Homemade Sourdough (Part 2/2)

Sourdough baguette

This is a baguette that was made last winter for a friend. You've heard of San Francisco Sourdough? This is Southie Sourdough. Cool, right? Yes.

Welcome to Sourdough Primer, Part 2/2. Before giving this a shot, you should have active starter. See Part 1 for how. The below will also work for a starter you’ve obtained from someone else. If it’s dormant, skip down to the bottom of the article for information on reviving it. This isn’t really written out in a strict, linear format; forgive me, I’ve indulged my urge to dally about this subject. Besides, sourdough isn’t a one-and-done cooking process. It’s an ongoing thing. That’s my excuse for not giving you a stepwise recipe, anyways.

At this point, you’ve got your sourdough starter, and are probably totally enamored with it. Since you’ve been actively building it an maintaining it, you’ve also essentially got the first part of the recipe over — your starter is doubling as a sponge, which is just a term for an active sourdough batter. If you’d been storing it in the fridge, you’d have to wake it back up, but since you haven’t, it’s all bubbly and frothy and very eager to get to work.

Here’s what you’ll need for one regular-sized loaf:

  • Large mixing bowl and a wooden spoon
  • 1 cup of water
  • 3 cups of flour (high-gluten or “bread flour” works best, but you can make bread with All-Purpose flour. You might want to swap out some of it — maybe like a cup or so — for some whole wheat flour. Go for it).
  • 2 tbsp salt.

Take your mixing bowl and add a cup of water to it. Make sure the water is somewhere between 40F (too cold!) and 100F (too hot!). Now take your bubbly starter and stir it down to deflate it. Then, scoop out about an eighth- to a quarter-cup of it and mix that well into the water, which will turn murky and yellowish.

Sourdough Batter

Sourdough soup. Note the little bubble -- there are helpful gases down there, and more to come.

Get your bread flour, and then add a cup of that to the bowl. Stir it well, so that all of the flour is moisturized. At this point, you’ll have something that very closely resembles pancake batter. Here’s where I like to let it sit for about 20 minutes, to let the moisture get into the flour and give everything a chance to rest. If you mix just the flour and water, that’s called an autolyse; with the yeast, it technically isn’t, and many bakers disagree over whether this makes any difference at all for most breads. It may not for this loaf, but still, maybe you’ll feel good about it. Maybe you’ll appreciate sitting there and knowing that you’ve got little yeasts and lactobacilli going ecstatic in there, doing somersaults and so forth. Maybe you’ll even see a little bubble form as the gases from your sponge escape. Boop.

Maybe you’re also using that time to get yourself psyched up to knead, especially if you’ve never done it before. You can knead with a) a stand mixer with a dough hook b) a stand mixer with a dough hook, and then your hands c) a spoon, and then your hands. I used to do b, but now I do c, because I like to be able to feel how the dough is developing, and because hand-kneading makes you a more attractive person. It’s been scientifically proven. Somewhere.

Kneading isn’t hard at all, and it really isn’t the laborious effort that you may have been lead to believe it is. However you’re kneading, throw a cup of flour on top of the batter. Then put the salt on top of the flour.

An aside: salt in bread is a funny thing. Yeast die when they come in contact with salt, but without salt, bread just sort of tastes like flour. Adding salt to the batter will kill some yeast, but there will be plenty left over as long as you don’t put TOO much salt in there. Start conservatively, and if you want more salt in your next loaf, do it. Here, you’re not running much risk. You’ve got a bunch of organisms in there. They’re already proliferating. Stir the flour and salt into the batter — either with a spoon or a stand mixer, since it’s still really sticky at this point — until it starts to get stiff.

You’ve still got about a cup of flour to go. If you’re using a stand mixer, keep adding flour in small amounts until the clump of dough looks smooth and supple, like a ball of pizza dough you buy at the store. If it looks too wet, it probably is.

Sourdough coming together

At a certain point, it will start to gum up, and your spoon will be more or less useless.

If you’re using a spoon, this is where the dough is going to become too stiff to work with. Take your sticky dough, put a half a cup of flour on the table, and then plop the contents of the bowl on top of that. Put a bunch of flour on your hands, and then gently start working it into the dough with your fingertips. If you plunge your hands deep in there, it’s going to make your fingers all sticky, and that’s going to make this harder. Go gently until you feel like there’s no risk of it really sticking to your skin. Then, start working it with the heel of your hands. There are probably eight million YouTube tutorials on kneading, so go watch some if you’d like. Work it by folding it on top of itself, pushing the fold down into your dough, turning the dough, and then just doing that over and over. This develops the gluten, or protein, in the bread, and gives it all its excellent bready texture.

Knead it for a few minutes, then take a break for a few minutes to let it rest. Then go back and finish kneading. You’ll know it’s done when you can gently press your finger into the dough and it won’t leave an indentation – the dough will just spring back. You can also do the windowpane test, but if it’s springing back, it’s probably good.

Once it’s springy and warm, it’s time to let it rise. How you want to let it rise is up to you. You can let it rise once and then bake it, or you can let it rise once, then knead it briefly again, then let it rise again. A second or third rise will impart more sour flavor into the bread, because the gases that the lactobacillus give off will seep into the dough. If you do multiple rises, you don’t need to knead it as vigorously the second or third times, just enough to redistribute all the little organisms in there and let the air out. Second and third rises will happen more quickly than the first rise.

Sourdough ready to rise

Before being ready to rise, your dough should be soft, smooth, and springy.

I’m only letting this rise once, because Heather doesn’t like a particularly sour bread. I formed the dough into a ball (or boule) and then put it into a floured wicker bowl (a makeshift banneton) to let it rise. The bowl makes it easier to control the shape of the dough, and since it’s wood and has little holes, some of the moisture will wick away from the surface, which also helps shape and will make a more interesting crust texture. If you don’t have a wooden bowl, you can use a greased and floured plastic one, though the dough won’t hold it’s shape as well. Make sure it’s floured (or greased and floured, if plastic) — otherwise, the dough will stick to the bowl, and when you try to get it out, it won’t be pretty.  If you want a sandwich loaf, put it into a loaf pan. Here’s a good video on shaping baguettes.

Cover that with either greased plastic or, even better, a damp linen cloth. Stick it in a warm place until it rises. How long will that take? It depends. You should start to see some size differences within 2-3 hours. After that, it depends on temperature and your dough. If it sits for like 8 hours and doesn’t move, start over. Sorry.

Once your dough has doubled in size, it’s ready to be baked. Pre-heat your oven to 450 — if you have a pizza stone, by all means, use it. If you don’t, throw in a baking sheet of some kind, and let it heat up with the oven. If you have a cast iron skillet, stick that in the bottom rack and let it heat up too. Once the oven and stone are heated, take the stone out and sprinkle some cornmeal on there. Then, invert the bowl over the stone and loosely jiggle until it gently drops out.

Leavened dough

Poof! After hours of hard work by the baker -- involving things like drinking beer and watching the Red Sox -- the bread is now getting good and puffy.

Quickly and gently slice a gash about an inch deep across the top of the loaf. You can use a really sharp knife, a razor blade, or even scissors. This is called scoring, and it not only makes the bread look cool, but it helps it rise evenly. The yeast will momentarily go hyperactive when they are heating up in the oven, just before they’re killed; this is called “oven rise,” and if you don’t score the bread, it could cause weird shaped bubbles to happen in the crust. It won’t affect flavor, but it’ll affect looks.

Right before you put the loaf in, throw some water onto the cast iron pan in there, so that it creates a bunch of steam. Steam is what creates the crust on your bread, and aside from scoring, is the most important part of creating a really attractive loaf. Now throw the stone and bread back into the oven, and let it bake.

After 10 minutes, make sure there’s still some steaming going on in there. If not, put more water on the skillet. If you don’t have a skillet, spray the sides of the oven with a water bottle. If you don’t have a spray bottle, you can splash water on the sides of the oven, but a) don’t hit the glass on the door, because it might break and b) this is haphazard and may not be effective and I really can’t recommend it.

After 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 400F and bake for another 15 minutes. The bread is done when you can take it out (use an oven mitt – trust me), tap the bottom (which should be golden brown), and hear a clear hollow sound. Let the loaf cool on a cutting rack for about an hour (if you try to eat it instantly, I won’t blame you, but the steam will escape and the structure won’t set as well). This is bread. This is your new, fresh-shaped, awesome, delicious bread. Close the blinds, lock your doors, and then do whatever you want with it.

I’ll fast-forward over the lewd and lascivious fresh-baked-bread-eating details. If you want to be able to do this again, you’ll need to go back to your little starter jar and prepare it for storage, which is extremely straightforward. Stir in a little more flour and a little more water, just like feeding it in Step 1, and then stick it in the fridge in a jar with a loose-fitting lid.

You don’t need to be super-worried about all sorts of other crazy things getting in there. Really, what’s going to get in it? What sorts of crazy subtropical flesh-eating bacteria do you have crawling around your fridge? None. It’s fine in there. It’s going to fight off most everything that could get into it. Other people might tell you that you should regularly swap out jars for your sourdough, so as to keep the jars clean and mold-free. This isn’t necessary. Mold spores are everywhere, and while other stuff in your fridge can grow mold, your our sourdough almost certainly won’t – it’s just not the right environment.

Depending on the lid you use and how often you stir and freshen the starter, it may dry out a little bit. If there’s dried batter on the sides of the jar, over the course of weeks, it may flake off and fall on top of the starter. You may open it up one day and find a layer of dried-out, grayish-looking glop. Do not be alarmed. Scoop out the dried gunk to (almost certainly) reveal a stiff, cold, normal-looking layer of starter below it. Add some flour and water to that, stir it vigorously, and you’re good to go.

You can keep it in there for probably a month at a time between feedings, maybe even longer. I’ve never been able to resist going longer than a few weeks between bakings. When you are ready to bake with it again, take it out, scoop out about a quarter-cup of it, and stick it into another container. Then re-feed your original starter and stick it back into the fridge. Take the little chunk of the starter you pulled out, feed that, and let it sit. After 12 hours or so, if it’s not super-active, feed it again.

You can build that back up into a sponge; the longer you let it sit between feedings, the more sour the flavor will become, for both the sponge and the actual dough itself.

Eggs and toast

Bake bread before bed, wake up in the morning, cut into the loaf. Serve with fried eggs (these are from Stone Soup Farm in Belchertown). I mean, come on.

That’s it! Once you’ve baked a few loaves, this will all start to make perfect sense. The starter is just a little chunk of dough with active yeast and lactobacilli. Then, you add a bunch of flour, water, and other ingredients to make it into a dough. Then you let it rise — more sitting around will make it more sour, less sitting around will make it less sour. There are all sorts of good bread resources out there (like The Fresh Loaf and Sourdough Companion) for when you want to branch out and do more experimenting. Anything you can do with regular yeast can be done with sourdough — if you don’t want sour, just don’t let it rise as long. I’ve made everything from bagels to sticky lemon rolls with my starter.

Remember: this is how all baked goods all over the world were made before the 20th century. You’re not trying to master some advanced technique; you’re using a method that people who didn’t have electricity or running water were able to pull off just fine. So give it a shot, and do it confidently. The yeast will be your partners, history will be on your side, and fantastic bread will be your reward.

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