Our first recipe submission brought to us by the lovely Phedre!
There are surely few things more exciting and fulfilling than baking good sourdough bread. Transforming flour and water into delectable food for your family feels like the pinnacle of housewifery every time you do it. It never ceases to be magical.
Sourdough is the bread of choice not only because you can be independent of your yeast supply, but also because long-fermented bread is more nutritious and better tasting than its more quickly leavened counterpart. Making it yourself also opens you to a world of experimentation – from different flours, to different liquids, different rise periods, different liquid percentages, all the mix-in options… You can craft anything your mind can come up with. Or you can find one combination you really love and make it every time. The rules are incredibly flexible, once you’ve grasped the basics.
First off, you need a starter. If you happen to be so lucky as to know someone who bakes sourdough bread, you can get some from them and then just follow the instructions on perpetuating it. Instructions on making your own starter can be found all over the web though. It just takes a bit of time. Here’s a good example: http://nourishedkitchen.com/how-to-make-a-sourdough-starter/
To perpetuate the starter once you’ve got one you simply dump out most of the ripe starter, add a bunch of flour (I add a heaped 1/4 cup), and stir in enough (chlorine-free) water to get a very thick batter consistency. You can ignore all the details people give about what to keep it in, what to stir it with, what the exact weight ratio of flour/water should be. None of that matters. Once you have an active yeast colony, you’re good to go and only long neglect will do it damage. For best performance though, feed the starter daily at room temperature or weekly if kept in the fridge.
Now, the first inviolable rule of sourdough baking: Only bake with a very active starter. It should be frothing if you’re using white or light flour. This was my biggest error starting out. I kept trying to bake with underactive starter. You will not make good bread if your starter either isn’t ready or is past its prime. Observe it regularly for a couple feed cycles to see what its peak activity looks like (it will look different with different flours, which is why it’s simpler to always use the same flour for the starter). Eventually you’ll get a feel for how long the starter needs after a feeding to get to its prime, and that’s when you bake with it.
Onto the dough. Let’s start with a simple white French country loaf. Take:
100 g of your starter (at its peak, remember?)
430 g flour – for now stick with white bread flour
250 g liquid – here’s a good place to use up some of the whey you drained off your greek yogurt, but you can just use chlorine-free water
10 g salt
Combine the starter, flour, and water. Leave out the salt for now. Get in there with your hands so it’s all well incorporated, but don’t knead. Now leave it for about an hour. This is called autolyse, when the fermentation and gluten development get a head start without the inhibitive properties of the salt.
Now sprinkle on the salt, and really work it in there. The dough will already be quite cohesive from the quick gluten development, so it’s going to take a bit of time and effort. Working out the hand muscles is very beneficial for a housewife!
Put the dough back in the bowl and cover it with plastic. Leave it for 30 minutes or so, until it ‘relaxes’.
Now you’re going to do what are called ‘stretch-and-folds’. You take the dough out, stretch it with your hands, and fold it into thirds, like a letter. Repeat in the opposite direction (or on the opposite axis, if that makes more sense). Now if you try to stretch and fold again the dough will feel much stiffer, which makes it a waste of time. This is why we let it relax. So leave it again for 30ish minutes and repeat. Do this a total of 4 times. This is all the ‘kneading’ you’re going to do!
Now comes the bulk rise. In a clean bowl, dump a bunch of flour in the bottom. Place your dough (shaped into a round) on the flour. Dump a bunch more flour on top. Pat it all over the loaf and be liberal with it. If any raw dough is exposed it will stick to your bowl as it expands.
Now come the hard part. How long to let it rise? It depends on 3 things – your ambient temperature, the kind of flour you used, and the hydration level of your dough. With this loaf you should be looking at roughly 7 hours from the moment flour touched water. Less if your house is warm, more if it’s cold. The dough wont expand as much as you expect if you’ve baked with commercial yeast.
Hard rule number 2: Don’t overproof your dough. Overproofed dough will not rise well in the oven, will have a flat flavour, and will not keep well.
The most common test of readiness is that a light poke at the loaf should spring back half way but no more. Really, you develop a sense for this with experience. Once the dough’s ready you can bake right away, but for maximum flavour and digestibility let it sit in the fridge for a day – say, 20-ish hours.
To the baking. Get a dutch oven / cast iron pot. Put it in your oven and let them heat together on 500 F. Whatever your oven may say, you should let it preheat at least 40 min. Once it’s preheated, take your loaf out of the bowl and put in onto a peel, a cookie sheet, or just onto the counter. Get the excess flour off.
Take the cast iron pot out of the oven, shutting the oven door quickly. Take a bread knife and slit the top of your loaf. Any shape is fine, but I think it’s nice to develop a trademark one. Make the cuts at a 45 degree angle and go very deep. I probably cut them an inch deep, if not more.
Now place the dough carefully into the pot, close the lid, and place it back in the oven. Lower the heat to 465 F and put the timer on 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, take off the lid, lower the heat to 435 F and bake to your desired colour – 10-15 more minutes.
Now take out the pot, tip the loaf onto your towel-covered hand and tap the bottom. It should sound hollow. Place it onto a rack to cool.
Hard rule number 3: Don’t cut into your loaf while it is warm. Wait an hour. If you cut it while it’s warm you will damage the crumb structure. Don’t do it.
And now, enjoy!
I hope some of your try this. It is satisfying beyond words. I honestly love baking bread more than I love eating it (and I love great bread!). If anyone has problems or questions once they’ve embarked on the process, please feel free to ask for help here. Like I said, the combinations and flavour and texture options are endless, and I can give recommendations for that too.
I cannot wait to try my hand at this! Thanks, Phedre, for such a great post.