Better bread starts here

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When it comes to the romance of home-baked bread, nothing beats the notion of sourdough. It's the Holy Grail of doughs, much like DIY charcuterie and naturally thickened jams.

Truth is, I like sourdough bread when someone else makes it — say, the corner French bakery. It takes dedication to nurse the slurry of flour and water into a mature, sour, puddinglike glop that can yield a great exterior and those characteristic big, gaping holes inside. The machismo of superb sourdough (and, trust me, it's a competitive venue of baking) is about using no added yeast, relying on airborne spores to do the job.

Sourdough is so beloved yet so demanding that Cook's Illustrated recently suggested home bakers forgo a starter to save time and simply add vinegar for that characteristic acidic taste. I say: Please don't, on both accounts. That is what some commercial bakers used to do to hasten the process and sell regular bread as sourdough.

Sponge-based bread for me, as both a home baker and professional pastry chef, is the perfect hybrid. It's a relatively old frontier in need of re-exploration, and if you're not much of a bread baker, consider it the right place for you to jump in. Sponge-starter bread is not quite sourdough, yet it's way more interesting than a regular or straight bread dough. To my mind, it's also more flavorful than no-knead bread.

A sponge is just as it sounds: a bubbled mixture of flour, water and a touch of yeast. For a rather low-rent approach, it produces rather phenomenal results: a crust and flavor like sourdough, with less of the taste that some sourdough haters can do without, due to shortened pre-fermentation. The starter can be made eight to 16 hours ahead. If I forget to deal with it or am called away, I can chuck the bowlful, or I can feed it and let it develop as a sourdough starter.

True sourdough starters can have a lot of legacy to them; by that I mean starters that were inherited and can be traced back for years or those that have been fed and developed with care.

Another sourdough-ish bread that tastes less sour and is less demanding to produce is the slow, no-knead bread that became popular thanks to books such as "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day," and James Lahey and Rick Flaste's Sullivan Street Bakery bread. (And there is a similar category of breads, made the "pâte fermentée" way. Pâte fermentée is leftover yeasted dough that bakers shear off from the day's baking. They refrigerate this chunk of fermented dough -- a sourdough of sorts -- then add it to a new batch of bread.)

Sponge-based breads, like great sourdoughs, tend not to go stale as fast as other homemade white breads; the more yeast that is used, the faster the breads can go bad, I've found. That makes them the ideal choice for sandwich bread and next-day toast. A big round of sponge-based dough yields a nice boule; a flat spread of it yields a fougasse, the sculpted Provence-inspired loaf that bakes with ladderlike slits. Less yeast is helpful in creating breads that don't dry out. However, the little bit of yeast that sponge-based breads do use guarantees a decent rise that, even on my best days, is not always a given with no-added-yeast, sourdough bread.

What I do to make my sponges a magnet for the interesting wild yeast spores found in my kitchen (and yours) is to use spring water and organic flours. That further courts unique yeasty guests, and the nonchlorinated water ensures there is no yeast-fermentation upset due to the chloride. In my sponge-based recipes, I tend to tailor the sponge starters to the breads in question. For an all-white country bread, I use a bit of non-white flours but mostly organic white flour; for a whole-wheat bread, I tend to go more wheaty.

In the dough itself, given the foundation of an interesting organic sponge, I use unbleached bread flour, which is happily unbleached, if not organic, and bolsters the spine or architecture of the bread. That yields a rather nice-size loaf versus the more modest one of homemade sourdoughs.

The accompanying recipes offer a solid, diverse starter pack: classic white country bread, whole-wheat bread, a trendy walnut bread and a Mediterranean-kissed rosemary and olive fougasse. If you want to make bistro-style pizza, a sponge-based dough is accommodating enough to handle a rise that lasts one hour or six.

Favorite French Bread

Makes 1 large loaf or 2 smaller ones (about 15 slices)

You'll need an extra-large plastic zip-top bag, big enough to hold a baking sheet and the bread dough — alternatively, plastic wrap can be used — and a spray water bottle. Spring water isn't chlorinated and won't interfere with yeast development. Store bread wrapped in a dish towel for the first day, which will help keep the crust crisp; after, in a zip-top bag. Make ahead: The sponge starter needs to sit at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. The dough needs to rise a 1st time for 45 to 90 minutes; a 2nd for 2 to 4 hours. The unsliced loaves can be frozen for up to 2 months.

For the sponge starter and dough:

1 cup spring water

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

1.25 cups unbleached bread flour or (preferably) organic white bread flour

2 tablespoons organic whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons organic rye flour

For the dough:

1 cup spring water

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

2.5 teaspoons sea salt

1 tablespoon sugar (may substitute honey)

1/2 teaspoon malt powder or syrup (optional)

3.75 to 4 cups unbleached white bread flour, plus more for dusting

Combine the water and yeast in a medium bowl, then add the bread flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour. Stir to form a puddinglike mixture. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, leaving a little head space. Let it sit for 8 to 16 hours. The starter should become spongy.

Stack two baking sheets; line the top one with parchment paper.

Stir the starter to deflate it, then spoon it into the deep bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook. Quickly stir in the water, yeast, salt, sugar, malt powder, if using, and about half of the bread flour. Mix briefly on low to form a soft mass. Cover lightly with a dish towel and let stand for 15 minutes. Then continue to knead using the dough hook until smooth and resilient, dusting with as much flour as needed. This is a soft dough, so a bit more slack versus firm is fine.

Grease a large bowl with nonstick spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Put the bowl in the large zip-top bag or cover with plastic wrap. Seal; let rise for 45 to 90 minutes. It should almost double.

Remove the bag. Gently deflate the dough, forming it into one large ball or two smaller ones. Pull a membrane of dough tautly around the dough ball; this layer will help make a nice crust. Gently place the dough ball(s) seam side down on the lined baking sheet.

Spray lightly with nonstick spray. Insert the baking sheets into the large zip-top bag or cover them with plastic wrap. Seal; let rise until it has almost doubled, 2 to 4 hours.

Position a rack in the lowest part of the oven and preheat to 475 F.

Remove the baking sheets from the bag. Use a knife to slash the loaves. (If dough deflates when you slash it, it might have risen too much. The heat of the oven should help it spring back.) Spray the loaves with a mist of water, and dust them with unbleached bread flour.

Open the oven door and spray a few squirts of water, then place the baking sheet on the lowest oven rack and reduce the temperature to 450 F. Spray the oven interior every 5 minutes for the first 15 minutes of baking time. After 15 minutes, reduce the temperature to 450 F and bake for 10 minutes. The bread should be well browned after 35 to 40 minutes, but it won't yet be fully cooked in the center. Reduce the temperature to 425 F for any additional baking time.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool.Per slice: 170 calories, 6 g protein, 35 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 360 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Artisanal Walnut Bread

Makes two 9-by-5-inch loaves (32 to 38 slices total)

You'll need a spray water bottle and an extra-large zip-top bag, big enough to contain a baking sheet (alternatively, a large sheet of plastic wrap can be used), and two loaf pans. Spring water is specified because it is not chlorinated and therefore will not interfere with yeast development.

Store this bread wrapped in a clean dish towel for the first day, which will help keep the crust crisp; after that, in a zip-top bag. Make ahead: The sponge starter needs to sit at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. The dough needs to rise a first time for 45 to 90 minutes and a second time for 11/2 to 3 hours.

For the sponge starter and dough:

1 cup water, preferably spring water (see note)

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

1.25 cups unbleached bread flour or preferably organic white bread flour

2 tablespoons organic whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons organic rye flour, plus more for dusting

For the dough:

1.5 cups water, preferably spring water

2 teaspoons instant yeast

2 tablespoons dark rye flour

2 tablespoons walnut oil or light olive oil

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons honey

3 to 4 cups unbleached white bread flour

2 cups raw unsalted walnut halves, 1 cup left intact and 1 cup coarsely chopped

Combine the water and yeast in a medium bowl, then add the bread flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour. Stir to form a thick, puddinglike mixture. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, leaving a little head space. The starter should become foamy-looking or spongy. Let it sit for 8 to 16 hours.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spray two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans generously with nonstick spray and place them on the baking sheet.

Spoon the sponge starter into the bowl of a stand mixer, then stir in the water, yeast, rye flour, oil, salt, honey and 2 cups of the bread flour to make a soft mixture. Cover loosely and let stand for 15 minutes. Then, using the mixer with the dough hook, knead slowly on low for 5 to 8 minutes, adding as much of the remaining flour as needed to make a soft dough. Halfway through, add the walnuts. (You can reserve some or all of the 1 cup of intact walnut halves to place on top of the loaves later.)

Grease a large bowl with nonstick spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Insert the bowl in the large zip-top bag (see note). Seal to close; let rise for 45 to 90 minutes. It should almost double.

Lightly flour a work surface. Turn the dough out onto the work surface and gently deflate, then let it rest for 5 minutes. Divide into two portions. Shape each into a compact oblong and place in the loaf pans. Dust with the rye flour. Use a knife to make 3 diagonal slashes on the top of each.

Spray with nonstick spray and enclose in the large plastic bag. Let rise until almost doubled in size, 11/2 to 3 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Have a spray bottle of water at hand.

Before baking, gently press reserved walnut halves into the top of each loaf, being careful not to deflate. Dust with white or rye flour.

Place the baking sheet with loaf pans in the oven, then reduce the temperature to 375 F. Bake until browned, 35 to 40 minutes, misting the interior of the oven two or three times in the first 15 minutes of baking.

Remove the loaves from the pans. Let the loaves cool on a wire rack for at least 20 minutes before serving.Per slice (based on 38): 100 calories, 3 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 125 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

Black Olive Rosemary Fougasse

Makes 2 loaves (about 20 slices total)

You'll need an extra-large zip-top bag big enough to contain a baking sheet and two loaves. Alternatively, plastic wrap can be used. Spring water is not chlorinated and will not interfere with yeast development. Store this bread wrapped in a dish towel for the first day, which will help keep the crust crisp; after, in a zip-top bag. Make ahead: The sponge starter needs to sit at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. The dough needs to rise a 1st time for 45 to 90 minutes and a 2nd for 11/2 to 2 hours. Unsliced loaves can be frozen for up to 2 months.

For the sponge starter and dough:

1 cup spring water

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast

1.25 cups unbleached bread flour or (preferably) organic white bread flour

2 tablespoons organic whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons organic rye flour

For the dough:

1.5 cups spring water

2 teaspoons instant yeast

2.25 teaspoons coarse sea salt, plus more for garnish

1 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons dark rye flour, plus more for dusting

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling

3 to 4 cups unbleached white bread flour, plus more for work surface

1 tablespoon minced rosemary, plus leaves for garnish

2 cups pitted kalamata olives, each cut in half

Combine water and yeast in a medium bowl, then add the bread flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour. Stir to form a puddinglike mixture. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, leaving a little head space. Let sit for 8 to 16 hours. The starter should become spongy.

Stack two baking sheets; line the top one with parchment paper.

Stir the starter to deflate it, then spoon it into the deep bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook. Add the water, then quickly stir in the yeast, salt, honey, dark rye flour, oil and about half of the unbleached white bread flour. Mix briefly on low to form a soft mass. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and let it stand for 15 minutes.

Continue to knead using the dough hook until smooth and resilient, adding as much of the unbleached white bread flour as needed and the rosemary. When the kneading is almost done (the dough will be soft and elastic), stop the mixer. Knead in olives by hand.

Grease a large bowl with nonstick spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Insert the bowl in a large zip-top bag (see note) or cover it with plastic wrap. Seal; let rise for 45 to 90 minutes. It should double.

Lightly flour a work surface. Turn the dough out and gently deflate. Let rest for 5 minutes, then divide into two portions. Shape each into an oblong and arrange several inches apart on the lined baking sheet. Dust each with rye flour. Use a knife to make 3 diagonal slashes on each, then gently open the slashes.

Spray each lightly with nonstick spray, then sprinkle with rosemary and salt. Place the stacked baking sheets inside the large plastic bag or cover with plastic wrap. Seal; let rise 11/2 to 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Remove the baking sheets from the bag. Drizzle loaves with oil. Bake until browned, 30 to 35 minutes. If they brown but some baking time remains, reduce the temperature to 400 F. Let cool for 10 minutes.

Whole-Wheat French Country Bread

Makes 1 large round loaf or two smaller ones (about 15 slices)

You'll need an extra-large plastic zip-top bag, big enough to hold a baking sheet and bread loaf -- alternatively, a large sheet of plastic wrap can be used -- and a spray water bottle. Spring water is not chlorinated and therefore will not interfere with yeast development. The optional malt powder or syrup, available at health-food stores and at KingArthurFlour.com, gives the yeast something to nibble on, and helps with flavor and browning. Store this bread wrapped in a dish towel for the first day, which will help keep the crust crisp; after, in a zip-top bag. Make ahead: The sponge starter needs to sit at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. The dough needs to rise a 1st time for 45 to 90 minutes; a 2nd for 11/2 to 4 hours. The unsliced loaves can be frozen for up to 2 months.

For the sponge starter and dough:

1.25 cups spring water, or as needed

1/4 teaspoon instant yeast

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1/3 cup white unbleached bread flour, preferably organic

For the dough

1.5 cups spring water

1 teaspoon instant yeast

2.5 teaspoons sea salt

3 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon malt powder or syrup (optional)

2 tablespoons light olive oil

2 cups stone-ground whole-wheat flour (bread or all-purpose)

2 to 3 cups unbleached white bread flour, or more as needed

Combine water and yeast in a medium bowl, then add the whole-wheat flour and white unbleached bread flour. Stir to form a puddinglike mixture. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, leaving a little head space. The starter should become foamy-looking. Let sit for 8 to 16 hours.

Stack two baking sheets; line the top one with parchment paper.

Stir the starter to deflate it, then spoon it into the deep bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook. Add the water, yeast, salt, honey, malt powder or syrup, if using, the oil, whole-wheat flour and about 1 cup of the white unbleached bread flour. Mix briefly on low to form a soft mass. Cover lightly with a dish towel and let stand for 15 minutes. Then continue to knead using the dough hook until smooth and resilient, adding as much flour as needed. The dough should be soft after 5 to 8 minutes.

Grease a large bowl with nonstick spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Put the bowl in the large zip-top bag. Seal; let rise for 45 to 90 minutes. It should almost double.

Remove the bowl from the bag. Gently deflate and shape into a large round or two smaller rounds, and place on the lined baking sheet. Insert the baking sheets into the plastic bag. Seal; let rise until it has almost doubled in size, 11/2 to 4 hours.

Preheat oven to 475 F. Mist the oven with water just before the bread goes in. Remove the baking sheets from the bag. Use a knife to slash the top of the dough; dust with flour. Bake, reducing the temperature to 450 F, spraying the oven interior every 2 minutes for the first 10 minutes. After 25 minutes, reduce the heat to 425 F and bake until browned; 25 to 30 minutes.

Let cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.