Baking, it’s like magic only scientifically delicious

Last spring, I bought a t-shirt with the slogan “Science, it’s like magic, only real.”  Bread baking is an exceptional example of how baking is like magic because it is so seriously scientific.

I have tried to bake bread in the past. I have found the kneading to be unfulfilling (I can never seem to knead enough), and the final results unsatisfying.  The crust has been soft and flavorless, the crumb too dense or too holey.  Frequently, my homemade bread has had a metallic taste.  Bread baking has been one of those activities that I deemed not worth the effort — especially when I have lovely artisanal bakeries a short walk or subway ride away.

In November, my sister went to an artist collective event and learned about Swedish sourdough breads.  As a “party favor,” she received a batch of sourdough starter.  She gave me a jar which I stored in the refrigerator and then forgot about.  Several weeks later, when I rediscovered it, it had a layer of dark liquid floating on the top. I figured it was dead but decided to do a bit of research.  Google led me to several articles on sourdough starters and how to revive them.  Breadtopia and Feed Your Skull ended up being my go to sites.

I start by letting the flour absorb the water and rest before adding the sourdough starter.  This recipe requires the dough to proof for a long time.  So the recipe is time intensive, but not labor intensive. Another key is to weigh the ingredients instead of using a measuring cup.

I also bake the bread in a Romertopf in a hot hot oven.  Baking in a clay baker like this, helps a quick rise and creates a crispy, bakery quality crust.  Fate would have it that I found a used Romertopf at Housing Works.  You heat the Romertopf up in the oven while you are pre-heating the oven. (If you buy a used Romertopf, like I did, when you open the hot baker to put in the bread, be careful. There will likely be a lot of smoke as the fats from prior use are burning off in the super hot oven. Your smoke detector may go off. After several uses, this smoking will stop.)

I managed to get the sourdough starter going and have been baking bread almost weekly ever since.  My current favorite recipe is for 40% whole wheat bread from Breadtopia.

I found stone milled red fife wheat at the farmer’s market. I added hazelnuts to the most recent loaf.

 40% Whole Grain Red Fife Sourdough Bread (these instructions are copied and pasted from Breadtopia. I weigh all the ingredients on my kitchen scale.

  • 300g organic bread flour (2 1/3 cups)
  • 200g organic whole grain red fife flour (1 1/3 cups)
  • 360g water (1 1/2 cups)
  • 75g leaven, all purpose flour, floating (1/3 cup)
  • 9g salt (1.5 tsp)


  • Mix the flour and water. Cover to autolyse for 1-2 hours. Autolyze means that the flour absorbs the water. Through this absorbtion, the protein structure changes.
  • Add the leaven and salt to the dough, pinching and kneading to incorporate the additions. Cover and let rest for 30-40 minutes.
  • After the rest, begin a series of six stretch and folds every 20-30 minutes.
  • Cover and let bulk ferment for a total of 6-12 hours from when you added the leaven. The time will depend on your room temperature and starter strength.
  • Scrape the dough onto a well-floured surface. Dust the top of the dough with flour and stretch/press it into a rectangular shape. Fold it in thirds and then in half.
  • Cover and let the dough rest for 15-20 minutes while you prep a basket/tea towel with all-purpose and rice flour, or bran flakes.
  • Flip the dough and shape it into a boule or batard, depending on your baking vessel. Lay it in your basket seam side up for smooth scoring, or seam side down for a rustic look.
  • Let the dough proof 1-3 hours at room temperature, or 6-10 hours in the refrigerator. My all whole grain red fife dough proofed in the refrigerator for 7 hours, as the dough was wet and I wanted it to stiffen up. I proofed the 40% whole grain red fife dough for 3 hours at room temperature, which is longer than I normally would let it go, but I felt had ended the bulk fermentation a little early, so I wanted to give it more time on the final proof.
  • Thirty minutes before the end of the proofing stage, preheat your oven to 500 F with the baking vessel inside. (Follow the temperature limits of your baker, and see note below).
  • Flour your hand and flip the dough out of the basket. Gently place it in the hot baking vessel. Score the top, cover, and bake:
  • 500 F for 30 minutes lid on
  • 450 F for 10 minutes lid off
  • Or until the internal temperature is over 205 F.

Some links about sourdough:

The Sourdough Project

A story about the Sourdough Project on NPR


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