My Sourdough Bread Challenge

My self-imposed challenge for April was to start the process of learning to make sourdough bread. Unlike the first 3 challenges I set myself this year (Banh Mi, Kouign Amann and croque monsieur), I didn't even imagine I'd get this right the first time--or even in the first 6 months. That's because sourdough bread takes a long time, maybe a year, to develop its true flavor and special sour character. Also I need to learn some baking chops. So this is a long-term challenge. I'll need to make bread about every 3 weeks at least to keep the starter (yeast colony) refreshed and happy.

Colonizing the starter was my first step in this challenge. I followed my mother's recipe which is called "Tried-and-True for 20 Years." To make starter, combine 1 c water, 1 c flour and 1 packet of yeast (2.5 t). Leave out uncovered for 2-3 days. Here's what happened:

The starter bubbled for a day or so, then developed a leathery top with liquid below.

When I scraped the crusty top aside, I could see lots of healthy activity beneath.

After 2.5 days, I was ready for step 2--creating the sponge. This is an 8 hour process where you take 1/2 cup of the starter and combine it with 1.5 cups bread flour and 2 cups warm water. Cover with a towel and leave overnight (or all day).

Here is the resulting sponge close up.

Here it is after I dipped a spoon in--check out that goopy texture!

Step 3 is to remove 1/2 cup of the mixture to save as starter for next time. It is very important to remember this step or you've just "broken your chain"!

Store the starter in glass or ceramic, like this small crock.

Step 4. (Phew, this is getting complicated. It took 3 phone calls to my mother and an email exchange to understand all these steps.) Now is the time when we knead. Add another package of yeast that has been dissolved in 1/4 cup of warm water, plus 1 T salt and 3.5 cups bread flour. (Start with 2.5 cups, then knead in more. Knead knead knead until the texture is right. It will take months to know when this is--I didn't. I believe it has something to do with a kind of "cracking" or "pulling" feeling in the heels of the palms.) Put back in the bowl, cover again and let rise until doubled. This can take about 4 hours.

Out of focus rising bread. With this particular bowl, I think it's doubled when it starts to touch the bottom of the towel that's covering it. (Towel not shown obviously.)

Another step--step 5. Punch down the risen bread and knead it again--just to work some of the air out and shape it. I was using the cookie sheet method rather than a loaf pan. The dough is rolled into a blobby cylinder "loaf" and heaved onto a buttered cookie sheet sprinkled with corn meal. Now let it RISE AGAIN--another hour or so.

It has risen again. Ready for the oven. (Yes I see that it is kind of WIDE.) Bake at 350˚ for 1 hour.

Here's the result! It seemed to turn out pretty well for a first try. My mother inspected it and said it seemed fine to her.

Of course there are a thousand variables I will try tweaking as I keep working on this recipe and making bread over and over again to keep the starter going. I could add whole wheat flour, maybe even gluten. I could add nuts and seeds and whole grains. (These should all be added after the starter is removed from the sponge, so the starter is always "neutral.") I'll need to work on my kneading technique and learning to feel when the bread is ready to rise. I've heard that playing music to rising bread can make a difference, and also spraying it with water while baking can contribute to a nice crunchy crust. I have a lot to learn, but I found this challenge the least frustrating so far because I didn't presume to think I'd get it anywhere near right the first time around. At least next time I bake this I'll get to start at Step 2, because I've already got the starter.

There are tons of variations on how to make sourdough of course. I guess some recipes don't rely on packaged yeast at all, but foster wild yeasts. However I'm interested in learning this particular recipe because it's my mom's and it's what I grew up with. This is my childhood bread!

If you have sourdough or general bread tips, let me know! I'm keen to learn more and will try to post updates now and then about how my yeast children are doing.


ValleyWriter said...

Wow! This is an involved recipe to say the least! But, your results look fantastic. It looks nice and soft on the inside, just like sourdough should be.

I've never made sourdough myself, but with other breads like ciabatta, I've used the spraying with water while baking trick. It does help add to the crispiness. Also, I read in "An Omnivore's Dilemma" that you can just put a bowl of flour and water near a window and it will "catch" yeast from the air. That sounds fascinating... If you try that or some other wild yeast method - you'll have to let us know how it turns out!

"Prof. Kitty" said...

Thanks VW! Capturing wild yeast is definitely my next project. I'll write up how it goes! And I've tracked down a spray bottle to try the misting technique, too. Excitement at our house. (seriously!)