Apr 032014

Norwich sourdough

I grew up under the impression that I disliked sourdough bread. I suspect I am not alone here, as I grew up before the bread revolution and there was a glut of face-puckering super-sour sourdoughs on the market. I suppose they were ostensibly trying to emulate what people though San Francisco sourdough should be, but let’s face it: it didn’t make for very good eats.

Seven years ago, I started baking my own bread. As I delved deeper and deeper into the lifestyle of homemade bread, I started to get interested in the idea of sourdough because I lived in Alaska at the time and sourdough is a big part of the state’s cultural history. It wouldn’t be until many years later that I finally got up the nerve to pull the trigger and start a wild yeast culture.

As with so many new-to-me things in the bread world, Peter Reinhart and the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge were the original things that nudged me into trying out wild yeast. I built a seed culture and promptly abandoned it after a few days not because I thought it was dead, but because I was seriously afraid that it was going to eat the house. I now know that I had a pretty wicked leuconostoc culture going, but that bacteria would have died out in time as more desirable lactobacillus bacteria pulled eminent domain in my starter.

In 2011, I had a pretty good starter named Zeke going, using instructions from 52 Loaves (which is a great read but not the best way to raise and care for a starter), though I didn’t know any better and kept it in the fridge and didn’t refresh it properly before baking with it, so it was never able to raise a good loaf without spiking the dough with some commercial yeast. Then I got pregnant, couldn’t even look at food (much less feed my food), and Zeke The First died, though he lives on in a portion that I shared with Heather when she visited once.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago. I have a toddler and haven’t done much bread-baking since she was born (shocking, isn’t it?). I was at a breastfeeding mamas group meeting and just happened to get into a sourdough discussion with a friend, and the bread-baking bug — all eighteen months’ worth of suppressed water, flour, yeast, and salt — reared its head and roared. Twenty-four hours later I had thrown together a starter (again named Zeke, this time using the method from the Wild Yeast blog), and ten days later when it was (finally) mature (hey, my kitchen was cold), I started baking with it and haven’t slowed up since.

This recipe is one I had pinned oh-so-many years ago, back when Zeke The First was still with me. I decided this Norwich sourdough would be an excellent inaugural foray for Zeke The Second simply based on the fact that it is Susan-of-Wild-Yeast’s favorite. She knows her stuff, so it naturally seemed like a good starting point. And though there were some mis-steps and hiccups along the way because my skills need some rust knocked off, it was still quite tasty and I was thrilled to see that I really could bake bread with only water, flour and salt.

Yesterday I decided to bake another round of Norwich, and oh my goodness, this is seriously some of the prettiest and tastiest bread I’ve ever made. Zeke imparts a pleasant tang, completely unlike the sourdoughs of my youth. And this crust? Oh my, you don’t get this sort of crust from commercial yeast. I don’t even know how to describe it: perhaps one that sings upon being taken from the oven and has shattering layers with a bit of chew? Zeke is still a young’n and his flavor will continue to develop for another week or so, and I can’t wait to see what adventures we’re going to have together.

Norwich sourdough

Norwich sourdough
From Wild Yeast and shared on that blog with YeastSpotting
Makes two one-kilogram loaves (or a larger number of smaller loaves)


  • No, I don’t have volume measurements for this recipe (sorrynotsorry). I bake by weight, not volume. It’s much more accurate that way.
  • This recipe does assume that you know your way around the basic method for baking bread. Here are some things that might help if you need some clarification on terminology or techniques:
  • I have made this with an all-white starter and with a white/whole-rye starter. They’re both delicious.
  • Retarding the dough in the fridge during the proof allows bacterial fermentation to catch up to yeast fermentation. This gives you a different flavor profile and crust. I don’t have enough room in my oven to bake all of the loaves from this recipe at once, so I bake one loaf without putting it in the fridge and retard the other.
  • Steam is critical for good oven spring and crust color. To get it, I place a cast-iron skillet filled with lava rocks on the bottom rack of the oven when I turn it on. When it’s time to place the bread in the oven, I bring a cup of water to a boil, and immediately after transferring the dough, pour the water over the rocks while wearing a long oven-mitt and close the door as fast as I can. It does a wonderful job — much better than spritzing the loaves with a plant-mister.

You will need:

  • 900 g all-purpose or bread flour
  • 120 g whole rye flour
  • 600 g water at about 74F
  • 360 g mature, ripe 100% hydration sourdough starter
  • 23 g salt

To prepare:

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the flours, water, and starter on low speed until just combined, about one minute. Let the dough rest (autolyse) for 30 minutes.
  2. Add the salt and continue mixing on low or medium speed until the dough reaches a medium level of gluten development. This should only take about 3 or 4 minutes. Do not worry about the window-pane test.
  3. Transfer the dough to an oiled container (preferably a low, wide one so the dough can be folded without removing it from the container).
  4. Ferment at room temperature (72F – 76F) for 2.5 hours, with folds at 50 and 100 minutes.
  5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter. Divide it into pieces that are the number and size that you desire for your bread. Preshape the dough pieces into light balls. Sprinkle the balls lightly with flour, cover loosely with plastic or large inverted bowls, and let rest for 15-30 minutes.
  6. Shape into batards (or the shape of your choice) and place seam-side-up in a floured couche or linen-lined bannetons, or seam-side down on parchment paper on a inverted baking sheet. Slip the bread-proofing contraption into a large plastic bag or cover with plastic wrap and proof at room temperature for 2 – 2.5 hours. Alternatively, the loaves can be proofed for about 1.5 hours at room temperature, then refrigerated for 2 – 16 hours and baked directly out of the refrigerator; this will yield a tangier bread with a lovely, blistered crust.
  7. Meanwhile, preheat the oven, with baking stone, to 475F. You will also need steam during the initial phase of baking, so prepare for this now.
  8. Turn the proofed loaves onto a semolina-sprinkled peel or parchment (if needed). Slash each one with two overlapping cuts that are almost parallel to the long axis of the batard, or score a boule with a large cross-hatch (#).
  9. Once the loaves are in the oven, turn the heat down to 450F. For 1-kg loaves, bake for 12 minutes with steam, and another 20 minutes without steam (smaller loaves will need less time). The crust should be a deep brown. Then turn off the oven and leave the loaves in for 5 minutes longer, with the door ajar, to help them dry.
  10. Cool on a wire rack. And here’s the part people hate me for: don’t cut until the loaves are completely cool, if you can manage it!

  2 Responses to “Norwich sourdough: in which I learn to love wild yeast”

  1. I’ve been making this recipe for quite awhile and I usually make 3 good-sized loaves. How many loaves do you make? I noticed that the recipe from the Wild Yeast blog makes 5 loaves. I tried it that way and the loaves were so tiny, but on her website they look huge. Just wondering what your personal experience is.

    • I like to make two large (1-kg or just over 2-lb) loaves, but that’s dictated more by my space limitations with proofing and baking multiple shaped loaves at once than by anything else. Good luck!

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