Now that you've built your starter, you are ready to bake what will probably be the most flavorable loaf you've ever eaten. You may be wondering, "Just what is it that makes it so special? After all, flour is flour; water is water; salt is salt. What makes the critical difference in flavor?" Obviously, the answer is the starter! Commercial yeasts are all the same, but the yeast you've captured and cultivated is one of literally hundreds of different yeasts, each having a local habitation, if not a name, and each combining with lactobacilli to create a unique flavor.
In addition to your starter, what else do you need to bake bread? Some flour: any wheat flour that's not pastry or self-rising flour; it doesn't have to be bread flour. Some filtered or spring water. Some salt (I like fine-grained sea salt). Simple, isn't it? No flavor enhancers, no preservatives, no chemicals you can't pronounce, let alone define: just flour, water, salt, and starter.
To mix your loaf of bread, you'll need several bowls, a dishtowel or two, a dough scraper (or a spatula), a measuring cup and spoons (or a kitchen scale).
To bake your loaf, you'll need something on the order of a Dutch oven or cast iron combo cooker. It can be a casserole with a lid, as long as the materials can withstand 450 degree heat. I find a timer essential.
Ready? Here we go!
The first step is to check the readiness of the starter by dropping a small amount into some water: when it's ready, it floats. If you've just taken it out of the fridge and it sinks like a stone, pour out about a cup's worth and add--you know by this time--half a cup of flour and half a cup of water at room temperature. When bubbles rise to the surface, it's probably ready for the float test. If it fails, give it another half hour and it should pass the test. If it fails, say "The hell with it" and proceed anyway--it will still work.
Measure out 4 unsifted but leveled cups (500 grams) of flour and pour into the smaller bowl.
In the larger bowl, add 2/3 of a cup (100 grams) of the starter and then add 1 2/3 cups (375 grams) of water at room temperature. Stir briefly so the starter is dissolved in the water.
Add the flour to the water and starter in the larger bowl and stir. You can use a large spoon, or your clean, wet hand (wetting it minimizes the dough sticking to your fingers). Stir until all the flour is incorporated into the dough.
You are now through with your starter, so add 1/2 cup of flour and I/2 cup of water to it, stir, and put it in the fridge for next time. I like to write the date on the lid. (As a footnote, I prefer the more liquid version of starter because you always have some left over--you don't have to remember to cut off some of the risen loaf and save that for next time. That's simple enough, admittedly, but I kept forgetting to do that.)
Now let the dough sit for half an hour. This relaxes the dough and lets the starter begin working on the flour without the hindrance of the salt.
After half an hour, add 2 scant teaspoons (10 grams) of salt. Sprinkle about a quarter of the salt (about a teaspoon) on the dough, then with a wet hand put your fingers down the edge of the bowl and turn about 1/4th of the dough over on itself. Chad Robertson calls this "folding" the dough. Folding incorporates air into the dough and elongates the strands of gluten. Sprinkle more salt on the new surface, wet your hand, and fold over another quarter of the dough. Four to five folds should have incorporated all the salt and turned all the dough.
Cover the bowel with a damp towel and keep it in a warm place (in winter, I use the oven with its light on. Traditionally, in the French countryside, couples put the dough in the conjugal bed.)
After an hour, fold the dough four more times and return it to the warm place.
Do this again after the third hour and again after the fourth hour.
After four and a half hours, the question now is, How much has your dough risen? Ideally, it should have doubled in volume. If it hasn't doubled, give it some more time. Depending on the ambient temperature, it may take up to eight or so hours. Conversely, if it's rising too rapidly, put the dough in a cooler place. If you really want to slow it down, put it in the fridge.
When the dough has doubled in volume, it's ready for the second rise, or proofing. That, and baking, I'll cover in the next post.