Baking Sandwich Breads (and Pizza Crust) Using a Pre-Fermented Starter

Reader Contribution by Wendy Akin
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European breads are frequently made with an overnight starter, called poolish or biga. A super-easy way of developing dough I learned from Peter Reinhart (author of The Bread Bakers Apprentice) has helped me to quickly put together some delicious, full-flavored sandwich breads. Here’s how.

Overnight Starter for 3 Batches of Bread

Ingredients for starter:

• 6 cups (30 ounces) bread flour
• 1 ½ tsp fine sea salt
• 1 ½ tsp instant yeast
• 2 ½ cups tepid water

Directions for starter:

1. You can use the mixer with a dough hook, or it’s easy enough to stir this up by hand — just approximate the mixer directions. Whichever you choose, put the flour into a good-sized bowl, tall rather than wide (your mixer bowl is fine).

2. Put the salt in one side of the bowl and the yeast on the other, then stir together. Never dump the salt and yeast on top of each other — the salt delays the yeast.

3. Make a little well, then pour the water into the mix. Run the mixer on “stir” until the flour is taken up. Turn the mixer off and let it rest a minute or two, then turn the mixer on to #4 and run for 2 minutes. Rest a minute then run on #4 again for a couple minutes. Repeat. The dough will clear the bowl, but still look pretty shaggy.

4. Put out a large cutting board (mine is 16 by 20 inches) or a sheet pan will do. Put about a Tbsp of oil on the board, smear it around with your hands, and leave your hands greased. Then dump the dough out. Pat the dough into an oval, about 10 by 12 inches.

5. Now, pick up the far edge of the dough and pull and stretch it away from you, then fold it back onto the back half of the dough. Pick up the front edge, pull and stretch it and then fold it back onto the dough. Turn the dough over so the stretched and folded surface is now on the bottom. Repeat the pull-and-stretch again, and turn the dough over.

6. Walk away for a few minutes. Because the dough is oiled, you don’t need to cover it now. Go back and repeat the pull-and-stretch, both sides, and again let it rest a few minutes. Repeat one more time. If you pull and stretch a small area, you’ll see the “window” — a bit of dough that will stretch so thin you can read through it. This indicates that the dough is nicely developed even though you’ve done very little work.

My hands always need care, so I usually just massage the oil into them, then wipe just my palms on a paper towel in between stretches.

7. Put the dough into a greased bowl large enough to allow it to fully double. Cover the bowl with plastic and put it in the fridge overnight to rest and develop flavor. The dough will rise nearly double, then deflate a bit. (It can rest for as long as two nights if you’re not ready to bake.)

8. Now, we just continue as with my previous sandwich bread recipes — here and here — and the steps are below. Ingredients are about the same as with the basic breads but with the addition of the starter.

Sometimes I go half and half, with half bread flour and half white whole-wheat or other whole-wheat flour.

Using Pre-Fermented Starter for White Sandwich Bread and White Whole-Wheat Sandwich Breads

Ingredients for White Sandwich Bread:

With tiny amounts of sugar and fat, this is a very low-calorie bread. Makes 2 fat loaves or boules

• 6 cups bread flour in all, (divided), plus extra in reserve
• 1 tbsp fine sea salt
• 2 tbsp instant yeast
• 16 ounces pre-fermented starter (about 1/3 of a batch)
• 2 cups hot water
• 1 tbsp or so honey (optional)
• 1 tbsp or so non-GMO oil

Ingredients for White Whole-Wheat Sandwich Bread

This very lean dough makes a low-calorie bread. Makes 2 fat loaves or boules

• 6 cups white whole wheat flour in all (divided)
• ¼ cup vital wheat gluten
• 1 tbsp fine sea salt
• 2 tbsp instant yeast
• 16 ounces pre-fermented starter (about 1/3 of a batch)
• 2 cups hot water
• 1 tbsp or so honey (optional)
• 1 tbsp or so non-GMO oil

Directions for both variations above:

1. Set up the mixer with the dough hook.

2. Put 4 cups of the flour and the rest of the dry ingredients into the bowl — salt and yeast on opposite sides. Give it a stir.

3. With your bench knife or just your hands, cut the 16 ounces of starter into about 10 pieces, dropping each into the dry ingredients. Add the hot water and turn on the mixer to “stir.”

4. Run the mixer until the flour is nearly taken up and then turn up the speed to #4. Run on #4 for at least 5 minutes — the hunks of starter will be well incorporated into the dough.

5. Add the remaining flour, holding back a little. Again, run on “stir” until the flour is taken up and then turn to #4 for a good 5 to 10 minutes, until the dough has come together well and clears the side of the bowl. (A bit of oil down the side will help the dough clean the bowl.)

6. When it all comes together, transfer the dough into your rising bucket or bowl. Allow it to rise until nicely doubled and puffy. This could take from ½ hour to an hour, or sometimes even longer, depending on the room temperature.

7. Turn the dough out onto your floured kneading board. Knead several turns, adding a little bit of flour if needed, until the dough is smooth, satiny and doesn’t stick. With your bench knife, cut the dough in half, as evenly as you can. Pat each half out to an oval, about 8 by 10 inches, and then tightly, stretching a bit, roll it up to a nice, fat loaf. Pick up a little flour from the board on the bottom of each loaf and sprinkle, if you wish, with a bit of flour on the top. Put each loaf into a greased or well seasoned loaf pan.

8. While the loaves rise, check them a time or two. If you see a big bubble on the top, pinch it carefully so you don’t have a burned blister on the top of your bread.

9. Cover the loaves with greased plastic wrap or a proof cover and allow them to rise until fully doubled. Just before the rise is complete, make a slash or two with a lame or very sharp knife or razor blade.

10. Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake your loaves for about 50 minutes, until nicely dark gold and a thermometer inserted through the side reads 190 degrees. Turn out the loaves immediately onto a wire rack. Never cut a loaf until it is completely cool.

11. Wrap the loaves well to freeze. I put each loaf — or half loaf — into a cheap plastic bag and then two loaves into a 2-gallon zipper freezer bag. (The zipper bag can be re-used several times.)

Forming Rustic Boules — and Pizza Crust!

These doughs also make great rolls for sandwiches or nice “country” boules or rustic loaves for the dinner table. And, my favorite: pizza crusts! I love to form several pizza crusts to stock up. A chunk of dough about the size of a baseball makes a 10-inch pizza, use a hunk the size of a softball for a 12-inch pie.

Pat, roll and stretch the crust to where you want it. Put each crust on a piece of parchment on a baking sheet. Allow the crusts to rise until puffy. If the crust tries to hump up in the center, give it a stab with a knife to settle it down. Par-bake the crusts about 10 minutes at 450 degrees. Cool, and then you can freeze in zipper freezer bags with the parchment between the crusts. Handy to have.

Wendy Akinis happy to share her years of traditional skills knowledge. Over the years, she’s earned many state fair ribbons for pickles, relishes, preserves and special condiments, and even a few for breads. Read all of Wendy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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