Sourdough is a wild, living thing. Like snowflakes, no two loaves are ever alike, and we like it that way. I've been working with whole wheat sourdough for about a year now and never stop learning.
While there's no substitute for hands-on experience, I can't overemphasize how much books and blogs have helped me along in my bread-baking adventures. Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads was by far the most helpful as far as the chemistry is concerned. The Sourdough Home has also been instrumental in my bread-baking education. While the experts can't tell you how the dough should feel or smell or sound, even the smallest tip can save hours of frustration [and pounds of wheat] lost on trial-and-error.
Last weekend I made two batches of Peter Reinhart's Whole Wheat Naan using a sourdough starter instead of instant yeast. I've never gotten the instant yeast to perform quite as well as my starter, which I got for the price of two stamps. This recipe makes a soft, buttery pita-like bread that makes every food you eat with it taste better.
Begin the recipe the day before you plan to bake the naan. Refrigerating the dough overnight, as Reinhart explains at length, is the key to making whole wheat taste good.
Special equipment: baking stone
12 oz. whole wheat flour (freshly ground for ultimate flavor and nutrition)
8 oz. 100% hydration starter (equal weights flour and water)
9 oz. yogurt
1 oz. melted butter
1 tsp. salt
Mix everything together with your hands, adding the salt last. The dough should be soft and a little sticky. Work the dough with your hands, folding it in two, rotating it a quarter-turn, folding it again, and so on. You will feel the dough begin to build resistance; this is the gluten (structural wheat protein) developing. After kneading for a few minutes, the dough should begin to pull away from your hands. Ball it up and drop it in an oiled, otherwise clean bowl, cover it and refrigerate overnight.
Note: during the kneading step, Reinhart recommends flouring a work surface and kneading it on that, but I find that too messy. I always knead dough in the air. I prefer wetter doughs in general, since as I learned from Cook's Illustrated, wetter doughs produce bigger air bubbles, which are hard to get with whole wheat.
The next day, take the dough out of the refrigerator and chop it into eight pieces. It will have risen a bit. Roll each piece into a tight ball, cover them with plastic wrap, and set them aside to rise for about two hours, depending on the room temperature. You'll know the rolls have risen sufficiently when they do not bounce back when poked.
About an hour into the rising, position a baking stone in the top third of your oven and preheat it as hot as it will go - mine goes up to about 550 F. Authentic naan are baked in 1000 F tandoors, which the average American household tends not to have. Positioning the stone in the top third of your oven is essential for heat distribution. The ceiling of the oven radiates a substantial amount of heat, which helps the dough inflate.
Now we get to flour the work surface and make a big mess. I use white flour for this. It is essential to use a rolling pin at this point. The smooth surface you get with a rolling pin versus hand-stretching creates the surface tension that allows the dough to puff beautifully in the oven. Roll the dough to about 1/8" thickness and hand-stretch it a little further. You should be able to see a little light through the dough, but it shouldn't be paper thin or it (a) won't inflate and (b) will burn on the thin spots.
Note: Reinhart says to dock the dough, or prick it all over with a fork, to keep it from inflating all the way. Personally, I just love seeing it blow up, and the pocketed version gives you twice as much surface area to play with.
After your baking stone has preheated for thirty minutes to an hour, slap one of those rounds of dough onto the stone and shut the oven as quickly as possible. Turn the oven light on and keep an eye on the dough while you roll out the next round. Within three minutes, the dough on the stone will begin to inflate like a pillow. As soon as it is completely inflated, remove it with a metal spatula and slap the next dough-disk onto the stone. Some rounds may not inflate all the way if they're rolled too thickly or too thinly. If the dough doesn't inflate all the way, let it bake until it stops inflating or develops brown (caramelized) spots.
After baking, slip the naan onto a cooling rack. If you're having them right away, spread them with butter or flavored oil and serve hot. I usually cut them into fourths. If you've prepared them in advance, grab one while they're hot anyway. After the others have cooled completely, keep them in a not-quite-airtight container at room temperature for up to a day. Just before serving, melt some butter in a wide frying pan and swab each piece of bread in the butter before setting them in a warm (200 F) oven for about ten minutes.
These are so soft, sweet and pillowy that you'd never guess they're whole wheat. I am so pleased with this recipe - it promises to be a lifelong standby. This bread is pure heaven all on its own, and even better with a good curry or souvlaki.