Sourdough Sans Levain

Since I’ve owned a sourdough starter I’ve tried a number of recipes, all of which call for you to create first the starter, then a second leavener based on a small amount of that starter. It adds up to a lot of fuss, and, if you’re a working-away-from-home person, timing worries.

I decided to look for something simpler and ran across this recipe, which turns out to be based on this much simpler one. tl;dr: a basic rustic bread recipe that yields chewy crust and airy, holey insides, but can be made directly from active sourdough starter without an intermediate levain rise.

NOTE: this recipe is easy and fairly forgiving about timing, but it’s slooooooow.

What’s Active Starter?

Active starter is well-fed, bubbly, and at its peak of the day. I feed mine once a day and it peaks around 20-22 hours after I feed it. You can test for peak by putting a spoonful in a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready. (If it floats then drifts downward a few seconds later, that’s a nope.)

There are one million guides to sourdough care and feeding around: you may want to read one. My method, after the sourdough is established is to feed it daily (at night) in a 1:1:1 ratio by weight of starter:flour:water.

Ingredients

This recipe makes a single loaf but you can double it easily.

  • 3 cups white flour (bread flour or all-purpose–I like to mix in about 1/4 cup each of rye and whole wheat flours)
  • 1 ΒΌ cups faintly warm water
  • 3/4 cup active sourdough starter
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt (regular, not kosher)

Equipment

  • A big mixing bowl.
  • A big mixing spoon.
  • A clean kitchen towel. (Or an oiled clean shower cap, or oiled plastic wrap if you must–but I use a towel.)
  • A dutch oven with a lid. (If you don’t have one, see the suggested cookie sheet method in the addendum.)
  • Cooking parchment (if you’re using the dutch oven method).
  • Optional but helpful: a rubber spatula.
  • A sharp knife to divide the dough if you’re doubling the recipe.

Timing Overview

  1. 5 minutes to mix.
  2. 5-10 hours for initial mix-and-rise. Only in the first hour or so do you really need to be interacting with the dough: the rest is pure neglect. I like to do the first 1-2 hours before bedtime, then go to bed and shape the dough early in the morning.
  3. 40 minutes for oven heating/loaf shaping.
  4. 45 minutes for baking (30 in the dutch oven, 15 on the oven rack)

Steps

  1. Mix all the ingredients in the big mixing bowl. I usually mix the water into the starter first, then add some of the flour, then the salt and sugar, then the rest of the flour, but if you mix speedily it shouldn’t matter. You’ll get a shaggy, sticky dough.
  2. Make sure you have mixed thoroughly enough that there aren’t any floury lumps lurking under the dough. Then try and use the spoon or a wetted spatula or your wet fingers to get rid of most of the sticky dough clinging to the edges of the bowl. (Anything you leave there will turn to cement over time.)
  3. Cover the bowl with a wet (wrung out) dishtowel or proxy (see Equipment) and set a timer for 20-ish minutes.
  4. Now you’re going to do the first of several stretch-and-folds that will happen in the first 1-2 hours of rising. I recommend three in this time period. The timing isn’t terribly sensitive, but they should be at least 15-20 minutes apart. The stretch-and-fold makes the dough stronger and smoother, without any actual kneading. It should take less than 30 seconds each time. A stretch-and-fold is basically reaching your wet hand under a section of the dough (you’ll do this four times, turning the bowl each time to cover the whole bowl), and pulling it gently and firmly up and over the rest of the dough. This will be tricky the first time and easier the next couple of times as the dough gets more coherent. There’s a great photo series of an initial stretch-and-fold here: https://littlespoonfarm.com/sourdough-bread-recipe-beginners-guide/ , and you can watch infinity videos on Youtube if you want more guidance. Cover the dough back up and leave it alone for a while.
  5. Do the stretch-and-fold another couple of times over the next hour and a half, whenever it’s convenient for you. If you want more rules about this, the Internet is full of very prescriptive advice, but this level of care works for me. Always cover the bowl afterward.
  6. Leave the dough alone until it is 2-3 times its initial volume and has at least a couple of small visible bubbles (1/2-inch diameter or bigger). Overnight is OK assuming you’re not sleeping in.
  7. Preheat the oven to 475: if you’re using a dutch oven, put it in the oven now, including the lid.
  8. Now you’re ready to shape the dough. Have some flour at your elbow as you do it, and flour a cutting board or your counter/table. Have a well-floured banneton (baking basket) or a piece of parchment paper ready to hold the shaped bread. Sprinkle a handful of flour over the edge of the dough you’re attacking first, and also make sure your hands are quite floury. Now, carefully pull the dough away from the edges of the bowl, sprinkling some flour on especially sticky parts if you need to. You want to remove the dough in a single mass* without disturbing its internal bubbles as much as possible, so don’t knead or squish it.
  9. Plop the mass on the cutting board and if necessary, clean and dry your hands. Then pick up the blob again with the most intact side upward, lightly flouring any gacky surfaces, and carefully pull the sides of the dough underneath to form a smoothish ball. This takes practice and it won’t be perfect at first but the bread will still be good! You’re aiming for some surface tension on the top and a bunch of slightly messy seams underneath.
  10. Transfer the blob seam-side down to a banneton or a piece of parchment paper, and cover it with a kitchen towel. Set a time for 30 minutes. (If you aren’t using a dutch oven, see the addendum.)
  11. When the timer goes off, remove the towel. If you used a banneton, cover it with a big square of parchment and invert it, thwacking the bottom of the basket so the loaf comes out cleanly. (If it doesn’t not the end of the world but next time flour it better.)
  12. Take the lid off the heated dutch oven and, holding the sides of the parchment, carefully and quickly ease the dough into the dutch oven. Then cover it. Use oven mitts! I burn myself a lot.
  13. Close the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
  14. Take the loaf out of the dutch oven and bake it on the oven rack for another 15. When it’s done, it will be a deep golden-brown and make a hollow sound when you tap the bottom.
  15. Let it cool before you eat it! Otherwise it will squish inside. You’ll probably have to test this a couple of times because your kitchen smells great right now, but if you want to preserve the full elevation of the bread don’t cut till it’s just faintly warm.

Addendum: No Dutch Oven Method

If you don’t have a dutch oven, modify the recipe from step 8 on as follows:

  • Use an oiled baking sheet instead of parchment, or put parchment directly on the baking sheet in lieu of oiling.
  • Just after you put the baking sheet in the oven, scatter a handful of ice cubes on the oven floor, or pour some boiling water into baking sheet set on the lower rack. Steam makes the crust.
  • You should still do step 14 so the lower crust gets direct heat.

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