Sourdough French Bread

Many sourdough breads are made from starters without yeast. Those starters get their leavening power from yeasts in the room which grow over a period of hours or days. The baker has little control over this type of starter, and thus the bread varies from batch to batch in flavor and texture. It's also possible to purchase sourdough starters. We began eating sourdough bread during the summer of 1982 when we lived in Palo Alto, California and were introduced to the delicious breads of San Francisco.

The recipe below makes a fairly mild sourdough from a controlled starter. If you'd like to develop a stronger flavor, leave the starter for 24-36 hours instead of 12. You can even leave it longer, but you'll need to "feed" it with a small amount of additional water and flour after the first day. The recipe is a modification of one from Bernard Clayton Jr.'s book, The Complete Book of Breads.


12 to 36 hours before baking begins, mix starter ingredients. Cover with plastic wrap, and put in a warm place (70° - 85°) where it will develop bubbles and become soft and sponge-like.


Put the bread flour and all of the starter in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the plastic blade. Pulse once or twice to mix. Add the yeast to the water, then pour into the processor with the motor running. Keep the processor turned on to knead the dough until all of the liquid is incorporated and the dough begins to form a ball on the blade. If needed, add more flour until the dough starts to form a ball and is no longer sticky. If, perhaps, the dough is too dry and crumbly, add a few tablespoons of cool water and mix. Knead in the processor until the dough is fairly smooth and elastic (about 2 minutes). Dissolve the salt in the tablespoon of water, and pour into a depression in the dough. Turn on the processor, and knead another minute. The final dough should feel cool (don't over-knead) and should feel quite elastic. Form into 3 smooth balls by rolling the dough on a clean and dry surface, and let rest.

Line 3 mixing bowls or other round containers with a floured, clean dish towel or pastry cloth. Round each of the balls of dough in one of the prepared containers. Choose containers for this rising that leave several inches above the ball of dough for rising. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave undisturbed at 70° for 3-4 hours.

About 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 500°F., and line the upper rack of the oven with quarry tiles. The oven racks should be at the lower and upper third of the oven. Put a pan of water on the bottom rack of the oven. Gently invert the loaves onto a piece of parchment paper on a pizza peel. Don't worry that there will be flour residue on the top of the loaves, this adds a more rustic and toasted flavor to the crust. With a paring knife, cut 1/4 inch slashes in a cross hatch pattern on the loaves. Carefully slide the bread (on the parchment paper) onto the hot tiles. As the bread bakes, the parchment paper will get very dark, but don't worry. It's a good way to place the breads on the tiles and to keep them from sticking to either the peel or the tiles. Bake 30 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool on racks for at least 15 minutes before slicing.

This is a fairly dense bread, and it keeps well for a few days, wrapped tightly at room temperature. To freshen the bread, warm for about 10 minutes at 350°F. If you'd like to freeze this bread, double-wrap it and freeze for a few weeks. It does not keep well for longer periods in the freezer; the crust tends to separate from the inside.

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