Good Bread: Sourdough

February 13, 2014 sourdough 012

Sourdough bread from the recipe in this post. Bread board by Michael Laico

My guess is that you never even considered baking your own sourdough bread. I certainly didn’t, until quite recently.   For those of us raised on grocery store bread, the whole business of bread baking was somehow mysterious; along the lines of how to put the Tootsie Roll into the center of a Tootsie Pop.  Making sourdough, from a starter, was way beyond my comfort level with baking.   Industrial food has led us to a state of blissful ignorance about how a lot of our food is actually produced.

But we know that everyday people baked their own bread thousands of years ago.  Archeologists have found the proof. Commercial yeast production was only perfected in the United States around the 1860 and 1870; and that product was in the form of a highly perishable cake.  The dry, granulated yeast we buy today was first produced for use in World War II.

“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”
Julia Child

So how have people baked bread, without a little packet of Fleischmann’s yeast, for all of these centuries?  Wild yeast.  And wild yeast is exactly what creates the wonderful chewy texture and tangy texture of sourdough bread.  Sourdough takes its name from the distinctive flavor and aroma of the bread, created by the fermentation process of the yeast.

Just as in brewing beer, the yeast eats sugars in the grain, and give off carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise. Another product the yeast gives off is alcohol.  The alcohol burns off during baking, but leaves a distinctive “sour” flavor in the bread.  That same alcohol kills off unwanted bacteria and yeast of the wrong strain which might try to colonize the sourdough starter.  The alcohol content keeps the starter pure.

Just think of this as a little “indoor gardening” project.  Yeast actually are a fungi, not a plant, but they are alive.  They are alive, and the by products of their healthy growth causes bread to rise and gives it a delicious flavor.

This is my first sourdough starter at four days old, right after being fed flour and water.

This is my first sourdough starter at four days old, right after being fed flour and water.

By creating a sourdough starter, also known as a “sponge” for its appearance, we are creating a little edible terrarium which will yield the beginnings of countless loaves of delicious bread, so long as we feed and care for our little dish of starter.

Now creating this little starter, or living yeast culture, is simplicity itself.  But it requires time and patience.  Making sourdough bread is the ultimate in “slow food.”

You make a commitment to caring for the starter much as you make a commitment to caring for a houseplant or a pet.  The starter won’t snuggle with you on the couch, but it will yield loaf after loaf of healthful, inexpensive, delicious bread for as long as you choose to maintain it.

I’ve found that February is a wonderful time to begin working with sourdough.  As the snow and sleet build up outside, I’m tending a little yeast garden on my stove, and filling the house with the aroma of fresh bread.  I have had the time to do a little research on how this process works, and will share a little of what I’ve learned, and give you a few leads if you want to follow up and learn more.

Slices of the first loaf of bread from this starter, baked yesterday with white bread flour.  Sourdough makes wonderful toast.

Slices of the first loaf of bread from this starter, baked yesterday,  from  white bread flour.   Sourdough makes wonderful toast.  The airy texture  and chewiness of this bread make it very special.

Whole grain flours come with their own natural yeasts already in the mix.  I never realized that before.  The proper yeasts which populate a good sourdough sponge are already attached to the grains of wheat or rye, and so are present in the ground flour when we purchase it.

I had heard that yeast cells floating around in the air landed in the starter and populated it, but that is a myth.  The yeast comes with the grain.  Moisture, warmth, and time allow those yeasts to begin to grow.  The yeast cells are microscopic, so this whole process feels like the old 18th century experiments in “spontaneous generation.”  But Louis Pasteur observed, and identified, yeast cells as living creatures in 1859.

Before you begin making bread, please know a little about yeast.  Yeast are happy when moist, warm, and well fed.  They are happiest at the room temperatures we enjoy.  They can tolerate the cold of a refrigerator, and will remain alive, though dormant, in the freezer.  Too much heat will kill them, however.  If you use water that is too hot, over 95F or so, your yeast will perish.  Yeast dies in the baking process.  Yeast will eat the sugars present in grain.  Make them very happy with a spoonful of honey or sugar, or even a little potato water in their sponge.  They must be moist to remain active.  Dry yeast is dormant.

So the basic ingredients of a sourdough starter are flour and water.  These are mixed together, in nearly equal proportions, and allowed to sit.  Eventually, bubbles appear which indicates the yeast is active.  At this point, one begins to “feed” the starter with additional flour and water, eventually removing a portion before each feeding to control the amount of starter one must care for.

Now, you realize that this is a gross oversimplification, but it is the essence of the process.

My sourdough starter began with some mashed potatoes.  Rather, with the water used to cook the potatoes, before they were mashed.  Potato water is wonderful in bread.  The starch from the potato makes the bread very tender and flavorful.  Even a scoop of leftover mashed potatoes mixed into the bread dough makes for delicious bread; but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sourdough bread dough, after a night in the refrigerator.  It is ready to shape and set aside for its final proof before baking.  The flecks you see in the dough are from spices.

Sourdough bread dough, after a night in the refrigerator.  It is ready to shape and set aside for its final proof before baking. The flecks you see in the dough are from spices.  This is enough dough for two medium loaves.

I allowed the potato cooking water to cool for an hour before using it to begin my starter.  To use my method, mix two cups room temperature water with two cups of flour and 1 TB of commercial yeast.  Experts say the yeast is unnecessary, but it speeds up the process considerably.

Experts recommend beginning with whole wheat flour.  An English baker, whose recipe for sourdough is in the February 2014 issue of Country Living Magazine (UK Edition) uses a mix of 4 parts wheat to 1 part rye flour.  This whole grain flour brings more wild yeast to the mix.  I simply started with my regular white bread flour.

Mix the flour, water, and dried commercial yeast in a glass or ceramic mixing bowl.  Cover the bowl, and leave it in a protected, warm spot in your kitchen.  The warmer the spot, the faster this process unfolds.  If your kitchen is at least 65F right now, the process should work.

A jar of starter, at the back of this photo, ready to share.  If you are a Williamsburg neighbor and would like to have some starter to try out for yourself, I have some to share with you.  Please leave a note in the comments and I'll be in touch with you.

A jar of starter, at the back of this photo, ready to share.   

Check in on your starter and give it a good stir after six hours.  The surface might appear bubbly after 12 hours.  If so, feed the starter with ¼ cup of flour and ¼  cup of water.  Wait until the surface is bubbly before the first feeding.  This might take a day or so.  Begin again if you have no bubbles of carbon dioxide on the surface past 36 hours.

The process from here on is a routine of stirring the starter every six hours or so, and feeding it twice a day for the first week.  After the first 2 feedings, remove a ½ cup of the starter before feeding your ¼ cup of flour and ¼ cup of water.  Stir well before and after each feeding.

The starter you remove before each feeding may be stirred into pancake or waffle batter for wonderful flavor.  It can be used to make bread dough, given to a friend, or simply discarded.  I have trouble throwing good food away, and so my sticking point with this process is in throwing away starter at each feeding…  After the first week, starter may be stored in the refrigerator and fed only every few days.  It needs to be fed and allowed to sit at room temperature for at least 6 hours before being used in bread dough.

The starter should increase in volume, perhaps doubling, after each feeding.  Carbon dioxide given off by the yeast creates the bubbles.  This shows you the yeast is active.

I began using my starter after 2 days, but I also added a tsp. of commercial yeast to my bread dough; just for insurance.  Again, experts recommend allowing the starter to develop for a full week before using it, and then relying on the starter without any additional yeast.

A newly formed loaf on the left, ready to rise for 60-90 minutes.  A bowl of newly fed starter on the right.

A newly formed loaf on the left, ready to rise for 60-90 minutes.   A bowl of newly fed starter on the right.

Not yet a purist, I consider this sourdough baking a grand experiment.  The two day old starter gave me a wonderful flavor and texture to my first batch of bread.  We were very satisfied with it.

As my starter matures, and experts say it may take several months for a starter to really mature, I will eliminate the commercial yeast from my bread dough recipe  and rely solely on my starter.

Sourdough baking relies on a much longer “proof,” or rising time, than one would need with modern commercial yeast.  Fleischmann developed “rapid rise” yeast in 1993 for use in bread machines.  Those of us used to modern yeast don’t expect to spend hours waiting for our bread to rise.

The long proofing time, especially a second cold proof in the refrigerator, develops the texture and flavor of the dough.  As a rule, I allow for a first warm proof at room temperature, or in a slightly warmed oven, for about two hours.  The dough should double in size during this first proof.

Then, stir the dough down gently with a rubber spatula, cover it, and put it into the refrigerator for at least two hours, but usually overnight.  The dough can wait at this stage for up to a week before it is baked.

Finally, shape the dough, and allow it to rise again for between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on how warm it is.  Left too long, the dough collapses.  Rushed, the bread is dense and doesn’t have a loose texture.

After 90 minutes of proof time, this loaf is ready for the oven.  Whole grain bread often doesn't rise as much as dough made from all white flour.  Vital wheat gluten mixed into the flours helps the bread rise more.  The slash marks allow for expansion as the loaf bakes.

After 90 minutes of proof time, this loaf is ready for the oven.   Whole grain bread often doesn’t rise as much as dough made from all white flour. Vital wheat gluten mixed into the flours helps the bread rise more.   The slash marks allow for expansion as the loaf bakes.

Bread should be baked at 400F to 425F in a moist oven.  Add a baking dish with a few inches of water to the oven as you preheat it, and leave it in the oven as the bread bakes.  This gives a better crust.

It takes about 40 minutes at this temperature to bake a medium to large loaf.  Make a tent of aluminum foil to protect the upper crust after the first 30 minutes so the crust doesn’t burn, or bake the bread in a covered Dutch oven.

When the bread is done, it will sound hollow when tapped.  The upper crust will be firm.  Cool the bread on a rack for an hour.  This might take enormous self-discipline, but the bread will slice better and have a moister crumb than if you slice into too soon.

Fresh from the oven.  A piece of aluminum foil placed over the loaf during the final 15 minutes of baking protects the upper crust from burning.

Fresh from the oven. A piece of aluminum foil placed over the loaf during the final 15 minutes of baking protects the upper crust from burning.

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
James Beard

Bread is a very simple food.  Bread has kept our species alive for many thousands of years.  Throughout most of human history families have made their own bread.  This is a basic art all of us can perfect and enjoy in our own homes.

Baking bread, especially bread made with our own starter, makes us a bit more self-reliant.  It saves us hundreds of dollars over even a year.  It warms heart and home.

The essential ingredients are simply flour, water, salt, and yeast.  We can create endless variations on this simple theme, but the simplest bread is still delicious.

February 13, 2014 sourdough 016

The second loaf of bread from my starter is a mix of rye flour and wheat.  Here is a gloss of the recipe, should you wish to try your own:

Combine 1 c. white whole wheat flour, 1 c. rye flour, and 3 c. white bread flour in a large bowl with 1 tsp. commercial yeast and ¼ c. vital wheat gluten to improve the texture.  Mix the flours well, and make a well in the center.

Stir the starter, and dip 11/2 cups of starter into the well.  To this pour in 1TB of honey, 2 TB of olive oil, and 2 c. warm water.  Stir the liquid ingredients to combine, incorporating a little of the flour.  Leave most of the flour dry against the sides of the bowl.  Set this aside for 20 minutes, to allow the yeast to further activate.

When the loose mixture in the bowl is bubbly, add 1 tsp. of sea salt to the flour.  Using a rubber spatula, stir the mixture in the center, gradually incorporating more and more flour.  As the dough becomes stiffer, fold it over on itself, in a kneading motion, while also scraping the sides of the bowl to move dry flour under the dough ball.  Continue until the flour is absorbed.  If the dough is still sticky enough to stick to the bowl, add an additional half cup of white flour, and continue working with the dough until it is no longer sticky.

Allow this dough to rise, covered, in a warm place for two hours.  It should double in size.  Use the spatula to loosen the dough from the sides of the bowl.  It will collapse slightly.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a lid, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, and up to a week before shaping it into a loaf for the final rise and baking.

The finished loaf, cool, and ready to slice.

The finished loaf, cool, and ready to slice.

 

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

[Bread making is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of
meditation in a music-throbbing chapel. that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating: 50th Anniversary Edition

To read more about making sourdough bread:

“Homemade Sourdough Bread, Step by Step”.  Mother Earth News.  December 2013/January 2014.

“Savour Life at Walnuts Farm”. Country Living, UK Edition.  February 2014.

Sourdough Home

King Arthur Flour Sourdough products

Bob’s Red Mill Flours  I use Bob’s Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten and Rye flour

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

13 responses to “Good Bread: Sourdough

  1. Great post! I’m inspired 🙂

    • Wonderful! It makes the house smell to good to bake 😉 Thank you for visiting Forest Garden today, and for your follow 😉 Best wishes, WG

      • I love fermenting. A dear friend gifted me some sourdough starter and I killed it most unfortunately. I like gifted starters, but may have to get over that and just go for it. What an accomplishment it would be to make my own that I can then gift. I make yeast bread, but really want to conquer sourdough and make a household regular around here. Your instructions are great!

        • The starter is so easy to make. Rye flour is already innoculated with the needed yeasts. A half/half mixture of light rye flour and white whole wheat, mixed with pure water (I used bottled spring water) will give a useable starter in about 5 days. You begin to pour half off and feed it on day 3. I use 1/4 c. bread flour and 1/4 c. of the white whole wheat mixed into the remaining half of the starter with about 1/2 c. of room temp. water. Now I only feed it once or twice a week, keeping it in the fridge in between. One trick I’ve learned with this is to add about 1/2 tsp. of my regular bottled yeast to the dough when i am ready to mix up a batch of bread with the sourdough. It really cuts down on the time needed for the loaves to rise from 5 or 6 hours to only about 3. The texture is so much lighter and looser, too. A nice combination. Having sourdough starter to ‘gift’ is a fine idea. I’ve only found 1 friend willing to receive the gift 😉 Everyone loves a gift of a loaf, but so few want the responsibility of keeping a starter. Perhaps there on the island you’ll find friends happy to have a bit of your starter 😉 Best wishes, WG

          • My problem lied in figuring out when the fed starter was actually ready for baking. I read I needed to feed it until it had doubled in size than use x amount of that starter for the actual baking. It never actually doubled in size. I had no consistency in results. Like other things, there is a learning curve and I just never got over it before my starter died.

            • That is too bad, Melissa. How much volume is created by a fermenting sourdough started is so unreliable. It depends on room temperature, the flours you’ve used, thickness of the mix, etc. Basically, yeast is alive in the starter if you get any bubbling at all. The more bubbling and expansion you get, the more active yeast are present. Volume comes from production of gasses from the yeast ‘eating’ the sugars in the flour mixture.
              I rarely measure, Melissa. I just pour about half of my active starter into the mixing bowl as I start a new batch of bread, then feed the remaining starter with about 6 heaping TB of flour (half white and half wheat) and enough spring water to get a good consistency. It should be thick like pancake batter. I stir it well with a fork ( mine is in a Mason jar), scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula, re-cap the jar, and set it on the back of the stove. Bubbles appear almost immediately. I feed the starter at least 6 hours before I want to bake. In fact, I’ll take the starter out of the fridge around 9 PM and pour half into a bowl for pancakes the following morning. Then I feed the jar and the starter in the bowl equally and leave them out overnight. The next morning, both are ready for use. For a batch of bread, I’ll use half of the now activated starter in the jar, then feed what is left in the jar once again. I know what you really want is a bread recipe for using that stater. The best I can tell you in this format is that time is the magic ingredient. Whatever amount of yeast you use will raise your bread, if you only give it enough time to work. I’m using apx. a cup of starter per batch of bread, which makes 3 nice sized loaves. Does this help? This is the most recent post on sourdough, and the book reviewed here extremely helpful: https://forestgardenblog.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/something-new/

              Best wishes, WG

  2. I am drooling over your bread, looks delicious! I love sourdough bread especially when it is warm out of the oven! 🙂 Nice cutting board!!

    Michael
    http://michaelswoodcraft.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/new-cutting-and-serving-boards/

  3. farseems

    absolutely delicious was the sourdough bread we received. Yumm and sooooooooo true, the warmth of bread baking. Thanks for all of this. Shall certainly go for the starter once am done with my dough which awaits baking.

  4. I can almost smell the bread, it looks so amazing. 🙂 I used to make my own breads (including sourdough with a starter we kept around for a few years), and brew my own beer. Yeast is an amazing organism, turning a few simple ingredients into something good to eat or drink. 🙂 If we ever finish all the work around here, maybe I’ll try breads again. Or sooner, perhaps. We might be coming over your way in March. If you’re still sharing by that time, I might be interested. 😀

    • Dear Robin, why am I not surprised that you are an experienced baker with sourdough, and an experienced brewer, too? I hope you do try again, and soon. You are welcome to let us know when you’ll be in the area and I’ll be happy to share. It is so easy to start, you might want to give it a try, if you feel like having your own warm loaf of sourdough bread before then. If you haven’t read the Country Living UK for February, I know you would love all of it, if you can find it. Barnes and Nobles carries it down here. It can also be downloaded to a Nook or Kindle. Hope you are warm tonight. We had a thunderstorm with hail, and now snow again. Take good care of yourself, WG

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