For my first date with New World Sourdough, I chose to start with the first bread in the book: pan rustico. Right now NWS and I are just getting to know each other, and I need to learn its looks and tastes and methods. If this basic country loaf worked out, it would bode well for the health of our long-term relationship.
Preparing the Levain
I have been studying sourdough starters since February 2019, when I made mine (Bradley) following Ken Forkish’s method in Flour Water Salt Yeast. This starter is equal parts all purpose flour (AP) and whole wheat flour (WW), and I have mostly stuck to this flour mixture ever since. Last year I spent a week trying to convert it to rye (which Ford uses), but Bradley became so inactive and dull that I ran back to my AP/WW formula in fear I’d killed him.
Seeing that Ford says to build the levain with WW and bread flour (the latter of which he favors as the primary flour in lean doughs), I started feeding Bradley bread/WW. Bradley was not happy with this change and smelled awful, which again terrified me. I went back to AP/WW and was rewarded with activity and strength. For the pan rustico levain, I used AP/WW instead of the prescribed bread/WW. I’m sure the flour used in starters has an effect on the final dough, but the strength of activity is the most important element. I’ve got what I’ve got, and that’ll do for my bread.
I was very pleased with the timing of this levain. I fed Bradley daily for a few days, including the night before I planned to mix the dough. The next morning I fed him as instructed, and after four hours he was ready to party.
In my months of baking, I have settled on methods of mixing, folding, shaping, and baking with which I have found success. For this bake I decided to follow Ford’s instructions, based on the extreme probability that I have much to learn.
Ford advises holding back water as you mix the levain and flour, and later the salt. Adding water later in the process makes an unsettling floury broth in the mixing bowl. Eventually it is absorbed, but initially it looks like a mistake that needs to be drained off. I realized too late that I hadn’t even added all of the water I’d measured out, but the bread wasn’t a disaster so I’ll assume the error had a negligible effect.
Ford prescribes only two folds, which made me a little nervous. Other recipes call for 3-4. Nevertheless, these two seemed to do the trick. Bread flour is stronger than all purpose flour, and the recipes I’ve followed before use almost all AP. I would guess those require more work/folds to build gluten strength than Ford’s bread flour-heavy recipe.
I shaped one loaf following Ford’s instructions. It rolled out way longer than my banneton, so it got smooshed up in the basket. The other loaf I shaped with a cross-stitch method that I learned from other Instagram bakers. The bannetons themselves are shaped differently, and I scored them inexpertly, all of which had an effect on the final shape and crumb.
I baked these bad boys on one baking stone, using Ford’s recommended steaming method: adding ice cubes to a preheated baking dish. Whether I used too many ice cubes or my oven wasn’t hot enough, I don’t think I created enough steam. I moved the loaves from the stone to the rack, as Ford recommends, and baked them about 10 minutes longer than the base time in the recipe, but they did not darken as desired. This is probably due to my under-performing oven more than anything. In the future, I will go back to steaming with water in a preheated cast iron skillet, and just leave the loaves on the stone.
Both loaves of my pan rustico have a crispy crust, fairly even crumb, and complex, delicious flavor. The cross-stitched loaf ballooned where I scored it too deeply, but I think it generally had a better oven spring than my smooshed loaf. I’ve had my heart broken by basic sourdough recipes before, but this one did not disappoint. I’m ready to love again.