Final product first! This recipe I’ve adapted is very forgiving, fairly hands-off for this style, and it has only four ingredients – flour, water, salt, and starter (basically yeast). And more importantly it’s DELICIOUS and disappears from the kitchen real quick.
Almost everything you need for this recipe right here! Four things I use that aren’t in this pic – a chopstick for mixing, and cornmeal to prevent sticking, a clean dish towel, and a cast iron skillet. The plastic container is 8 cups or ~2 liters. You don’t need the bananas!
First Rise (& Autolyse)
This first step includes both the autolyse process and the first rise of the dough. I like extending the autolyse process and combining it with the first rise because I find it makes the dough much easier to knead into shape and it reduces the hands-on time of the recipe. At room temp, I give this step 6-24 hours. Let’s start getting ingredients combined!
This recipe is intended to make 750g of dough, which is the perfect size for me to make once or twice a week. First, add 150g of starter to a similarly sized container. 180g was a mistake! But, as I said, this recipe is very forgiving. I’ll go into more detail on my starter later!
Next, add 240g of tap water and mix a bit to get the starter dissolved.
Add 360g bread flour. The final hydration we’re targeting for the dough is ~70%. Bread flour works better than all-purpose flour because of its higher gluten content, which helps add structure to the bread.
Mix it all together! No need to get crazy with this, as it’ll all sit together and the ingredients will meld. I find a chopstick to be a great tool for getting this incorporated.
Cover it up and leave it somewhere. I just leave it about in my kitchen and let it rise slowly instead of trying to find a warm place, but not for any good reason. There’s a lot of flexibility with how long it can stay like this – between 6 and 24 hours is ideal.
Refeeding the Starter
The starter is a colony of living organisms that are your sidekicks in the bread making process. Like anything alive, they need food and water. At room temperature, a starter should be fed about once a day. I just make it part of my morning routine while my coffee brews!
While the first rise is happening is a perfect time to feed up the depleted starter! A starter is basically yeast and bacteria that feed on flour and produce carbon dioxide, which is what leavens the loaf, and lactic acid, which is what makes sourdough sour. By manipulating the conditions of the starter, such as temperature, frequency of feedings, and ratio of flour and water, you can control how sour the bread will be!
This is my starter, Danny Doughvito! I keep him in this relatively small repurposed molasses container, but it’s a perfect size for how often and how much I feed and use it. I leave it out at room temperature and feed it equal parts flour and water every day, about 20g of each. If you leave it refrigerated, you only need to feed it once a week. The only time I pour any off is when I make bread! So, if I add about 40g of material a day and use about 160g of starter to make a loaf, I make one every 3-4 days.
The reason the bread rises is because yeast is eating flour and producing carbon dioxide that gets trapped in bubbles inside the dough. When we knead the dough into a loaf shape, we completely deflate it, so it’ll need another chance to rise. This is what creates even air pockets throughout the inside of the bread that make it pretty and light.
This is the dough the next morning, about 16 hours later. It grew to nearly fill the container! I’ve found leaving the dough alone during this step lets the gluten and flavor develop and DRASTICALLY shortens the kneading required.
Add the salt! I go with 2% salt by weight. 2% of 750g is 15g! Generic iodized salt doesn’t taste as good as some other options, but it’s cheap and it’s (duh) a good source of iodine!
Everything you need for the next step: kneading the dough and letting it rise again. I like my textured dish cloth because it gives my loaves a cool look on the outside. I let the dough rise in this 1.5 liter bowl because I’ve found that expansion and diameter are good points to proceed to the baking step!
First, corn meal sprinklage onto the towel. As the dough rises inside of this, you don’t want it to stick. It’ll be dumped out onto a 500 degree (F) skillet, and that’s not a time you want the dough to stick to the towel.
Next, knead it until it forms a taught layer. No need to overdo this step, I’ve found. It should take about one minute.
Next, get it turned taught side down onto the corn meal, and do your best to twist and tie the rest together so the vast majority is part of the same taught outer skin.
Drop the dough into the bowl, sprinkle the top of the dough with more corn meal, then gently fold the towel over the dough and let it rise again.
IT’S READY! This is about seven hours later. This is the only stage where you need to be careful! Jiggling and jostling will begin to deflate the dough and may make the loaf too dense.
Preheat your oven to 500 degrees (F) with the cast iron skillet and another pan or sheet tray inside that is oven safe BUT you’re not worried about damaging. The second junk pan will be used to pour water into to create a steamy environment and help create a thick beautiful crust, but pouring water onto 500 degree metal causes thermal shock that can warp the metal. I use an old metal pan which had the handle detached and lost.
Pull out the hot cast iron skillet CAREFULLY and invert the bowl of dough into it. Pull the dish towel away and voila! You have dough sizzling and heating up in the skillet. Next you want to score the dough with a sharp knife. This helps the dough rise nicely and has a cool aesthetic effect. The knife needs to cut deeply enough to see some of the internal air pockets. You can score it in any number of patterns to add your own distinct style! I went with a simple X.
Next, return the cast iron skillet to the oven, pour two to three cups of water into the other hot ‘junk’ pan in the oven, turn the temperature down to 425 (F), and set a timer for 20 minutes. After the timer goes off, remove the pan with the remaining water, and set another 20 minute timer.
The bread is done! Almost. It’s still 425 degrees. Move it onto a cooling rack and drape it with a clean dish towel until it has cooled.
Pro tips – I like to leave a towel on the bread as it cools because it encourages the crust to more quickly become a chewy and delicious crust instead of hard and crunchy. Also, leave the oven mitt on the cast iron skillet so your roommates don’t burn themselves if they want to use the stove!
This next picture is what bakers call the crumb. It’s a cross-section showing the air pockets and the thickness of the crust. Once I made a few loaves I developed an eye, and a great appreciation, for a nice crumb shot.
Now you have bread that is perfect to eat by itself, and even better with butter or as any type of sandwich. I find it shines as a breakfast sandwich bread or to make a nice pb and honey sandwich.
Summary & Gallery
To summarize, this 4 ingredient loaf needs (1) to have the flour, water, and starter combined, which takes about 5 minutes. Six to 24 hours later, it needs (2) to have the salt added, kneaded into shape, and set in a bowl for a second rise, again about 5 minutes. Finally, five to twelve hours later begins the (3) hour long cooking process: 20 minutes to preheat, 20 minutes to steam, and 20 more minutes to finish. The process is lengthy but the active engagement is pretty low! It’s not equipment heavy and it’s very worth it.
I hope you enjoyed the read and I hope it inspires you to try it yourself. Check out the gallery below to see other loaves I’ve made!