Sourdough Rye Bread

The year’s first snow, wetly plopped into Eagle River, turning my head to seek in vain the submerging seal’s head. Slogging under gray skies through the wet stuff I could still see the two wide, flat, brown bread loaves staring malevolently, but smelling lovely, from the kitchen counter. Sourdough rye—-my first bread failure in more than a decade!  It seemed a metaphor for my recent life, good bread requires mindfulness, and strayed attention is immediately obvious in the crust, crumb, and flavor of the loaf. In this case the flavor is nice, a result of days of feeding the sourdough and successive raising of the loaves, but the bread was horribly over-proofed and went into the oven flat, sticky, and lifeless. I noticed but proceeded anyway, absent mindedly denying the failed attempt. So now several cups of nice King Arthur bread flour will feed the Steller’s jays instead of my family. I try again a few days later when I am more present, and—-success! The golden-brown loaves emerge from the oven high, hollow, and sweet smelling; slathered with fancy Irish butter it tastes great. Crust chewy but crisp, just sour enough, hearty from the dark rye flour accented by the caraway seeds, crumb a little close but good. Recent reading reveals an added benefit of this recipe. Unlike wheat, the rye plant is a fixer of nitrogen from the air into the soil, so by using rye flour in your bread recipes you are not only adding great flavor and increased protein levels but helping the farmer who produced your grain improve his soil fertility.  But mostly, this bread is a great accompaniment to fall soups!

Sourdough, for the uninitiated, is a symbiotic combination of yeast and bacteria, the yeast does the work of raising the bread while the bacteria produce either malic (at 70-75° F) or lactic acid (at 60-70° F), ‘pre-digesting’ the flour and producing the sour flavor and texture we love in the process. This also makes the gluten more digestible, produces B vitamins, and liberates other minerals and vitamins, making them more available. For this reason, sourdough bread has a lower glycemic index than normal bread, making it a healthier choice, especially for diabetics. To illustrate the magnitude of the importance of the activities of these microorganisms, consider that on a diet of flour and water alone, a person would starve while bread and water is nutritionally sufficient to sustain human life.

Making bread from a sourdough starter is a somewhat convoluted process. Assuming you have a starter, it entails: removing the stiff starter from the refrigerator and warming it to room temperature, feeding it once, removing a portion and feeding that a second time, feeding it a final time, forming the dough, letting the dough rest, a short kneading period, raising the dough, forming the loaves, refrigerating the loaves overnight (if desired), and finally slashing the loaves and baking them in a pre-heated cast iron Dutch oven with the lid on for the first half of the cooking period. The use of a Dutch oven is crucial as it stores heat, insulating the bread from temperature fluctuations as well as retaining moisture while the lid is on, yielding a chewy crust. Sourdough bread making is best done over a period of several days to assure adequate rising and full sourdough flavor development. The recipe for two loaves follows:


plastic dough raising container with gradations and lid

loaf raising basket or colander lined with kitchen towel

kitchen scale

wooden spoon

Dutch oven with lid

bread slashing knife

cookie rack

good oven mitts (I like leather welding gloves, available at the hardware store!)

Storage starter

100 gm stiff sourdough starter

100 gm bread flour

50 gm lukewarm water

Remove the stiff starter from the refrigerator and feed, let sit covered in a small oiled container for 5 to 8 hours at 75 to 80° F until doubled. This can be done before bed; an overnight period is good to assure doubling of the starter. A portion of this will be used below, the rest can go back into the refrigerator.

First feed of starter

50 gm fed stiff sourdough starter

100 gm bread flour

50 gm room temperature water

Remove 50 gm of the fed starter from above and feed it. Again, let it sit covered in a small oiled container for 6 to 8 hours at 75 to 80° F, until doubled again.

Second feed of starter

200 gm fed stiff sourdough starter

400 gm bread flour

200 gm room temperature water

Feed and expand the above starter from 200 to 800 grams. Again, let it sit covered in a small oiled container for 6 to 8 hours at 75 to 80° F until doubled again. After this feeding you can either refrigerate the starter overnight or mix the dough.

Mix dough and first rise

720 gm of fed starter

1½ cup or 200 gm rye flour

3 cup or 460 gm bread flour

2 cup room temperature water

1 teaspoon sea salt

4 Tablespoons caraway seeds

The starter is now strong enough to raise bread. Add to it the ingredients to form the dough, mix with a wooden spoon until all flour is moistened and let sit for 20 minutes. Then knead bread for 5 to 10 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. Put into a straight-sided plastic container with graduated measurements and note the current volume and where the volume will be when the dough has doubled. Set in a warm (65 to 75° F) area and wait until dough raises a little.

Let dough rise again

Once the dough has raised a little, roll it into a rectangle and give it 4 to 5 business folds, re-rolling into a rectangle after each fold. The dough will become increasingly elastic after each fold. Spray or brush loaves with oil, cover with plastic wrap and let rise again for an hour.

Roll the dough out again and give it 2 more business letter turns, then return it to the container and let it rise again approximately 5 hours until almost doubled.

Form loaves

Once the dough has doubled, separate it into two and form the loaves by successively pulling dough to the top and turning the loaf while pinching. Put the formed loaves into a lightly floured basket or colander lined with a dish towel, pinched side down. Spray or brush loaves with oil, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat Dutch oven and warm loaves

Remove the loaves from the refrigerator and allow to come up to room temperature in a warm area, set the oven at 450 °F and put Dutch ovens and their lids into oven to heat.

Slash and bake loaves

Turn loaves onto your hand, blow off flour, and then plop into warmed Dutch oven, pinched side down. Slash four times, twice each direction, roughly perpendicular, cover with lid, and return to oven. Bake covered for 5 minutes, then remove lid, reduce heat to 400 F and bake for another 25 minutes until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when rapped or reach an internal temperature of 190 °F.

Remove loaves from oven

Remove pans from oven, remove loaves from Dutch ovens and allow to cool on rack before cutting.

Suggested Reading

“The Bread Bible,” by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Published in 2003 by W.W. Norton & Company in New York and London. 640 printed pages.

“The Art of Fermentation,” by Sandor Ellix Katz. Published in 2012 by Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, Vermont.  498 printed pages.

“Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza,” by Ken Forkish. Published in 2012 by Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, CA. 272 printed pages.

“Alaska Sourdough,” by Ruth Allman. Published in 1976 by Alaska Northwest Books in Anchorage, Seattle, and Portland. 190 printed pages.

“Cooking Alaskan,” by the Editors and Friends of ALASKA magazine. Published in 1983 by Alaska Northwest Publishing Company in Anchorage, AK. 500 printed pages.