This post includes a review of one of my favourite cookbooks and my own personal sourdough journey.
Sourdough and Bread Making Journey
I love baking. I find it relaxing and as someone who has had issues with anxiety, the process of baking is controlled and therapeutic. It can be meditative as well. I did not grow up baking a lot and really only started baking for fun as a uni student and as an adult. I am proud to say that after many years with cookies, quick breads, tray bakes, etc. I can usually predict if I will like a recipe and what makes it work for me and my taste buds. I rarely have complete failures with baking now and there are edible results.
Bread baking is a sub category that is much harder especially sourdough baking. I have had many sourdough bread failures. Baking is a hobby and it’s also a way to feed myself and my loved ones. I find sourdough bread tastes better, digests better, and lasts longer. It’s healthier and it’s fulfilling to make it. I am not someone who goes on The Fresh Loaf daily or experiments a lot. I do not need open crumb mastery or a super complex method to get results. I wanted consistency in my loaves most of all. I wanted a straight forward process, great bread I could make at home.
In 2012, I made my own sourdough starter and I have been maintaining the same starter ever since. For most of its life, it has been a predominantly or an 100% rye starter.
After my starter was more mature, I tried a few sourdough recipes and they didn’t really work for me. They were too flat, too wet, or over/under proofed. All the hallmarks of beginner sourdough bread. I have learned that these are extremely common issues when first trying sourdough. It was very frustrating for someone who had consistent baking results. So I gave up on it after awhile. I stored my starter at the back of the fridge only feeding it every few weeks or months.
In 2015, I was baking Jim Lahey’s no knead bread and liked the results. This gave me confidence to return to trying sourdough recipes again in 2016. Most of this is documented on this blog under the Bread tag. I still have some unpublished blog entries about my sourdough experiments from that time that I never got around to publishing.
Since 2016, I have been baking sourdough more regularly and with more consistent results. I learned that my starter and I seem to like a few things to get satisfactory bread: making a pre-ferment / levain, stretching/folding over a couple hours, and keeping the hydration around 75%. Fridge proofing results were not great. Recently, I’ve discovered it only works sometimes for the second proof.
Tools: I bought a store brand 3.8L dutch oven (< $100) in 2015 to make bread. In Christmas 2018, we bought a Staub 5.2L dutch oven both for bread and cooking. I bought a proofing basket (banneton) in 2016 and added another round one in 2019. The second basket was all because of FWSY. Up until a few months ago, I was using straight razors on coffee sticks as my lame / scoring blade. Now I have my own which really does make a difference in control. I use a digital scale when baking.
Flours: Whole grain rye for the starter and occasionally in the dough. In late 2019, I started using Costco’s Boreal organic stoned milled white which is 11.5% protein. I love this flour so much. I use Canadian Whole Wheat and am looking to switching to Ontario milled Whole Wheat.
Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish
I had read about Flour Water Salt Yeast on various bread forums and book reviews. In early 2019, I skimmed the book and started with the Overnight Blonde and Overnight Brown. The Overnight Brown is one of my favourite recipes ever as I prefer more whole grain bread. It became staple in our household. In the winer, I made the recipe every week. It does require some coordination at home, but the overall schedule and process is not difficult. It became part of our weekly lives. Start it on Saturday, bread by afternoon Sunday.
My major issue with the pure levain recipes was its room temperature proofing. I had poor results with it in warmer months. My starter seems more sensitive to humidity. As a rye starter, it likely ferments more quickly than a wheat one. FWSY also tends to over estimate time for proofing possibly. My second proof has rarely gone to four hours even in the winter. I did try experimenting with fridge proofing the Overnight Brown, but even the second proof results were over proofed.
During Spring 2020, I was making the Overnight Brown bread regularly up to the point where it started getting a bit warm. I started trying other non FWSY sourdough recipes again to find a summer alternative to the Overnight Brown. I tried about a couple recipes which have a similar method to FWSY and Tartine (preferment plus stretching and folding). While most of them looked good with oven spring and crust, the crumbs were horrible. They were dense and a couple collapsed. I am still not sure why.
I looked through many other sourdough ebooks and had to eliminate them at least for now knowing my starter and schedule. Some books had much longer schedules of up to 3-4 days. I’ve looked at and liked the Tartine books, but I prefer how FWSY and other writers have rewritten the Tartine method.
Eventually I decided to do a more thorough rereading of FWSY and started making the hybrid yeast recipes for the summer. I have found great results with it.
Due to the more complex nature of sourdough, concise and clear instructions are very important. FWSY is one of the best bread books I’ve read in terms of clarity. Most of each section’s recipes are variations of the same formula, but it’s very useful to have them all together so you don’t have to flip pages. The formulas are laid out in a table format with cup, metric, and baker’s percentage. Even though I have not made the straight commercial yeast recipes in the book, it would be a greater starter to anyone who has never made bread. The recipes go progressively more complex as they move from commercial yeast breads to hybrid yeast (levain and yeast) to the pure levain. There is a whole section at the end on Pizza.
Prose and Writing: Simple, direct, and easy to read.
Technique and Teaching: For me, this is one of the best for technique and teaching style. I love the tables and how the book is laid out. The recipes are a great template.
Photography and Layout: Photography is good. It opens relatively flat.
Usefulness Factor: 5/5 – I have used the recipes from this cookbook more than any other. It changed my baking life.
Inspiration Factor: 5/5 – I continue to play around and experiment with the amounts in this book and will for the forseeable future.
- Pain de Campagne – With organic white flour, this was the best smelling loaf ever. I am going to experiment with rye.
- 75% Whole Wheat – A great loaf for bread. I proof and bake in loaf tins.
- Field Blend # 2 – Very nice but quite sticky because of the rye. I will try Field Blend #1 and 10% rye in the pain de Campagne next time.
- Overnight Blonde – A white heavy version completely made from sourdough
- Overnight Brown – One of my favourite recipes which is why I fell in love with this book. Made this dozen of times and will be my staple for many years to come.
- Overnight Pizza Dough with Levain – Used as a focaccia dough. Even in summer, I was able to proof it a shorter time overnight. Has a nice tang which would compliment any toppings
- Zucchini Focaccia – Used the levain pizza dough. Easy and delicious.
I love this book. I have found sourdough technique and books very personal and subjective. It depends on where you live, your starter, your ingredients, and maybe a couple more factors. For me, this book is one of the best baking books. I hope you find it useful to your own bread journey.
Tips for using FWSY recipes:
- Cut the levain amount – Forkish’s instructions dictates you have to throw out a lot of levain. This is a big waste. I cut my levain amount to 50% for the pure levain recipes and 25-40% for the hybrid ones.
- You can halve the recipes – Very easy to make one loaf instead of two. Before FWSY, I would only make one loaf but we eat it enough to make two. All the loaves freeze well and the pure levain recipes keep very well at room temp.
- Adjust water/hydration – My water level can change based on the temperature and conditions in my home. When it’s humid and warm, I add less water. When it’s cold and dry, I will add more water. I usually do not go the full amount listed in the recipe as my starter and flours do not need seem to need much water. With all sourdough recipes, go less at first and experiment.
- Adjust yeast in hybrid doughs – I like the hybrid doughs for summer baking as it gives some consistency to the rise especially in cold proofing. I usually use a scant amount than the recipe calls for without issue. I am experimenting with using less of it.
- Use proofing times as guidelines – Myself and many other bakers have found that the time estimates are bit high. Forkish’s home seems to be colder than most. I use the time as a ballpark and check based on the look and feel of the dough.
- Score your bread – Personal preference. Forkish says you can do without it, but I really like scoring.