Michael Pollan’s Sour Dough Bread Recipe

Making sour dough bread is a fight of air against gravity, according to Michael Pollan’s Cooked. Going through the process of baking sour dough bread, I can attest to the truth of this assessment. It seems to me that in baking this bread, you should really throw out the time instructions, and let your sense of sight, touch, and smell decide whether the bread is “done.”

This is the process of how I baked this bread, and I will also point out where I deviated from Michael Pollan’s recipe. I have also incorporated suggestions from Regensblog and the fomer Heidelbergerin in baking this batch.

Sour dough bread is basically infecting a bigger, then an even bigger, dough with the starter’s bacteria. The medium sized dough is called a leaven, and the even bigger dough is the bread. Making the starter can take a week, while baking the bread will take a day and a half. For some reason, I have better results in a loaf pan than the free-styling method. The dough is really liquid, the consistency of a thick batter, so the urge for the dough to turn into pita bread is huge.

I have described how to make the starter. What I can tell you is that putting in a hungry starter will make a more sour bread than a starter that has been fed an hour before. I make the leaven and the bread dough just before I go to bed, and get cracking in the morning. You will need an iron or ceramic pot, something that you can put in the oven. Since only my 8 x 4 inch loaf pan fits in my iron pot, I use that. It is really important to use a digital weighing scale.

The leaven: 100 g whole grain flour, 100 g all-purpose flour (I used Type 550 for a higher gluten content. The recipe says unbleached), 200 g tap water, and 30-35 g (2 Tbsp) starter.

The bread: 600 g whole grain flour, 250 g all-purpose flour, 150 g rye  or pumpernickel flour (I kept to the recipe this time with the recommended rye flour percentage), 900 g warm tap water (abt 40°C), 25 g sea salt.

The night before baking the bread make the leaven and the bread dough.

Leaven: In a glass bowl, combine the flours and water and stir. Add the starter and mix thoroughly. Cover with a towel and leave overnight in a draft-free spot.

Bread dough: The flours need to be “soaked” to soften the bran in the whole wheat flour and make the bread fluffier. Sift the whole wheat and rye flours to get the bigger bits of bran: You need this to decorate/cover your loaf. Set the bran aside. Combine the flours in a big bowl with 850 g of the water. Cover it with plastic wrap and leave overnight in a draft-free spot.

In the morning, test the leaven by dropping at least half a teaspoon (recipe says a tablespoon) in warm water. If it floats, you’re set. If not, Pollan recommends mixing 3.5 g of fast-acting yeast with 50 g warm water, then adding it to the leaven after a few minutes. What I did was I added one, then two tablespoons of the starter. That seemed to do the trick for me.

He then recommends adding half of the leaven to the dough, and reserve the other half as the starter going forward. I deviated from the orginal Tartine bread recipe, which calls for throwing out all but 1 Tbsp. of the starter, by not throwing out my starter. I just dumped the whole leaven in the dough. I figured I needed the extra leaven since I did not use commercial yeast. Mix the dough thoroughly and let it rest from 25-45 minutes. Towards the end of the proofing time, mix the salt with the remaining 50 g of tap water, add it to the dough and work it in thoroughly by hand. The salt slows down the fermentation process in the dough.

The next step takes 4-5 hours. Warmer temperatures and a vigorous starter meant that I was done at the fourth turn. What does that mean?

Every 45 minutes or every 60 minutes, turn the dough in the bowl. wet your dominant hand, work your fingers to the bottom of the bowl, then bring up the dough from your cupped fingers to the top. Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat the process, until you have completed a revolution of the bowl. This is supposed to strech the gluten and trap air in the dough. I noticed that after my fourth turn, the dough was not really sticking to my hand anymore, but was dripping back into itself. It felt definitely billowy, just as the book said it would. It smelled yeasty and a bit sour. If it smells sour, then it is time to end bulk fermentation.

In the book, Pollan recommends shaping the loaves by sprinkling a work surface with flour and spilling the dough onto the surface. using a plastic dough scraper, divide the dough in two halves and shape them into globes with your floured hands and the scraper. Rotate the dough on a work surface until it forms a ball with some surface tension, then cover the balls with a towel and let them rest for 20 minutes. After that time, scrape the dough off the counter, flip it upside down, then strech the dough. Grab the dough on the side farthest from you, stretch it away from you, then fold it back on the top. Do this with all four sides of the dough, and it will resemble a package at the end. Do the same procedure of stretching and folding on top on the four corners of that package. Then roll the package away from you, so the seams would go under that cylinder. Then sprinkle the bran on the bottom of two bowls, and place the dough in there for final proofing.

I didn’t get good results from this, but I did get good results by greasing, flouring, and then sprinkling an 8 x 5 inch loaf pan with bran and pouring the dough into that, until there was an inch and a half of space left until the lip.

In both cases, cover the bowl or loaf pan with a towel and rest them for 2-3 hours in a warm spot. You can also place the dough in the fridge and leave it there for several hours until overnight if you are not baking within that 2-3 hour time frame. When ready to bake, take it out of the fridge and give it an hour to get back to room temperature.

Baking: Be careful, this is very dangerous!!

Pre-heat iron or ceramic pot to 250°C (500°F) in the oven. Using kitchen mitts, carefully remove the pot from the oven and onto the stovetop. Drop the dough into the pot, or place the loaf pan in the pot. The dough doesn’t have to land squarely in it, it will right itself. Score the bread in a patern you prefer (be decisive!), then cover the pot and place back in the oven. Lower the temperature to 230°C (450°F) and bake for 20 minutes.

After that time, remove the lid of the pot. The bread should have doubled in volume and should have a tan or pale brown color. Give it another 23-25 minutes. The bread will turn dark mahogany: Burned tops are okay! If using free-styled loaves, remove them with a spatula, and they should give a hollow sound when tapped. If not, return to the oven for an extra five minutes. I skip this step with my loaf pan breads, but they have all turned out fine so far!

Alrighty, so that concludes this extremely long post on my sour dough challenge. I guess this proves that sour dough is not for wimps!

20 thoughts on “Michael Pollan’s Sour Dough Bread Recipe

  1. I’m so glad you posted this recipe! I had copied it from the back of Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” before I returned it to the library, but have misplaced it (along with the other recipes from his book, unfortunately – wanted to try the sauerkraut next!) I too ended up with a very free-form product at the loaf-forming stage. I was so sure I had measured my ingredients wrong, that I added more flour to make it all hang to gather in a more traditional way, but didn’t really accomplish much. I poured the free-form dough into the two Le Creuset pots, and they never did rise very much (too much flour , I guess), but were dense and delicious. I will try your loaf pan method next time!

    • OMG me too! Check out my posts “TBF” to witness my frustration and agony and “It’s alive!” to see my relief that the bread was viable after all!

  2. i have been following this recipe as i just got this book as a gift. unfortunately, i had a reading comprehension fail and did not start soaking the flours when i made the leaven last night. so….do i soak the flours tonight and bake tomorrow? if i do, should i “feed” the leaven today? how much? or should i forgo the long soaking time and work with the ready leaven today? thanks for your time.

    • Sorry for my late reply. From what I understand from the recipe, soaking the flours relaxes the bran in the whole wheat flour and allows for more expansion by the bacteria. I would hazard the guess that using normal flour would not need soaking. If using whole wheat I would definitely soak the flour and maybe feed the leaven so it doesn’t totally collapse into itself if it runs out of food/becomes too sour.

  3. I had terrific results from this recipe the first time I made it, even though I accidently did not follow it precisely. I will use this as my main bread recipe forever. Thank you, Michael Pollan!

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  5. Recipe fail. Right now my loaves are “proofing” but nothing has happened for an hour or so. Dough is very wet and is quite sour. 🙁

    • Sorry for being late to the party! Try kneading it on a floured surface until it feels more compact. The dough may need more “exercise. “

    • Can you describe where you’re at a little bit more? Are you after the bulk proofing and the loaves have been shaped? For how long did you fold and turn? I had the best results by going back to the source and following Chad Roberston’s shaping methods.

  6. What if you just use the entire portion of the bread as the leaven but less moist and then wait for fermentation to take place?
    Pollan does mention how it may have been that someone left some left over wet flour sitting around for a few days, that lead to the discovery of bread! 🙂
    Trying the shorter way and see what happens! 🙂

  7. I have a very small oven and dont have a pot small enough to fit the loaf and the pot. Would I be ok if i placed the loaf directly in the oven?

    • I think the reason dough is put in a pot is to stream it. Putting a pan of hot water or spraying water inside the oven might be a good alternative. Just a thought.

  8. Thank you for the detail. I had made my first bread with mixed reviews. I will try this method. Biggest problem with my bread was the crust was so hard I almost needed a machete to cut it. I’m guessing it was over cooked.

  9. This is great! I found it during my search for sourdough bread after watching cooked. I have a new blog and was going to post this same method of bread making!

  10. In this task:

    “Leaven: In a glass bowl, combine the flours and water and stir. Add the starter and mix thoroughly. Cover with a towel and leave overnight in a draft-free spot.”

    You don’t say how much starter you added. Can you please specify. THANKS!

  11. Pingback: How to Make Homemade Sourdough Bread - Mindy FRESH

  12. This is a great, and very informative, site. My question – Does the sourdough bread actually rise in the oven? I’m trying out this whole thing and my ‘normal’ bread doesn’t rise in the oven, [the stuff made with active dried yeast] it rises when its ‘set to rise’ but there isn’t any difference in the size from when it goes in to cook and when it comes out to cool. Does the sourdough actually get bigger? [i’ve just started yet another sourdough starter, and hope this one will have some ‘oomph’ to it – wish me luck].

  13. Hi, My dough has risent a few times, and somehow it still continues to stick with my hand. How do you handle it? I have difficulty transferring from proofing basket to the baking container.

  14. This recipe is fabulous!!!! Good step-by-step instructions. I have been unable to eat wheat for several years, but bought farmer ground fresh flour to make this, and enjoyed it soooo much; best if all, I didn’t react to it, so I’ll be making it again!! I didn’t use a dutch oven, but put a pan if water at the bottom of the oven, baked the loaves on baking sheets, and my crust still came out wonderfully chewy.

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