Sourdough breads are a whole new level of baking. Some like it – I do. Some don’t. No less an authority than James Beard didn’t think much of the sourdoughs as a whole. However – since the only opinion that matters is your own taste buds – try it – you might just like it.
There are three ways to get into the whole sourdough thing:
- Grow your own from scratch. Basically just put a cup of water and a cup of four into a bowl, mix it up, cover with a towel and let it sit for one to four days and it should bubble and grow. Every day toss half, add a cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water.
- Get some from a friend who does sourdough baking. You will see why all sourdough people have the stuff to give away in a minute.
- Buy some from somewhere. The web is full of places that will sell you starter. If you like a really sour clang, you probably want some San Francisco stuff. If you like a mild, flavorful mix, King Arthur Flour’s website has a very nice New England starter that is 250 years old. Very tasty. However, no matter where your starter is from it will eventually become samey-samey as local starter grown from scratch as local yeast-beasts invade and multiply. You just about can’t keep it pure.
Regardless of how you get there, you will have to maintain the starter, since it is a living organism. Short version: Keep it in the refrigerator in a quart jar with the lid on loosely. Once a week, throw out or use about half of the mix, add flour and water 2 to 1. Usually 2 cups flour, 1 cup water. If you use one cup of starter, just add 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water back to the base. I am usually using about half the starter to make a sponge, so there’s not a whole lot of waste. Anyway, once you get this whole cycle going, you will have plenty to share. Be sure to leave enough room in the jar for it to grow, and leave the lid loose enough to allow gas to escape.
If you look on the web, there are tons of places that discuss the growing, care and feeding of sourdough starter. Why go with this rather irritating process? Simple – flavor. There’s a ton more flavor in a starter driven bread than in any yeast packet I know of.
Using the stuff. Most sourdough recipes will be three stage jobbies. Starter, sponge, dough = bread. And several rises. Sourdough doesn’t rise as enthusiastically as commercial baker’s yeast – you know – the stuff in the packs or jars. Therefore you can see that the rise may take a little longer, therefore more time to develop flavor.
Starter can be grown from just about any flour, but you will probably have best success with plain old all-purpose unbleached. Don’t use bread flour, it has a higher protein content and the yeast gets giddy with that much food. Not to mention that it will be a bit gummy. To get the stuff to be rye or something else, just use about a cup of starter with 2 cups rye flour and a cup of warm water. Feed it for several days and you will have a very happy rye starter. Or grow it from scratch over a 10 day period. First 3 days feed it once a day. Next 7 days feed it twice a day. Now you have a really good rye starter.
I am not a purist, I will sometimes use commercial yeast in the dough stage if I think a bit more lift is needed. The purists will take issue with this practice, but it works.
Now – a simple recipe to try:
Just plain old sourdough white bread:
1 cup starter
1 1/2 cups warm water
3 cups flour
Mix it up, cover, sit overnight in a warm but not hot place. This is called the sponge. If the sponge is too warm, it will rise too fast and not develop full flavor. Depending on your climate, putting plastic wrap over the bowl and then a towel may produce better results than just the towel by its lonesome. You will only find out by trial. (We don’t admit to error!)
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar (you can skip this if you want)
2 to 3 more cups of flour, depending
Mix in the salt and sugar and 1 cup flour at a time until it is smooth and elastic to the feel. The amount of flour will be variable. Knead for about 10 minutes by hand, or until it is together and climbs the hook in a good mixer. Let it rise in a bowl until doubled, maybe 2 hours.
Divide in half, make whatever shape bread you like: baguette, batard, round, oval, whatever. Place on a greased baking pan that has been liberally sprinkled with coarse cornmeal. Cover, let rise to double, could be 2 hours or so. Slash the tops with something good and sharp and bake at 350° until golden brown. 20 to 30 minutes. Let it cool on a rack before cutting.
BTW – the bread snobs hate batard – means bastard in French. But – the batard is better for sandwiches or toast than the baguette – which is better for dunking in a nice soup. Do what you like, never mind the snobs. We will get into shapes and pans and oven stones and such in some future writing, but don’t worry, you can knock this stuff out on a plain old cookie sheet or some other type flat oven pan.
Well – just one advanced tip for now. Get a cheap spray bottle that can be set for a mist. Fill it with good, clean, water with no chlorine. Filter and/or let sit overnight if necessary, or use bottled water. Anyway, spray a good bit in the oven when you put the bread in. Spray again after 30 seconds. Spray again after 1 minute. Spray again after 2 minutes. That’s enough, let the bread finish cooking to the thump test level of done. This will produce the nicest, crunchy-chewiest crust you have ever had. What we have done is faked the steam injection used in French commercial ovens. I guess I should mention that if you want bread with big holes in the crumb, just let it over rise by 1/3 or so.