Whole grain breads can be difficult. Once you start approaching 50% whole grain, all it takes is a single wrong move and you’ll find yourself in that dreaded “dry and heavy” zone. Nobody likes a dry dense whole grain bread.
This whole wheat sourdough bread, however, is neither heavy nor dense. It’s light, moist and just slightly tangy. It’s got enough whole wheat to earn the mantle of “healthy whole grain”, but there’s still enough white flour to make it an airy and versatile loaf.
The secret to this loaf’s wonderful open crumb and soft mouthfeel is the overnight soaking the whole grain gets after we pre-mix our bread dough the day before. You can find out the specific details of that method here.
Essentially, the long overnight soaking of the whole grain flour helps to hydrate the flour (whole grain takes more water than white flour), soften the bran, and start enzymatic reactions that help release sugars from the grain resulting in a sweeter flavor.
Additionally, the long exposure to water helps to fully develop the gluten with minimal kneading, and creates a more extensible dough better capable of achieving an open crumb.
Truth be told, this wasn’t even my best loaf. I’ve made better risen and more open loafs from this recipe before, like this beauty . . .
Today’s loaf actually needed another 30-45 minutes of proofing before going in the oven. But we can’t win ’em all. This happened to be the loaf that I filmed and so it’s the one I’m documenting. Still, this loaf shows that you can in fact make a light and open bread even with a whole grain percentage as high as 50%.
Recipe: 75% Hydration
228g Bread Flour
203g Whole Wheat Flour
50g Whole Wheat Starter @ 100% Hydration (25g Whole Wheat Flour, 25g water)
You’re gonna do this the day before you plan to bake. Combine your flour, water and salt. Everything except for the starter. Mix it just until it comes together, you don’t need to develop the gluten here. Once everything is evenly incorporated (shouldn’t be much more than a shaggy clump) cover it and toss it into the fridge.
You’re going to chill it for a few hours to help delay any wild fermentation and enzymatic activity that could result in off flavors if things were to go overboard. This is especially important in warmer weather.
Just before you go to bed that night, remove your dough from the fridge and set it on the counter. It will slowly come to room temperature overnight, which provides plenty of time for the flour to hydrate, the gluten to develop, and for the enzymes to do their work.
The nice thing about pre-mixing your whole grain breads is that it uses time to develop the gluten, instead of mechanical action. Sharp fine bran particles can shred through gluten as dough is mechanically kneaded, resulting in a tighter crumb. But by letting the gluten develop on its own overnight we minimize any damage the bran might cause, thus helping us to achieve a more open crumb.
Additionally, by the time we do knead the dough a bit the next morning (to mix in our starter) the bran has softened thereby reducing further damage. It’s a win-win. And just in case that wasn’t enough for you, the long soaking (followed by the acidic fermentation) helps in neutralizing the phytic acid contained in the bran, making the bread more nutritious to boot.
Next morning, place your dough into a clean bowl and weigh out your starter. I’m sure you noticed that the recipe contained 25g less whole wheat flour than bread flour. Not exactly 50/50, right?
Well, here’s where we make up for it.
We’re using a 100% whole wheat starter. That’s 25g whole wheat and 25g water. Once your starter is thoroughly mixed in we’ve hit our 50% whole wheat threshold.
Of course, you could use a white starter instead and simply correct for the difference. And that’s perfectly fine if you choose to go that route.
The reason I use a whole wheat starter instead of my usual white starter is because at 50% whole wheat, this loaf needs all the help it can get when it comes to gluten development. The white flour provides a disproportionate amount of the strength for this dough.
Because I use fully mature starter (around 12 hours old) the gluten in the starter begins to degrade through a process called proteolysis. The long exposure to acid and enzymatic activity begins to break down the gluten which, in time, will produce a gooey mess.
Now, 12 hours isn’t quite enough time to turn your starter to soup (unless it’s very warm), but there is still some damage to the gluten nonetheless.
I’d rather damage the weaker whole wheat flour than the stronger bread flour.
And so that’s why I make a whole wheat starter. It’s only 25 grams of flour, but the way I see it, every bit counts.
Just be careful though. Whole wheat starters can get overactive in warm conditions. To help, you can mix them with cold water and refrigerated flour. You can also add a bit of salt to slow the activity — no more than 2% of the flour though. And don’t forget to reduce the salt content when you pre-mix your dough by the amount added to your starter.
If you prefer to use a young starter, then gluten degradation shouldn’t be much of a concern. Feel free to keep it white (if it is) and adjust the recipe to accommodate.
As for exactly how to mix your starter into the dough, just watch the video. But for a more detailed description, you can also read this post.
This dough usually takes from 3-6 hours before it’s ready for pre-rounding. I give it a fold every hour, and turn it out for pre-rounding once it’s risen maybe 30-50%.
But the temperature and conditions in my kitchen will be different compared to yours.
So adjust as necessary.
This particular loaf took 6 hours and 6 folds before I turned it out and pre-rounded it.
As you can see from the video, I like to give my dough one last (gentle) fold before I turn it out. This releases the dough from the sides of the bowl and lets me tip it right out. The dough is removed cleanly and it’s integrity kept in tact. If you do the usual “tip and scrape” method you’re gonna cause some damage. It’s unavoidable.
But . . .
The “fold and tip” method ONLY works well if your dough isn’t too proofy. Any rise from 30-50% should be safe if you’re gentle. But much more than that (and especially if the dough has doubled) and the late fold will cause more damage than it prevents and you’re better off just using “tip and scrape”.
The pre-round should rest from 30-60 minutes. Closer to 60 is preferable, but only if your dough can hold out for that long. Watch the dough, not the clock. To determine when your pre-rounded loaf is ready for shaping, just check the signs.
Your dough should proof from 2-4 hours. But again . . . watch the dough, not the clock. I baked this loaf after 4 hours because, well, it had been 4 hours. My eyes and fingers told me the dough wasn’t quite ready yet, but my brain told me “Hey, it’s good enough. And if you bake it now it’ll be out of the oven in time for you to watch that movie. Go for it!”
But my brain’s a lying bastard, and I shouldn’t have listened.
My kitchen was cold and this dough really needed at least another half-hour or more before it would’ve been ready to bake.
C’est la vie.
Score and Bake
Score as you please, then bake in a dutch oven or combo cooker at 450F for 20 minutes covered, then another 30 minutes or so uncovered.
Or bake on a baking/pizza stone with steam. Or by whatever method you prefer, really.
Whole grain breads take a little longer to bake through than white breads so I usually give them an additional 5-10 minutes. Since this loaf is only 75% hydration, an extra 5 minutes was enough. But if you make it wetter it can take longer or you might end up with a “gummy” crumb.
Or you can bake it hotter, of course.
Cool and Enjoy!
Try and wait at least 2 hours before you cut into it. Three hours is even better. And the next day better still. You want to make sure the crumb has set before you dig in, and the flavor will continue to improve over the next 12-24 hours.
But I know the appeal of hot bread, so if you’ve just gotta have it while it’s hot then go for it. I’ll turn a blind eye.
Trevor J. Wilson