Sourdough for Busy People: Master Recipe

Do you love fresh sourdough, nice chewy sandwiches, crisp delicious toast? Do you like to bake but find you have Very Little Time? Please consider my Sourdough for Busy People. With this recipe, sourdough can be made regularly, quickly, and easily. I figure the whole process takes about 12 hours from start to finish. (That's fast!)

What I've come up with is actually a combination of 3 recipes or systems. The ingredients and measurements are from my mother's "Tried and True for 20 Years" recipe. The kneading ritual is from SourDom's helpful tutorial on The scoring and baking (and a few other tips along the way) are from Peter Reinhart's excellent book The Bread Baker's Apprentice.

So first, I figure out my schedule. The kneading/rising/baking time takes about 3 hours. Before that, figure on about 8 hours to wake up the starter. This means that if you want to knead and bake at night (say from 6 to 9pm), you can prepare your starter in the morning (by 10am at the latest) and you'll be good to go. Or if you want to bake in the morning (a nice weekend ritual), prepare your starter the evening before and leave it overnight. Then you can knead/bake from 9am til noon. Sometimes I write myself a little timeline, like this:

8am: Prep starter.
5:50pm: Prep yeast
6:00: Combine yeast with other ingredients. Cover and let sit.
6:10: Knead briefly. Cover and let sit.
6:20: Knead briefly: Cover and let sit.
6:30: Knead briefly. Cover and let sit.
7:00: Knead briefly. Cover and let sit.
7:45: Punch down. Shape. Cover and let sit (proof).
8:25: Turn on oven to 500˚.
8:30: Uncover and score loaves.
8:30: Bake at 500--mist every 30 seconds 3 times.
8:40-ish: Turn loaves in oven, turn down to 450˚.
8:55 (approx): Done! Let loaves cool one a rack for at least an hour before eating.

That's it! OK, here are details.

Prepare the starter

As mentioned, do this at least 8 hours before you'll start to mix and bake. To prepare the starter, I take it out of the fridge and if I have an hour or so to spare, let it come to room temperature. Then I scrape it into a bowl (there is 1/2 cup of it) and combine with 1.5 cups of flour and 2 cups warm water. Cover with a towel and leave it. If it is very cold or hot in your kitchen, you can put it in your oven for a more even "room temperature" experience. Just remember it's in there. (I write myself a note.) (See very bottom of post for starter recipe.)* I use All-Purpose flour for this step.

After 8+ hours

Remove starter

This is a simple step, but very important. When you're ready to mix, knead and bake, the first thing you do is take out 1/2 cup of starter from your bowl. I use a glass 1-cup measure and just scoop out or pour 1/2 cup into it. Put it in a dedicated starter crock and stick it back in your fridge for next time. If you miss this step, you'll have no more starter for next time.

Prepare the yeast

I just use regular active dry yeast, such as comes in a packet like Red Star or Fleischmann's. Recently I found that our coop sells this type of yeast in bulk. I figured out that 2.25 teaspoons is the same amount as one packet. I put the yeast in the same 1-cup measure I just used for removing the starter (I don't wash it). I add 1/4 cup warm water from the tap and let it sit for 5 minutes until at least some of the yeast is dissolved.

Mix ingredients

While the yeast is dissolving, I start pouring the dry ingredients on top of the mixed starter in the bowl. I put in 3.5 cups of flour. 1/2 cup is White Whole Wheat, and the other 3 cups are bread flour. (I used AP flour for this for many months, but I find the bread flour is really better. Go for it!) Also add 1 T salt. Mix in dissolved yeast mixture and stir everything together. It doesn't have to be mixed well yet--a ragged dough is fine. Cover it with a towel and let it sit for 10 minutes. The idea is that gluten (the structure strands) starts to form when the flour and water get acquainted. Just let it do its thing!

Knead briefly 4 times

According to SourDom, just knead for 10 seconds at a time. Sometimes I get carried away and knead a little longer. Do the kneading 10 minutes apart 3 times, then wait half an hour and knead one more time. How exactly? Here's what I do:

Spray a countertop or other smooth surface with oil. (Spray oil seems like an odd ingredient, but Peter Reinhart recommends it and I do find it SO handy. If you flour a surface, you're changing your flour ratios.) Dump the ragged dough onto the area. Knead for 10 seconds or whatever.

Still life with spray oil and dough scraper

Then, oil a new bowl and plop the dough in. Spray the top of the dough too if you like. Cover with a towel and let sit for 10 minutes. (You could also just wash your first bowl, dry and oil, then plop the dough in for however long is left of your 10 minutes.)

After 10 minutes, do it again. You can re-oil the bowl before plopping the dough in again. Or not.

After 10 minutes, do it again. You'll find the dough is starting to look a lot smoother and be more stretchy when you knead. Perfect.

After 30 minutes, knead for 10 seconds one more time. You're done kneading! Put it back in the bowl and cover.

Let the dough double

I give it about 45 minutes. I let it rise until the dough touches the bottom of the towel that's covering it. This is an imprecise measurement, but it's the way my mom did it (or that's how it looked to me).

Divide, shape, and proof

This recipe will make at least two loaves. There are many different ways to shape and proof each loaf--just doing it on a counter or baking sheet, using a brotform (rising basket), using a baguette pan, using a towel or piece of canvas to hold the dough up, and so on. I have a double baguette pan and two brotforms (one round, one oblong). I find this recipe makes one baguette and one loaf from either brotform. Or it could make two small baguettes and one small round loaf. This time I decided to make an oblong loaf and one baguette. Whatever you decide, here's what to do:

Dump dough on oiled counter. Dimple it with fingers to "degas" some of the air bubbles. Cut it with the scraper, guesstimating sizes needed for individual loaves. Shape each loaf by kind of tucking it into its own center. (It's kind of the gestures you'd make if you were rolling a shower cap into itself starting at the outer edges and tucking everything equally into a small mushroom shape.)

Spray surface of loaves lightly with oil and cover with towel. Let loaves rise--"proof"--for 45 minutes.

Loaf in (oiled and sprinkled with cornmeal) baguette pan is seam-side down. Loaf in (floured) brotform is seam-side up.

Same loaves after 45 minutes.


After the loaves have proofed for 45 minutes, turn on the oven to 500˚ Fahrenheit. When it's getting close to heat, I carefully tip out the brotform loaf onto a baking sheet that's oiled and sprinkled with cornmeal. (Parchment is easier, but I ran out.) Now the seam-side is down.

Then, score all loaves. I use a boxcutter for this. A sharp knife will also do. I like to put diagonal slashes on long or oblong loaves. A round loaf gets an "x" shape.

Bake 25 minutes

Here's my method, adapted from Peter Reinhart. Set oven racks low and high in the oven. Place loaves on racks and mist with water for about 5 seconds. Then close oven for 20-30 seconds. Open and mist again. Close oven for another 20-30 seconds. Open and mist again. Set timer for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, rotate loaves. Turn oven down to 450˚ and bake another 12-15 minutes. I found from trial and error that 15 minutes in my oven was too long (the bottoms turned black--almost burned). You want a loaf that is clearly golden-brown and baked through, and that sounds hollow-ish when tapped on the bottom, but is NOT dark brown or burned looking.

Wait! Don't slice 'til cool. It's still cooking in there!

That's it!

I hope if you try this, or even just read the recipe through, that the directions make sense. Let me know! I'd love to hear what works for you, too!

*One way to make starter:

Mix up slop that includes yeast and leave it sitting out for several days. Ideally it should look a bit bubbly with a layer of clear liquid on top. My mother's recipe is just to combine 1 cup of flour with 1 cup of water and 1 packet of yeast. Use 1/2 cup of this for batch #1.

Crock with starter

Mini Pizzas and the Cold War

Mini foods are always more enticing than full size, no? Our preschooler asked me to photograph the dinner we made together today. You can pretty much guess the 5 ingredients: English muffin (lightly toasted) topped with marinara sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni (sliced into interesting triangles) and black olives.

Last night I watched The Russia House for, like, the seventh time. Each time I see that movie I am confused by the spy stuff. But I keep coming back and getting different things out of it. With novel by John LeCarré and script by Tom Stoppard, it has some great lines. This time I paid attention to Russell the CIA guy (Roy Scheider), who is complaining to his British Intelligence counterpart about how notebooks smuggled out of the Soviet Union detailing their military ineptitudes will have a chilling effect on the brisk trade of the arms race.
The trouble is, a lot of highly paid favorite sons are in danger of having their rice bowls broken and going hungry, all on account of these goddamn notebooks. The Russian military effort is stalled, the American military effort is stalled. Their rocket motors suck instead of blow, their ICBMs can't get out of their kennels, their scientists can't do solid fuel for shit... Our customers don't like to hear that.
It got me reminiscing about the Cold War--seems so long ago. Seems like the favorite sons figured out a new game fairly quickly though.

I Feel Bad About My Stock

Onion skins. Celery ends. Beef fat trimmings. Mushroom stems. Carrot tops. Garlic sprouts. Chicken bones. No, it's not the contents of a Rachel-Ray-type "garbage bowl" that I'm going to throw away. It's what I save for making stock!

There is a bay leaf just right of center! A "real" ingredient!

Well apparently, this is all wrong. So says Chef Pardus. Crap.

You see, I thought I was being so clever and frugal. I always saved these bits and scraps from making meals--kept them in a bag in the freezer. Every now and then I'd heave them, unthawed, into the crockpot with water to cover. After 8 hours or so on "low," I'd have something I called stock. (It tasted like onion water.) I'd salt it up and use it in soups or stews.

However, after reading The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman, I discovered that Chef Michael Pardus (Culinary Institute of America) does NOT consider stuff like vegetable trimmings to be legitimate stock ingredients. Ruhlman describes the basics class where CIA students are learning to make stock. When asked if the carrots for stock should be peeled, Pardus said something like, "If people want carrot peelings so much, put them in a salad." Takeaway: Don't make stock from garbage. Use peeled carrots, not carrot peels. (The worst part of this story is that once, before I'd ever read Making of a Chef, I posted a comment on giving my little freezer bag routine as a handy kitchen tip. Idiot! Now Michael Ruhlman knows that I make stock out of garbage!)

After crockpotting, strain. Use the liquid for soups or stews.

I really should know better, since I went to coooking school myself once. Stock should be made with mirepoix, a sachet of parsley and peppercorns, bones. I know that. But honestly, when I have carrots or celery or onions (aka mirepoix), I need to cook and eat them, not boil them for stock. Is it so wrong to save my garbage and make... onion water? Aren't I rather clever?


Postscript: The minestrone I made was a big hit with the family. You'd never know it was made from onion water.

Pumpkin Seeds

At Halloween this year we never got around to buying an "official" large pumpkin to carve. Instead we carved the two cute little pumpkins we had at hand. (Thanks Gramma J!)

Then, a week after Halloween, some family members were buying cider and saw that big pumpkins were on sale for $2. They bought one and made another jack-o-lantern.

Lights out, please!

It was agreed that the pumpkin was worth $2 because for one, it was a fun evening project for parent and kid. For two, we made a favorite snack--roasted pumpkin seeds.

Is there a recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds? We just faked it. Put them in a bowl of water to help separate pulp from seeds. Salted. Roasted at around 200 until dry. Cranked up to around 350 until the seeds started to brown and pop. That's it. Should I mention here that the person who likes pumpkin seeds doesn't peel them, just chews them as is? That person is NOT ME. Heh.

Cloth Diapering: My Basics

Sometimes people ask me about cloth diapers, as I have used them with two children. I thought it might be useful to post an overview for easy reference. I call this "my basics" because everybody seems to have slightly different reasons for using cloth diapers, and slightly different ways of using them. The key, of course, is just to do what works. This is what works for me. I hope it's useful. (Please note that nobody paid or rewarded me to mention any particular brands, they're just what I happen to have. However if one were to click through to Amazon and buy something, I might make a few cents on those links.)

Basic supplies

I've tried several kinds of cloth diaper and there are many many more options available. What works best for me and my slap-dash manner is prefolds--basically just a piece of cloth that has a thicker section in the middle third (most visible in the top diaper shown below). I fold these and put them into a "wrap," which is a washable diaper-shaped holder that can be reused over and over... and over.

A note on fabric: the prefolds shown below are Indian I believe (there are also Chinese ones). They are a soft cotton with a smooth-ish surface. There are also prefolds available, like Gerber brand, that seem more gauze-y, not so smooth. I don't recommend these for diapers (though they make excellent burp cloths).

Prefolds: Infant size on top, larger on bottom

How many prefolds do you need? As many as you can afford! The more diapers you have, the less often you have to do laundry. However, prefolds do seem to cost around 2 dollars apiece, so don't go too crazy. Kitting yourself out with 24 prefolds and 4 wraps might cost you up to $100. (Put them on your baby registery or ask for a gift card if you can!) To compare, a package of disposable diapers might contain 48 diapers and cost $10. I am feeble at math, but I think that means that the cloth diapers start paying for themselves after about 3 weeks. (I use an average of 12 a day, so I'd be buying a new bag of disposables every 2 days or so.)

Also, kids grow and diapers don't. So one would need several sets of diapers. Here's what I use:

For the first 6 weeks, 24 infant size prefolds with 3 newborn wraps. I have Bummis brand for wraps.

From 6 weeks to about 6 months, 24 larger prefolds with 5+ wraps. For wraps I used Bummis again, Imse Vimse (I have "Bumpy" style) and Mother-Ease ("Rikki" style especially). More important than brand here I think is the velcro--if you're changing diapers 12 times a day, I'd suggest velcro wraps and not snaps, cuz the snaps get really old really fast.

These are both velcro--so easy to secure.
The top is Imse Vimse and the bottom is Mother-Ease.

The top is velcro--Bummis brand. The bottom is a Mother-Ease with snaps.

After 6 months I also started rotating in Mother-Ease One-Size Diapers. Theoretically these can be used for small babies too but it takes a lot of folding & snapping and I was just too darn lazy. But once the child is bigger and not wetting/soiling a million times a day, the One-Size gets more worthwhile. (Note, I've used both regular and organic and frankly like the regular better. It has a more absorbent/washable lining, and I found the organics started to fall apart rather quickly.)

For a large baby or toddler, use the One-Size unfolded and at the outermost snaps.For an infant or smaller baby, fold down the top row of snaps and there are more snaps on the back. Then cinch in the side flaps and snap as tightly as needed. You can even snap the right-hand-side on top of the left-hand-side for the smallest possible fit.

A few more supplies: I recommend a plastic bucket with lid for holding used diapers (see pic at very beginning of post), and a simple dollar-store basin for rinsing (more below).

Using the Diapers

I was taught by our local "natural parenting" store, where we purchase diaper supplies, that prefolds can be folded differently for girls and boys.

For a girl baby, place the diaper sideways as shown on top, then fold in either side to make a 3-layer rectangle. The thickest part of the diaper will be in the middle.

For a boy baby, start with the diaper sideways, then fold in one side just a few inches. Fold down the top and bottom so they meet in the middle. The thickest part of the diaper is now in the front. (You then flip it over and put the smooth side toward the baby.) Actually, that first inward fold is optional--the key is to just fold both sides in to the middle.

Then whichever way you folded it, you put it in the diaper wrap and put it on the baby. I keep using a wrap over and over again until it gets poopy. That means I might go through 3 or 5 or 8 prefolds in the same wrap before I need to change the wrap.


So cloth diapers, super cheap & easy, right? Yay, right? Well I must disclose that using cloth diapers does involve Touching Poop. You can't just fold up a nasty one and throw it away like with disposables. So here's the deal with washing these reusable beauties.

My 2 dozen diapers seem to need washing every other day. I put used ones in a bucket with lid. (Honestly, the diapers of an exclusively breastfed baby are not very smelly. When "real" poop starts, I might start keeping the bucket in the bathroom.) Then when I use the last diaper (and usually not before!) I haul out the bucket and follow these washing steps:
  1. Separate out any poopy diapers and wraps.
  2. Soak these in a dedicated plastic basin in the bathtub.
  3. After 10 minutes or even overnight, I rinse these out, rubbing a little to dislodge matter. I try to catch all rinse water in the basin. I pour any soiled water down the toilet. My goal is not to let the diaper water touch the bathtub... much. (Once solid food is started this job will get yuckier.)
  4. Throw all diapers and wraps into washing machine. We have an HE (High Efficiency) washer that doesn't use much water, and we found a "normal" cycle leaves the washer smelling funny. So we use an extra rinse cycle, and also pour some white vinegar (maybe 1/4 cup) in the bleach dispenser. We wash on Hot. (Never use bleach because it will destroy the diapers quickly. Washing them constantly is already wearing them out.)
  5. We air dry the wraps, but do put diapers in the dryer. That's where the nice soft wrinkly texture comes from. (When we first bought prefolds they were large and stiff. They need to be pre-washed and dried to shrink and soften. We actually didn't have a dryer back then so we boiled the diapers and then line-dried them. Line-dried diapers are not as soft and cuddly though.)
  6. Use those clean cloth diapers and wraps, and be ready to wash all over again in 48 hours.

Further Thoughts

**An Important Disclaimer: I always use disposables at night, so I am not a total-cloth gal. Gasp, I know! With baby #1, I found she woke up less often with disposables, and sleep trumped sustainability for me. Baby #2 seems to know when he's wet whether it's disposable or not, but it's also easier to put on a disposable in the dim night-time bedroom, so that's what I do.

Also for the very first week or so after birth, we used disposable Newborn diapers because it's just such an intense time. The last thing we needed to deal with was more laundry. (Basically, using disposables in a pinch is always my policy, be it laundry time, an expedition somewhere, or just cuz.)

Washing costs:
Even though cloth diapers pay for themselves after several uses, they aren't exactly free after that because they need to be washed and dried constantly. Our electric bill does show a slight change.

Checking for wetness: I think it's amusing that many moms have a two-fingered "swipe" they do to see if a cloth diaper is wet--rather than undressing the baby to check (that's what dads do--ha!). If the baby is wearing pants one can check for wetness up the leg and into the diaper with no undressing/unsnapping at all.

Blowouts: I believe that cloth diapers are better at holding poop explosions than disposables. Or at least the disposables I use. It's always a little sad when a cute onesie gets stained (and you have to change everything the baby is wearing) because a blowout went "up the back." For us, this happens less often with cloth.

Wipes: Do I use cloth wipes? Nope! :)

DIY wraps, inserts, doublers, etc.: I know people who sew their own wraps. I know people who have used flushable liners. I've seen "doublers" to go into One-Size diapers at night and soak up more during that time. I know people who use wool wraps and swear they hardly ever need washing, just a wipe and some drying time. I know people who have tried cloth and gave up because it was yucky or the baby didn't seem to like it. I know people who used disposables all the time except in the evenings, when mom would use cloth. I know people who wouldn't dream of using disposables unless it was some kind of emergency. This is all to say again--if you want to use cloth diapers, just do what works for you. There are no laws or terms that must be followed!

Links: I did not do any researching because I want to use my own words here. While I was putting this together, I did see a post come out on Simple Organic about rationales for using cloth: Cloth Diapering: It Doesn't Have to Be All or Nothing. Also as a Vermonter I must mention Green Mountain Diapers, an online store based in Vernon, VT!