By Cat, May 2011 and July 2011 (Photo and bread, right, by Cat)
Includes: 1. Carla Emry’s sponge method whole wheat sourdough bread; 2. Testing Carla Emry method; 3. Learnings
The sponge is a means of ensuring your starter is very active, with strength to rise the bread dough. It is basically the first step in the bread recipe, and includes an overnight rest. All sponge methods produce a lighter loaf with better rise. And – big bonus – the sponge does a lot of the work, so you don’t have to knead as much for a lighter result!
This method is from The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emery (1). Basically, the sponge includes:
- starter (should be an active starter – lots of bubbles),
- all of the warm water required for the recipe, and
- roughly half the total flour for the recipe.
Sponge-Method Whole Wheat Bread Recipe from Carla Emry
The original recipe, from The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emery (6), makes 2 loaves of hearty whole grain bread. I adjusted to 1 loaf for testing. Ingredients, below, reflect 1-loaf, with 2-loaves in parenthesis and original recipe amounts crossed-out where modified.
Other than the sponge, this has only one rise. But I think you would get a lighter loaf if you allowed it one rise in the bowl before forming the loaves. It’s worth trying…
See Testing Carla’s Method (below) for my testing of this recipe. Ingredient amounts below, adjusted per 7/9/11 testing on 1-loaf and my smaller size pans.
Sponge Ingredients for 1 loaf (2 loaves):
- 1 cup starter (
1 cup2 cups)
- 1 cup lukewarm water (
3¾ cups2 cups)
- 1 ¼ – 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour (
4 ½ cups2 ½ – 3 cups)
Next Morning Ingredients:
- ½ tsp soda (1 tsp), optional
- ¼ cup oil (½ cup), optional
- 1 ½ – 2 cups whole wheat flour (
about 5 cups3 – 4 cups)
- 1 tsp unrefined sea salt (2 tsp)
- Mixing bowl
- kneading surface
- 2 loaf pans
- Sponge: Pour starter into mixing bowl. Stir in warm water. Mix in whole wheat flour to make a soft, sticky and bubbly sponge. Cover bowl with a damp cloth weighted with a plate, to rest overnight (8 – 9 hours).
- Next morning: Add soda and oil, stirring to combine. Add enough more whole wheat flour to make a kneadable dough. It tends to be sticky. Work in the salt.
- Divide kneaded dough into 2 loaves, putting each into a greased/buttered loaf pan. Should fill ¾ of space in the pan. Let rise in a warm place, until almost doubled in bulk, or until it is a little above the top of the pan.
- About 30 minutes before the rise is finished, preheat oven to 425°F. When hot, add loaves and bake 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375°F and bake about an hour longer, until internal temperature of 190°F.
- Remove bread from pans to cool thoroughly on rack before slicing.
I revised Carla’s recipe for testing by reducing the ingredients to make just one loaf. To do this, I used the total ingredient amounts for my version of Ronny’s Simple Sourdough Bread (modified for my smaller loaf pan).
I also used the general sponge-method instructions from the Sourdough Baker (see Sponge Methods for Sourdough Bread, an Overview and scroll down to “Sourdough Baker Sponge Method with Autolyze”) as a guide.
Modified Carla Emry recipe for testing 1 loaf
- Sponge ingredients for 1 loaf:
- ⅔ cup starter
- ¾ cup lukewarm water
- 1 ½ cups whole grain flour
- After Sponge:
- 1 tsp soda (didn’t use for first test)
- ½ cup oil (didn’t use for first test)
- 1 ½ cups whole grain flour
- 2 tsp unrefined sea salt
- (7/8/11): water: ¾ cup; flour (wheat/rye): 3 cups + 2 Tbsp + ⅔ cup starter
- (7/9/11): water: 1 ¼ cup; flour (wheat): 3 ½ cups + 2 tsp + 1 cup starter
- (7/9/22 Better, theoretical totals*): water: 1 cup; flour: 2 ¾ – 3 ½ cups + 2 tsp + 1 cup starter (* ‘Better’ totals corrects for initial addition of too much flour to starter)
- Sponge: The night before you want to bake, pour starter into mixing bowl. Add warm water and stir to make a slurry. Add the first batch of whole wheat flour and mix well to make the sponge. It should be a bit bubbly. Cover bowl with a damp cloth and let rest overnight.
- Next morning: Add soda and oil (if using); stir to combine. Add enough more whole wheat flour to make a kneadable dough. It tends to be sticky. Work in the salt.
- Shape into a loaf and put into a buttered loaf pan. Let rise in pan, in a warm place, until almost doubled in bulk, or until it is a little above the top of the pan.
- About 30 minutes before the rise is finished, preheat oven to 425° F. When hot, add loaves and bake 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375° F and bake about an hour longer, until internal temperature of 190° F.
- Remove bread from pans to cool thoroughly on rack before slicing.
Testing, July 7 – 8, 2011 (Wheat & Rye)
It’s important to note that I started with Ronny’s 100% whole wheat starter, and then fed it with rye, oat, barley and spelt for a few weeks while I experimented with Ronny’s Simple Sourdough Bread, and researched other recipes.
Because the starter was mixed-grain, I decided to use mixed grains for the bread as well; I modified the above test recipe to use roughly half whole wheat, half dark rye for the sponge, and half whole wheat, half light rye for the next day.
Before beginning, I did an aggressive feeding of my starter to make it nice and lively, and to made about ¾ cup starter (⅔ cup for the bread and the rest to keep my starter going). See Aggressive Feeding (in Sponge-Method overview) for more detail.
- Sponge: I followed as in test recipe, except used ¾ cup each whole wheat and dark rye flour. Totals at this point: ¾ cup water, 1 ½ cup flour, plus starter.
- Next morning, about 9:30 AM, did not add soda and oil. Mixed in ½ cup each whole wheat and light rye flour. Mixed in additional ¼ cup whole wheat with the salt, plus 3 Tbsp unbleached white flour for kneading. Totals at this point: ¾ cup water, 3 cups flour.
- After a 45-minute rest (10:15 AM), I flattened it to 1” thick, rolled it into a cylinder loaf, placed it in a buttered pan, and cut diagonal slits on top. But after about 30 minutes of resting, I decided I’d try a second rise in the bowl, so I transferred the dough to an oiled bowl and kneaded it just a bit. It is very soft. Then covered it to rise.
- Then at Noon (about 60 min later) I realized because I’d already added salt, it wouldn’t support 2 rises. So kneaded it a bit more with 2 Tbsp white flour, and shaped it into a loaf. Much less sticky, but still soft. It fills only about half the pan (should fill ¾ of the pan) so will be a small loaf. Set to rise. Totals at this point: 3/4 cup water, 3 cups + 2 Tbsp flour (including flour for kneading).
- At 4 PM it hadn’t risen, and appeared shrunken. By 5 PM it had risen some… At 9 PM, it had risen a bit more. I moistened the top and put it in the hot oven; total 11-hour rise/rest time. When I lowered oven temp, it had almost doubled its height from beginning of last rise. Baked about 22 minutes at 425°F and 50 minutes at 325°F to reach 190°F internal temp.
- Nice flavor but very dense, heavy.
What went wrong? The sponge didn’t rise – or it may have rose during the night and then fell by morning. I’d like to try the 2-phase sponge, each rising a shorter time, but will defer that for now. (See Sponge Methods for Sourdough Bread, an Overview and scroll down to Baker’s Forum Sponge Method for French-Style Bread). I’ll stick with 100% wheat until I get this down. Also, since it didn’t make as big a loaf as my pan, I’ll increase the recipe.
Testing July 9, 2011 (all wheat)
Altered amounts as follows:
- Sponge ingredients:
- 1 cup active starter (
- 1 ¼ cup lukewarm water (
1 cup); would be better as 1 cup
- 1 ¾ cups whole wheat flour (
1 ½ cups); would be better as 1 ¼ cup + extra as needed
- Next Morning ingredients:
- 1 ½ – 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 2 tsp unrefined sea salt
Totals (7/9/11): water: 1 ¼ cup; flour: 3 ½ cups + 2 tsp + 1 cup starter
Better totals as water: 1 cup; flour: 2 ¾ – 3 ½ cups + 2 tsp + 1 cup starter
Before beginning, I continued an aggressive feeding of my mostly-wheat starter: yesterday morning I fed it to double its volume, then fed again in evening, to yield a little more than 1 cup starter. I reserved 2 Tbsp starter to keep it going, and used the remaining cup for the sponge.
I intend to let the sponge work for 8 daylight hours (so I can observe if it rises then falls), then build up the dough, rise in the loaf pan about 2 hours, and bake, all in the same day.
(1.) To 1 cup starter I added 1 cup water followed by the flour. It was too thick for a sponge so I added another ¼ cup water, stirred it up to develop gluten, covered with a damp cloth and plate, and let it rest, about 10 AM. It is behaving more like a sponge, but by noon hadn’t risen much.
At 3 PM, it hasn’t risen or bubbled up much. I’m wondering if my starter is ‘sick’. At 4 PM (6 hours) it has a few bubbles, but still hasn’t risen. At 5 PM, no change. I measured temperature of the sponge – 68°F. Too cool! I re-dampened the cover cloth and set sponge inside my pilot-light-warmed broiler (about 95°F.). 6 PM: It has more bubbles but rise is minimal; internal temp is 82°F.. I’ll give it another hour. 7 PM: more bubbles, and when I gave it a stir it was really active. Yeah! (9 hour rise).
(2.) Worked in 1 ½ cups flour, then turned it out onto floured board. Pressed to 1” thick and sprinkled the salt over top and rubbed it in with wetted fingers. Kneaded 10 minutes or so, working in another ¼ cup of whole wheat flour. Formed it into a cylinder placed it in my buttered glass bread pan, because this loaf was too big for the smaller steel pan that I have been using. It filled the glass pan a little more than ¾ up the sides, but I think it will be OK. I cut a slit on top and sprinkled top with water, then set back in my warm broiler, covered with a damp cloth, at 7:30. Total flour: 3 ½ cups; total water 1 ¼ cup.
(3.) Start oven to preheat at 9 PM; at 9:30 (2 hours rise) it had risen to top of loaf pan but just barely. Another 30 minutes of rise (2.5 hours total) and into the oven at 10 PM. Total rise time: 9 hours sponge; 2.5 hours in baking pan = 11.5 hrs total. But if it had been in the warm spot for all of the rise, it would have taken less time.
(4.) It did get some oven spring, rising a bit in the center, above the top of the pan after 20 minutes at 425°F. Then reduced heat to 375°F for 45 minutes. It got pretty brown and the crust is hard. I let it cool overnight and could hardly wait to taste it when I got up. OMG, it was hard to cut through the crust, but inside it is so good! albeit quite dense.
- Let sponge and dough rise in my broiler in off-mode if my kitchen is too cool.
- Adding the salt as in this test works well: flatten dough, sprinkle salt over, moisten hands and rub in the salt, then knead.
- Use unbleached white for kneading – maybe crust will be more tender.
- If I want to use my smaller steel pan, cut down on ingredients, back to original except use more starter; thus: 1 cup starter, 1 cup water, 1 ½ cup flour for sponge; another 1½ – 2 cups flour and 2 tsp salt the next day. Can also try adding ½ cup oil before adding salt.
- After less than good results also with Tassajara Sponge method, I concluded my starter was contaminated. I threw it out and tried a rye starter, but it too became contaminated. I waited quite a while and then made a spelt starter which seems to be working well with the Tassajara method. I’ve not yet tried it with Carla’s method because I like the Tassajara method so well.
I’d like to try something different, from Frazgo Feasting (2) for making a white-bread freeform sourdough loaf (not yet tried/tested):
- Frazgo Feasting: Keeping sponge alive tells how to build up a sponge in 3 feedings to generate 4 cups starter.
- Frazgo Feasting: Freeform, white flour, sourdough bread from a sponge starts with 2 cups of the built-up sponge and makes 1 large loaf of bread. I would just make up 2 cups of sponge in the first place. I like the idea of using so much starter – perhaps the result won’t be so sour!
- The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emery
- Frazgo Feasting: Keeping sponge alive (frazgofeasting.blogspot.com/2009/03/hooch-and-keeping-your-sourdough.html) and Freeform, white flour, sourdough bread from a sponge (frazgofeasting.blogspot.com/2009/03/sourdough-bread.html)