First of all, we all need to understand one basic thing: there’s no need to ever buy bread from the shops when you know how to make your own. It’s very easy to make a nice loaf of bread and it should never cost you more than $1 when you add up all the basic contents that go into a nice, simple loaf. There’s no need to pay $5 or more for a loaf of artisanal bread from your local market when you can learn how to make an even better loaf at home… and you don’t need that $300 bread machine either!
First, a bit of history: Wheat has been a staple in the human diet for over 10,000 years and evidence of wheat cultivation can be dated back to 9,000 BC in the Levant or what is now known as Iraq. Prior to this wild wheat, emmer and barley were used to make primitive breads. It was when early hunter/gatherers learned to grind wheat and other cereal grains that our love of bread was born. Farmed in the Levant and in the Nile Delta, wild emmer was the first cereal grain to be domesticated. Being a coarser and heavier grain, it would have produced a very filling and unleavened loaf in it’s time.
As farming of wheat continued throughout history preferred strains would be favoured and cultivated eventually leading to what it is we bake with today. The use of yeast in bread-making was something that came along much further in the evolution of bread. Prior to the use of beer barm, it is believed that fermented dough starters were in use as early 4,000 BC in Egypt and the practice moved north and east from there; Egyptians were the first to ferment dough and bake leavened loaves in clay ovens as opposed to over fires or hearths. Pliny The Elder had documented in 77 AD that barbarians in Iberia and Gaul were skimming off the foam from beer to use it in creating a lighter loaf of bread. The Romans later adopted this method in making their own breads as well.
So let’s get to the recipe, shall we? If you’ve got your own sourdough starter, you’re good to go. If you’d like to make your own that you can use for years to come there’s a terrific recipe for Sourdough Starter (Biga or Lievito Madre) here on Tavola, give it a try if you want to learn how to make and keep your own starter. It’ll change your home bread-baking projects for the better. The other item this recipe calls for is a lidded cast-iron casserole dish. Any brand will do; I use Le Creuset french ovens like the one pictured below.
When I first started making sourdough bread I went through a series of experimental recipes for weeks and weeks trying to find the best way to make a perfect loaf. I spent a few weeks going through the ‘no knead’ bread recipes found online by Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey, and some kneaded methods like Paul Hollywood’s and Jamie Oliver’s recipes. While I found the methods they all used to be truly fascinating, the end result for me was always a loaf that fell flat after the second rise while trying to flop it into the preheated cast-iron french oven. It happened every… single… time. So! I ended up stepping away from it for a spell and then coming back to the table with my own method. It’s quick, simple, and it produces lovely results. It also only takes 3.5 hours from start to finish to make it. Let’s give it a try, shall we?
French Sourdough Bread (1 loaf)
- 1 cup of sourdough starter*
- 1 cup of water
- 3 cups of flour
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp of sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp active dry yeast
- 2 tbsp of semolina flour or corn meal
*If you wish to make this loaf without the sourdough starter simply add an extra 1/4 cup of water instead of the starter and follow along with the rest of the directions.
Add the water, olive oil, sugar and yeast into a mixing bowl. Let it proof for 10 minutes until you can see the yeast start to foam and bubble. Once the yeast has proven itself active, add in the sourdough starter, flour, salt and mix the ingredients. I use an electric mixer with a bread paddle on it but good old fashioned hands and elbow grease will do a nice job as well. Mix the ingredients together until it makes a nice wad of dough. Form it with your hands to make a nice round loaf and dust it with the semolina flour on both sides. Place the ball of dough back in the bowl and make sure the bottom has plenty of semolina on it. Sprinkle some semolina around the sides of the loaf so when it rises the dough will pick it up on the sides as it expands. The reason why we’re doing this is so that the loaf, once risen, will simply fall out of the bowl into the baking dish instead of sticking to it. Cover the bowl now with a plastic lid or plastic wrap and let the dough rise for 2.5 to 3 hours, or until the dough triples in size. Note: The dough will only go through one rise! Now go clean the house or watch a few episodes of Two Greedy Italians!
Once the dough has risen nicely, preheat the oven to 475 F/245 C/Gas Mark 9 with the empty cast-iron, lidded casserole dish of your choice inside. I use my Le Creuset french ovens and both the 3.5 quart and 5 quart ovens can manage these loaves just fine. Important! Make sure that the baking dish you’re using can be heated while empty for 30 mins without damage. Cast-iron enameled pots with lids (such as Le Creuset pots) can endure this heat well. Once the oven has reached the baking temperature with the pot inside, put on your oven mitts and remove the pot from the oven and place it on the stove. Carefully tip the mixing bowl and drop the dough from it into the heated casserole dish. Put the lid back on and carefully place it back in the oven. Bake the loaf covered for 30 minutes and then remove the lid and let the top of the loaf brown for an additional 10 minutes. Once the loaf is done remove the baking pot and let it cool for an hour. Note: One of the key reasons for dropping the dough into the pot while it is hot is that it does not allow the loaf to stick to the pot whatsoever and the intense heat during the first few minutes of baking gives the loaf an ‘oven spring’ wherein it will grow and expand even further causing lovely cracks and crevices to form on the top during the first stage of baking.
Once the bread has cooled, try it with a bit of butter or some olive oil. It also goes brilliantly with a nice sharp cheese!
Bon appetit! Good eating to you…
Please feel free to leave comments or suggestions about this recipe below.
Would you be able to roll into baguettes? I don’t have a lidded dish so I’m looking for an alternative
You should be able to use the same basic recipe to make into baguettes. You need a baguette pan and a linen towel so you can first lay the loaves out to proof, and then to contain them. A lame (Lah-may) helps to score the loaves before you place therm in the oven if you want to make them really French.
I don’t use any whole wheat flour in dough that I turn into baguettes though. I like them light and crispy, like you would get at a Paris boulangerie. Sourdough works fine (and indeed you see sourdough baguettes in France too).
Hi Farrell, made this fabulous bread and it’s a winner, my husband said it was the best bread l have made so far l love that the reciepe was so easy.
I was wondering, can I skip yeast and just use the sourdough?
Yes you can skip the yeast. You’ll need a touch more sourdough starter, and will want to let it rise longer during the bulk fermentation stage (rise until doubled in bulk).. Do not skip the salt though. That is essential.
It is now 2020 and I have been making this recipe, both with and without the sourdough starter, for 5 years now. I always get great results and am always asked to “please make again.” I live at high altitude (4500 feet) and I make NO changes to the ingredients or bake time. Thank you Farrell for a truly wonderful recipe.
Hi Althea! I remember you! Thank you for the kind words! I am happy that you’re still making the bread. 🙂 Have a Happy Easter! – Farrell
thanks for the very detailed recipe also lovely photos. How many bread did you get from this recipe?
Thank you! 1 loaf. 🙂
When you state “Mix…until it makes a nice wad of dough”. Approximately how long is this mixing? I have tried various mixing times and sometimes I don’t mix enough and other times I think I’ve over-mixed. Can you give an estimate?
Hi! I leave my mixer run for approximately 4 to 5 minutes. It’s once the paddle or dough hook has gathered all the liquid and flour from the sides of the bowl and grips it well in a wad that you’re good to go. If you’re using your own starter, as opposed to bakers yeast, the recipe can be a bit on the wetter side and won’t neccesary be a wad but a softer dough. Hope this helps and let us know how your loaf turns out!
I made this bread last night and it turned out wonderful; brown and all crackly, excellent taste. Thank you for all your help and helpful tips. Will definitely make again and again. Quick ‘n Easy and will be my #1 go-to recipe.
Great news! I’m happy that you like it. If you feel like adding some additional flavours next time, there are two other recipes for the same loaf that incorporate Fig and Olive (https://tavolamediterranea.com/2013/03/01/fig-and-black-olive-sourdough-bread/) and Rosemary and Olive (https://tavolamediterranea.com/2013/03/01/rosemary-and-olive-sourdough-bread/).
Also, don’t stress about how long you’ve mixed it. Essentially you just want to make sure the flour and liquid are well mixed. The yeast will do all the work after that. ~ Farrell
I just made this on Friday. The only problem I had was when I had to dump the dough into the hot pot. When I tried dumping the dough into the pot the dough just clung to the bowl. I had to use a spatula to help dislodge it from the bowl. I think next time I’ll use some baking spray to help the dough slide out of the bowl.
My sourdough starter wasn’t ready to use so I added the extra ¼ cup of water as directed. The dough was on the sticky side when I tried dumping it into the hot pot so maybe next time I won’t add the extra water.
All in all this made a delicious loaf of bread and am planning on making it again the week-end when my sourdough starter is ready.
Hi Althea! It can be a bit concerning when the dough falls as you’re transferring it into the preheated pan. The good news is that it will spring back though, once it’s in the pot and covered; you’ll notice it won’t stick at all to the pot as well. You may want to try a few other transfer tricks to see how it suits you: dust the loaf with semolina before the second rise and see if it drops out easier this way. OR…. use parchment paper on the bottom of the bowl that the loaf is rising in prior to going into the hot pot. Then all you have to do is gently lift it up and lower it into the pot on the parchment paper. Try this bread recipe as well and see how you like it: https://tavolamediterranea.com/2014/09/09/italian-country-bread-made-with-starter-pasta-madre/
Thanks for trying Tavola!
put flour on your hands when moving the dough into the hot dutch oven. That will make the transfer much easier. I also throw some sesame seeds into the bottom of the dutch oven too. Helps to prevent sticking, and they look pretty too.
What do you do with the 1T of olive oil that you have listed in the ingredients?
Thank you for catching that, Sue! I have corrected the post. The olive oil goes in with the water, sugar and yeast during the proofing phase. 🙂
Doesn’t the dough “fall” when you dump in the cast iron pan?
My bread dough will usually collapse very easily after the rise
Hi! No, you’ll find that if you use enough semolina or corn flour to line the bowl during the dough’s rising process, it should fall out nicely into the preheated baking pot. You will lose some air in the dough during this tipping process but the amazing thing is that once you put the lid back on (with your oven mitts!) the dough will round itself out again quite nicely during the initial baking phase. You’ll see this when you pop the lid off at the 30 minute mark of baking. Let me know how this works out for you!