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For a good time, just add wine, cheese, home-made artisan quality sourdough bread, fresh pickles, and some olive oil dipping sauce!

For a good time, just add wine, cheese, home-made artisan quality sourdough bread, fresh pickles, and some olive oil dipping sauce!

Looking for something to share with friends and family? Simple yet sophisticated? Hearty and filling? Fast to prepare?

Then impress yourself and everyone around you with an artisan quality homemade bread paired with great butter, cheese, and olive oil. It can be a light snack, a picnic on its own, or even a filling meal if you overindulge.

And you will achieve perfection with a pairing of JL WOOD Chardonnay.

A critical detail is the chilled Chardonnay. It must stand on its own. You need freshness, a good expression of fruit, and a balanced mouthfeel. JL WOOD will do all of those things but not overpower and subdue the subtleties of the food.

Our recommended choice is any of our Chardonnays.

The menu:

  • 1 loaf of freshly made bread in an artisan style (recipe to follow)
  • Euro-style high fat butter, like Kerrygold unsalted, at room temperature (buy Kerrygold when it goes on sale.)
  • “Spicy and sweet” sliced pickles that taste fresh (like the refrigerated Grillo brand or homemade) ( I prefer non-fermented)
  • Olive oil dipping sauce (recipe to follow)
  • Cheese (like a room temperature French brie, mozzarella sticks, or convenient individual portion wrapped Babybel in the red wax rounds)

Artisan bread, do or do not!

An artisan bread is different. It's a true sourdough, in a category by itself.

Sourdough has a great attribute. It is easy on your stomach. Having trouble with gluten or feel that bread turn into a stone after it has gone down? Sourdough has been conditioned by microbes to be stomach friendly.

If you don't want the healthy and pleasantly satisfying obsessive-in-a-good-way  compulsive disorder of making sourdough bread every two days, then buy it.

Great artisan bread is usually available in most upscale shopping areas from a specialty baker. Or there may be a local micro-baker that stocks your local farmer's market or sells directly from their home.

What we’re not talking about is going to your super-market here. They won’t have it. It might look like it but it won’t be the real thing. They don't take the time to condition the dough and allow it to fully ferment. I'm always suspicious about the bread -- many labels say that the bread is "sourdough flavored". That could mean anything: could be good, could be codewords for a flavor additive.

So put your damn technology down and get physical! 

Stop worrying about politics or money. Stop watching bread making videos. Enough of the webnet surfing. Just make the bread! 

The beauty of making bread is that you can make what you like. For me, that is a crust that is toasted but not thick, an interior that is moist but not dense, and because I like them, air pockets scattered about. The walls of the air pockets should have a little bit of thickness like miniature lava flows. And importantly, it should taste great, with that luscious sour overtone and a hint of salt in the background.

Making the bread is within your reach. The ingredients list for artisan bread is very basic: Flour, water, salt, and friendly yeast and microbes from an active starter. Note, no additives. That's a big deal to your health. The dough is conditioned by those friendly microbes. Lastly, the dough is baked at the right temperature in an oven that started with a high degree of humidity. All of this is achievable at home. Easily.

Without cooking stones, fancy pans, heavy duty mixers, dutch ovens and other (unnecessary and expensive) accessories recommended by smart folks “building their brand with sales affiliate bucks”. (You buy, they earn!).

Let’s get started:

Sourdough is slow fermented. From beginning to end, including the long rising time, it will take about 12 hours. That sounds bad but it isn't. I like to let the dough rise overnight while I’m sleeping. And it's ok if you let it go longer.

To do this, you’ll need to have a healthy starter. The starter contains yeast and friendly microbes. A starter, after you make it, is a living thing, consisting of a slowly bubbling pancake consistency bottle of dough, with a cheesecloth top, that demands to be fed with a half cup of flour every day.

And a key thing to remember as you labor everyday to feed the starter: An older starter is usually better than one that is young. A young starter works but an older starter demonstrates a bigger impact on texture and flavor.

I recommend you use bread flour. It has the higher protein needed for bread baking. I like the King Arthur brand. And if you’re fancy, you can make your own flour or your own flour mix. Sometimes I add “00” pizza flour, either imported like "Caputo" or King Arthur to the King Arthur bread flour if I have it around. Sourdough microbes love "00"; to them, it's an upscale feast. The result will be an airier bread interior with more intense flavor.

You can make your own starter by leaving out on a counter a bottle of flour and water mixed together (quarter cup of water and quarter cup of flour) or you can by a packet to inoculate your mixture. You see (or don't see), yeast and microbes are everywhere. However, you could end with something bad because the wrong yeast or microbes get into your bottle.

What you don’t want to do is use a yeast you buy at the grocery store or restaurant supply house. Those yeasts are designed to puff your dough (balloon bread anyone? yecch!) since the makers assume that’s what you want but their yeast doesn’t contribute to the flavor of the bread.

A shortcut: I liked jumping on Amazon and ordering dry starter, one packet, from Cultures for Health, sourdough type, ASIN B00YVE3076. It will run you about $14 and they sometimes have discount coupons of 15%. It’s worth it. Follow the instructions and you’ll have a nice bottle of starter ready in about 5 to 7 days.

Here’s how you know the starter is good. It doesn’t smell bad. It should have a slightly acidic smell. Second, when you feed it, it rises a half to 1 inch and then falls (within a 24 hour period).

Some key tips: If you use the starter from Amazon, it’s hungry; don’t underestimate its need to be fed. Every day without fail. Just add a half cup of flour and and a same amount of water at least once every 24 hours. When you make the add, stir and you should have something with the consistency of a thick pancake batter. When your bottle comes close to full, you'll need to "discard" about half a cup to a cup. The "discard" can be used in a variety of recipes. Check the webnet for ideas. Personally, I like to make flavored crackers.

Critical: Don’t use tap water. Never -- ever -- use tap water for baking. Never. You need spring water or other water that has not been treated. Untreated well water is fine. The problem with treated water is that it likely contains chlorine or other additives and that chlorine will kill a lot of your yeast and the friendly microbes you need in a good dough.

You’ll know the starter is alive when you see bubbles on the surface. If the bottle begins to fill up, simply remove about a half cup and discard. Or you can put the discard in a bottle with a bow on it and gift it to one of your friends that likes to cook. Or, if you're ambitious, there are recipes on the webnet for using discard for other wonderful things like crackers!

When maintaining your starter, you can buy a bespoke bottle with fancy markings. I use the clean wide-mouth bottle that came with Rao’s marinara sauce. The larger size is perfect. A large canning jar works too. You’ll need a porous cloth, cheesecloth, or, if you're me, a folded paper towel for securing the top (with a rubber band).

To measure how much the starter rises and falls (if you're that kind of person), put a rubber band around the bottle at the level you left it after feeding the starter.

I keep the starter happy by keeping it on a high open shelf in my home office. The temperature there is at least what you read on your thermostat, probably a few degrees higher.

Summary of the dough components and proportions

A good size round of bread is made with 500 grams of flour plus about 17 grams of salt (I use kosher salt). So, if you multiply by 90%, this gives you another 450 grams for water and starter combined. (Your target is to use 150 grams of starter; that means you're using 300 grams of water.) If you're making more than one loaf, just multiply these numbers by as many loafs you want.

To make the bread, you need a digital scale with a tare feature.

Tare weight is the weight of the container, like a bowl, you’ll use to measure and make the dough. Pressing one button on the scale zeros out that weight and allows you to accurately determine the weight of the ingredient you subsequently add without the weight of the container. To recap: You do this by putting your bowl on the scale. Then hit tare. It will zero. Then when you add your ingredient, the bowl weight is excluded.

Put your bowl on a scale. Hit tare. You should see zero on the scale. Measure 500 grams of bread flour into the bowl. You need to add salt. Something between 15 and 20 grams. I use 17 grams of kosher salt. Mix the salt throughout the dry flour.

Put a separate bowl on the scale, hit tare, and add 2/3rds to one full cup of starter. About 150 grams. Don't be stingy with the starter. Just use a spoon or spatula to remove it from your bottle of starter or, if its liquid enough, just pour it in. Take note of the weight of the starter you used. I like to use slightly more than less.

Now for some mathematics. Don’t panic. Just one percentage and some subtraction. You want the total of the starter and the water you will add to the flour to add up to 90% of the weight of the flour. In this case, water plus starter equals 450 grams.

Yes, your Iphone has a simple calculator. Use it. Baking is like carpentry, always measure and calculate twice.

So, your finished dough, in total, will measure about 950 grams plus the weight of the salt. This is a high “hydration” type dough.

To get there, subtract the weight of the starter you’ve removed from the starter bottle from the 450 grams and that will give you the weight of water you need to add. The water temp should be room or slightly higher (like 80 to 90 degrees F). I use room temp water to keep things simple.

Now here is a point of controversy. Before you add the calculated amount of water, I like to dump the starter in the bowl with the flour and salt. Stir the flour, salt, and starter a few times.

Measure out the weight of water and add to the bowl with the flour. Stir with a spatula or wooden spoon to incorporate.

(If you do become compulsive about making dough, this step is greatly simplified with a dough wisk. You won't tire as quickly and it allows you to avoid getting your fingers all gloppy with wet dough. Get the one with a dishwasher proof handle: ASIN B097QC4N1B. It's $19 bucks on Amazon.)

Or, as an alternative that many folks do: Put your starter (150 grams approximately)  in a bowl and then add water until you reach the calculated 450 gram weight. You can stir if you like. Most do. Add the starter and water combination into your bowl with the flour and salt.

Keeping stirring for a couple of minutes. This will be a sticky dough and you’ll know you are progressing as the dough begins to “clean” the sides of your mixing bowl.

(Pro tip: Wet your fingers before you touch the dough and it won't stick to you! Magic!)

If necessary, use your hands to knead: push down on the dough, fold it over on itself, rotate the bowl 90 degrees, and repeat. Roll it around to help "clean" the flour sticking to the side of the dough. It will be lumpy and very sticky. That's normal. At this point, the dough needs to rest for 45 minutes. 

Everyone has their favorite technique on kneading. Some use machines, some use their hands, others have built whole routines around kneading. Over time, you just need to find something you like to do. What I'm telling you is what works for me.

Dough conditioning and fermentation is roughly divided into two phases. The first phase is about 3 hours and the second phase is 6 to 8 hours.

Phase one: Develop gluten and structure by doing so-called "stretch" folds.  Every 45 to 60 minutes, grab the top of the dough in the center and pull up about 18 inches to 2 feet. It should stretch out on either side of your hand (like having two legs). Fold the legs back on each other, press together and repeat after you make a quarter turn of the bowl containing the dough: Pull up in the middle, allow it to stretch and then fold it back on itself. Do about three of these "stretches" and do the next stretch in 45 minutes. (The wait allows the flour to fully hydrate, the starter to spread out in the dough, and the gluten to further develop and relax.) These steps help contribute to the texture of the bread you see after baking.

Phase 2: After 3 "stretch" sessions, it's time to add some structure to the dough. Wet your hands and remove the dough. Press down on the dough on on your counter to stretch into a rough rectangle shape. Then fold each corner to the center. Fold the dough vertically by grabbing the left edge and connecting it to the right edge. Then take the dough, still roughly in a rectangle, and roll it up. Pinch the seams shut. 

Optional: It is during this phase that you can add things that you like to the dough. Perhaps you like garlic, cheddar cheese, or herbs. When the dough is stretched out in a rectangle, you can add small cubes of cheese or fresh chopped garlic, or the herbs. Continue your structure routine. When you have pulled the corners into the center, add more of your adds. If you fold one side onto the other, that is another opportunity to make your adds. Then roll into a ball and proceed as described.

Sometimes I'm dissatisfied with how it looks and re-stretch it out on the counter and do it again. 

When you're satisfied with your little package, turn it over, seam side down, and begin to give it the the bread maker's shove. (I'm sure there is a technical name for this but this is what I call it.). You can do this on a clean counter or sprinkle some flour on the counter first.

The bread maker's shove is as follows: Cup the dough with both hands, push it  away from you, then slightly left, and then pull towards you. You are not rolling it, just allowing the movement to "tighten" the skin of the dough so that it becomes smooth. Slightly rotate the dough as you give it the shove.

The dough is now ready for its final fermentation and rise. You can use a greased (butter) metal bowl or a round or elongated banetton basket. Be sure to flour the banetton to allow easy release after proofing. If you use regular flour, bread or AP, the dough will stick to the banetton when you attempt to deposit in on your baking sheet. Use less absorbent rice flour that you buy or make your own by grinding rice in your food processor.

Put the dough, top down, seam side up, into your bowl or basket. Cover with a tea towel or paper towel. Place in a calm resting place (like your microwave) for 6 to 8 hours.

Let's pause here and have another conversation about kneading and shaping. For many people this is a nearly religious type process and they have very strict and prescribed methods. If you feel lost and want to adopt the compulsive techniques of self-styled high priests and priestesses of sourdough, social media has a ton of (very excellent) videos on sourdough kneading and shaping.

Whatever you choose to do is ok. What I know, as simple as I am, is that humans have kneaded dough for thousands of years and survived. On a variety of surfaces. They didn't always have smooth polished quartz or granite or marble countertops with a bull-nosed edge or a waterfall side. No doubt there was some variation in technique during those thousands of years. So do what makes you feel good. Worst case -- after mixing the flour and water, let the dough rest for 3 hours, do your best to gently shape the dough into a ball and allow it to ferment (for 6 to 8 hours) without all the stretching and shaping. It will still rise and make a wonderful bread.

With all that said, bread making is a combination of science and art. So, just remember that a lot of variables affect your final loaf: age and quality of starter, humidity in your kitchen, protein in the flour, dryness of the flour, quality of the water, the degree of hydration, your energy level, your personal ambitions in bread making, etc., etc. So, it is very smart to develop a routine that works for you and be meticulous about keeping a log of things like key measurements so that you can begin to achieve consistent results.

You want the dough to rise in place where the temp is 75 degrees Fahrenheit or more. But don’t fixate on that. Above 70 works. What you don’t want is to expose the dough to air-conditioning or air that has been over-dried by a heater. Dry air will form a crust and retard the fermentation process. I usually start my bowl of dough around 830pm and do the stretches every 45 minutes until I go to bed. I store my dough in my microwave and let it remain there until the next morning. I try to get back to it by 830am.

What is important is that the dough ferments and rests at least for 6 to 8 hours after stretching before you progress to the next step. After that period, it should have at least doubled.

When the fermentation period is over, begin your baking preparations.

First, position your oven racks. The first rack should be in the middle. The second rack should be 3 or more inches underneath.

On that second rack, add a pie tin filled halfway. Tap water is fine. The purpose of the pie pan with water is to create a moist environment and retard the crust from hardening long enough to allow the dough to continue to rise in the oven for 10 to 20 minutes.

(At some point during the baking process, all the water in the pan will boil away and that’s ok.) (You want a steamy oven environment for at least 10 minutes. It keeps the crust soft and allows the bread to further rise in the oven; you can vary the water in the pie tin to a level that achieves the crisp crust you desire. When I was young, I wanted a crisp toast. As I age, I like a brown but softer crust.)

Turn the heat on to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Hopefully you’ve previously used a thermometer to calibrate your oven or understand how much it is over or under the indicated temp on your dial or LED read-out.

Prepare your baking pan by laying a sheet of parchment paper on it. Parchment paper is cheap and can be found with foils and wraps in your grocery store. For the baking pan, a cookie sheet or a metal pizza pan is fine. You don’t need a stone or a 7 cup dutch oven.

Next, put the parchment paper on top of the bowl with your dough. Put the pan you’re using on the parchment paper and bowl, topside down. Then flip over and let the dough drop (gently) onto the paper and pan. You may need to get your hand into the bowl and help the dough drop by pulling it down gently with your fingers. Wet doughs are always sticky.

Flour your hands and gently prod the dough into the shape of the upper part of a sphere. It will probably fall slightly in the center and resemble a flattened sphere. That’s ok. What you don’t want to do is knead the dough again. Just shape it. 

Sprinkle more flour on your hands and brush onto the dough, giving it a light coating.

Let the dough sit until the oven reaches temperature.

Now it is time to score the dough. For this size dough, a simple cross is nice. A scoring is about a quarter to half inch deep. You can use a super sharp knife or a tool called a lame (they’re cheap but you don’t need one; just don’t use a butter knife as its not sharp enough).

To make the cuts, start about two inches up from the bottom on one side and score the dough all the way across — you’re not cutting it deeply, just making a cut no deeper than ½ inch deep. The cut will slightly spread open as you go and that’s what you want. It’s an indication that the dough is still fermenting.

I like to score a cross or just one cut across the middle. When you cut the dough, hold your knife or razor at a 45 degree angle. At this point, you can make shallow decorative cuts on the dough. A popular shape is a head of wheat. Or maybe a flower. Do whatever you want to do -- or not at all.

After the scoring is done, you're ready for the oven.

Next, open the oven after it reaches temperature. Keep your face way from the door as that pie pan with water has created a steam that will want to attack you. It’s very hot. (Just make sure the water pan is a third to half full and bubbling. Your dough wants sauna like conditions to be happy, at least for the first half of baking.)

Next, place the pan with the dough on the middle shelf.

Close the oven door, set your timer to 25 minutes and walk away. I use my Apple watch 4 timer because its always on my wrist and that allows me that walk away during the bake. Apple may like its health features but for me, the most important features (other than time) are the preset timers.

At 25 minutes, check the bread to see if is done. That is my recommendation. Set your timer earlier if you like a softer crust and lighter color.  Many of you may like the bread at 20 - 25 minutes. Also, for some, it may require more time, somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes. You need to remove it after it has reached the brownness you desire. Some people like a golden brown. Others like to see a deep brown color. It’s up to you.

If you live in a big city, like New York, its fashionable among many bakeries to bake their breads until they achieve a deep brown color, almost chocolate, indicating that the crust has toasted. Other cities, like San Francisco, like a medium golden color. Again, your choice rules. For 500 grams of flour used, I bake a minimum of 25 minutes before opening the door.

From a technical point of view, a fresh bread is like a baking a whole potato. You want a final internal temperature of about 208-212 degrees, which you can measure with a cooking thermometer. That’s just a guideline.

What you don’t want is a wet bread from underbaking. From a practical point of view, judging the color to make your removal decision is fine. For me, I usually go to a deep brown around the bottom with slightly dark brown bits along the scored edges on top. 

When you pull the bread from the oven, slide the bread onto a rack (you can use a spare oven rack sitting on your counter if you don't have one) and let cool for at least 1 hour before you cut it. Yes, I said one hour. The wait is probably the most difficult part of this whole process, except for maybe the advanced mathematical calculations we did earlier.

As a reward for baking, I treat the baker, me, to a slice of cooled warm bread smeared (very) generously with softened European style (high fat) butter. It's wonderful. Or, if you're a purist or worried about fats in your diet, dip in plain high quality extra virgin olive oil. Absolutely fantastic. Or, indulge with a side-cut slice (or two) of room temperature brie smeared generously! Very decadent.

If you're a bad human, you'll generously smear butter and then generously smear brie on top of it. (Look around you first; you'll want to be sure that the health police aren't watching!)

Yeah, I know, all this (except the last bit of rewarding the baker) sounds like a lot of work and time. It is a lot of steps but after you do it a few times, like your exercise routine, it becomes very simple and easy to remember. Muscle memory takes over. And it’s worth it.

This bread will last 2 ½ days to 3 sitting on your counter. I don't own a bread box. I usually place a large metal mixing bowl over it (inverted) to keep it from drying out. When it becomes old and almost dry (don't wait until it becomes moldy), consider blending in your food processor with dry herbs (rosemary, basil, and granulated garlic) to make breadcrumbs (perfect for stuffed clams, meatballs, meatloaf, or maybe fried chicken cutlets). 

Now, for the dipping sauce (American).

Add a half cup to high quality olive oil to a bowl. Yes, extra virgin is worth it and I usually buy something from Italy. Next, add a splash to taste of a good quality balsamic vinegar (this makes it American style). Now season your dipping sauce. To taste, add salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes (not too much), and dried herbs you like such as basil. (If you're a garlic lover and want to add a little "bite", add freshly and finely chopped garlic: a couple of cloves at most.) (If color is important, add a little chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley). That’s it!

Get everything on a table, pour everyone a glass of wine, and enjoy.