This naturally leavened caramelized onion sourdough bread has a wonderful sweet-savory flavor from caramelized onions and a hint of sage. Yes, it takes a bit of time, but most is hands off and believe me, it's well worth it.
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As I mentioned when I shared my sourdough pancakes recently, I have been meaning to get a sourdough starter going again for a while and finally got round to it recently. For something that you make with only flour and water, it is almost magical in its ability to make a loaf rise and add flavor.
And don't get me wrong, I know if baking with yeast is intimidating then sourdough seems like a whole extra level of scary. Yet it's actually more forgiving than you might think.
I've tried a few experiments over the last few weeks. And while some were odd shapes, or with big air pockets, the bread was still delicious. And no bricks in sight.
This particular bread has definitely been our favorite by far recently. The flavor and texture were both so good.
The caramelized onions might seem like yet another thing to do, but they add a wonderful slight sweetness. I'll admit, the sage is less obvious. I was a bit nervous it might take over, as sage can do, and probably went under the amount needed to bring the flavor out fully.
Feel free to add more if you like, or you can skip if you prefer. You could also switch out the sage for thyme or rosemary. The herby flavor certainly complements the other flavors in this, but for me they are not the main event. The combination of slightly tangy sourdough and sweet caramelized onions is truly wonderful in itself.
How do you make bread without yeast?
Some non-yeasted breads using baking soda (like the famous Irish kind) or other leavener, but sourdough works differently.
It works by using "wild yeast" and bacteria from the air fermenting with the flour and water, producing gas (ie bubbles in the dough) and lactic acid that gives the sour flavor. That's horribly oversimplified, but it's an amazing process that largely happens on its own over a few days, with regular feeding of fresh flour and water to help it along.
Sourdoughs in one place may taste different from another since there are different naturally occurring bacteria in the air. Also if you want a more sour loaf of bread, you can leave the dough to develop over multiple days and not only do the air pockets grow, but so does the flavor.
Stages in making sourdough
Some sourdoughs help things along with some added yeast, but you absolutely can make a loaf without it, as I have here. This naturally leavened bread is sometimes called "pain au levain" and follows a fairly typical process. Yes, it takes some time but you can flex some of the times to suit your schedule better and most is not very hands on.
Here is an outline of the steps and approximate time commitments:
- Have an active starter - before you start making this loaf, your starter needs to be fed and bubbly. (time commitment: 5 min over min 5 days to get starter going)
- Create the 'levain' - this is in effect a very active starter, made using a little starter plus a good amount of flour and water. Some make this dry, others wet then add less water later. (5 min active time then leave min 6 hours or overnight)
- Mix dough ingredients, except salt - salt is necessary for flavor but slows the rise so comes slightly later. The dough will look pretty "shaggy". (5 min)
- 'Autolyse' - this is in effect a rest period where the full dough ingredients mingle together. (around 30 min, hands off)
- Add salt and give short knead - in the case of this dough, this is also when you add the sage & onions. You'll be able to mix them in evenly as you knead, in fact it's a good indicator it's evenly kneaded. (5-10 min)
- Proof the dough - this is like the first rise for a yeast bread, but two main differences here - it takes a little longer and you help build air by stretching and folding the dough around every 40-60min. At this point, you may not see many air bubbles. (2 hours approx with short intervals hands on)
- Form into loaf - fold the dough tightly on itself to form either a boule (ball) or bâtard (oval) then put in a proofing basket, if you have one, or simply on to parchment that you'll bake it on. (5 min)
- Second proof - leave the loaf to rise and form air pockets before baking. (2 to 3 hours room temp or overnight in fridge, hands off)
- Score and bake - score the top of the loaf right before baking at high heat until it sounds hollow. (40min approx)
I know that probably all seems like a lot, but honestly, it's easier than you might think. Sourdough is also more forgiving than the mystery that seems to surround it, too.
Sometimes it can seem like it doesn't have a lot of bubbles in the first proof. Don't worry - as long as you have indications of some activity, it will probably be fine. While it is possible to over-proof sourdough, you can leave it a little too long at various stages and it should survive. Generally, at worst you just get some bigger air pockets in there.
How do you cook this loaf?
You have a few options in how to cook the loaf - some opt for a baking stone while others use a Dutch oven. Personally I find in a Dutch oven or similar overproof dish with a lid is best to give it a steam covered at the start followed by taking the lid off to let it brown.
Why steam? Well the steam helps to give the loaf a crisp crust. If you don't use a closed dish, you can create a similar environment by making steam in the oven as you put the loaf in, but I have had less success in this leading to a crisp crust.
Whichever way you bake it, it's worth having the dish warm before you put the loaf in to help the crust get nice and crisp and have the loaf heat as soon as it goes in the oven.
If you're using a Dutch oven, I tend to let it rise on parchment, in the pan, then use the edges of the parchment to lift it out while I warm the pan in the oven as it heats up.
This caramelized onion sourdough bread has such a wonderful flavor - the classic sourdough tang with sweet bursts from the onions are such a great combination. Crisp outside, tender inside. It's truly a new favorite - make it yours too!
Like making bread? Try these other homemade breads:
- Japanese milk bread
- Pain de campagne - French country bread
- Sourdough rye bread
- Spelt rolls
- Fig and walnut bread
- Plus get more side dishes in the archives.
Sage and caramelized onion sourdough bread
For the levain/sponge
- 22 g sourdough starter
- 105 g all purpose flour plain flour
- 105 ml water lukewarm
For caramelized onions
- ½ onion
- ½ tablespoon olive oil may need a little more
- ¼ teaspoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt (or large pinch, as you prefer)
- ½ teaspoon fresh sage finely diced - or more to taste
To make loaf
- 230 g all purpose flour (plain flour)
- 115 g wholewheat flour
- 210 ml water lukewarm
- 8 g salt
Levain/sponge (night before or at least 9hrs before baking)
- Mix the levain/sponge ingredients together in a bowl, making sure they are well mixed. Cover the bowl with a cloth or cling wrap/film and leave in at room temperature overnight. Alternatively, leave for at least 6 hours at warm room temp, or around 8 hours more normal temp. You should see it noticeably have bubbles on top.
- During this time, finely dice the onions. Warm the olive oil in a small skillet over a medium heat and add the onion, sugar and salt. Cook for at least 15-20 minutes until the onions soften and start to caramelize. Reduce the heat and/or add a little more oil as needed to avoid the onions burning. Once the onions are starting to caramelize, add the chopped sage and cook for a few more minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. (Can make ahead and set aside.)
Making dough and initial rise
- After the levain's rise, mix in the additional flours and water but not the salt. Leave the mixture to rest for around 30 minutes.
- Add the salt, mix in (you'll feel the dough tense up), then turn the mixture onto a lightly floured surface. Spread it out slightly and top with the onion mixture. Fold in the sides to help hold the onions in the loaf then knead the dough for a few minutes, pushing one side out with the heel of your hand, folding over, then turn 90 degrees and repeat. As you do so, you'll naturally work in the onion and distribute it evenly.
- Lightly brush a large bowl with oil then form the bread into a ball and put in the bowl. Cover and leave to rise another 2 hours, opening it up to fold roughly every 30 minutes. For each fold, pull on one side of the dough, stretch it up pretty much as far as it will go and fold it over the rest of the dough. Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat. Make at least 4 of these stretches for each fold (I sometimes do 6 if it feels like it needs it). During this time, line a Dutch oven or other large baking dish with a lid with parchment.
Forming loaf and second rise/proof
- After you have made three folds and let it have a further half hour (ie 2 hours total), turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Fold the sides over tightly in to the middle to form a tight ball (bring in to middle in 4 or 5 places). Repeat this process one more time with floured hands, picking it up and turning over at the end to bring it in to a ball or oval shape. Place the dough, smooth side up, join side down, in the lined Dutch oven/pan.
- Cover the pan with cling wrap/film and leave to rise approx 2 hours.
Baking the loaf
- When ready to bake, remove the cling wrap/film then hold the corners of the parchment to lift the loaf carefully out of the Dutch oven/pan. Let it sit as you preheat the oven to 450F/240C with the Dutch oven/pan warming in the oven at the same time.
- When the oven has heated, take out the Dutch oven/pan and carefully put the parchment with the loaf on into the pan. Score the loaf in the middle then cover with the lid and bake for around 20 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 20 minutes until the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow to tap.
- Transfer the loaf to a cooling rack and allow it to cool before slicing.
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
I first learned to make sourdough from the River Cottage series on TV and still refer to their sourdough guide to explain all the stages. For this I have also drawn on Karen's Kitchen Stories pain au levain with caramelized onion.
Baking Bloggers April 2020: Herbs
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- Ham and Herbed Potatoes Au Gratin from Making Miracles
- Herb Roasted Chickpeas from Cook with Renu
- Herbed Chicken with Charred Romaine Salad from A Day in the Life on the Farm
- No Knead Herb Bread from Karen's Kitchen Stories
- Oven-Braised Rabbit with Herbed Dumplings from Culinary Adventures with Camilla
- Quiche Lorraine with Herbs from Sid's Sea Palm Cooking
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