Friday, October 30, 2009

Monte San Savino Sourdough

I've got to admit it. I don't like Tuscan bread. It's not just that it's unsalted; it also doesn't have enough texture for me. Friends far wiser and more experienced with Tuscan cooking than I point out that Tuscans don't really eat bread, they use it as a vehicle. It's perfect for fettunta, bruschetta, mopping up sauce, and in bread soups like pappa pamodoro and ribollita. A salted bread with too much personality just wouldn't be good for those uses. And I do like it those ways, I promise!

However, our family eats bread as a main course, as the mainstay of our breakfast and sometimes our lunch, too. We are used to homemade sourdough bread, thanks in large part to Peter Reinhard and Jeffrey Hamelman's wonderful books and the baking community at The Fresh

It took me a long time to get the hang of making country-style sourdough loaves, and now I'm caught up again in a steep learning curve trying to bake bread in Itay.

Most Italian flours on shop shelves are made from soft wheat. Bread baking requires hard wheat, which develops a good strong gluten. In Tuscany, semola, grano duro, or Manitoba* are hard wheat, high gluten flours flours that are also used for pasta. For a more extensive discussion of Italian flours, go to

All the flour in the photos say "tenera" and are ground from soft wheat. Use them combined with straight Manitoba, which will add strength to the dough.

At first, I didn't have a starter, and the bread I made with yeast just wasn't as satisfying as the flavor we'd been enjoying with sourdough breads. So with the help of gaarp's tutorial on TFL, I made a starter in Monte San Savino. Now, if you have ever had a sourdough starter, you know that it's a lot like having a pet. Except that when they're young, they're more finicky than a cat.

I also had to learn the tricks of a new oven and baking equipment, because baking crusty country bread requires steaming and pizza stones and all kinds of rigamarole.

The first loaves had training wheels, but they rose. Then the starter went into hibernation, and I had nothing but flat, hard failures.

I was elated when it all came together and we got some decent loaves. Not perfect, but beautiful in my eyes; I felt like the proud mama.

Now I have a recipe to share and some Italian starter to take home!

Monte San Savino Sourdough
(based on 1.2.3-Sourdough by Flo Makanai on The Fresh Loaf

This recipe uses a starter that is made with equal parts (by weight) flour and water (100% hydration). The starter should be fully developed by feeding it 8-12 hours before mixing the dough.

165 grams sourdough starter
330 grams warm water
450 grams bread flour
45 grams farina integrale (whole wheat flour)
10 grams salt

Mix the starter and the water together and add to the flours. Mix until the dough makes a raggedy mass.

Cover and let sit in a warm place for 30 minutes to an hour. Knead well until the gluten is well developed (windowpane test).

Stretch and fold the dough ( then nudge into a ball, put in the bowl, and let rise, covered, for a 2 1/2 hours, doing two stretch and folds 50 minutes apart.

Shape into either one loose ball or two (for smaller loaves), and let rest for ten minutes. Using a spinning motion, tighten the loaves up. You should see the "skin" on the surface of the dough begin to look stretched and smooth. Let rise until almost doubled, then slash and bake with steam in an oven that's been preheated to 475 degrees for an hour.

Creating steam: Put a tray (or casserole, or pan) on the bottom of the oven before preheating. One minute before loading bread into the oven, throw 1/4 cup hot water onto the tray and close the door quickly. Load the bread, and throw a half cup of water on to the tray. Quickly close the oven.

Stretch and fold:
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*All Manitoba flour is not the same. We bought a flour that is a mixture of Manitoba and other things that worked very well at the Coop; however, a straight Manitoba flour that we bought was too strong and produced heavy, ultra chewy, tough bread.
Be sue to read the label!


  1. Hi, I've written before about my bread baking experiences in Italy, but they've always been in apartments with no equipment at all. A bowl and an oven, and a spoon. It's always challenging. by the way, great pics, and you're so luck to do a house swap. When I'm in Venice I just buy the "Manitoba" flour that I find in the supermarket. I've made challahs with that flour exclusively, and haven't had a problem. Otherwise I mix Manitoba with integrale and some semolina. I buy seeds, etc. at the health food store and mix them in, too. Thanks for a great blog. Beth

  2. What a wonderful blog you have here! Thank you for sending your lovely bread to YeastSpotting. I can imagine what a challenge it must be to work with new flours, new equipment, new starter, new kitchen -- but how satisfying when it falls into place.