Activate your levain (sourdough starter) 12 hours before you plan to mix the dough. Let it ferment at a warm room temperature (72-80 degrees) for 12 hours. (To check if your starter is ready to use, place a tablespoon of it into a glass of water, if it floats happily on top, then it is active and ready to go).
To mix the dough, have all the ingredients weighed out beforehand. Mix the dry ingredients together in one bowl until they are well combined.
Hold back about 10% of the total water and save for later. Add the whole wheat levain (sourdough starter) to the remaining water and mash it into smaller pieces.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet and incorporate for a couple of minutes until it is a uniform consistency. Slowly add the (remaining) 10% water as you are incorporating the dry ingredients into the wet. It may still be clumpy.
Once all the water has been added, it is time to develop the dough. If you are using a stand mixer (fitted with a dough hook), turn the speed up a little (medium-high) and mix for 3 minutes. If you are mixing by hand, develop (knead) the dough for about 5 minutes. At the end of development, the dough should be smoother and stronger. Place the dough into a closed container and let rest for 20 minutes.
At 20 minutes, “fold” the dough by (pulling up the edge of the dough and gently overlapping it. Turn the bowl and repeat until all the edges have been folded over the middle). Do this once every 20 minutes for the first hour of fermentation (resting). This stage is called bulk fermentation (it is when the dough develops flavor and gluten strength). Let the dough ferment for 3 hours at about 80 degrees.
Once it is well fermented, it is time to divide the dough. Let the divided dough rest for 45 minutes, (covered in plastic, so it won’t dry out), and then shape it into your desired final shape. Here are some ideas for shaping the dough: boule, baguette, Epi (wheat stalk).
You can either let the dough continue to ferment (rise) at room temperature for about 4 more hours and then bake, or you can cool the shaped dough in the refrigerator overnight and bake in the morning. An overnight rest will give you more depth of flavor.
Just before baking, you will want to slash the dough, to create a beautiful crust. You can use a sharp serrated knife or a bread Lame. Here is a video on how to slash the dough. If you don’t slash the dough it will break open in an uncontrolled and very rustic way.
Baking the loaf: Depending on the shape you have chosen, the temperature and timing will vary, so check the recipe links I provided for baking.
STEAM: You want to use steam to get the best crust and here are three ways to add steam while baking.
Cooling the bread is part of the baking process, so be sure to let it cool completely or the loaf may seem gummy and under baked.