After mixing, the third stage of breadmaking is the bulk fermentation. Fermentation—when the yeasts and bacteria break down the protein and starch and feast on the sugars at hand—determines most of the flavor of bread.
Differing temperatures and lengths of fermentation evoke completely different flavors. Differing amounts of water cause varieties in structure and taste. A long, cool, high-hydration fermentation can lead to a sour loaf with an open crumb. A short, warm fermentation can produce a sweeter, less tangy flavor.
While the flavor and structure of dough can be altered later on by mixing in different ingredients, the final loaf will always develop out of the trajectory set forth in this bulk fermentation.
In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans speaks of the importance of recognizing the impact of the church that raised her. Although the church also caused deep wounds, she acknowledges that the place that baptized her formed her deeply. “As long as I have an investment in the church universal, I have an investment in the community that first introduced me to Jesus,” she says (page 221).
Subsequent fermentations increase the complexity of dough. The most flavorful, nuanced loaves are made in multiple stages. Adding different kinds of flour with different lengths and temperatures of fermentation brings out sweetness, nuttiness, sourness, and more. But no matter how much the flavor is developed in every stage of this process, it all develops out of the first fermentation.
I hope that the complexity and nuance of my own faith will develop with time, with different communities, with further examination and critique of the assumptions that I hold. But I must always remember that all of it develops out of the very first communities that introduced me to Jesus.
When I grow most frustrated with the behavior of some of my Evangelical brothers and sisters, which here in America is happening more and more often as of late, I am reminded that, like Rachel, these are the people who first flavored me, who first set me on the trajectory that I continue on today. That even my commitment to speaking out against injustice, to protecting the most vulnerable, to loving and praying for my enemy, developed out of my Evangelical core.
Today we’re going to start adding layers of flavor by working with a whole wheat preferment. This creates more complex flavor than the single bulk fermentation of our basic sourdough. A preferment is especially helpful when working with whole grains, it gives an opportunity to break down the extra fiber for a softer loaf plus it harnesses all the good flavor of that fiber.
We’re also going to be increasing the hydration of our dough. This means we’ll have a higher ratio of water to flour. This will make the bread a bit stickier at first, but it adds a lot of flavor and I think it makes it more fun to work with as well.
whole wheat sourdough
1/2 cup sourdough starter
1/2 cup water, room temperature
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup water, room temperature
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1. 6-8 hours after feeding your starter, mix 1/2 cup of the starter with the water and whole wheat flour. Let sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours, the longer it sits the more flavor it will develop.
2. Add in the rest of the water, all-purpose flour, and salt until it forms a shaggy dough. Let sit for 30 minutes.
3. While the dough is still in the mixing bowl, stretch the dough and fold it in half, rotate the bowl 90° and stretch and fold the dough in half again. Repeat this process 4 times.
4. Cover the dough loosely with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 6-8 hours.
5. Gently shape the dough into a smooth round.
6. Generously dust a clean kitchen towel with flour and place the round on the towel so that the smooth top is upside down.
7. Place the towel in a bowl or colander that is about double the size of the dough. Alternatively, you can place the dough directly into a floured banneton or brotform basket.
8. Cover the top loosely with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm area for another 3-4 hours.
9. Place a baking sheet, cast iron pan, or Dutch oven in the oven and preheat to 450°F.
10. When the oven is fully heated, pull the sheet, pan, or Dutch oven out. Turn the dough out of the bowl and onto the hot pan so that the smooth, floured side is again the top. Be careful—the pan is extremely hot!
11. Cut a slice 1/2-inch deep in the top of the bread. Mist or brush the top of the dough with water and place the pan back into the oven. If using a Dutch oven, first place the lid back on. Lower the heat to 425°F.
12. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the bread is golden brown. The dough should make a hollow noise when tapped. If using a Dutch oven, take the lid off after 25 minutes of baking.
13. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before eating!
As you make your bread today, reflect on the communities that have formed you and set you on the trajectory of your faith. Whether that community was wonderful or far from perfect, reflect on the ways that you are who you are because of the way that place flavored you. Perhaps that original community remains your home to this day, perhaps your formation has been a reaction to that place, perhaps it has been growth beyond that place. As your whole wheat ferments, reflect on the ways that your faith has developed its complexity over time and pray for those who first introduced you to Jesus. Thank God for the influence they had on your life.