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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.

You need a better 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!

UPDATED: March 17, 2024  Baking is an exploration of technique and style. One of the things I focus upon is simplicity and reproducible results. I've slightly modified this recipe to reflect recent learnings.

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 almost 24 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 like 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).

Critical: If you use the starter from Amazon, it’s hungry; don’t underestimate its need to be fed. Every day without fail. Initially, 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.

Pro-tips: 1) After your starter is established, feed it daily with about 2/3rds of a cup of flour and a quarter cup of water. When you stir, check to see that you have a thick consistency. Add water or flour to adjust. 2) Never let your starter exceed half the height of the bottle that it is in. This ensures that what is in the bottle is "active". 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). Also, a loose lid works fine as well -- don't tighten it.

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 don't bother to measure and look unless I suspect a problem.

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 10 grams of salt (I use kosher salt). If you like, add more salt but I recommend less than 10 grams more. For water, you need 350 grams. For starter, 100 grams. 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. Hit tare again to zero, and then add 350 grams of water. If you're a nervous type like me, measure the 350 grams of water separately and then add to the bowl with the flour.

Do not add starter at this point.

Now stir the water and flour together. You want to get the water incorporated but don't overwork the dough.

(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.)

Cover the wet flour and let sit for 60 minutes to fully hydrate, or, using the words of experts, autolyse (whatever that means). Yeah, 60 minutes seems like a long time for just flour and water but you'll find the internal crumb structure of the finished loaf will be much better.

After 30 minutes, stir with your wisk or wooden spoon. Or just use your wet fingers. If it feels smooth, go ahead and add 100 grams of starter. Stir it in. Again, don't overwork it. Then add 10 grams of salt.

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

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

Dough conditioning and fermentation is roughly divided into four phases. The first phase is about 3 - 4 hours.

Phase one: Develop gluten and structure by doing so-called "stretch" folds.  Every 30 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 four in total of these "stretches" every 30 minutes. (The waits 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. Success is when the stretching results in a smooth but sticky surface of dough that doesn't tear when you stretch it. 

The 30 minute intervals is an approximate time. Depending on what I am doing during the day, I sometimes go back after 60 minutes.

Phase 2: Next is the bulk rise. Lightly oil (olive oil or canola or vegetable) a bowl (glass or metal), and place the dough in the center. The goal is to see the dough rise by nearly double. Should take about 3-5 hours. Or longer if your house is cool.

Phase 3: Now is the time to form your bread loaf. Remove the dough and place on the counter. For an oval loaf: Stretch it out into a large rectangle, about 20 x 14 inches. Fold over one long side onto the other side. Grab the top corners, stretch away from you about 2 inches, and pull down and push down onto the dough about 4 inches down. Do the same with bottom. For a round loaf, pull the corners into the center, fold it over left to right, and then roll. Finally,  roll the dough towards you like a cinnamon roll and then pinch and tuck the ends.

Optional: It is during this phase, when the dough is stretched out like a pizza, that you can add things that you like to the dough. Perhaps you like fresh chopped garlic, small cubes of cheese, the herbs, or things like jalepeno slices. Continue your structure routine. When you have pulled left side over the right side, add more of your adds.Then roll into a ball and proceed as described.

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. And be gentle when you do it. (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. If you feel too much resistance on the counter, sprinkle a little flour on the counter (but avoid too much).

Phase 4: 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.

Pro-tip: To make the rice flour stick to your banetton, lightly spray some water on it or sprinkle some water by hand.

Pro-tip: When you use a banetton, you can put the dough directly on the basket after it is rice floured. You'll get cute spirals on the finished baked bread. Or you can put in the clothe cover that came with the banetton. Or you can take a large tea towel and place it in the banetton. Regardless of your choice, rigorously dampen the surface and sprinkle liberally with rice flour.

Put the dough, top down, seam side up, into your bowl or basket. You'll probably need to pinch the seams you see shut. Do this by grabbing a pinch of dough on one side and then pull it over the seam and pinch down into the dough. Repeat 4 or 5 times. Wet your fingers if you need to get the dough to stay tacked down.

Cover with a tea towel. I usually let rise on my counter until it is about 1.5 to 2 inches from the top of the banneton. Don't worry it doesn't grow up that much.

Pro-tip: I place the banneton or metal bowl on a tea towel or hot pad rather than being directly on the counter. Counters tend to be cold and cold retards the dough's development.

Place in your refrigerator, covered with the tea towel, for 6 to 8 or more hours. I typically average 10 hours. Overnight is best.

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 and rise for 3 hours, do your best to gently shape the dough into a ball and allow it to ferment (for 6 to 8 hours) in the refrigerator 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.

What is important is that the dough ferments and rests between steps.

Note: The dough in the banetton will only slightly rise in the refrigerator. That's ok. But, believe me, the microbes are working in the cold.

When the fermentation period is completing, 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.

Get your fermented dough out of the refrigerator, about 45 minutes to an hour before you put it into the oven. It will probably rise another inch.

Turn the oven heat on to 475 degrees Fahrenheit about 30-60 minutes before you bake. 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.

After at least 30 minutes, put the parchment paper on top of the bowl or banetton 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.

It will probably start to slowly sag outward. That’s ok. The refrigeration will keep it from flattening too much. What you don’t want to do is knead the dough again. 

Use your hands to brush away any excess rice flour. Sprinkle wheat flour on your hands and brush onto the dough, giving it a light coating.

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). Your can attempt to make an "ear". Some like that some don't.

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 1 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 to the cut. 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.

Pro-tip: If you're attempting to make and "ear", shown in the picture, or you want to see the spread of the dough in the final baked bread, re-score those main scores and deepen by another quarter to half inch. You want the dough to spread slightly so it does't re-stick together.

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

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.

(You want a steamy oven environment for at least 15 minutes of bake time. 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.)

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

Close the oven door, reset the temperature to 450F, set your timer to 15 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 15 minutes, remove the pan with the water. Be careful opening the door -- don't put your face too close as the steam will rush out towards you. You should see that your dough, which was flattening when you placed in the oven, has been busy and is "springing" back up.

Bake for another 15 minutes. Take a look to see if it is browning. It will probably be a light golden color. I usually bake another 10 minutes for a total time of 40 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.

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.

Pro-tip: If you use a thermometer, make sure the tip reaches the middle of the loaf. You'll learn over time that the center can be 2 degrees cooler than the area around center.

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. Preferable, wait 2 hours! If you don't wait, you'll end up a bread with a gummy center.

Wet doughs require a longer set period. The wait is probably the most difficult part of this whole process.

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 (very) bad human, you'll generously smear butter (for sweetness) 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. Cut ends should be face down on the counter (after it is cooled). 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.