January 20, 2016

adventures in sourdough

The desire to bake bread started out of curiosity. I was curious to know, to understand, how easy or difficult it could be to make your own loaf. It was apparent to me that bread was devised from a short list of simple ingredients so my assumption was that it couldn't be that challenging. One day, about five years ago, my curiosity got the best of me and I started experimenting. First, I admit, I did much reading, researching and recipe combing. I wanted to make French baguettes and I threw myself into the process with much gusto because really, how could one go wrong with a little water, flour and yeast? Very. My dough was soupy, it barely rose (though I wonder now if I even gave it the time?), my baguettes were misshapen, and though there was a lovely baked bread aroma filling my apartment, these bread loaves were as hard as concrete when I finally pulled them from the oven.

I was confused but not dismayed. On the recommendation of my mother I turned to Julia Child and her words on making bread. From there something clicked and when I went back to the kneading board my second attempt bore baguettes. Since then my bread game is continually improving and naturally at some point I started getting curious about sourdough. The idea of capturing wild yeast from the air around us that will, in turn, leaven bread is pure magic to me. I needed to take part in this science project in my own home. Again, I turned to the internet spending many hours reading and watching videos of how to get the sourdough process started. I was especially charmed and inspired by Marie of My Life In Sourdough.

There were so many things that I learned along the way, most importantly that there is no one exact way or exact science to this. Starting a sourdough starter is an experiment, one so easy and fun it may make you feel like you are in the 7th grade Science Fair again. I started mine one day late last summer. I took a ball jar (the one in the photo above), added a half cup of water and a half cup of whole grain flour, mixed it all up and topped the jar with a bit of cheesecloth screwed down under the cap ring. I placed it on top of the refrigerator and excitedly revisited it the next day to smell it and check it out for any changes. There were none. I added a 1/4 cup of each flour and water, stirred and replaced the cheesecloth. I did this every day for a week, sometimes pouring out some of the mix when the jar got too close to full, but I never noticed the yeasty/sour smell and never really saw any bubbles. It was summer in Georgia and the house was sealed up with the air conditioning going, so I started leaving the jar outside for a while each morning before the day grew too hot. I would stare out of the back door at that jar and will it to capture all the wild Georgia yeast flying around out there. And you know what? It did. Finally the magic happened and I had myself a starter! I am proud to say that going on five months later, it is still alive.

Here are some things I can tell you that are not hard fast rules for making a starter.

  • It is not necessary to use all purpose flour to start, though it may get things going faster.
  • It is not necessary to use distilled, spring or room temperature water. I use filtered water from my Britta that is in the refrigerator and have no problems.
  • Most of the instructions I read said the starter would be active in 5 days. Mine took close to two weeks. Don't give up.
  • It is not necessary to discard a portion of the starter each time you feed it, especially if you are taking a portion away to use in a bread dough. Just discard when you feel you have too much to use. Better yet, give some to a friend!
  • The grey water that rises to the top of the starter (called hooch) is perfectly normal and can be stirred back into the starter.
  • Starters do not have to be fed constantly. Most of the time I feed my starter every other it day and it does just fine. Most importantly notice if the starter looks active and bubbles are forming and that it has that wonderfully funky sourdough smell.

And so here is my recipe for a sourdough loaf...

Take one cup of starter, one cup of water and one cup of flour and mix together in a large mixing bowl until you have a batter not unlike what you would expect for pancakes. Let this sit anywhere from 1.5 hours to overnight covered tightly with plastic wrap.

When you are ready add two more cups of flour plus a healthy pinch of salt to the "batter" and stir until combined and dough-like. Turn it out onto a floured surface and let it rest while you clean out the bowl. When the bowl is clean, rub the inside of it with a bit of olive oil, knead the dough into a ball, place it back in the bowl and cover with plastic to rise for another 1-2 hours.

Once risen, punch the dough down onto the floured surface, knead again, shape into desired loaf style (I chose a small boule), cover with a tea towel and let rise again 1-2 hours. Heat the oven to 450* and when ready score the top of the loaf and slide it into the oven on a baking sheet or directly onto a baking stone. Bake for 20 minutes, remove, let cool and enjoy.

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