Katie Quinn’s pain au fromage recipe is a gift, especially if you’re just starting out with bread. Her recipe is easy to follow and the best part? You end up with a delicate, fluffy, cheese-inflected loaf in a rustic crust that you’ll want to make again and again.
As the name suggests, this is my go-to loaf. This is a recipe adapted from multiple baking guides I’ve used and bakers I’ve learned from, incorporating my favorite aspects of the many styles I’ve found throughout my sourdough journey. My version yields one rounded boule (French for “ball”), a country-style loaf with a thick, crunchy exterior and a soft interior with modest but substantial fermentation holes and some brown flecks sprinkled throughout. The recipe begins with mixing a robust sourdough starter using your maintenance starter; this first step ensures you use your starter at its ideal ripeness, setting you up to make a successful loaf.
For the baking vessel, I use a lidded Dutch oven—a shallow version with shorter sides—which I preheat in the oven before I load the dough into it. The lid traps the steam released by the dough as it bakes. This makes an enormous difference. You can also use a regular (i.e., not shallow) Dutch oven; the high walls just make it a little trickier to insert the dough and remove the loaf, because the pot will be incredibly hot—using parchment paper to hoist the boule in and out will be your saving grace there. A cast-iron combo cooker is also a fantastic alternative. If you don’t have any of those options, you won’t get that thick, crunchy crust—but you can absolutely still make this bread!
Don’t let the tools (or lack thereof) prevent you from trying this. If you get hooked (as I suspect you will—I did), you can slowly add the tools you’re missing to your kitchen kit.
Because of the level of hydration in this loaf, the dough can stick to your hands as though Spider-Man’s web is attacking you; it takes practice to learn how to handle and shape it. You could learn from and bake with half a dozen French boulangers (like I did) and still struggle with this (like I did). But I got the hang of it, and you can, too.
The specific kind of flour you’re using—not just the grain but also how it’s milled—will yield slightly different results. Humidity will also affect how your flour reacts to the water in the dough. Once you know what you’re working with regarding your environment, all you need is practice. When the dough goes into the basket for its final rise, it should have a nice taut skin, which will trap carbon dioxide and make the dough blow up like a balloon.
I’m providing a timeline for the steps in this recipe for clarity and ease, but feel free to tweak the start time (and adjust the following steps accordingly) based on what’s best for your schedule.–Katie Quinn
Pain au Fromage
To refresh your starter
- 3/4 ounce whole-wheat flour
- 3/4 ounce white bread flour
- 3/4 ounce sourdough starter
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon room-temperature water
For the dough mix
- 1 3/4 ounces whole-wheat flour
- 1 pound white bread flour
- 14 ounces warm water (between 82° and 91°F | 28° and 33°C)
- 1/3 ounce fine sea salt
- 4 ounces finely grated cheese about 1 cup such as Grana Padano or sharp Cheddar
- Rice flour bread flour, or all-purpose flour
DAY 1, 7:30 A.M. Refresh your starter
- In a small bowl, combine the whole-wheat flour, white bread flour, maintenance starter, and water. Cover with a small plate and let sit in a warm area of your kitchen until it has doubled in size, is bubbly, and smells pleasantly acidic, 4 to 6 hours. But before those 6 hours are up (2 to 3 hours after refreshing the starter), you’ll move on to step 2.
10:30 A.M. Autolyse
- In a large bowl, combine the whole-wheat flour, white bread flour, and water. Use a wooden spoon or your hands to mix until there is no dry flour visible. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let the dough sit for about 3 hours, until your starter is ready.
1:30 P.M. Mix the dough
- Pour the salt onto the dough and add 2 1/2 ounces (75 g) of the refreshed starter (this should be approximately the full amount of refreshed starter, but you may have a bit more than you need for the dough).
- Wet your hands so they don’t stick to the dough, then mix to incorporate the salt and starter. I do this by lifting the dough up and over itself, slapping it on the bowl, and pressing down with my palm (and repeating) until all the ingredients are well combined. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let sit for 30 minutes.
2:00 P.M. Stretch and fold the dough
- Start a series of stretch-and-fold turns in the bowl. Wet your hands, then grab a handful of dough on its north side and pull it up, stretching it but making sure not to stretch it so far that you tear it, then fold it back over onto itself (toward the south side of the bowl). At this point, sprinkle a small handful of grated cheese over the dough. Now rotate the bowl a quarter turn and repeat (north, east, south, west) with another sprinkling of more cheese, repeating the process a total of four times. Wet your hands again whenever the dough starts to stick to them. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and let the dough rest for 30 minutes. (When you let the dough sit for bulk fermentation, the solids should be well incorporated throughout.)☞TESTER TIP: It’s ok if you haven’t incorporated all of your cheese at this point. You can finish adding the remaining cheese during the next set of stretch and folds.
2:30 P.M. Stretch and fold the dough
- Repeat the stretch-and-fold process, adding any remaining cheese, if necessary, then cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel, and let the dough rest for 30 minutes. You’ll notice the dough becomes less elastic as you continue to stretch and fold it over onto itself. This is normal; as its extensibility increases, so does its contraction. You can jiggle it a bit and allow gravity to help you with the stretches in subsequent turns. Stretching the dough well in this step is important; otherwise, your crumb (interior of the loaf) may be denser than you’d like.
3:00 P.M. Stretch and fold the dough
- Repeat the stretch-and-fold process and cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel. Let the dough sit on your counter (ideally in a warm spot) for 3 to 6 hours for bulk fermentation. At the end of bulk fermentation, your dough should have grown significantly in size, but not doubled, and you might see some subtle fermentation bubbles on top. If you press gently on the dough with your fingertip, it will slowly rebound, leaving a slight indentation.
6:00 P.M. Shape the dough
- Lightly dust your work surface with flour. Tip the dough onto the work surface, easing it out of the bowl without knocking out much air. Using a bench scraper and a floured hand, form the blob of dough into a taut round. Let it rest on the work surface for 20 minutes.
- Liberally dust a banneton (proofing basket), which can either be lined with a linen cloth or not, or a cloth-covered bowl with flour (rice flour is best for this as it’s less absorbent than wheat flour), then shake out any excess. This ensures your dough doesn’t stick to the banneton or cloth, allowing you to remove it easily.☞TESTER TIP: To use the design of a pattern from your banneton (like the spiral pattern for example), use the banneton without its clothlining, but still dust liberally with rice flour to prevent the dough from sticking to its ridges.
6:20 P.M. Shape the dough
- For a boule, with floured hands, stretch the left side of the dough out and back over the center. Repeat on the right side, folding the dough over the flap you’ve just placed. Stretch the dough from the north side out, over the flaps you just made, to meet the south side of your dough (closest to you). The smooth side that was facing the counter is now facing up. Using both palms (reflouring your hands and working quickly to prevent sticking), cup the dough on either side with your thumbs facing up, then spin it while pulling gently down/dragging toward the countertop. This will create a taut skin on the top of the dough. Do this all the way around until your boule is round. Lift your shaped boule and place it in the banneton or cloth-lined bowl with the nicely taut side facedown (seams facing up). Sprinkle rice flour on top of the dough.For a batard, with floured hands, start by picking up the top edge, and pulling it just over the center of the dough, folding it onto itself half way. Using the heel of your hand, press to seal it onto itself, pushing the dough slightly away toward the top edge. Now turn the dough counterclockwise 90 degrees and repeat 3 more times so you have folded all 4 sides towards the middle. The dough should be a smooth oval. Turn the dough over (seam side down) and tighten it by gently cupping your hands around the dough pulling the dough toward you on the countertop (your thumbs will be pointed up and your pinky fingers will be dragging along the countertop). Use the slight friction between the dough and your countertop to further tighten the dough. Turn the dough 180 degrees and repeat on the opposite side (long side). Lift your shaped batard and place it in the banneton with the nicely taut side facedown (seams facing up). Sprinkle rice flour on top of the dough.
- Cover the banneton or bowl with a clean kitchen towel, tucking the long ends under the bottom of the bowl, and proof in the refrigerator for about 15 hours (overnight).
DAY 2, 8:30 A.M. Preheat the baking vessel
- One hour before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 485°F (250°C). Place a Dutch oven (or other pan as described earlier) in the oven to preheat. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
9:30 A.M. Bake the dough
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Set the prepared baking sheet, parchment-side down, over the banneton or bowl holding the proofed dough and invert them together, gently moving the dough onto the parchment.
- Taking care not to burn yourself, remove the heated Dutch oven from the oven.
- Using a blade for scoring or a very sharp knife, score the top of the dough with several confident, swift cuts (you could make a box design or several parallel angled slashes). Using the parchment to lift the dough, move it and the parchment into the Dutch oven and cover with the lid.
- Bake the bread for 30 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 430°F (220°C), remove the lid, and bake until the crust is richly browned, about 15 minutes more (if you’re unsure whether the bread is done, stick a thermometer into it: it should register at least 208°F (98°C).
- Carefully remove the pan from the oven and transfer the baked loaf to a wire rack. Let cool completely before slicing or storing. (Cutting into it while it is still warm will interrupt the last stage of the baking process, resulting in a gummy interior crumb.)
How to store your pain au fromageOne of the huge perks of sourdough bread is that it naturally lasts longer than commercially yeasted bread (which will grow mold and become stale sooner), largely thanks to the acidity of the Lactobacilli, which discourages the growth of decaying bacteria and mold. As with cheese and wine, fermentation is a tool for preservation here. Still, you’ll want to keep your bread as fresh as possible until it’s all eaten. Store it wrapped in a cotton cloth or in a cotton bread bag or a paper bag; this allows the bread to breathe. In most climates, a plastic bag is not a good option because there’s enough humidity to cause the bread to “sweat” (the same reason you should avoid wrapping cheese in plastic wrap).
Recipe Testers' Reviews
This pain au fromage turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. It makes a nice change of pace over my regular sourdough bread bakes. I made mine as a batard rather than the boule as I prefer the ability to get more uniform slices for making sandwiches.
I actually spent the most ‘hands on’ time getting all my ingredients sorted out at the same time, getting the starter refreshed, then I measured out my water, flour, and salt to use later for step 2, then got my cheese weighed out and stashed in the fridge for step 4. Mis-en-place makes everything so much easier!
I think the most difficult part of this recipe is getting the cheese mixed well with the dough, and I probably folded the dough a good 20 times to get it incorporated. I think using finely grated cheese allowed for the cheese to really get absorbed into the bread, so I didn’t end up with chunks burned on the exterior or as melted blobs in the middle of the loaf. That said, the crumb was moist, airy, but not overly so, which resulted in a wonderfully scrumptious and soft, succulent bread. The subtle tang of the sourdough mixed with my choice of cheese blend (100g each parmesan and sharp cheddar cheese) was absolutely killer when simply paired with some local artisanal sliced ham!
A storing tip, as there are just two of us, I tend to slice all the bread up, then place 4 slices in a bag to freeze, then pull some out the night before to defrost overnight so it’s nice and fresh in the morning for toast or sandwiches.
Bread and cheese is always a winning combination, and this sourdough pain au fromage is no exception. I used a mix of extra sharp orange and aged white cheddar, totaling 150 grams. That's less than many recipes call for, but in my experience, too much cheese can interfere with bulk fermentation and can also make for an overly salty loaf. At 150 grams, the flavor came through nicely without being overwhelming. Using at least some orange cheese adds a lovely visual effect.
This dough was easy to handle throughout the process, and resulted in a delicious and beautifully risen golden loaf. The crust was crisp but not too thick, and the interior crumb had nice even holes throughout. It sliced neatly and was excellent fresh and toasted. The addition of a bit of whole wheat created interest and extra flavor.
A few things I learned along the way: Shape this loaf as a boule or a batard as either will work. Be sure to monitor dough and ambient temperature. In a cold environment, the fermentation is going to be slower. Use a flavorful cheese that you love, and be wary of using large amounts of one that is super salty. I found it easiest to add most of the cheese during the first round of stretch and folds and the remainder during the second.
What a delicious and beautiful looking bread this pain au fromage turned out to be! The dough was easy to handle and a pleasure to shape and score. I used finely grated Grana Padano which gave it a tangy, nutty taste and a deeply burnished color.
One tip that I find useful to really get a good result with sourdough baking is to do twice daily starter feedings for a few days before you plan to bake. I store my starter in the fridge because I only bake once a week or so, so it always needs a moral boost with multiple feedings! I feed only about 15 -20 grams at a time so as not to maintain a huge, ungainly starter, and I save the discards in a jar for other uses. I use the last two feedings before making the dough to grow the starter to the amount called for in a given levain/preferment recipe.
I do want to mention that while this recipe offers a specific amount of time for bulk fermentation, you should not rely on that prescribed time, but you should look for the visual cues instead (increased but not doubled in volume, some slight bubbling and a gentle spring-back when the dough is pressed with a damp finger). If your house is cooler or warmer the time for bulk fermentation will differ. My house was 66°F, so instead of the 3 hours bulk fermentation listed for a "warm" house, my dough took 6 hours to increase by about 40%. After 6 hours the visual cues were all there and it was time to shape and cold proof overnight. It's nice to have a time frame as a reference but don't be married to it—with practice sourdough baking becomes intuitive and it's really very forgiving.
A clear, straight-sided tub with a rubber band around it at the initial dough level makes it really easy to determine the increase in volume as it bulk ferments. If you have a Sam's Club or Restaurant Depot nearby, they sell these lidded tubs in packs of two for around $13.
This is the best smelling loaf of bread I have ever baked. I used 3 ounces of coarsely grated, aged sharp cheddar—the kitchen smelled heavenly for hours. The directions are clear and specific. To prevent my husband and I from eating all the pain au fromage by ourselves, I was planning to give at least half the loaf away...but I'm having second thoughts.
This sourdough boule is a bit of a project, taking just over a day from start to finish. Don't let that fact discourage you from making it. It's well worth the investment of time and there's nothing particularly difficult about it. 5 minutes here, a few hours resting, another 5 minutes active, another few hours resting. It goes along like this the whole way until you take a gorgeous boule of pain au fromage that resembles one you could find at a local bakery out of your oven. With a crusty exterior and soft, airy interior, the texture is exactly what you expect from a great loaf of sourdough, and flavor of cheese, whichever cheese you choose to use, shines through. We enjoyed it with a bowl of soup the night that I made it, but a slice was also wonderful as an afternoon snack.
Originally published April 27, 2021