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Making the King Arthur boule, step by step

Woo hoo! I’m thrilled to report that this King Arthur 100 percent whole wheat sourdough recipe gives pretty good results, time after time. These small, round loaves turned out so well that I’m documenting each step so I don’t forget what works.

This post is long, but I will use it as a guide when making the next few loaves, until I’ve learned what I can from this recipe and method. Here goes. I started by feeding my stiff levain.

Waking up the levain

Early yesterday morning, I fed my stiff levain in preparation for making my sixth boule using the King Arthur method from their cookbook, Whole Grain Baking.

2-ounces stiff levain fresh from the refrigerator

2-ounces stiff levain fresh from the refrigerator

If we could eat a loaf a day, I would leave the levain out on the kitchen counter, at room temperature, and avoid having to waken it. Since we need a new loaf only every third or fourth day, I refrigerate the levain to keep the yeast alive.

The King Arthur (KA) recipe calls for feeding a refrigerated levain two times, no longer than twelve hours apart, before making the dough.

You may recall this is a stiff levain, requiring two ounces starter and two ounces water to four ounces stone ground whole wheat flour. Here’s the ingredient list in bullet form.

  • 2 ounces stiff levain
  • 2 ounces filtered water
  • 4 ounces stone ground whole wheat flour

In two of the photographs below, you see the two-ounce levain, as I turned it out from its jar. See all those wholes in the center? The levain is spongy like that all through the ball.

What you can’t see: The slightly sour, slightly sweet yeasty fragrance. How I wish I could send that through cyberspace and give you a whiff!

Breaking up the levain with my fingers, I mixed the flour, water and starter together to get a small dough-like ball.

Lately, I’ve found that if I add just one teaspoon water more on the first feeding, the levain is just moist enough to rise well in 8-12 hours, or as happened in our warmer kitchen today, even less.

Fed, and with just that little extra moisture, the levain appeared and felt plenty stiff. I capped it loosely and set it in the oven, with the light on for a little added warmth.

Five hours later, the spongy starter bubbled beautifully. Take a look.

Bubbles permeate the levain after a five-hour rise

Bubbles permeate the levain after a five-hour rise

It was dark outside at 7:30 last night, and I’d nothing but kitchen lights to illuminate the photograph, which sadly always turn the photos yellow.

Although the levain had more than doubled, I set it aside for a couple more hours, still well within the twelve-hour window for the first-to-second feeding. I knew I wouldn’t get to start the bread until eight or nine this morning and wanted to assure the second feeding would be fresh and active by the time I mixed the dough.

Repeating the feeding procedure, I omitted the extra water and the warm oven this time, leaving the levain on the kitchen counter overnight.

By 7:00 o’clock this morning, the levain was plenty bubbly, though the top third hadn’t quite fully developed.

The starter is plenty bubbly this morning, but top third appears a bit flat still

The starter is plenty bubbly this morning, but top third appears a bit flat still

Mixing the dough

The KA recipe calls for six ounces of stiff levain, eight ounces filtered water, ten ounces whole wheat flour and one teaspoon salt.

No oil. No sugar or honey, just flour, water, salt and the wild yeast in the starter. Here’s the ingredient list in bullet form.

  • 6 oz. stiff levain
  • 8 oz. filtered water
  • 10 oz. stone ground whole wheat flour
  • 1 t salt (I use sea salt)

Following the KA method, I broke the levain into bits and let it rest in the water for ten minutes to soften and hydrate the starter.

After ten minutes, I added the rest of the ingredients to my small but deep two-quart mixing bowl and mixed them first with a fork, then as the dough stiffened, by hand until the flour had incorporated all the moisture.

After a couple of minutes hand mixing with just one hand, which is all I need for this small quantity, the dough was wet and sticky.

I shaped it into a rough ball and let it rest for twenty minutes, a new step not in the original KA recipe for 100 percent whole wheat sourdough bread.

Adding an autolyse period to the basic recipe

This rest period is called an autolyse, and gives the flour a chance to absorb moisture before kneading.

The rough dough ball, seconds before I covered it to let it rest for twenty minutes

The rough dough ball, seconds before I covered it to let it rest for twenty minutes

For more info on the term autolyse, see The Autolyse Method | A Bread a Day, and for a scientific explanation, see Autolysis (biology) on Wikipedia and scroll down to “In bread making … .”

The first few KA loaves came out on the dry side.

Seeing the autolyse step in another recipe from Whole Grain Baking, “Pain au Levain with Whole Wheat,” I added this step in hopes of gaining a more moist, tender-on-the-inside loaf. Happily it yielded just that.

We saw a shortened, 5-minute version of this procedure in my early loaves using the method described by Mike on Sourdough Home. Here’s a good example: Fifth Loaf’s a Winner!

One mistake I made here, and not called for in the KA recipe, is adding the salt before the autolyse. From the little research I’ve done so far, this is a big no-no. I will do more research as time permits and let you know what I learn.

The letter fold

After the autolyse, when I lifted the dough from the bowl, I was distracted momentarily when my granddaughter reached her hand into the flour bin and quickly tossed a couple of two-year-old handfuls of flour onto the table. I should have set that bin further away!

Holding the dough in one hand, with the other, I brushed as much flour away as I could, not wanting to add any more flour to my dough than absolutely necessary. Oops, I inadvertently let the dough stretch out long.

Not to worry. I did a quick letter fold, then for good measure, stretched the dough out once more and did one more.

When you do a letter fold, you let the dough stretch into a rectangle, then fold it like a business letter, one fold about a third of the way down, then another to fold it over itself, just as you would a business letter before stuffing it into an envelope.

Having folded the dough, I plopped it back in the bowl for the time being and quickly checked my KA book to see what they have to say about the letter fold method of working the dough.

The dough, resting in the bowl after I inadvertently did the letter-fold maneuver

The dough, resting in the bowl after I inadvertently did the letter-fold maneuver

According to them, after folding this way, I should let the dough rest forty-five minutes. Since I’d already done a twenty-minute autolyse and their 100 percent whole wheat sourdough recipe specifically advises kneading by machine eight minutes or by hand ten minutes, I decided to get on with the kneading.

Kneading the dough

Lately, I’ve been practicing a new-to-me kneading technique.

Author Lisa Rayner is a foodie, wild yeast sourdough enthusiast and permaculture practitioner, among many other down-to-Earth pursuits. Now that I’ve discovered her, I’m eager to buy her books and learn more about her and her methods.Thankfully, she shares this video on YouTube, demonstrating her one-handed whole wheat sourdough kneading technique.

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to beat my bread practically to death when I knead it. Rayner gives us a kinder, gentler way to treat our dough that, so far proves, much more effective than my old two-handed technique. Take a look at her process.

You will notice that Rayner adds a lot of flour while she works the dough.

KA is quite specific about keeping the dough moist and not adding flour during kneading. In fact, they recommend we lightly flour our hands and work on an unfloured board, using a dough scraper, if necessary to pick up any wet smears left on the board and fold them back into the ball.

Working without a lot of flour is not as difficult as I thought it would be. I’m getting used to kneading dough with less flour.

First rise

Using Rayner’s method, with the exception of adding that extra flour, I kneaded my small ball for ten minutes, then set it to rise in the coolest spot in our apartment building–the back porch stair well, where thankfully, we have a shelf right outside our door.

I set the bowl on a shelf on the back porch, where the temperature is about 65 degrees Fahrenheit

I set the bowl on a shelf on the back porch, where the temperature is about 65 degrees Fahrenheit

KA wants us to do this first rise for three hours in a spot that is exactly 60º Fahrenheit. As you can see by the thermometer in the photograph, the closest I can get is right around 65º. Has to do.

When I made my fifth KA loaf, last week, we were experiencing a cold snap here in San Francisco. I hadn’t bought an indoor thermometer yet, but I can tell you, that dough didn’t budge the first four hours.

Finally, after more than six hours, the ball had nearly doubled. Today, with warmer temps, this ball showed almost no sign of growing the first hour, and little the second, but by the end of the third hour, the dough had expanded well and was plump to the touch.

 Shaping the boule and proofing in the banneton

Still following the KA recipe, I turned the ball out and quickly re-shaped it, then set it to rest for twenty minutes.

The boule, loosely shaped and resting twenty minutes before final shape

The boule, loosely shaped and resting twenty minutes before final shape

After twenty minutes, I stretched and shaped the ball, again, using the KA method. (See the video in Making my first boule, King Arthur Method.)

KA warns us not to stretch the dough once we begin to see stretch marks. Our aim is to smooth and tighten the surface, not to breach it with tears, an issue I’ve had trouble with in the past.

You can see, in the image below, that I came fairly close to tearing the dough this time, and long before it felt quite smooth.

The surface of the dough is not as smooth as I'd like after the final stretching and forming

The surface of the dough is not as smooth as I’d like after the final stretching and forming

At this point, I stopped kneading and placed the boule, pinched-bottom side up, in a flour-dusted banneton for the final rise.

This time, KA suggests a warm spot for the proofing, so I placed the basket in the oven, with the light on, and covered the basket with a seven-quart stainless steel mixing bowl.

Ninety minutes later, the boule had doubled in size and rounded itself out nicely on top. Sadly, my imperfect shaping resulted in a less than perfect round.

Baking the boule

While the boule rested on my work table, I readied the oven. Like most sourdough recipes, this one calls for preheating the oven thirty minutes to assure the pizza stone is quite hot when it receives the uncooked boule.

First I placed a large cast-iron skillet on the bottom rack. Next, I placed my stained-but-clean pizza stone on the top rack, closed the oven door and set the temperature for 450º Fahrenheit and the timer for thirty minutes.

While the oven heated, I set one cup of water to heat over the stove-top flame and dusted my pizza peel with flour. I could use corn meal, but the meal we have is quite coarse. We don’t enjoy the grit on our bread. I would prefer corn meal to the flour, though, so a finer meal is on my shopping list.

Two minutes before the timer went off signalling a ready oven, I inverted the boule onto the peel, brushed as much flour off the surface as I could, and slashed the top with a sharp razor blade.

Each time I slash the boule, I learn something. Last time, my slashes were uneven. This time, I used the spiral grid to help me make more even slashes. I had trouble getting an even depth though, and thought perhaps I slashed too far into the edges.

This is one of those reasons I wish I could bake five loaves a day–just so I could practice slashing more!

Working quickly after slashing, I opened the oven and carefully poured the hot water into the skillet, then easily slid the boule from the peel to the stone and shut the door, setting the timer for fifteen minutes.

When the timer went off, I lowered the oven temperature to 400º and re-set the timer, this time for thirty minutes.

The entire apartment filled with the aroma of baking bread. The two-year-old, who was with me throughout the mixing, kneading and prepping all day, asked over and over, “When can we eat the bread, YayYay?”

At last the timer went off. Look what we got!

I'm not enormously happy with my slashing technique, but the bread smells fantastic!

I’m not enormously happy with my slashing technique, but the bread smells fantastic!

An hour later, with evening darkness settling over the neighborhood, we sliced into our loaf, still just warm enough to melt butter.

The boule, cooled and sliced, crunch on the outside, tender and moist on the inside

The boule, cooled and sliced, crunch on the outside, tender and moist on the inside

The little one didn’t even wait for the butter. She gobbled the first slice, crust and all.

Crunchy on the outside, without toughness, and ever so tender and moist on the inside, that loaf was good, with rich whole grain flavor and just enough sourdough tang to satisfy our taste buds.

We stood around the table, the tot, my sweetheart and I, gobbling up these three slices and sharing one more.

What’s next

The trick now is to see if I can get a good loaf every time. I’ll put a few more of these loaves in the oven over the next couple of weeks and see what happens. Then I’ll try adding a few things, such as oatmeal or nuts and dried fruit.

First though, I have to make sure I can make a successful loaf every time I bake. What’s baking in your oven today? How are your sourdough experiments coming along?

I'd love to hear from you!

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