Baking Artisan Bread (Part 1) Whole Grain Sourdough

Among my many diverse interests: trail and ultra running, gardening, homebrewing beer and wine, playing musical instruments, flyfishing and so on- I am also an avid cook and baker. I love to eat and so I love to cook.

Why spend the time cooking something mediocre when it doesn’t take any more time to create something great?

Running is a complementary activity to cooking- if one doesn’t want to gain weight there is dieting and there is exercising. I love to eat and I must do something with the calories I consume instead of storing them. Most folks must manage their weight with a combination of approaches- as you well know, I lean toward the latter.

I bake one or two loaves of bread every week. I prefer the complexity of sourdough and have a great starter so that is what I usually bake.  

Every Friday my son Nathaniel asks me: “Dad, are you going to bake bread this weekend?” Most weekends my answer is “Yes! Of course I will!”

I’m now at the point of being a “jazz baker.”  I no longer follow recipes unless there is something specific I’m trying to create or I’d like to get ideas for a loaf I’ve never made before.  

How does one get to the point of being a jazz baker and baking bread without using a recipe? The key is to know the ratios and understand the science behind making bread.

Before I begin, I think about what kind of bread I would like to make and ask myself a few questions:

  • Whole grain or white? If whole  grain then what kind of whole grain? Wheat, rye, oats, barley, spelt, sorghum or any of the other countless grains available?

  • Would I like a heavy dense loaf  or one that is light and airy?

  • A soft crust or hard and crispy?

  • Do I want a sourdough which is tangy and sour or one which is milder and subtle?

All of these factors will affect the ingredients I choose, how I allow the bread to rise and what techniques I will use in the oven. To start with, I have a basic recipe in mind which I modify depending on what results I am seeking. I never make the exact same loaf twice.

  • 6 cups of flour (this can be white or whole grain or any mix of the two)
  • Zero to 2 tablespoons of oil (olive, canola, butter- you decide)
  • Zero to 2 tablespoons of sugar (white, brown, molasses, honey, sorghum syrup, barley malt etc)
  • Liquid (water, milk, beer, or eggs- I do not give the amount because how much depends on many factors)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt
  • Zero to 2 teaspoons bread yeast (if using an active sourdough culture, you could bake without added yeast but it will take much much longer to rise)
  • Other “stuff” (this can include nuts, seeds such as sunflower, flax, millet, teff, and/or quinoa, rye or other grain berries, oatmeal, dried fruits, herbs such as rosemary, garlic, and/or caraway seeds, etc, caramelized onions, wheat germ and anything else depending on what you are trying to create and how complex of a loaf you desire etc.)

Once you have an idea of what kind of bread you would like to make, then you can modify the above recipe to suit your needs. You do need to understand a few things, however, about the science and art of baking and how various ingredients work together.

One key to success with “jazz baking” is always keeping your ratios in mind. Some semi-pro bakers prefer weight based ratios- I have not moved up to that level as volume-based baking continues to work for me.

Flour obviously creates the body, flavor and sturcture of bread. It is the food that the yeast feeds upon. I use bread flour instead of all purpose because the higher protein content allows for a better more predictable rise. One could use only white bread flour for a white bread- or one could use some whole grain flour- it all depends on what you are in the mood for.

One could make a loaf out of 100% whole grain flour but it would be very dense and not rise very well. Thus,  I usually do not go over 1/3 to 1/2 of the total 6 cup volume as whole grain flour. Rye flour is notorious for being sticky and hard to work with. If I am using a lot of whole grain flour, I will substitute up to 1/4 cup of the regular white bread flour as high gluten flour to encourage a better rise. Gluten is what enables wheat bread to rise- whole grain flours are deficient in this. Adding a little bit of high gluten flour is one secret for a fluffier lighter whole grain bread.

When I use sourdough starter (which I almost always do), I use one cup per loaf and consider it as one of the 6 cups of flour in the above 6 cup recipe. More about the care and feeding of sourdough starters later.

Oil can be olive oil, canola oil or butter. A small amount of heavy cream also counts as a oil. Oil makes the crust softer but allows the bread to stay fresh for a day or two. One could use no oil at all- as when baking a traditional french-style bread. The crust will be hard and extra-crispy. However, the down-side is that a loaf made without oil will be fresh for that day and no longer. I love the crispness and flavor of breads made without oil but because I bake usually only on weekends, I add some oil so the bread will stay fresh into mid-week.

Salt is necessary for the proper leavening and rise of the bread. It also adds flavor. Too much, however, can suppress the growth of the yeast. How much should you use? Experiment using anywhere from between 1 tsp to 2 tsp for a 6 cup loaf to see what works best for you.

Sugar adds flavor and also food for the yeast. Some sugars such as molasses or sorghum syrup are essential for the final flavor of some ryes and pumpernickels. Sugar is not absolutely necessary, yeast will eat the starches in flour alone. Using sugar can make for a faster, more dramatic rise. Some breads such as traditional french sourdough are made with nothing more than flour, salt, water and yeast.

What kind of sugar should you use? Look at a few recipes for general ideas then when you feel brave try some experimenting and see what turns out. Bread making should not be as difficult as some try to make it. There are some “tricks” but no secrets. Remember…. humans have been making bread for thousands of years, long before we had any knowledge or understanding of the science behind it. If our ancestors could do it, so can we.

If you are using an active sourdough starter, you could bake your bread without any added yeast. Myself, I always add some bread yeast. This is because I’m impatient and also because it guarantees my bread will rise. If using solely the wild yeasts in sourdough culture, it could take as long as 18 to 24 hours for one to get sufficient CO2 formation for enough of a rise. I’m usually too impatient for that. However, a longer rise will result in more tartness and more traditional sourdough.

Other “stuff” includes nuts, seeds, grains, and or herbs. These are all optional and depend on your desires for that day. I usually do not add more than a 1/2 to 3/4 cup total of other “stuff” to my 6 cup loaves. Too much could interfere with the rise and final crumb structure of the bread.

The final addition is liquid. Usually this is water but sometimes I use beer or milk if I’m feeling adventurous.  As you will see, I did not and will not provide any measurements as to how much liquid to use. How much you end up using depends on many factors. For example, if using a sourdough culture, there will be some water in that and one would use less added liquid than if one was making bread entire from dry flour and no starter.  This is one reason why I eschew recipes that define how much liquid should be used: there are too many factors such as the dryness and type of flour or even the humidity of where you live. There can be no way for you to know beforehand exactly how much liquid you’ll use- you’ll find out as you begin mixing the ingredients.

I add small amounts of liquid as I am mixing the ingredients until I get the dough consistency I am aiming for. This is where the art of bread making comes into play. You want a dough that is smooth but not too sticky- nor do you want one that is too hard and firm.

How do you know how much?

By the feel and look of the dough, you’ll know. With experience you’ll get better at it until it becomes second nature. Someday you’ll be like me and other jazz bakers; when someone asks you how much liquid did you use, you’ll reply, “I have no idea- I used just as much as I needed to…”

Enough on the background and science of baking… let’s make some bread!!!!

Whole Grain Sourdough

For my example recipe, I decided to make a whole grain bread (Nathan requested whole grain this weekend- so I obliged). I modified the above 6 cup recipe… here’s a list of what I used:

  • 1 cup sourdough starter
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup rye flour
  • 1/2 cup sorghum flour
  • 1/2 cup high gluten flour
  • 2 1/2 cups white bread flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp bread yeast
  • 1/2 cup total of rye berries, spelt berries, millet and quinoa
  • Water- just as much as I needed and no more 🙂

Basically after deciding on a whole grain bread, I looked at what I had in my baking cabinet and added a “little of this and a little of that” while not forgetting my ratios. I had intended on using whole flax seed but forgot they were in our outside refrigerator. No problem- the millet and quinoa worked just fine.

The sorghum flour was also not pre-planned. It one of those situations: “Hmmm…I haven’t used this for a while, why don’t I add a little of that too.”

I love jazz baking!

 I started with 1 cup of my sourdough starter. My sourdough was given to me by Chris who in turn had received it from his brother Tim who had created it. It is a 1/2 flour and 1/2 water. Using sourdough starter in breads, add complexity to breads, and an acidic tang. Sourdough bread also have a supposedly longer shelf life- important for us home bakers who do not use preservatives.

I added one cup into my Kitchen Aid Mixer. Then I added 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water back into the pot to resupply and feed the culture for next time.  I will go into more about sourdough in a future post.

The next step is adding all of the dry ingredients and mixing them together.

I added the flour and salt, then the bread yeast. Then I added the oil and molasses.

I mixed using the bread hook on the slowest setting.

I did not add any water yet- that will come later.

As I assembled the dry ingredients and started mixing them, I put the other “stuff” with some water on the stove to soften them.

I decided on rye and spelt berries with some millet and quinoa. “Berries” is simply another word for whole grain. Simmering them in some water on the stove softens and readies them to be put into the bread.

Another way would be to allow them to soak in water over night- but I’m too impatient for that.


After the berries and seeds were softened, I added them to the other ingredients in the mixer. And mixed them until they were completely mixed together. 

It is at this point I start adding small quantities of liquid, in the case of this bread, I used water only. The goal is to get a dough that is smooth but not sticky. If you add too much, a little flour can be added to fix it. I cannot tell you more specifically than that. Once you start baking, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.


Once the moisture is correct, I allow the mixer to continue to work the dough slowly- about 8 to 10 minutes. The dough will become one cohesive mass.

You will slowly see “strings” form as the dough stretches- this is the gliadins and other wheat proteins slowly aligning themselves to become gluten. The goal is to knead slowly to allow this to occur- without overkneading and breaking them down. It would be hard to overknead by hand but one could certainly do it with a mixer.

Once the gluten forms and the dough is almost ready- I take it out to finish kneading by hand. I could have done all the kneading by hand but the mixer takes most of the work out of it and let’s me focus on the fun parts.

When kneading, you push down on the dough, fold it onto itself, give it a quarter turn and repeat.

After kneading is done, you form the dough into a ball to allow it to rise. How do you know when the dough is done kneading? It’s hard to describe in words…. a finger pushed into it leaves an indentation that slowly comes out. The dough has a certain stretchiness that “feels right.” Sorry I cannot describe any better than that.  With experience, you’ll understand what I am talking about and this will make sense.

How long should you let the dough rise?

At room temperature, this is usually about an hour or two. If I’m making a tradititional extra-tangy sourdough, I might allow the dough to “cold rise” in the refrigerator overnight so that extra lactic acid can form. We’ll try that for a future loaf- not today.

After the dough has had time to rise, you take it out and punch it down. By punch it down, I do not mean knead it like we did initially. I mean pushing it gently so the bubbles are broken down and dispersed into the bread. This step is not absolutely necessary, I’ve baked many breads having omitted it- however, it does allow for a more consistent crumb. After punching it down, I let it rise for another hour or so.

About 30 minutes before I am ready to bake, I pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees.


Once the oven has been pre-heated, I dust the loaf with flour to give it that “artisan” look and put it into my clay baking pot. One could bake it in an open pan or on a baking stone. I prefer clay baking oven that has been pre-soaked with water to give my bread that thick crispy crust everyone loves.

An alternative if you don’t have a clay pot is an iron dutch oven that works almost as well and which is more easily found.

When turning the loaf into the baking pan or pot, you should do so carefully to avoid deflating it. A significant amount of the rise of bread is “oven rise” the rise in the first 15 or so minutes after being placed in the oven.

I usually cut a deep cut with a razor blade to allow the bread to rise more predictably- without any unusual fractures or cracks.

I bake at 450 for about 45 to 50 minutes, then take the top off to bake another 10 minutes or so until the desired browness of the crust is reached.

Once the baking is done, the pot is removed from the oven and the bread turned out onto a rack to be allowed to cool.

Although there is nothing better than bread hot from the oven, if you’re planning on keeping the bread for more than a day, avoid the temptation to cut it too soon- if you do the steam and bread-preserving moisture will be lost.

Waiting patiently for the bread to cool is difficult when there are small people in the house asking, “Dad, can we cut the bread? Is is cool enough yet?” over and over every few minutes until you finally give in.

Using a serrated knife we cut slices and enjoy alone or with whatever topping we desire.


I wish I could share the aroma of fresh homemade bread but you will need to discover for yourself.

I’ll go more into the art of using sourdough next time when we bake a traditional Extra-Tangy Black Hills Sourdough.

Until then, don’t worry- just go, bake and enjoy your creations!

With time, you too will become an artisan jazz baker no longer tied to using recipes!


2 responses

  1. Yum! Reminds me I need to feed the starter…

    November 15, 2010 at 8:04 am

  2. That’s one thing I like about sourdough- it forces me to bake because it must be fed every now and then. I could throw the extra down the drain but I don’t have the heart to waste it and we don’t have chickens to feed it to- so I just bake another loaf.

    November 15, 2010 at 2:05 pm

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