Learn how to bake a small loaf sourdough country loaf with open crumbs and medium hydration without kneading. All the tips and techniques you need to know to achieve open and lacy crumbs, thin and crispy crust.
It has been my obsession trying to learn how to bake sourdough bread with nice airy open crumbs. It took me over 2 months (and MANY MANY sourdough breads!) to finally understand sourdough, the techniques, and why things need to be done the way they are so that I can finally produce a decent sourdough bread with open crumbs. It’s not the most perfect yet, mind you! but I’m happy to see those wild open crumbs!
What is open-crumb sourdough bread?
Open-crumb sourdough bread literally means crumbs with a lacy open structure. You know, that mixture of large, medium, and small holes evenly distributed throughout the crumb of the bread!
How to achieve an open-crumb sourdough bread
After baking way too many failed sourdough artisan bread and finally consistently successful, If I may say that, I’ve learned that it’s not only one thing that produces open-crumb sourdough bread. It is a combination of pretty much everything from the ingredients (the flour you use, etc) all the way to the techniques applied in making the dough and baking the bread. If I were to summarize it, here are a few critical points to take note of to be able to achieve an open crumb:
1. Strong starter
This is perhaps one of the most important criteria. In fact, nothing really matters if you don’t have a strong active starter. The wild yeast does the heavy lifting here and if it’s not up to the task, the result shows!!
2. Type of flour
The quality and protein content in the flour we use is important. I use bread flour with at least 12.7%-13% gluten content. The dough needs to develop enough gluten to be able to give the bread its structure and hold the gas produced by the yeast to leaven our bread. If you use more whole grain flour, it’s less likely that you will get open crumbs. It’s just the nature of whole grain flour. Whole grain flour definitely gives more flavor though compared to using just bread flour. This recipe incorporates about 10% whole wheat flour. The more whole grain flour you use, the less open crumbs you get.
You certainly do not need high hydration to achieve open-crumb I used to think I need at least 80% and above to be able to get open crumbs. Dough hydration between 70-80% is enough to achieve open crumbs with proper techniques and other elements mentioned
4. Temperature control
The fermentation usually doesn’t actively take place until the last 2 hours during bulk fermentation. So you want to make sure that the temperature is not too high that the fermentation happens too quickly that you don’t have enough time to do all the stretch and fold and coil folding to develop that gluten to strengthen the dough
5. Gentle handling
You want to be firm yet gentle when you handle the dough. You want to make sure you stretch enough during the early stage when we do all the stretch and fold and bench fold to develop gluten and get more and more gentle as the time progresses because the fermentation gets more active towards the end
6. Skip preshaping if possible
I’ve learned that by baking a small loaf and usually only one loaf, I can skip preshaping if I have developed enough strength on the dough. The more you handled the dough, the more you break air pockets that you have built during bulk fermentation. So I usually just gently shape the dough right away after bulk fermentation
Techniques and terms used in sourdough baking and this recipe
If you watch the video or look at the recipe card, there are series of techniques that are applied to the dough. They are mainly to help strengthen the dough. I highly recommend watching the video to understand the process and why things need to be done the way they are.
1. Bulk fermentation
This is one of the most important steps in bread making. This is also sometimes referred to as the first proofing. Bulk fermentation begins once you mixed in the starter. In this recipe, I allow the dough to proof until about 50% growth in volume. Bulk fermentation takes about 5-6 hours at temperature about 75-78 F (24-26 C). The activity of the starter is highly dependent on temperature. So it is important to monitor the temperature throughout the process to make sure it’s not too warm that the dough ferments too quickly before we have a chance to strengthen the dough during bulk fermentation
2. Autolyse or Fermentolyse
Autolyse is a process of mixing water and flour and then allows it to rest for 30 minutes to 1 hour or longer. The water and starter are added later after autolyse. During this time the flour and water work together for early gluten development. The dough becomes extensible and less kneading is needed to develop that elasticity later.
Fermentolysde is usually the process of mixing pretty much everything from the beginning, flour, water, starter, and salt. I actually prefer this because I won’t forget to add salt later and also it’s easier because everything get mixed together and so much easier.
I’m no expert, but I’ve tried both autolyse and fermentolyse and didn’t see much difference.
2. Stretch and fold
Stretch and fold is usually applied at the early stage of bulk fermentation, right after autolyse or fermentolyse. Its purpose is to develop strength on the dough and it also helps to smooth out the dough
3. Light bench fold
Light bench fold also helps to strengthen the dough further. It is important to build that dough strength at the very beginning of bulk fermentation because towards the end, you don’t want to handle the dough too roughly anymore
4. Coil fold
Coil folding is a more gentler way of strengthening the dough further. Usually done halfway through bulk fermentations. Which is why it’s important to do the stretch and fold and light bench fold, which are more “vigorous” and strengthen the dough a lot more at the beginning and then as we move on, we need to be much gentle
Shape into a boule or a batard
It’s really up to you. I have learned from the article written by Maurizio Leo from the Perfect Loaf that batard gives you an open crumb compared to a boule shape. I have put this to test myself and it’s true! None of my boule shape country loaves could achieve nice open crumbs like the batard shape could. Perhaps the way the boule is shaped is more “rough” so the crumbs are more even and small, which doesn’t mean a bad thing too. It’s really more of a personal preference. Some people prefer nice closed even crumbs, some, like myself, like the airy open crumb artisan bread!
Sample of baking timeline
The night before – prepare a starter that will peak right at the time you are going to use it for baking. Temperature was maintained at 75-77 F (24-25 C)
8:00 am– fermentolyse (mix everything and rest for 1 hour) bulk fermentation starts here
9:00 am– stretch and fold #1
9:15 am– stretch and fold #2
9:30 am– light bench fold #1
10:00 am– light bench fold #2 and transfer to bulking dish and mark the container with the height of the dough
10:30 am – coil fold #1
11:15 am – coil fold #2
12:00 pm – coil fold #3
2:30 pm – check and see how much the dough has grown. If it has grown to about 50% in volume, it’s time to shape
2:45 pm – transfer dough to a cold fridge for cold retard 18-20 hours
The next day – score and bake the cold dough
If I may offer some advice
1. Don’t give up if the bread doesn’t turn out the way you want it. Sourdough artisan bread really takes a lot of practice and patience.
2. Practice with the same recipe over and over and take note each time so you can find out what works and what doesn’t
3. If you were to change something, change one thing at a time so you know exactly what works and doesn’t
4. Even if your bread doesn’t end up with open crumbs, it is still delicious bread!
Did you make this Small Sourdough Country Loaf with Open Crumbs recipe?
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The recipe is adapted from Sourlotti by Abby.
Small No-Knead Sourdough Country Loaf with Open Crumbs
Recipe with 10% whole wheat flour:
- 270 gr bread flour (12.7% protein content) 90% (plus more for dusting)
- 30 gr whole wheat flour 10%
- 230 gr water 79% final hydration
- 60 gr active starter (100% hydration) 20%
- 4 gr fine sea salt 1%
For dusting banneton:
Prepare levain (the night before):
- I strongly encourage you to have an active starter that is at least one month old before you attempt to bake this recipe. You can try using your young starter that is at least 2-week old, but the result may not be as satisfactory
- Since I know I will be baking the next day, I will prepare more starter the night before. I will feed at 1:7:7 ratio so it will last me until the next morning, about 10 hours to double or triple at 75-77 F (24-25C). This also depends on the strength of your starter and the room temperature the starter is at. It may be faster or longer.I use 5 grams starter + 35 grams flour + 35 grams water. I usually prepare a bit more as some may get stuck to the glass jar, spatula, etc.
- Remember that you want to use your starter at its peak, meaning it has doubled or tripled when you are ready to use it
Fermentolyse (around 8:00 am):
- Weigh 60 grams of starter into a mixing bowl. Feed the starter as per your normal routine. Combine starter, water, and salt and stir to combine. Add bread flour and whole wheat flour to a mixing bowl. If you have a dough whisk, you can use that, otherwise, a sturdy spatula or your hand would work too. Stir to combine into a rough wet dough. The whole process probably take about 3-5 minutes. It is important that there shouldn't be any visible dry bits. All flour needs to be fully hydrated. Cover and let it sit for 1 hour. Maintain dough temperature at 70-72 F (21-22 C) at this stage if possible
- If it's really warm where you are, you may want to put it in a cooler bag with a pack of ice. Because the starter is already added at this point, we don't want it to start fermenting way too early before we have a chance to strengthen the dough during bulk fermentation
- Bulk fermentation begins when you innoculate starter (adding starter) into the dough. In this case, it starts at this fermentolyse step
Stretch and fold #1 (around 9:00 am):
- From this point on, I maintain the temperature a bit warmer, at 75-78 F (24-26C).Please watch the video to see the step-by-step tutorial there. Wet your fingers lightly. Pick up the dough from one of the edge, kinda wiggle it and stretch it up and fold it over. Repeat this throughout the edge of the dough. You may end up with 5-6 stretches
- Only stretch as far as the dough allows you too, don't force it. Cover and rest for 15 minutes
Stretch and fold #2 (around 9:15 am):
- Do the same stretch and fold again with your slightly wet fingers. You may notice the dough is a bit tighter this round as gluten has developed a bit more. Cover and rest for 15 minutes
Light bench fold #1 (around 9:30 am):
- Mist the counter with a bit of water, not too much or the dough will just slide around. Use a dough scraper or your slightly wet hand to transfer the dough to a clean counter
- Pick up the dough and then stretch it and fold over
- Rotate the dough 45 degrees and do the same thing and rotate again and stretch it towards you as far as the dough allows you and fold over. By the third time, it probably won't let you stretch much anymore, don't force it. Round up the dough, cover with a mixing bowl and let it rest for 30 minutes
Light bench fold #2 (around 10:00 am):
- Do the second set of bench fold like you did the first time. Only stretch the dough as much as it allows you. Round up the dough and transfer the dough to a container and lightly spray the container with non-stick spray. I use a straight-sided 2-quart container so I can see how much the dough has grown during bulk fermentation
- I recommend using a see-through container or bowl to help you gauge how much the dough has risen so you know when to call an end to bulk fermentation. I also mark the container with a marker to see where the level of the dough is. This helps me to roughly gauge how much it has grown. Let the dough rest for 30-45 minutes or until the dough has spread again
Coil fold # 1 (around 10:30 am):
- If after 30 minutes the dough still seems pretty strong and hasn't spread much, wait another 15 minutes to let it relax and spread more then do a coil fold. Lightly wet your fingers again and tuck your fingers underneath the dough on the side. These coil fold photos were from another dough I made at a different time. Just to show you how a coil fold is done
- Lift the dough up gently. Allow the dough to coil and fold over itself
- Rotate the container 90 degrees and do the same on the opposite side. After that rotate 45 degrees and do another coil fold and then rotate the container to coil fold the opposite side. So a total of 4 coil folds (one on each side)
- Cover and let it rest for 45 minutes
Coil fold #2 (around 11:15 am):
- If the dough has spread again, do a coil fold on all 4 sides or if the dough is not very slack, you can coil fold just 2 sides. If the dough hasn't spread much, wait another 15 minutes and then do the coil fold. Cover and rest for 45 minutes
Coil fold #3 (around 12:00 pm):
- You may or may not need the 3rd coil fold. This depends on how extensible the dough is at this point. If the dough still seems slack and doesn not have much strength, then definitely do coil fold #3. If the dough seems strong and doesn't spread much, you may skip coil fold, or you can just do 2 coil folds instead of 4. Cover and let it continue to bulk ferment
- Remember that you need to observe your dough (read the dough not the clock) and do necessary action only if it is needed. This is one of the keys to successful sourdough baking
Let it continue to bulk ferment:
- After about 2 hours since the last coil fold, check and see how much the dough has grown. You can also just visually observe how much the dough has grown in size. It should look about 50% puffier than before. Total bulking time from the time the starter is added to this end of bulk fermentation is about 5 1/2-6 hours at 75-78 F (24-26 C). Again, you need to observe the dough, not the clock. It may take longer or faster depending on the temperature
Shape into batard (around 2:30 pm):
- I don't do pre-shaping since I only bake one small loaf and the dough usually seems pretty strong after all those stretch and folds and coil folds. I also try not to handle the dough too much near the end of bulk fermentation, to avoid degasing the dough too much
- Lightly flour the surface of the dough in the container
- Tip the container upside down to let the dough gently slide down upside down. Dust the surrounding of the dough with flour. Since I use a square container, the dough will be sort of "squarish". If you use a round container, the dough will be "roundish"
- Just use a bench knife to help you stretch the dough out a bit to make it more "squarish". It doesn't have to be a picture-perfect square
- Use a bench knife to tuck in the flour underneath the four edges of the dough
- Gently fold half of the dough over towards you to the center. Repeat with the opposite half, overlapping the first half. Then roll the dough over from one end to the other. You can feel that the dough is jiggly and full of air
- Tuck a bench knife under one side of the dough and push gently to tighten the dough a bit. Seal both ends
Transfer to an oval banneton:
- I use an 8-inch oval banneton lined with a cloth. 9-inch banneton would work too. Lightly dust the cloth with rice flour on the bottom and the side of the cloth. Lightly dust the top of the shaped dough. Dust off some excess. Very gently, using the help of the bench scraper to flip the dough onto your palm. So the seam side is facing you now. Gently put the dough into the prepared banneton. The seam side is up. I like to tighten and seal the seam by pulling a bit of the dough from both sides
Cold retard the dough:
- Place the dough inside a produce plastic bag and twist the bag and secure with a clip. Any large ziploc bag would work too. Put this inside the coldest part of your fridge. Make sure the fridge is cold enough at 37-38 F (3-4 C). This is important so the dough won't continue to ferment and you end up with an over-proofed dough. Let the dough cold retard for 18-20 hours
- I bake using a cast-iron dutch oven. 45 minutes before you plan to bake, position one oven rack at the lowest level and then another one rack above it. Place the dutch oven and its lid at the 2nd rack. I keep the pot and the lid separated during preheating. Preheat the oven together with the dutch oven to 485 F (250 C) for 45 minutes to 1 hour
- Cut a parchment paper about 2 inches bigger than the size of your banneton. I have a combo cooker Dutch oven, which is nice because I can load the dough with less risk of getting burnt on my arms. If you have a regular Dutch oven pot, you want to cut parchment paper so that it has a "handle" so you can lift the handle and lower the dough into the pot without getting burnt.
Scoring the dough:
- When the oven has preheated for 45 minutes, get the dough out from the refrigerator. There is no need to let it come to room temperature. Use a bread lame and make a slash, about 1/2-inch deep at 45 degree angles on the dough, kinda off-center a bit. Mist the dough with water. This creates nice crackling all around the crust later
- Wear a mitten and carefully get the Dutch oven pot and its lid out from the oven and place one baking sheet on the lowest rack and quickly but carefully close the oven's door back to prevent too much heat loss. This helps to prevent the bottom crust of your bread from being too thick and tough
- Carefully load the dough by lifting the parchment paper and lower it into the pot or the combo cooker. Close the lid. Open the oven door again and carefully transfer the pot into the oven again and close the oven door. Lower the temperature to 450 F (230 C) and bake for 30 minutes
- After 30 minutes remove the Dutch oven from the oven. Transfer the half-baked bread to a regular baking sheet and put this back inside the oven. Again, this is to help create a nice thin crust all around
- Lower the oven temperature to 425 F (220 C) and bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the bread halfway during this second portion of baking
- After 15 minutes, turn off the oven and open the oven door slightly to let the hot air out and let the bread sit in the oven for 15 minutes. This helps to "cure" the bread without overcooking it, so the inside won't be wet and gummy
- After that, get the bread out of the oven and transfer it to a cooling rack immediately and now comes the hardest part! You need to wait for at least 3-4 hours or longer before you slice it. If you slice into warm bread, you will end up with gummy crumbs
- Once the bread has cooled down completely, you can store it in a bread box if you plan to consume it in the next few days. You can also put it inside a paper bag
- For longer storage, you can wrap the whole loaf or sliced bread in plastic wrap and then put inside a freezer bag. Push all the air out and seal. It can be kept frozen for 1-2 months. Simply thaw at room temperature before serving and then reheat them in toaster or air-fryer. Most toasters these days can toast frozen sliced bread. So you may not even need to thaw it completely