Shaping, Baking, and Tartine Country Loaves

I begin part four in this series with this simple idea: Good sourdough is not quick bread. If you want something average, barely rising to the quality of grocery store sourdoughs, be impatient and bake the same day. If you want something better, ferment for 24 hours under refrigeration. If you want to do it right, ferment for 48 hours. A dough that hasn’t fermented enough won’t caramelize as well if it hasn’t had enough time for that starchy flour to break down into sugars. A dark loaf, one that novices might erroneously believe is “burned,” is actually what you are after.

Making sourdough is a lot like making cheese or beer in the sense that the more familiar you become with the ingredients and the process, the more you learn to appreciate new flavors that just aren’t found in the widely-available commercial brands. The flavor of bread is the flavor of grains—deeply caramelized grains. And most bakeries—sadly, even some sourdough bakeries—won’t take the time to ferment their dough and certainly won’t bake their bread the right way. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the blandest and “least-offensive” beer, cheese and bread are the top sellers. These big sellers are marketed toward flavorless so that people don’t form strong opinions about liking or disliking the product.

Like craft beer lovers’ discovery of hops, roasted grains and barrel finishing, and cheese connoisseurs’ discoveries of moldy rinds and stinky pungency, sourdough bread in its best form is not that lightly-baked, dry-textured loaf with the waxy bubble crust we find in most grocery stores. In its best form, baked sourdough has the same intoxicating malty odor one might experience in a brewery mashing out and boiling its latest wort. Indeed, that odor arises from the same Maillard reaction when caramelized grains are exposed to heat and release their flavor. That “dark bake” as bread guru Ken Forkish calls it, asserts its flavor into the heart of the loaf. It turns out the crust isn’t only for protection and preservation, but it’s a strong contributor to the complexity of the flavor deep within the loaf.

This summer, I traveled to NorCal to scope out some colleges with the goal in mind of hitting Chad Robertson’s famous Tartine Bakery in San Francisco and ACME Bread in Berkeley. These bakeries confirmed for me what I was learning in my kitchen at home—that rustic country sourdough loaves are about hydrated dough, proofing time, baking temperatures and a final product with an assertive flavor. Cycling from Golden Gate park to the Castro District to buy one of Robertson’s $10 Tartine loaves when they are pulled out of the oven lived up to my expectations. I shared a croissant with my daughter, and put the warm loaf in my backpack. The aroma was intoxicating. When I put the loaf in my car an hour later, my car filled up with the aroma of cartelized malt. That loaf of bread performed a symphony for my senses. To get this result post-fermentation, proofing in baskets and baking temperatures are key pieces of bread baking.


After shaping, I let the loaf rest for a few moments to close the seam while I sprinkled rice flour in the banneton. The loaf goes into the banneton seam up if you want to have a pretty loaf, and seam down if you want an ugly loaf but a better proof—there is some disagreement as to the better method, so experiment! Proofing could take anywhere from 1-2 hours at this point, depending on temperature, and how lively the microorganisms in your bread are. The key is the finger test. If you push your finger into the dough about an inch and it doesn’t bounce back, then the bread is ready to be baked. If it springs right back, the bread is still too dense to bake. I simply cover my bannetons with foil to proof them—I use no special container or “proofing box.” The problem with proofing is under proofing and over proofing the bread. Under-proofing will result in a denser loaf. Over-proofing can result in one large air bubble that separates the skin of the loaf from the rest, a condition we call “flying crust.” If this happens, it’s good to remember that except for time, the loaf was cheap to make—and don’t over-proof next time!

Turning Out, Scoring and Baking

The bake is when the magic happens. If you’ve done well, you will know 20 minutes into your bake. Since your home oven probably doesn’t have steam injectors, you have to improvise a little bit. My regular temperature for baking is 470 degrees F on stone. I purchased stone baking tiles from Amazon for a few bucks as opposed to ordering a custom stone and have had excellent results. Because the stones let air between them, I put foil beneath them on my oven rack to slow the bottom crust formation. I also found a large 18 by 13 enamel roaster that is about five inches deep.

Turning out the dough simply means flipping the banneton over on a piece of parchment so what was once the top of the dough is now the foundation. My 18 X 13 surface area allows me to bake two loaves at once. Once turned out, I use a bread lame—a metal stick with a razor blade attached to the end of it—to score the bread. There is an entire art form to scoring, but usually I just do one deep cut down the middle of the dough, lengthwise. If I’m feeling creative I’ll try a couple of angled grain designs down one side, but this is not necessary. After the scoring, I liberally spray the mounds of dough with water as well as the inside of the baking lid, slide the parchment onto the stone, place the lid so the edges of the dough do not come into contact with it, close the oven, and set the timer to 22 minutes.

After 22 minutes, you will know if you’ve been successful, because pulling off the baking lid should reveal two loaves that are a heck of a lot taller and rounder than when they were placed in the oven. One word of warning: Be careful to tilt it toward the read of the oven so you are not scorched by steam! The loaves will still be “blond” at this point. The remaining 24 minutes will be for getting that nice oven bake the professionals achieve. After 12 minutes in the oven, I reach in and turn the loaves around so the heat bakes them evenly, and after the final 12 minutes, they come out to cool on a rack for several hours. If you baked it properly, the bread will crackle as it sits on the counter and cools. Some bakers say this is the sound of the bread ‘singing.’

Properly baked sourdough will be dark, the crust will be brittle and the loaf will have a hollow sound when they bottom crust is tapped first out of the oven. The longer you can let them air-dry/cool on racks, the better. Ideally bread should be stored in paper bags, but I have difficulty finding sacks of the right size, so I wait for them to fully cool and put them in bread bags sealed with a twisty tie. The compromise is that the crust will soften a bit in plastic bags. There is almost nothing as satisfying as cutting a slice of a country sourdough loaf when it is still warm, and of course there is nothing wrong with cutting into a fresh loaf the next morning either. The aroma in your kitchen and home, and the satisfaction of making a home staple as well as something you can give away to almost anyone except for those no-carb, no-gluten people is incomparable.

At work, I often walk up to one of my teaching colleagues and say, “Hi there, this might sound weird, but I make sourdough bread, and I have a loaf for you if you’d like it.” I haven baked a loaf for every teacher on our 100-person staff, but I’m working on it. Baking comforts are always best when shared.