Marcy Goldman
Special to The Washington Post

Better bread starts here

When it comes to the romance of home-baked bread, nothing beats the notion of sourdough. It’s the Holy Grail of doughs, much like DIY charcuterie and naturally thickened jams.

Truth is, I like sourdough bread when someone else makes it — say, the corner French bakery. It takes dedication to nurse the slurry of flour and water into a mature, sour, puddinglike glop that can yield a great exterior and those characteristic big, gaping holes inside. The machismo of superb sourdough (and, trust me, it’s a competitive venue of baking) is about using no added yeast, relying on airborne spores to do the job.

Sourdough is so beloved yet so demanding that Cook’s Illustrated recently suggested home bakers forgo a starter to save time and simply add vinegar for that characteristic acidic taste. I say: Please don’t, on both accounts. That is what some commercial bakers used to do to hasten the process and sell regular bread as sourdough.

Sponge-based bread for me, as both a home baker and professional pastry chef, is the perfect hybrid. It’s a relatively old frontier in need of re-exploration, and if you’re not much of a bread baker, consider it the right place for you to jump in. Sponge-starter bread is not quite sourdough, yet it’s way more interesting than a regular or straight bread dough. To my mind, it’s also more flavorful than no-knead bread.

A sponge is just as it sounds: a bubbled mixture of flour, water and a touch of yeast. For a rather low-rent approach, it produces rather phenomenal results: a crust and flavor like sourdough, with less of the taste that some sourdough haters can do without, due to shortened pre-fermentation. The starter can be made eight to 16 hours ahead. If I forget to deal with it or am called away, I can chuck the bowlful, or I can feed it and let it develop as a sourdough starter.

True sourdough starters can have a lot of legacy to them; by that I mean starters that were inherited and can be traced back for years or those that have been fed and developed with care.

Another sourdough-ish bread that tastes less sour and is less demanding to produce is the slow, no-knead bread that became popular thanks to books such as “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” and James Lahey and Rick Flaste’s Sullivan Street Bakery bread. (And there is a similar category of breads, made the “pate fermentee” way. Pate fermentee is leftover yeasted dough that bakers shear off from the day’s baking. They refrigerate this chunk of fermented dough — a sourdough of sorts — then add it to a new batch of bread.)

Sponge-based breads, like great sourdoughs, tend not to go stale as fast as other homemade white breads; the more yeast that is used, the faster the breads can go bad, I’ve found. That makes them the ideal choice for sandwich bread and next-day toast. A big round of sponge-based dough yields a nice boule; a flat spread of it yields a fougasse, the sculpted Provence-inspired loaf that bakes with ladderlike slits.

Less yeast is helpful in creating breads that don’t dry out. However, the little bit of yeast that sponge-based breads do use guarantees a decent rise that, even on my best days, is not always a given with no-added-yeast, sourdough bread.

What I do to make my sponges a magnet for the interesting wild yeast spores found in my kitchen (and yours) is to use spring water and organic flours. That further courts unique yeasty guests, and the nonchlorinated water ensures there is no yeast-fermentation upset due to the chloride. In my sponge-based recipes, I tend to tailor the sponge starters to the breads in question. For an all-white country bread, I use a bit of non-white flours but mostly organic white flour; for a whole-wheat bread, I tend to go more wheaty.

In the dough itself, given the foundation of an interesting organic sponge, I use unbleached bread flour, which is happily unbleached, if not organic, and bolsters the spine or architecture of the bread. That yields a rather nice-size loaf vs. the more modest one of homemade sourdoughs.

The accompanying recipes offer a solid, diverse starter pack: classic white country bread, whole-wheat bread, a trendy walnut bread and a Mediterranean-kissed rosemary and olive fougasse. If you want to make bistro-style pizza, a sponge-based dough is accommodating enough to handle a rise that lasts one hour or six.

The final argument I’ll make for the sponge approach is this: Once the dough has risen, it will stay that way longer and bloom in the oven more than a sourdough. And flexibility’s just what every home baker needs.

Goldman is a Montreal pastry chef/baker, instructor and cookbook author. Her Web site is www.betterbaking.com.

Favorite French Bread

Makes 1 large loaf or 2 smaller ones (about 15 slices)

Marcy Goldman says this is her go-to bread; stored properly, it’s a good keeper, and it is ideal for sandwiches or toast.

You’ll need an extra-large plastic zip-top bag, big enough to hold a baking sheet and the bread dough (alternatively, a large sheet of plastic wrap can be used), and a spray water bottle. Spring water is specified because it isn’t chlorinated and won’t interfere with yeast development.

Store this bread wrapped in a clean dish towel for the first day, which will help keep the crust crisp; after that, in a zip-top bag.

MAKE AHEAD: The sponge starter needs to sit at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. The dough needs to rise a first time for 45 to 90 minutes and a second time for 2 to 4 hours. The unsliced loaves can be frozen for up to 2 months.

From Goldman, a Montreal baker and cookbook author.

Ingredients

For the sponge starter and dough

1 cup water, preferably spring water

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

1 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour or (preferably) organic white bread flour

2 tablespoons organic whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons organic rye flour

For the dough

1 cup water, preferably spring water

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1 tablespoon sugar (may substitute honey)

1/2 teaspoon malt powder or syrup (optional)

3 3/4 to 4 cups unbleached white bread flour, plus more for dusting

Steps

For the sponge starter and dough: Combine the water and yeast in a medium bowl, then add the bread flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour. Stir to form a thick, puddinglike mixture. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, leaving a little head space. Let it sit for 8 to 16 hours. The starter should become spongy.

For the dough: Stack two baking sheets; line the top one with parchment paper.

Stir the sponge starter to deflate it, then spoon it into the deep bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. Quickly stir in the water, yeast, salt, sugar, malt powder, if using, and about half of the bread flour. Mix briefly on low speed to form a soft mass. Cover lightly with a clean dish towel and let stand for 15 minutes. Then continue to knead (using the dough hook attachment) until the dough is smooth and resilient, dusting with as much of the remaining flour as needed. Overall, this is a soft dough, so a bit more slack (vs. firm) is fine.

Grease a large bowl with nonstick cooking oil spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Insert the bowl in the large zip-top bag (see headnote), which you will use again later as a proofing tent, or cover with plastic wrap. Seal to close; let the dough rise for 45 to 90 minutes. It should almost double in size.

Remove the bag. Gently deflate the dough, forming it into one large ball or two smaller ones. Pull a membrane of dough tautly around the dough ball itself; this layer will help make a nice crust later. Gently place the dough ball(s), seam side down, on the lined baking sheet.

Spray the dough lightly with nonstick cooking oil spray. Insert the stacked baking sheets into the large zip-top bag or cover them with plastic wrap. Seal to close; let the dough rise until it has almost doubled in size, which can take from 2 to 4 hours.

Position a rack in the lowest part of the oven and preheat to 475 degrees.

Remove the baking sheet stack and dough from the bag. Use a sharp knife to slash the loaves just before they are baked. (If dough deflates when you slash it, it may have risen too much. The heat of the oven should help it spring back.) Use the spray bottle to spray the loaves with a mist of water. Dust them with unbleached bread flour.

Open the oven door just long enough to spray a few squirts of water, then place the baking sheet on the lowest oven rack and immediately reduce the temperature to 450 degrees. Spray the oven interior every 5 minutes for the first 15 minutes of baking time. After 15 minutes, reduce the temperature to 450 degrees and bake for 10 minutes. The bread should be well browned after 35 to 40 minutes, but it won’t yet be fully cooked in the center. Reduce the temperature to 425 degrees for any additional baking time.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool before slicing.

Artisanal Walnut Bread

Makes two 9-by-5-inch loaves (32 to 38 slices total)

This sponge-starter loaf is somewhat sophisticated in a Euro-rustic way; its great looks are amplified by its great taste, courtesy of a slew of buttery walnuts baked into the loaf.

You’ll need a spray water bottle and an extra-large zip-top bag, big enough to contain a baking sheet (alternatively, a large sheet of plastic wrap can be used), and two loaf pans. Spring water is specified because it is not chlorinated (and therefore will not interfere with yeast development).

Store this bread wrapped in a clean dish towel for the first day, which will help keep the crust crisp; after that, in a zip-top bag.

Serve with cheese or as a sandwich bread.

MAKE AHEAD: The sponge starter needs to sit at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. The dough needs to rise a first time for 45 to 90 minutes and a second time for 1 1/2 to 3 hours. The unsliced loaves can be frozen for up to 2 months. From Montreal baker and cookbook author Marcy Goldman.

Ingredients

For the sponge starter and dough

1 cup water, preferably spring water (see headnote)

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

1 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour or preferably organic white bread flour

2 tablespoons organic whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons organic rye flour, plus more for dusting

For the dough

1 1/2 cups water, preferably spring water

2 teaspoons instant yeast

2 tablespoons dark rye flour

2 tablespoons walnut oil or light olive oil

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons honey

3 to 4 cups unbleached white bread flour

2 cups raw unsalted walnut halves, 1 cup left intact and 1 cup coarsely chopped

Steps

For the sponge starter and dough: Combine the water and yeast in a medium bowl, then add the bread flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour. Stir to form a thick, puddinglike mixture. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, leaving a little head space. The starter should become foamy-looking or spongy. Let it sit for 8 to 16 hours.

For the dough: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spray two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans generously with nonstick cooking oil spray and place them on the baking sheet.

Spoon the sponge starter into the bowl of a stand mixer, then stir in the water, yeast, rye flour, oil, salt, honey and 2 cups of the bread flour to make a soft mixture. Cover loosely and let stand for 15 minutes. Then, using the mixer fitted with the dough hook, knead slowly on low speed for 5 to 8 minutes, adding as much of the remaining flour as needed to make a soft dough. Halfway through kneading, add the walnuts. (If you like, you can reserve some or all of the 1 cup of intact walnut halves to place on top of the loaves later.)

Grease a large bowl with nonstick cooking oil spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Insert the bowl in the large zip-top bag (see headnote), which you will use again later as a proofing tent. Seal to close; let the dough rise for 45 to 90 minutes. It should almost double in size.

Lightly flour a work surface. Turn the dough out onto the work surface and gently deflate the dough, then let it rest for 5 minutes. Divide into two equal portions. Shape each into a compact oblong and place in the loaf pans. Dust with the rye flour. Use a sharp knife to make 3 diagonal slashes, spaced evenly apart, on the surface of each loaf.

Spray the loaves with nonstick cooking oil spray and enclose in the same large plastic bag. Let the dough rise until almost doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 3 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a spray bottle of clean water at hand.

Just before baking, gently press any walnut halves you have reserved into the top of each loaf, being careful not to deflate the dough. Dust the loaves with white or rye flour once again.

Place the baking sheet with loaf pans in the oven, then immediately reduce the temperature to 375 degrees. Bake until nicely browned, 35 to 40 minutes, misting the interior of the oven with the spray bottle two or three times in the first 15 minutes of baking.

Remove the loaves from the pans. Let the loaves cool on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Whole-Wheat French Country Bread

Makes 1 large round loaf or two smaller ones (about 15 slices)

Extra wheaty with stone-ground whole-wheat flour, this sponge-starter-based bread is more dense than a white-flour French bread. But it has a great crust, great flavor and a nice honey-wheat fragrance.

You’ll need an extra-large plastic zip-top bag, big enough to hold a baking sheet and bread loaf (alternatively, a large sheet of plastic wrap can be used), and a spray water bottle. Spring water is specified because it is not chlorinated (and therefore will not interfere with yeast development). The optional malt powder or syrup, available at health-food stores and via www.KingArthurFlour.com, gives the yeast something to nibble on and helps with flavor and browning.

Store this bread wrapped in a clean dish towel for the first day, which will help keep the crust crisp; after that, in a zip-top bag.

MAKE AHEAD: The sponge starter needs to sit at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. The dough needs to rise a first time for 45 to 90 minutes and a second time for 1 1/2 to 4 hours. The unsliced loaves can be frozen for up to 2 months. From Montreal baker and cookbook author Marcy Goldman.

Ingredients

For the sponge starter and dough

1 1/4 cups water preferably spring water, or as needed

1/4 teaspoon instant yeast

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1/3 cup white unbleached bread flour, preferably organic

For the dough

1 1/2 cups water, preferably spring water

1 teaspoon instant yeast

2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

3 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon malt powder or syrup (optional)

2 tablespoons light olive oil

2 cups stone-ground whole-wheat flour (bread or all-purpose)

2 to 3 cups unbleached white bread flour, or more as needed

Steps

For the sponge starter: Combine the water and yeast in a medium bowl, then add the whole-wheat flour and white unbleached bread flour. Stir to form a thick, puddinglike mixture. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, leaving a little head space. The starter should become foamy-looking or spongy. Let it sit for 8 to 16 hours.

For the dough: Stack two baking sheets; line the top one with parchment paper.

Stir the sponge starter to deflate it, then spoon it into the deep bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. Add the water, yeast, salt, honey, malt powder or syrup, if using, the oil, whole-wheat flour and about 1 cup of the white unbleached bread flour. Mix briefly on low speed to form a soft mass. Cover lightly with a clean dish towel and let stand for 15 minutes.

Then continue to knead (using the dough hook attachment) until the dough is smooth and resilient, adding as much of the remaining flour as needed. The dough should be soft after 5 to 8 minutes.

Grease a large bowl with nonstick cooking oil spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Insert the bowl in the large zip-top bag (see headnote), which you will use again later as a proofing tent. Seal to close; let the dough rise for 45 to 90 minutes. It should almost double in size.

Remove the bowl from the bag. Gently deflate the dough and shape into a large round or two smaller rounds, and place on the lined baking sheet. Insert the baking sheet stack into the plastic bag. Seal to close; let the dough rise until it has almost doubled in size, which can take from 1 1/2 to 4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Have a spray bottle with clean water at hand. Mist the oven with water just before the bread goes in. Remove the baking sheet stack and dough from the bag. Use a sharp knife or blade to slash the top of the dough; dust with flour.

Bake, immediately reducing the temperature to 450 degrees, spraying the oven interior every 2 minutes for the first 10 minutes. After 25 minutes, reduce the heat to 425 degrees and bake until nicely browned; this process should take a total of 25 to 30 minutes.

Let the bread loaves cool on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Black Olive Rosemary Fougasse

Makes 2 loaves (about 20 slices total)

This is almost a flatbread. It’s great to serve with a selection of cheeses. If you’re not a fan of rosemary and/or olives, omit them.

You’ll need an extra-large zip-top bag, big enough to contain a baking sheet and two loaves of bread. (Alternatively, a large sheet of plastic wrap can be used.) Spring water is specified because it is not chlorinated (and therefore will not interfere with yeast development).

Store this bread wrapped in a clean dish towel for the first day, which will help keep the crust crisp; after that, in a zip-top bag.

MAKE AHEAD: The sponge starter needs to sit at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. The dough needs to rise a first time for 45 to 90 minutes and a second time for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The unsliced loaves can be frozen for up to 2 months.

From Montreal baker and cookbook author Marcy Goldman.

Ingredients

For the sponge starter and dough

1 cup water, preferably spring water (see headnote)

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

1 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour or (preferably) organic white bread flour

2 tablespoons organic whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons organic rye flour

For the dough

1 1/2 cups water, preferably spring water

2 teaspoons instant yeast

2 1/4 teaspoons coarse sea salt, plus more for garnish

1 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons dark rye flour, plus more for dusting

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling

3 to 4 cups unbleached white bread flour, plus more for the work surface

1 tablespoon minced rosemary (from 3 stems), plus leaves for garnish

2 cups pitted kalamata olives, each cut in half

Steps

For the sponge starter and dough: Combine the water and yeast in a medium bowl, then add the bread flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour. Stir to form a thick, puddinglike mixture. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, leaving a little head space. Let it sit for 8 to 16 hours. The starter should become spongy.

For the dough: Stack two baking sheets; line the top one with parchment paper.

Stir the sponge starter to deflate it, then spoon it into the deep bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. Add the water, then quickly stir in the yeast, salt, honey, dark rye flour, oil and about half of the unbleached white bread flour. Mix briefly on low speed to form a soft mass. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and let it stand for 15 minutes.

Continue to knead (using the dough hook attachment) until the dough is smooth and resilient, adding as much of the remaining unbleached white bread flour as needed and adding the minced rosemary. When the kneading is almost done (the dough will be soft and elastic), stop the mixer. Knead in the halved olives by hand.

Grease a large bowl with nonstick cooking oil spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Insert the bowl in a large zip-top bag (see headnote), which you will use again later as a proofing tent, or cover it with plastic wrap. Seal to close; let the dough rise for 45 to 90 minutes. It should almost double in size.

Lightly flour a work surface.

Turn the dough out onto the work surface and gently deflate the dough. Let it rest for 5 minutes, then divide it into two equal portions. Shape each into a compact oblong and arrange them several inches apart on the lined baking sheet. Dust each one with rye flour. Use a sharp knife or blade to make 3 diagonal, evenly spaced slashes on each oblong, then gently spread open the slashes.

Spray each loaf lightly with nonstick cooking oil spray, then sprinkle with the rosemary leaves and salt. Place the stacked baking sheets inside the large plastic bag or cover with plastic wrap. Seal to close; let the dough rise until puffy, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Remove the baking sheet stack and dough from the bag. Drizzle the loaves very lightly with oil. Bake until browned and crusty, 30 to 35 minutes. If the bread appears brown but some of the recommended baking time remains, reduce the temperature to 400 degrees.

Let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before serving.

“Truth is, I like sourdough bread when someone else makes it...”


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The Union Updated Feb 13, 2013 02:32AM Published Feb 13, 2013 02:32AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.