This is also for people who are otherwise great bakers or cooks but new to sourdough.
I’m not going to wax lyrical about bread, sourdough, the beauty of baking or baking in pandemics or otherwise get verbose. I want you in the kitchen. I want you baking and doing, not reading ad nauseum. I don’t want you bogged down before you start.
Sourdough is not an easy place to start a bread baking adventure but it is trendy and I know if you’re reading this, you want in.
So here goes.
Sourdough uses yeast but it grabs wild yeast from the air of which there are at least 1500 species. That’s what people used before packaged yeast which is a g-dsend, totally awesome lifesaver. But sometimes there’s less of it around — like in a pandemic and/or we want to go back to the old-fashioned way of doing things (like in a pandemic) because it’s fun and comforting. Plus the taste of a sourdough bread and its crust as pretty darned special. It’s worth it.
And it’s also a bit of mindfulness which leads to wellness which is not a bad thing.
But here’s the thing: don’t make a big deal about sourdough and run out to get scales and thermometers and go all scientific. For now, start slow and easy. In the gold rush days, for instance, when pioneers were knee-deep in mud and cow dung on the prairie trail, they weren’t using scales and thermometers. They developed (wait for it) know-how via their experience. There was no Internet and no sanctioned source or guide discounting the spot near your grandmother’s knee or mother’s elbow, two places where you learned to bake.
Plus your sourdough is not for sale or something to show off to Poilane to (check it out). It’s for : you.
So allow me to teach you sourdough as well as the starter it relies on. It’s very low tech. I don’t do anything fancy and real sourdough teachers and experts will be rolling their eyes at this point but I don’t care. Remember what I said? I want you baking.
You can use tap or spring water but do use unbleached flour. It doesn’t have to be organic but unbleached is fine and make sure it’s bread flour.
If you weren’t btw, already reading this feature, I’d say, start with a No-Knead Bread or a poolish-based French bread both of which are outstanding breads that are kind to newbies but I already know there’s no point. You’re sourdough bent in a time and world that is sourdough centric.
As professional baker and cookbook author, and whereas I am not a sourdough expert, I do have experience and I’ve taught non-bakers and terrible bakers….to bake. I’ve recently managed to get at least a dozen people making amazing sourdough without any experience save the incentive of quarantine to get them going. These are people that couldn’t make Pillsbury chocolate chip cookies.
What I do ask is that you notice things. For instance: if the starter isn’t foamy, it means it isn’t ready or mature or lively enough to bake with. So? Feed it flour and water (the recipe is below). Notice it responds in an hour or 8 hours.
Notice when it expends itself and drops again and then feed it. This is a relationship and you’ll do best to observe your partner’s (the starter) mood.
But don’t get all tangled up thinking this makes sourdough bread complicated or demanding. It just is what it is. If your house plant had dry leaves, you’d give it water. Sourdough starter is like that. Just see what it needs and provide it. Then keep doing your life.
Once you get the hang of sourdough, you’ll probably leave for loftier places such as sourdough Facebook groups, YouTube sourdough lessons, Zoom sourdough classes and wonderful ‘all about sourdough’ cookbooks. That’s normal and fine and really — as it should be. My goal here is to get you started, having success and on your way to bigger, bolder loaves. My goal here is to make sourdough part of your life rather than this neat thing you tried in 2020 because of you-know-what.
But if you overload yourself and have 1–2 brick-like loaves you might think it means you’re not cut out for this. You’ll become one of those once-bakers-never-again sorts that say: “Oh I tried sourdough once and it was a total failure; like a brick’. This is the same as the non-dancers who always claim to have two left feet. Study the population: I’ve never seen anyone with two left feet. So it is with bakers. Anyone can do this — you just need simplicity and a bit of coaching. You’ve come to the right place.
Here’s my cliff notes of encouragement on sourdough bread:
The only things you need to remember are:
1 — Don’t give up. Put yourself in a mood of gentle curiousity and go forth.
2 — Never throw it out your starter unless there’s pink streaks in the starter . There’s nothing some TLC can’t do. It needs either time, water, flour, or warmth. But please don’t throw it out and ‘start over’. That is panic talking so trust me. Just forge ahead.
3- Be patient and easy going; you’re on a new journey
4 — Remember that in the second rise, sourdough breads don’t do an impressive rise — so it’s hard to tell when it’s ready to bake but it probably is so go by time as well as instinct
5 — If you want to experiment with your starter add a cup to a regular bread recipe and reduce the yeast in that recipe by 2/3’s.
6- Never give up, always surrender. That means -never give up but sigh and continue on and stop resisting things. This is your private sourdough experience. There’s no hurry and no blue-ribbon at the end.
This takes 5–7 days. I recommend unbleached bread flour and you can try either spring or tap water. My starter seems to prefer good old tap water.
1/4 cup warm water
2 tbsp. rye flour
2 tbsp. wholewheat flour
1/4 cup unbleached bread flour
In a clean bowl measure out the flour and water and stir. Cover lightly with plastic wrap, allowing some air to get into the bowl to infiltrate the wild yeast in the air into the starter.
Next day (8–12 hours later), feed again with:
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup white unbleached bread flour.
Continue this for 5–7 days, feeding once a day, approximately at the same time. If the starter gets too be too ungainly, take out half a cup before feeding it and then feed it as before. Keep it on the counter, lightly covered, when you are first building it.
On baking day, feed it again: let it foam up a few hours and then take out what you need. At that point, refrigerate it or let it sit out, removing starter and feeding it daily (whether you are baking with it or not). It should be kept around 68–70F or so.
If you bake weekly — feed your starter daily and leave it out on a counter, lightly covered (I use a shower cap from the Dollar Store or Amazon). If you bake less than that — keep it in the fridge and feed it 2–3 days before baking — and once it’s good and bubbling again, like a few hours before you intend to make the dough, remove what you need for the recipe. That’s it.
Now the dough part (and then, yes of course, the bread!).
Sour Dough Bread from Marcy Goldman’s New Bread Cookbook ©
On the day of baking, when making your sourdough bread dough itself, use a nicely woken up starter that you’ve fed 2–4 times, 1–2 days ahead. You want to build its strength before giving it a work out (i.e. in the bread dough itself).The starter should look nice and foamy or spongy. It means it’s ready to be dumped into a recipe. Two things to remember include 1) sourdough breads don’t poof up as extravagantly as yeasted straight breads and 2) your first sourdough effort will be good but no reflection on how great your subsequent efforts will be. So have patience; practise self-compassion.
You have two rise-and-bake-options with sourdough bread: bake in the morning or bake at night. If baking in the morning, prepare the dough the night before and leave it slow rise near a cool place. If you’re baking in the evening, make the dough in the morning and bake around dinner or whenever it seems ready. But….if your house isn’t cool and beside a ‘cool’ window isn’t an option, let it cool rise in the fridge. Good luck! You can only go wrong if you give up. So don’t.
¼ cup ripe and ready sourdough starter (*recipe for starter follows)
1 ½ cups warm water
4 -5 cups bread flour
1 ½ teaspoon sea or kosher salt
In a large bowl, using a whisk, blend the sour dough starter and water together. Add in one cup of flour and then the salt and blend well (switch to a wood spoon or a spatula at this point). Stir in most (but not all) the flour to make a soft, rough dough. Cover and let it stand 15 minutes. Add in more flour and using your hand, blend into a dough that’s still really rough but holds together. You will see if it needs more flour after you give it its 15 minute siesta (called an Autolyse by French bakers).
Cover with a damp towel and cover this lightly with a plastic bag. Alternatively you can cover the dough bowl with a shower cap. Let it stand 8–10 hours. This is called the Bulk Rise. Next is the shaped dough rise.
When the hours have passed, with floured fingertips, you shape the dough. Turning it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Gently shape into a round (it will be somewhat limp — not bouncy and elastic). Crumple up parchment paper and spray with non-stick cooking spray. Spread this out in a 3 quart bowl. Place bread gently in the center and cover lightly with plastic wrap (I use a shower cap). Let rise 2–4 hours or until it seems puffier. Spoiler alert: it will never seem as puffy as regular yeast-based breads so don’t expect a big show. Go by the time and if it feels slightly wobbly to the touch.
Preheat oven to 475 F. Place a Dutch oven in oven and allow it to heat up one hour. Using the parchment paper as a lifting aid, gently place bread in Dutch oven. Slash top of bread. Put a Pyrex cup of water in the oven. Then cover the pot with the lid. Bake 20 minutes and then 20 minutes uncovered or until bread is deeply browned.
If you need more help, recipes or want to check out my cookbooks visit me at my web space called Betterbaking.
Oh and the best knife for slicing sourdough is on Amazon. It’s cheap and called Mercer a company I don’t know but their knifes are so good that I want to buy stock in it.