen in the evening, with all its yeasty smells?

As planned, this time I give the loaf a bit of a head start outside the fridge. Just before bedtime, I set the covered loaf, pizza peel and all, in the fridge to finish proofing overnight. I go to bed happy, feeling confident in this loaf.

Day 3

In the morning, I waken to this.

Not much enlarged loaf with a big, popped bubble on top

Not much enlarged loaf with a big, popped bubble on top

What a disappointment. For about ten seconds, I consider re-kneading and shaping the loaf, but decide against it. This dough. already feels overworked and  is unlikely to improve with a second go-round. I leave it to rise, loosely covered, at room temperature.

After five hours, it has nearly doubled in size and I fire up the oven.

Nearly double, the loaf has expanded enough to fill in most of the hole, leaving a couple of dimples

Nearly double, the loaf has expanded enough to fill in most of the burst bubble, leaving a couple of dimples

The crack in the top of the loaf is worrisome. I decide not to risk slashing the top. Perhaps the crack will open. Or maybe it will fill in when the heat and steam cause the yeast to expand magically in the oven.

You know what I’m talking about, right? When you put a loaf of sourdough in the oven, and mist it with water, somehow the heat and moisture cause the dough to “pop” and expand rapidly, giving it a little extra rise.

After a thirty-minute preheat at 500 degrees, to assure the pizza stone is sizzling hot, I slide the loaf off the pizza peel and onto the stone, then reduce the heat to baking temperature, at 450.

Per ATK instructions, I mist the loaf twice in the first five minutes of baking, then leave it to its devices for the remaining 30 minutes.

Thirty-five minutes in, the loaf has an internal temperature of only 180 degrees. We’re looking for 212 or above, but the loaf is already a bit charred on the outside so I call it done. It is not a pretty sight.


After the loaf cools completely, I slice into it. We have a few large gas bubbles here and there, and one big hole in the middle. The crumb is fairly even otherwise.

Fairly dense slices, but some large air bubbles hear and there

Fairly dense slices, but some large air bubbles here and there

The flavor is good, very good. Whoopee! Just the right tang and yeast roll about on the tongue, with the full-bodied flavor of the grain. In a word: Yum.

So that took nearly three days from feeding the first starter to loaf.  Am I discouraged my loaf didn’t rise more? Oh yes. But I am also encouraged.  The flavor is good, and I’m getting more consistent yeast bubbles.

There’s a reason few bakers make 100 percent whole wheat sourdough bread. If the masters have trouble, well, mastering it, why expect it any easier for me? I’ll keep going.


This entry was posted in: Sourdough bread-making methods


Goodness knows I fail to live up to my ideals far too often, especially in this time of terrifying leadership, but I strive each day to feed the body well, nourish the soul, heal the Earth, build community, make peace and, where possible, wreak joy.

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