Simple Sourdough, Plain Or Rye
As the Stay Home orders continue, people are practicing practical skills that may not have held much interest before. Gardening and crafting are gaining new adherents, and people who subsisted entirely on restaurant and takeout fare are studying cookery with passionate intensity. Baking is increasingly popular and as a result, yeast has vanished from grocery store shelves and flour and sugar are in short supply. (There seems to be plenty of toilet paper again, however.) Sadly, I’m hearing sorry tales about fallen loaves and sourdough doorstops, so I thought I’d offer some tips for making sourdough bread.
Sourdough is the simplest and most forgiving form of artisan baking. Goldrush miners kept sourdough productive in primitive wilderness camps and it’s even easier in a modern kitchen. Well fed sourdough starters just keep getting better; mine lives in a big bowl on the counter, where it gets fed several times a day (not on any schedule, but as I think of it). The more starters are fed, the livelier they get. Store bought starters will eventually change as wild yeasts are captured so you might as well make your very own. And by the way, if fruit flies are a problem (they so often are), just cover the starter with cheesecloth or a fine sieve. A small dish with a few spoonfuls of starter will fatally lure gnats away from houseplants!
Traditional Sourdough Starter
Before baker’s yeast was commercially available, people relied on various kinds of starters to make sourdoughs and so-called salt-raised breads. The famous San Francisco starters were made with flour, water, wild yeasts, and time. It takes a few days for a starter to develop, and the longer it does, the better it works and tastes.
Classic Sourdough Starter
1 cup water
1 cup unbleached wheat flour
In a glass or ceramic bowl, vigorously combine flour and water and let stand at room temperature. Continue to stir in lots of air several times a day for 3-4 days until bubbly.
1 cup rye flour
1 cup water
1 small (2-3 inch) organic onion, outer skin intact
In a small, deep glass or ceramic bowl, vigorously combine flour and water, add onion and cover completely with flour mixture. Let stand at room temperature, stirring several times a day, for 3-4 days. When bubbly, discard onion and feed starter as detailed below, using rye flour.
Starter Care And Feeding
Once your initial starter is bubbly, feed it frequently until you have more than enough to work with. Add about 1/4 cup each of water and flour 4-6 times every day, stirring well to incorporate plenty of air. Always feed starter last thing at night and first thing in the morning. When it’s ready to use, classic starter will be a little soupy, with a slightly spongy, curdy quality that gets more pronounced the older your starter gets. Before you start baking, feed your starter, wait about an hour, then pour about 2 cups into a glass jar, cover and refrigerate for up to a week.
To refresh refrigerated starter, pour it into a glass or ceramic bowl; if there’s liquid on top of the starter, pour it off or stir it in for a more sour flavor. Add 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup flour every few hours, stirring vigorously. It’s best to give starter a day or so of feeding to fully activate. If you aren’t planning to use the starter yet, pour two cups into a glass jar, cover and refrigerate for up to a week. Share the extra starter, compost it, or flush it (good for septic systems). Keep starter on the top shelf of the refrigerator, which is a little warmer than the lower shelves. If long-lost starter looks moldy and smells funky, toss it and make a fresh batch.
A Few Tricks
The right flours can make a major difference to the quality of your bread. For a light but chewy loaf with a good crust, mix wet starter with high gluten/high protein bread flour, preferably at least 11% protein; the closer to 13% the better. You can also use part bread flour and part whole wheat or rye flour for a different flavor and texture. For especially good texture, add a couple tablespoons per loaf of gluten flour (vital gluten), a trick that makes many artisan yeast breads outstanding. Gluten flour runs as high as 70-80% protein, so just a little makes a big difference to bread texture and rise. It’s especially valuable for rye bread (yeast or sourdough), helping fragile rye flour capture and hold yeast gasses, which gives the heavy dough much better rise.
For variety, knead in 1/4 cup minced fresh rosemary; 1-2 tablespoons garlic powder; or 1 cup coarsely grated hard cheese and a teaspoon of ground pepper per loaf before shaping. Sourdough tends to flatten out and spread wide rather than rise high, so for the best rise (and best texture), bake it off in oiled standard loaf pans. Proof sourdough in well-oiled, ovenproof casserole dishes for straight sided rounds with perfect crumb and a pleasingly elastic texture.
Making And Baking
When you only want to make one loaf, use any leftover starter to make pancakes, waffles, or cinnamon rolls. For flavorful dinner rolls, mix in chopped herbs, minced garlic, or grated cheese, then form 1/4 cups of dough into balls and put them into an oiled muffin pan. Let rise for an hour, then bake at 400 degrees F for 15 minutes, lower the oven to 350 and bake for an additional 10 minutes.
Rustic Sourdough Loaves or Rounds (makes 2)
4-6 cups recently fed, wet sourdough starter
4-6 cups bread flour
4 tablespoons gluten flour
3 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
Stir a few cups of bread flour, the gluten flour and the salt into the wet starter, adding enough flour to make a soft dough. Turn on the oven light (this heats the oven to the right rising temperature) and place a bowl of boiling water on the middle rack. Set dough to rise next to the water. Let dough rise for an hour, divide in half and knead each piece by hand (100 turns) until smooth and elastic. Place each kneaded loaf into an oiled pan or dish and slash the tops three or four times to assist rise. Return loaves to the unheated oven (leave light on) to rise for an hour. Take them out of the oven, preheat oven to 400 degrees and bake the loaves for 20 minutes. Reduce oven to 350 and bake for another 20 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 180 degrees. Let cool a bit on a rack before slicing. Makes 2 loaves.
Sourdough Rye Bread
4-6 cups rye flour
4-6 cups recently fed rye sourdough starter
3 tablespoons gluten flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
In a large bowl, combine 2 cups rye flour and 1 cup water and let stand an hour or more (this autolyses or tenderizes the rye gluten). Add rye starter, gluten flour, ginger (helps rye rise) and salt, blend well, then add 2-3 cups rye flour and gluten flour to make a soft, slightly sticky dough. Turn on the oven light (this heats the oven to exactly the right rising temperature) and place a bowl of boiling water on the middle rack. Set dough to rise next to the water. Let dough rise for an hour, then knead very gently by hand for 1 or 2 minutes (rye is delicate) until smooth, adding flour as needed. Form dough into two loaves and place in oiled dishes or loaf pans, slashing the top three or four times to assist rise. Return loaves to the unheated oven (leave light on) for an hour. Take them out of the oven, preheat oven to 400 degrees and bake the loaves for 20 minutes. Reduce oven to 350 and bake for another 20 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 180 degrees. Let cool a bit on a rack before slicing. Makes 2 loaves. Butter up!