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100 Percent Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread

This bread is a favorite of mine partly because it's a rich wonderfully flavorful bread, and partly because it breaks so many rules people just know to be true.

A 100% Whole Wheat Sourdough Loaf We're told you can't make a light bread with all whole wheat flour, that you have to either add some bread flour or gluten to the dough. We don't do either. We just handle the dough well, and the bread rises. Beautifully. An optional amount of gluten is included in the recipe for people who need the crutch of the gluten, or who want a slightly more risen loaf. Try making the loaf without the gluten - I think you'll find you don't need it! This bread is based on a recipe in Laurel Robertson's "The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book," "A Loaf For Learning." I have converted the recipe to be a sourdough recipe.

Laurel gives exhaustive instructions on how to make a whole wheat bread that will rise nicely. Her book has more than a recipe in it, it has 33 pages of the most clear, informative description of how to bake bread I have ever read. What follows is a very condensed version. I recommend purchasing her book, and reading the full directions. You may safely assume that each step in the instructions below occupy several pages in the book.

The first step is to convert your starter to all whole wheat if you don't maintain your starter on whole wheat. I do this so the final bread will be 100% whole wheat flour. I'm not a whole wheat fanatic, but for a sourdough bread to be made with 100% whole wheat flour, it has to be made with a starter that is fed on whole wheat. If you make a bread with a starter fed on white flour, the bread will probably turn out well, but the bread won't be a 100% whole wheat bread.

I have used "High Altitude Hungarian Stone Ground Style Whole Wheat Flour", Rocky Mountain Milling's organic whole wheat flour, and flour I ground at home with either a KitchenAid GrainMill attachment or a GrainMaster WhisperMill to do this. So far, the home ground GrainMaster WhisperMill flour has been the pick of the litter, followed fairly closely by Rocky Mountain Milling's flour, but the High Altitude flour has the advantage of being available in grocery stores here. You can use any finely ground whole wheat flour.

To convert my starter to whole wheat, I start by refreshing my regular starter until it is lively and active. Then I use a small amount of it and feed it with whole wheat flour and water until I have enough to bake whole wheat bread with. Finally, please be aware that the cups and gram measurements are approximations of one another. Most people who measure in grams do not want to weigh out 1,234 grams. 1,230 is close enough. Nor do people using cups want strange cup measurements like 3/16 cup. So, please don't think that, for example, 90 grams of flour is 1/2 cup.

Feeding Starter - Grams (Volumetric) Whole Wheat Flour - Grams (Volumetric) Water - Grams (Volumetric)
First 15 grams
(1 TBSP)
8 grams
(1 TBSP)
8 grams
(1/2 TBSP)
Second All from previous step 15 grams
(2 TBSP)
15 grams
(1 TBSP)
Third All from previous step 30 grams
(4 TBSP)
30 grams
(2 TBSP)
Fourth All from previous step 60 grams
(1/2 cup)
60 grams
(4 TBSP)
The feedings are about 12 hours apart, and this feeding schedule will give you a little bit of extra starter so you can maintain a whole wheat starter after you make this bread.

Here are the ingredients for a loaf of the bread:

Weight Ingredient Volumetric Measurement Baker's Percentage
180 grams Water 3/4 cup 54
210 grams Active Whole Wheat Sourdough Starter 3/4 cup 60
30 grams Light Olive Oil 2 1/3 TBSP 8.9
30 grams Honey 1 1/2 TBSP 8.6
20 grams Vital wheat gluten (optional) 2 2/3 TBSP 6
320 grams Whole wheat flour 2 2/3 cup 94
8.2 grams Salt 1 1/4 tsp 2.4

Pour starter into a mixing bowl. Add the water, salt, honey, and oil. Whisk together.

If you are measuring by weight, add all the dry ingredients to the mixing bowl and mix it all together. If you are measuring by volume, add the flour a cup at a time and stir. After the first cup, add the rest of the dry ingredients. Make sure the dough is well mixed, feeling it to see if the water has been incorporated through the dough. Yes, this means you should use your fingers to feel the dough, massage it, and look and feel for dry spots where flour has not been moistened. If you find such, mix the flour into the dough and get it moistened.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for five minutes, cover the dough and let it rest for five more minutes, and then knead it until it passes the windowpane test, probably another five to ten minutes.

I recommend the rest period for all doughs, as this give the flour time to absorb moisture and the dough to settle in. It's easier to let nature do this than to keep kneading. I find that it takes less time to knead the dough if I let the dough rest. This is especially critical with whole grain flours. While whole grains will absorb more water than refined flours, they do so more slowly than refined flours. Many beginners add too much flour because they think the dough is too wet. Then the flour absorbs the moisture and suddenly the dough is too dry. More water is added. The cycle continues. When the baker either gets it right or gives up in disgust, there is much more flour and water than the starter can deal with in a reasonable time frame so the bread rises slowly. So, I suggest not adjusting the flour and moisture until after the resting period.

Having a plastic dough scraper handy is a good thing, as you can scrape up the stuff that sticks to the kneading surface, so it can be incorporated back into the dough. About half way through the kneading, the dough will get a lot less sticky, even without adding much flour.

Try not too add too much flour. (I usually add about 1/2 cup per loaf in the kneading process.) In my baking classes and in corresponding with people through this site, I find the biggest problem most beginning bakers have is adding too much flour and having too stiff and dry a dough. Up to a point, wetter is better. In all my classes students are amazed at how wet the doughs they make are, and realize they'd been making doughs far too dry.

Form the dough into a ball, and then, holding the ball in two hands, tuck the surface of the ball into the bottom of the ball, which will cause the surface of the ball to stretch and form a gluten cloak on the outside of the ball of dough. Don't stretch the dough so much that you tear the dough.

Put a bit of oil in the bottom of a bowl, put the smooth side of the dough onto the oil. Turn the dough so it's lightly coated with oil. It doesn't matter at this stage if the smooth side is up or down. Once the loaf is covered with oil, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise about 1 1/2 hours in a warm place.

When the dough has doubled in size, gently deflate the dough by pressing your fist into the ball, then fold over the sides of the ball to form it into a new ball, and put back into the mixing bowl. Again, let the dough rise covered in a warm place until doubled, which will take about 1/2 as long as the first rise.

Again, gently deflate the bread, and form a loaf, and put the loaf into a greased 4 x 8" bread pan. (I use "Baker's Joy" to grease my loaf pans.)

Put the loaf aside to rise, which should be a bit faster than the second rise. Don't let it over-rise!

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Slash the bread with a single slash down the center of the loaf. Pop the bread into the oven. After 1/2 an hour, look at it. If the loaf is quite brown, reduce the temperature to 325 F. If the bread is pale or pinkish, raise the temperature to 375 F. You may want to use those temperatures for your next loaf. If you are at high altitudes, or you use glass bread pans, you may need to adjust the temperature further (see "Baking at altitudes.")

Let it continue baking another 15 minutes. Pull the bread out and check it for doneness. I prefer to pop the loaf out of the pan and stick a quick reading dial thermometer into the bottom of the loaf. I think it's done when it reaches 190 F inside. However, at altitudes less than 5,280 feet, I'd probably shoot for 195 or even 200 F. (At 7,700 feet, where I live, the boiling point is 198 F, so trying for more than 200 F is just gonna burn the bread.)

Let it cool, slice and enjoy! I've made about 15 loaves of this bread as I write this and all are light, open grained, and delightful. I'd never have believed I could make a light whole wheat bread if I hadn't seen it!

An update - Since I put this recipe online back in April of 2001, I've made thousands of these loaves and they were a favorite at two bakeries. It's still a favorite recipe. Some people tell me that the sourdough makes the micro-nutrients in the whole wheat more biologically available. That may be, but for me what's important is that it tastes great.