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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
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.
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.
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.
Bob’s Red Mill Flours I use Bob’s Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten and Rye flour