How to Think About Bread

By Daniel Lucas

Is baking bread a science or an art? Or is it something even more?

Perhaps you shouldn’t think at all. Maybe you should just slice a dark crusty loaf of bread along with some sharp cheese and Castelvetrano olives, surround yourself with loved ones, and then simply enjoy the moment. For me, this romantic moment only last briefly before my curiosity sets in, and if you want to make bread, it will require some thought – but once you’ve built a foundation of knowledge baking bread couldn’t be simpler. If it doesn’t work out the first time keep trying because there is a distinct sense of accomplishment when you are able to provide yourself, and your loved ones, with the staff of life.

The Bread Idols

Before I proceed any further I want to dedicate a moment to acknowledge that most of the following information is severely indebted to both Chad Robertson, author of Tartine Bread, and Ken Forkish, author of Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. While this guide should contain enough information on its own, I encourage you to buy one ( or both ) books and use them as a reference. They contain much more detail than this guide can hope to provide.

The books take two fundamentally different, but complementary, approaches towards bread and I’ve taken inspiration from both authors. Most of my approach, and preference, towards naturally leavened bread – that is, bread for which you cultivate the yeast yourself – is exclusively borrowed from Chad Robertson. While most of my baking process is nearly identical to that of Ken Forkish. I could write an entire article comparing the two books, but I will try to break it down quickly.

Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast is both simpler and more complex at the same time. Ken provides very precise recipes that make learning bread a bit easier to the inexperienced baker. This helps to accurately replicate a final result, which is extremely useful at first. In addition to this, Ken has recipes that use commercial yeast and preferments which have more condensed baking schedules which make them more accessible and easier to manage. On the other end of the spectrum, some Ken’s recipes are actually more advanced since there is a stronger emphasis on baking bread with specific characteristics by very carefully, and particularly, manipulating the input variables.

Chad Roberson structures Tartine Bread around the Country Bread, a naturally leavened bread, for which the instructions are provided in depth at the beginning and built upon throughout the remainder of the book. Upon reading Tartine Bread I was hesitant about trying out a naturally leavened bread using Ken’s approach because its rigidness was intimidating and the amount of flour used was of little concern. Chad Robertson takes a more artistic approach to bread which helps to establish a better understanding for naturally leavened bread. When you bake with commercial yeast, baking feels like more like a traditional science project, but as soon as baking bread turns into a fermentation project, it’s more akin to gardening. When you’re cultivating the microorganisms yourself I’ve found that it’s more important to be flexible and patient than it is to follow a rigid process and this is where Tartine Bread shines. It provides you with a solid understanding of the process to bake naturally leavened bread and, somewhat notoriously, leaves other things curiously vague. This allows for a lot of fun experimentation and yields a bread that feels like yours the first time you make it. Chad also has more “experimental” recipes such as double fermented porridge bread, sprouted grain bread, and ancient grain bread.

With all of that said, before reading Ken’s book I was baking variations of hard cardboard and I can’t possibly reiterate enough how amazing his book is. I’ve kept much of his baking process intact in the following recipe since it was the one that I learned first. It leaves out a few steps, is a bit faster, and always leaves me with bread that I am extremely satisfied with. Why do anything different?

In addition to these two bakers, I’d like to also throw out some love to Maurizio Leo, who has an incredible site, The Perfect Loaf, that is dedicated entirely for the purpose of baking bread. If you’re interested in learning more, but aren’t ready to purchase either of the above books, then definitely read through his site. Michael Pollan’s Cooked also has a really incredible section that is dedicated to baking bread and is chock-full of amazing information regarding food and culture. And if you really just want to eat an incredible loaf of bread but aren’t ready to commit to baking it yourself, I would highly recommend checking out White Salmon Baking Co. in White Salmon, WA. They are my personal favorite bakery in the greater Portland area.

There really is an abundant amount of information already compiled and documented regarding bread baking that is more than suitable. With that said, I’d still like to share my notes:

Assembling the Gear

One of the things I like about baking bread is how accessible it is—you can make an incredible load of bread with kitchen equipment you already have on hand:

  1. A small clear container for your starter
  2. A medium clear container for the levain
  3. A large container for mixing the final dough
  4. A dutch oven that can safely be heated to 500 F. Lodge cast iron and enameled cast iron are both viable choices, the former being cheaper. Some Le Creusets have handles that will melt at 500 F, so be careful.
  5. A digital scale
  6. 2 bread baskets, or 2 medium-sized bowls lined with a dish towel
  7. Optional: An instant-read thermometer. This is extremely handy to have around, but you can just use your finger if you wanted to live life on the edge.

If you’re interested in buying some more specific gear, Maurizio has an excellent list of specialized home baking equipment, most of which is the same that I use.

Developing a Starter

Before we get started (no pun intended) I want to first clarify some of the vernacular used throughout the following instructions. The starter refers to the culture of yeast and bacteria that grow in a small amount of flour and water that you feed (i.e. add fresh flour) on a daily basis. It is from here that you will dispatch your army of microorganisms into a slightly larger levain, which will be added to the final dough. A quick note here: I’m following suit with Ken Forkish in my use of the word levain – the French word for leaven to refer to the small batch of fermented dough added to the final dough mixture and leaven to refer the physical process of “raising”.

With that ( hopefully ) clear, begin by mixing a small batch of flour that we will use throughout the week to develop our starter and levain. Then to make the starter simply mix 50 grams of the flour blend with 50 g of water and cover with a small towel. Let this mixture sit for 3-4 days depending on the temperature. If after a couple days your starter doesn’t look super lively, you can take a play out of Michael Pollan’s book and take your bread starter on a walk through the park.

Starter Flour Blend

Item Baker’s Percent
400 g white flour 50 %
400 g whole wheat flour 50 %


Item Baker’s Percent
50 g flour blend 100 %
50 g water @ 80℉ 100 %

Once your starter looks rather lively (full of bubbles), remove and discard any crust that may have formed along with all but 20 g of the starter then add 40 grams of fresh flour along with 40 grams of water.

Feed Starter

Item Baker’s Percent
40 g flour blend 100 %
40 g water @ 80℉ 100 %
20 g starter ( 20 % inoculation ) 20 %

You will need to feed your starter at least once every 24 hours but depending on your inoculation ( the amount of mature starter ) and the temperature it may mature in under 12 hours. Once you have baked your bread, the starter can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks before it needs to be fed again. When you are ready to bake your bread, you will need to feed it once before you can use it to make a levain.


Remove 40 g of your starter and place in a medium-sized clear container which will be used to make the levain. From there you can remove all but 20 g of your starter and feed it as normal, discarding the remaining 40 g. This is a good time to return your starter to the refrigerator if you don’t plan on baking again until next week. Once your starter is mature, you can make a levain. Mix the following.

Item Baker’s Percent
200 g flour blend 100 %
200 g water @ 80℉ 100 %
~ 40 g starter ( 20 % inoculation ) 20 %

The amount of starter that you will need will depend on its maturity, the desired flavor in your final bread, and how fast you want your levain to develop. If you use a lot of starter, it’s character will be more strongly reflected in the final bread. Be cautious though, if you use too much you will end up with a sourdough bread. You can also use this amount to control how fast you want your levain to develop; the more you add, the faster it will develop. Once you have it mixed, the levain will need to develop overnight for 12-16 hours, or until it appears very mature.

Bulk Fermentation

The bulk fermentation is the development of the final dough. To make it, choose one of the following recipes and mix the ingredients, except the salt and additional water, in a large clear container. For example, if the water is listed as 700 g water ( + 60 g ) you would mix in 700 g of water, and reserve 60 g. Make sure your hands are wet when you’re mixing the dough, and if it’s really sticky, set a warm bowl of water next to you as you mix the dough and re-wet your hands as needed.


Item Baker’s Percent
800 g white flour 80 %
200 g whole wheat flour 20 %
700 g water ( + 60 g ) @ 80℉ 76 %
200 g levain 20 %
20 g salt 2 %

Whole Wheat Blend

Item Baker’s Percent
600 g whole wheat flour 40 %
400 g white flour 60 %
740 g water ( + 60 g ) @ 80℉ 80 %
200 g levain 20 %
20 g salt 2 %

Field Blend

Item Baker’s Percent
400 g whole wheat flour 40 %
400 g white flour 40 %
200 g whole rye flour 20 %
740 g water ( + 60 g ) @ 80℉ 80 %
200 g levain 20 %
20 g salt 2 %

100 % Whole Wheat

Item Baker’s Percent
1000 g whole wheat 100 %
780 g water ( + 60 g ) @ 80℉ 84 %
200 g levain 20 %
20 g salt 2 %

Mix the ingredients directly in the bowl using a squeezing motion until they are well incorporated then let the mixture rest for 20 - 30 minutes. This resting period is referred to as the autolyse which allows for the flour to absorb the water. After autolyse, mix the remaining water and the salt by gently folding the dough into itself, then using the squeezing motion to completely incorporate the salt. The dough will likely clump up a bit - work it until it is a cohesive mass again. You will need to let the dough rest for another 30 minutes before it’s relaxed enough for its first fold.

Instead of kneading, you will develop the gluten in the dough by the folding method. Folding occurs every 30 minutes for the first 2 hours of the bulk fermentation. The dough will be roughly circular, but if you imagine it as a triangle, fold it as if it had 3 corners. Grab a corner of the dough and stretch it upwards as far as you can before it breaks, then fold it back into itself. Repeat this step 2 more times every 30 minutes. After the final fold, let the dough rest for another 2 hours. Here is a less verbose list of instructions to follow as you make your bread.

  1. Mix the initial ingredients
  2. Rest 30 minutes (Autolyse)
  3. Mix remaining water and salt
  4. Rest 30 minutes
  5. Fold the dough. Repeat every 30 minutes for the next 2 hours for a total of 4 folds.
  6. Rest for 2 hours

The dough should have roughly doubled before it is ready to be shaped.

Shape and Proof

The doughs are wet and the trick to working with them is to flour the outer surface while leaving the interior wet. To do this, generously flour a working surface and gently transfer the dough from the container to the surface. Slice the dough into half and fold each half into itself so that the floured surface completely covers the exterior of the dough. Flip the dough over so the seam is on the bottom and add extra flour as needed. To shape the dough, cup your hands and tuck the dough under itself while shaping it into a ball. As you do this you should notice that the surface of the dough will begin to tighten. If you break the surface, gently patch it and reshape it. Generously flour the bread baskets ( or bowls with dish towels ) and set the bread into the baskets with the seam side down. Let the dough rest for another 4 hours. This is known as “proofing” your bread. Alternatively, you can proof your bread overnight for up to 12 hours in the refrigerator, allowing for at least 1-2 hours to let the bread return to room temperature before baking.


After your bread has proofed for about 3 hours, place your dutch oven ( with the lid on ) into the oven and preheat it to 500 ℉. Regardless of when your oven it heated, the dutch oven will need at least 45 minutes to preheat. Once your bread is fully proofed, safely remove the dutch oven and transfer the dough from the basket into the dutch oven flipping it over, so the seam side is facing up. Put the lid back on and return the dutch oven to the oven and bake covered for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the dutch oven from the oven, remove the lid and return the dutch oven, uncovered, back into the oven. Bake for another 15 minutes. You need to bake the bread until it looks dark, even if you’re making a white bread. This makes the crust, well crusty, but more importantly, this allows for the flavors on the crust to penetrate into the crumb which results in a deeply flavored loaf of bread. I would routinely prefer my bread slightly burnt rather than underdeveloped. Remove the bread from the oven once it looks done, put the lid back on to the dutch oven and return it to the oven to preheat for another 10 minutes. Bake the second loaf in the same manner as the first.

Baking to the Schedule

While Ken Forkish is primarily focused on the final product, I tend to focus more on the schedule. I would rather bake bread exactly when I want it to be coming out of the oven rather than achieving some specific characteristic in the bread. I generally balance making bread while doing other tasks and usually need it to be done by a specific time ( i.g. for dinner ). For this, I tend to adjust my variables not to manipulate what the texture and flavor of the final bread is, but rather to ensure that I’m sticking to my schedule. I don’t have air conditioning, so the room temperature of my kitchen fluctuates on a daily basis. If you’re like me, you will have to adjust the temperature of your water to accommodate for this. The warmer the dough is, the faster it will develop. You don’t want to rush your dough, and having patience always results in a more flavorful bread, but by adjusting the temperature of your water, you can control when your bread is ready to be baked. If you have a really cold day, you can heat up a pizza stone and raise your bread on the rack above it once the oven cools down. The stone will absorb and radiate heat for a while and will give your dough a development speed boost.

This is my preferred baking schedule:

Time Task
Thursday @ 5pm Remove the starter from the refrigerator then feed it.
Friday @ 5 pm Mix the levain
Saturday @ 7 am Mix the final dough, Bulk Fermentation
Saturday @ 12 pm Shape the dough, proof
Saturday @ 4 pm Bake the first loaf
Saturday @ 5pm Bake the second loaf