Making Good Sourdough: PART I
For me, part of the joy of a good cheese platter is good bread. I’ve never been much of a ‘cheese and cracker’ person, even though I understand the idea of the blank canvas to keep the focus on the cheese. But I sometimes serve cheese platters as a light meal, so if I’m going to add a starch at all, I usually serve some variation of sourdough—lightly pan-fried in butter. Although there are a few good artisan bakeries springing up in SoCal, grocery store bread is always hit and miss, and probably filled with additives.
I always wondered about the feasibility of making my own rustic sourdough with a big open crumb and sour flavor. So when I had some leftover buttermilk from making homemade cultured butter, I decided to use it to make sourdough starter. I just mixed it with some all-purpose flour and warm water until it had a thick batter consistency, left it on the counter, and in a week I had a bubbling fermentation going. After the first week, I somewhat successfully made cinnamon rolls with the discard you should discard a part and re-feed the starter every day for the first week, and realized I now had the raw materials to make some good bread.
Like any food science, I had to experiment, make some bad bread, and eventually break through the mythology to get to the facts. Get ready to toss your expensive bread machine, because if you’re patient, any home cook can make quality sourdough at home with relative ease.
Myth: You need a special starter to make sourdough bread. Sourdough is made without baker’s yeast, using natural leaven—a living, active yeast and bacterial culture. While it is true that you need a starter to make sourdough, you do not need to buy a special “San Francisco Sourdough” starter from somebody claiming to have the secret microbes. Yeast and microbes are everywhere, and most of the microbes for your sourdough originate in the flour you use. A mixture of flour and water sitting on your countertop will usually begin to ferment on its own within a week, perhaps sooner if you discard part of it and then feed it add flour and a little water daily. Once the starter is going strong, it can be refrigerated, and only needs to be fed a few hours before you make the dough. If you bake less than once a week, then you may still want to feed it weekly to keep it going. Over time, it will get more sour especially if you’re like me and don’t discard a lot, but there are ways to manage the fermentation so it does not impart a strongly sour flavor—actually desirable in other naturally leavened breads.
Myth: You need special equipment and ingredients to make sourdough bread. Sourdough bread is made with bread flour blue-label King Arthur’s Flour is the standard and can be found everywhere, but Smart and Final sells a house-brand bread flour, starter yeast, water and salt. The high protein content of bread flour lends itself to a sometimes chewy product; APF reduces the protein content. You need a bowl for mixing the dough, a rubber spatula, your hands, and a small colander or bowl with some cheesecloth or non-terry dishcloth for proofing. You can bake it in your oven with or without steam—I use a large stainless steel mixing bowl inverted on a pizza stone, but you could simply invert a large metal mixing bowl over any pizza stone, cast-iron, steel or anodized-aluminum pan. If you really get into this, you will definitely want to get one very important and perhaps the most important piece of equipment: a grams scale. Because bakers build recipes on the weight of water to flour, kitchen scales weigh 1000g of flour and 700g of water for that perfect 70%-hydration dough or whatever your preferred hydration might be. It is tough but ultimately freeing to do away with the measuring cups!
Myth: You need a lot of time to make sourdough bread. This may seem true but most of the time the dough is resting and you’re ignoring it. The more bread I make, the more I realize the best bread is made around my schedule. Since I work, I will often arrange to make dough for the next batch when I bake. Sourdough bread can take 2-3 days to make, but most of that time it is fermenting in your refrigerator or proofing just before the bake. The most common method of dough development involves stretching and resting the dough in its own mixing bowl over the course of a few hours. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can knead it and then let it sit for a few hours. The only other significant time commitment is shaping and baking. Proofing may take an hour or two—less if you’ve rested the dough for 24-48 hours under refrigeration as I usually have. If you can bake two loaves at a time, baking the bread for the week takes 40-45 minutes.
Truth: Sourdough bread is a fermentation. Just like any other fermentation, the process itself changes the chemistry of the flour from something less digestible to something easily digested. As flour ferments, starches are broken down by the yeast, producing gas. As the acidity increases, the proteins glutens are softened. Sourdough bread is not meant to be made in a single, time-consuming afternoon, or in a few hours with a bread machine. Baker’s yeast is a relatively modern invention that, in my opinion, takes away from the joy and experimentation of allowing dough to really ferment. When sourdough is fermented, the chemistry changes—the dough smells sweet, and a proper bake causes the sugars in the loaf to bake to a beautiful auburn with crusty edges. The fragrances produced by baking fermented bread are not unlike the fragrances experienced during beer brewing.
Truth: Sourdough bread is really cheap to make. If you use Smart & Final bread flour, an average loaf will cost you about $.30. If you use King Arthur bread flour, the average price goes up to about $.90 each, give or take a few pennies. One 5-lb bag of flour makes about four loaves, with a couple of cups of flour left over. Like all food production, part of the reason we home-make food is so we can use better ingredients; therefore, unbleached and untreated flour is a must. Whole wheat and white whole wheat are great flours that aid gluten development and add character to the finished bread. No matter how you slice it, a good loaf of Sourdough will run you $5-6 at the market—a few dollars more from artisan shops—so you’re saving several dollars every time you bake one for yourself. If you insist on spending that extra cash, don’t worry, there are expensive specialty grains and plenty of kitchen tools you can buy to augment your experience. But for goodness sake, don’t use an electric mixer to blend your dough—with some practice and skill, it takes about two to five minutes or less to incorporate dough, starter, and water together.
Truth: Breadmaking is about technique. The good news is it is a learnable technique. You will need to learn how to handle dough while it is developing, when to cold-crash it if you’re doing a long cold-ferment, how to shape and rest the dough, how to proof it, and how to bake it. With a high-hydration dough, the only thing keeping it from being a blob on the counter is how well you develop the gluten and build tension into the dough.
My first sourdough loaves were built using the following basic recipe—as you will find out, it’s more about a process than a recipe:
7 cups bread flour
2 ½-2 ¾ cups water
1 tsp salt
1 cup starter
Feed starter before work in the morning. Leave starter container in bowl for overflow on counter.
When you’re home from work, mix salt evenly through bread flour with whisk. Then incorporate all ingredients until all dry flour is in the dough.
Let dough rest 30-45 minutes. Then, with wet hands pull corners of dough from side of mixing bowl and stretch over to the opposite corner. Flip dough. Do this every 30-45 minutes until dough has visible bubbles in side or it is rising noticeably, generally about 4-5 hrs.
Seal and place in refrigerator until the next afternoon or evening for at least 24 hours. The next evening, let dough rest at room temperature for one hour before working with it. There is an art to shaping and a way to control the hot bake 450-500 degrees for about 30-45 minutes that will give you superior results in the home—and a great addition to your cheese plates. If I’ve sparked your curiosity, I’ll be writing about that next month.