When we made our big cross country move, my beloved sourdough starter, Louise, sadly did not make the journey. I’ve heard stories of immigrants journeying thousands of miles with their starters, and starters that have been passed on as family heirlooms. Sadly I was not up to the challenge (yet). Thankfully, I recently had time to establish a new sourdough starter, creatively named Louise II (The Sequel to Louise).
I worked really hard on that one.
Sourdough has a reputation as being fussy and time-consuming. And while I admit there is a bit of a learning curve, I’ve actually found that I can easily make it work for my schedule despite having a full-time job, a blog, and two kids. While I bake bread most weeks, sometimes we joke that we really keep the sourdough around just so we can make sourdough discard crackers (they are amazing, and ridiculously easy to make. You can find the recipe here). If you're looking for an equally delicious, non-sourdough bread recipe, check out this easy whole wheat sandwich bread recipe. It uses dry active yeast instead of sourdough.
Now that Louise II is ready for business, I’ve been craving bread. This recipe is 100% whole wheat, so you can slap a healthy stamp on it, and it's great for toast and sandwiches. I came up with this recipe because it is so dang hard to find a homemade bread recipe made entirely with whole wheat flour that doesn’t turn out to be a total brick.
Continue reading for notes, instructions, and tips, or click here to jump to the recipe.
Before we jump into the step-by-step instructions for making 100% whole wheat bread (that doesn’t turn out to be a brick), here are a few quick notes about this bread and my baking process in general:
This is a high hydration bread dough (that’s part of the trick to making 100% whole wheat sourdough work) so it WILL BE stickier than other breads you may have worked with.
I prefer to bake bread by weight instead of volume. The results are much more consistent, and if something does go wrong, it makes it easier to pinpoint where you need to make adjustments. It also makes it easier to adjust the size of the batch (thank you metric system). I use this simple and unfancy scale with no complaints.
This recipe assumes you already have an established starter. If you don’t, you can read about establishing a sourdough starter here. Give yourself about 5 days for your starter to develop.
I use a tsp of yeast to “boost” this recipe but it is not necessary. Many sourdough bakers bake without any added yeast at all, and I also sometimes bake this way. So far Louise II has not been as strong as Louise I so I find it helps my whole wheat bread rise a little more predictably and a bit higher, but I still get the great sourdough texture and flavor. If you don’t add any extra yeast, your rising times may be longer depending on the temperature in your kitchen and how active your starter is.
Bread baking in general is heavily influenced by your environment. The temperature and humidity especially can affect rising time and the hydration of your dough (i.e., whether you need to add a little more water or flour to get your dough to the right consistency).
There are a lot of approaches to sourdough. Some people will get their starter out a couple of days before using it and feed it several times before baking their bread. That doesn’t work for my schedule. I find it works just fine to feed my starter once in the morning or evening about 8 hours before I bake.
If I have time, I like to do one rise in the refrigerator. Usually, it’s the second rise, though that can vary depending on my schedule. This helps my dough to develop a stronger sourdough flavor and also gives me more flexibility to let the dough rise longer without becoming over-proofed if I get busy and need to push back my baking schedule.
That sounds complicated all written out, but don’t be daunted. My whole philosophy is to keep things simple, and this bread is no exception. I don’t consider myself a master bread baker by any means. Rather, my approach to bread baking is more about creating yummy, healthy food for my family that is healthy, easy, and Zero Waste.
Instructions for Making this Bread
125g “fed” sourdough starter
450g whole wheat flour (white whole wheat is best if you can find it).
1 tsp dry active or instant yeast (optional)
180g milk (dairy or dairy-free is fine. Or you can skip this and use an equivalent amount of water instead).
20g olive oil (about 1.5 tbs)
40g honey (about 2 tbs)
6 g salt (about 1 tsp)
Here is my sample schedule and step-by-step:
Saturday 6am (Yes, I get up early even on the weekends. You can start anytime you want): Take sourdough starter out of the fridge and stir it to incorporate any liquid that has settled on the top. Remove all but 100g of starter and set aside (depending on the size of your starter, you’ll have about 250g or 1 cup discard). Feed the remaining starter in the jar with 125g fresh flour and 125g warm water. Put the cover back on the jar and set it aside so it can “wake up”.
Use your discarded starter to make your favorite sourdough discard recipe, or give some sourdough to a friend!
Go about your day and forget about your starter for the next eight hours.
Saturday 2pm: Depending on how warm my kitchen is, I find my starter is usually ready between 6-8 hours later. You’ll know it’s ready when your starter is bubbly and expanding toward the top of the jar. This means it’s time to start making your dough!
But before you do anything with your starter, I recommend doing an autolyze by combining your whole wheat flour and water. Why? This will help to hydrate your flour (which is especially important for whole wheat flour) and strengthen the gluten bonds in the dough. This can make for better texture and flavor. If you forget this step or feel you don’t have time for it, you can feel free to skip it.
To autolyze: Combine the 180g of warm water & 180g milk with 450g whole wheat flour. Mix it together. Let it sit for 15-30 minutes. That’s it.
While you wait for your flour and water to autolyze, remove 125g of starter from the jar. This is the starter that will go into your bread. Set it aside for the moment.
Discard (or find another recipe for) all but 100g of your remaining starter and feed with 125g flour and 125g water. Stir, replace the lid, and place your starter back in the fridge.
After your flour/water mixture is finished with the autolyze: Put your 100g of starter in a stainless steel or glass bowl. Stir in 25g of oil, 40g of honey and 1 tsp of yeast (if using). Then, add the autolyzed flour/water to the mixture. Sprinkle the salt on top. Mix and stir until the starter mixture is completely incorporated into the dough. You may need to use your hands for this. The dough should be sticky but not totally stick to your hands. Add flour a tiny amount at a time if your dough is too sticky. Be careful not to add too much, this dough is meant to be a bit sticky! Your dough should come together into a smooth(ish) and elastic dough. 100% whole wheat dough will always be shaggier than dough made with white flour.
Put your dough in a large bowl or container. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes.
2:30pm-5:30pm(ish) Bulk Fermentation (aka first rise): Depending on the temperature of your kitchen, the bulk fermentation will take around three hours. If your kitchen is very warm or very cold, the time can be quite different. During the first portion of the bulk rise, you’ll want to do some stretch and folds to strengthen your dough.
I usually do three sets of stretch and folds, 15 minutes apart. If you aren’t familiar with stretch and folds, the Perfect Loaf has an excellent explanation and instructions). Between stretch and folds, I tidy up the kitchen, take care of small tasks around the house, or do something fun!
Confession time: I’ve also had success with using the dough hook attachment for my kitchen aid instead of doing the stretch and folds. I do three sets of running the kitchen aid on medium speed for about 1 minute, 15 minutes apart.
After your last set of stretch and folds (or secret Kitchen Aid cheating), put the dough in a bowl large enough for the bowl to expend go about you business for the rest of the bulk fermentation, about 3 hours depending on the temperature of your kitchen.
You’ll know your bulk fermentation is done when your dough looks expanded and jiggly (it may not necessarily “double” in size).
5:30pm: Gently work the dough by hand for a few minutes until the dough is nice and stretchy and can form a “window-pane” when you stretch out a thing section. Shape it into a 9x16 rectangle. Beginning on the short edge (the 9 in. edge) gently roll the dough into a log and place it seam side down into a greased 9x5 inch baking pan.
NOTE: I actually use an 8.5 inch Pan de Mie Pan (also known as a Pullman Loaf Pan) for this bread, but I know this isn’t a tool most people have. A Pan De Mie is a slightly shorter and narrower bread pan with taller sides, which helps my heavier whole wheat bread achieve a taller shape. Pan de Mie pans come with a lid so you can make a perfectly square loaf of bread, or you can remove the lid to get a traditional domed top. They are also good for making gluten-free bread.
After your bread has been transferred to the pan, cover it and place it in the refrigerator. A lot of bread recipes call for plastic bags or saran wrap at this point. To keep the recipe Zero Waste, I use backyard compostable saran wrap or beeswax wrap. Tent the wrap so the dough has room to rise over the edge of the pan.
6:00pm: Proof overnight. Put the pan with the covered dough in the refrigerator overnight to proof. Go about your evening and forget about your bread until the next day.
6:00am (or really anytime the next morning you want to get started. The beauty of proving in the fridge is it gives you some wiggle room to leave things longer if you need to).
Gently remove the bread from the refrigerator. Your dough should have puffed up overnight and should be starting to dome over the top of the pan (don’t worry about it being super high though--it will continue to rise a bit in the oven). Check to make sure the bread is fully proved by poking it with your finger. If you make a dent that doesn’t bounce back, your dough is ready and you can proceed to the next step. If it springs back when you poke it, cover and let it sit on the counter to continue proving. Check it every 30 minutes or so.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. After the oven is preheated, add the pan to the oven and bake your loaf for 40 minutes (or until it is evenly golden brown over the top). Once the bread is ready to come out of the oven, remove it from the pan and put it on a baking rack or towel to cool. Brush the top of the loaf with butter to soften the crust if you wish.
7:00am: Let your bread cool, then slice and eat some delicious homemade bread!
**Remember, you can adjust this schedule and these steps to make it work for you. Also, you don’t have to do the second rise in the fridge if you are strapped for time. After shaping your dough, and covering it, leave it out on the counter until the top of the dough starts to crest the top of the pan, and a dent stays in the bread when you gently poke it with your finger. Then preheat and bake as instructed.
**You can shape the dough into a boulle if you prefer. Instead of shaping it into a log, shape it into a boule and place it into a banneton or bread basket for the second rise. I bake my boulles in a dutch oven at 425.
Baking timeline summarized:
Feed your sourdough starter (8 hrs)
Autolyze and Prep Dough (about 45 minutes)
Stretch and folds/bulk fermentation (about 3 hrs)
Prep filling and shape dough (about 30 minutes)
Proof (2nd rise) in fridge (12-16 hours depending on your schedule. If leaving dough out of the fridge, the proving process will take approx. 2-3 hrs.)
Preheat oven and bake (about 45 minutes)
Total time: About 25-29 hours. However, only about 90 minutes of that time will be spent actively working with your bread. The rest of the time you can be working on and doing other things. Also if you choose to prove the bread on the counter instead of the fridge, you will cut the total time down to 16-20 hours. Your bread will just have a less noticeable sourdough flavor.
This bread is great for toast and jelly because its tighter crumb prevents toppings from leaking through.
How to keep this recipe zero waste:
Buy the flour and honey in bulk if you can. If you can’t, be sure to compost the bags your flour and sugar come in after using. If you need to buy bagged flour, King Arthur White Whole Wheat is one of my favorites. I also like the white whole wheat flour from Wheat Montana because it is local (for us). You may be able to find something local to your location as well.
If you can’t get olive oil or other ingredients from bulk bins, buy the biggest container you can to cut down on waste
Bake anything else you need for the week while you have the oven preheated to reduce electricity waste.
Remember that baking your own bread also cuts down on the amount of plastic and waste as a result of shipping premade bread (upstream waste).
Use your sourdough discard for another recipe or give it away to a friend so it doesn't go to waste.
If you don’t eat the whole load before it starts getting stale, use the leftovers to make French toast, bread pudding, or croutons.