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100% Whole Wheat
Sourdough Bread Dissected

On this web page we're going to look at what differences occur in a loaf of bread when simple changes are made in the making of the bread. Like many people, I've wanted to make bread from all whole wheat flour, with no white flour at all. Moreover, I wanted to make it with sourdough. When I read Laurel Robertson's "Bread From Laurel's Kitchen", I was half way there. She has a GREAT 100% whole wheat bread.

Laurel gives the most complete instructions imaginable for preparing and baking this bread. It's her "Loaf for Learning", and it's worth the price of the book by itself.

The bread is light, it's fluffy, and it doesn't use added gluten to get there. So, I had to convert it to a sourdough recipe. I use the recipe in classes I teach, and it's documented in our "Introduction to Sourdough" booklet. The bread is light and fluffy, like Laurel's version. It also has a great whole wheat taste. And it has the most amazing sourdough tang. It makes your tongue tingle, and some people report their toes curl. I love it, but the sourdough taste is a bit strong for some people. All this left me wondering which steps were necessary for the light structure of the bread, and if the sour taste could be controlled.

Laurel gives the most complete instructions and I will summarize them here. I again encourage you to run out and buy her book if you don't already have it. You start by carefully mixing the ingredients by hand, making sure that all the flour is wet. One of the ingredients I use at this point is a cup of sourdough starter per loaf of whole wheat bread. The starter should be very active , and fed on whole wheat flour.

Next you knead the dough while adding a bare minimum of additional flour. As you knead, the dough will lose its stickiness by itself, about half way through the 15 minute or so per loaf knead. Laurel has you knead the bread until it passes the windowpane test. To perform the windowpane test, you pinch off some dough, roll it into a ball shape, and then start stretching it. You should be able to stretch it far enough that you can see light through it without the dough tearing. This takes a while..... about 15 minutes per loaf.

At that point, Laurel has you let the bread rise until it's doubled in size. With sourdough this first rise will take about 2 1/2 hours. At the end of this rising, instead of punching down the dough, you gently deflate it. Then you knead it briefly. This brief kneading, allows the yeast to come in contact with fresh carbohydrates and sugars, which gives them the food they need to help rise the bread.

Then we let the bread rise again until doubled. This usually takes about 1/2 the time of the first rise, or around 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. After the second rising, the dough is again gently deflated and kneaded briefly. Now the bread is formed into loaves, and again allowed to rise until doubled. When this is done, the bread is baked.

The questions I was curious about is.... what happens if you don't let the bread rise three times before baking it? What happens if you let it rise once, or twice instead? What if you don't knead it until it passes the windowpane test?

For this test, I prepared a batch of dough large enough for 4 loaves. I had intended to handle each loaf slightly differently, but I was called away at a critical point, and that didn't happen. The first loaf was formed after the initial kneading. The second loaf was formed after the first rise, and the third and fourth loaves were formed after the second rise. I had intended to also bake an under-kneaded single loaf, which did not happen for this test.

So, what happened? If you look at the pictures below, and even if you click on them to see the larger versions, you'll see the visual differences are very subtle. Hopefully you can see what I saw in the breads. The first loaf had the least crumb definition, the second had more, and the last loaf had the best crumb definition. The differences were subtle, but the were there - at least when I saw the real breads instead of a picture of them. (One day I need to set up a small studio to take pictures of bread with a controlled backdrop and controlled lighting. One day my wife will have me committed.) However... the taste varied remarkably.

Loaf 1, small picture

Loaf 1 - short rise, mild sourdough taste
Loaf 2, small picture

Loaf 2 - longer rise, stronger sourdough taste
Loaf 3, small picture

Loaf 3 - longest rise, strongest sourdough taste

The amount of wheat taste diminished in each loaf from the least risen to the most risen, while the sourdough "tang" increased. The loaf that was formed after the initial kneading and baked as soon as it rose had a very nice whole wheat taste and virtually no taste to suggest the bread was a sourdough bread. The second loaf, which was formed after the first rising and then baked when it had risen, had a less pronounced whole wheat taste with a balanced sourdough taste. The third loaf, which was formed after two risings, and baked after it rose the third time, had a sourdough taste that bowled us over. However, the whole wheat taste was all but gone.

Which bread was the best? That depends on your taste, and perhaps your audience. All were very nice breads. I'd be happy to eat any of them. However, I think that the first and second breads are better suited to breakfast - that is, being eaten with subtle or sweet things on them. The second and third breads are more able to stand up to more savory sandwich toppings. I have to say that some people will not like the third loaf. It is very sour, very assertive. I found it wonderful, and it is my favorite. At times I appreciate balance, but that bread is delightful even if it isn't subtle and balanced.