The Care and Keeping of Sourdough

I’ve been baking for a long time, but it was only until the last couple of months that I finally jumped onto making my own bread on a regular basis, specifically all-purpose sourdough bread. Sure, I dive into trying different breads – challah, olbröd, quickbreads, you name it – but I still bought commercial bread for everyday use. And I don’t blame myself – sliced bread is, after all, a pretty grand invention, and it’s easy to obtain. But it certainly doesn’t taste as good as homemade bread, and if you want it to taste even remotely decent, you’ll pay a good chunk of change for each loaf. And more plastic in the landfill every time I want a few mediocre sandwiches? No thanks.

But I also avoided diving into making my own sourdough starter because I was afraid of the work, of the commitment it would take to maintain what is a living organism in my fridge. Would I have enough time to prep and make a loaf of bread every week, enough to satisfy two people’s appetite for breakfast toast and sandwich bread? And what if I didn’t need bread on a given week? I didn’t like the idea of discarding the extra starter every time I fed it. So I kept away until December.

Oh, how wrong I was.

I should have known – I’m a bread fiend. My last meal would consist of cheese, crackers, and fresh bread, if I had to choose. In the past three months, I have made at least one loaf of bread every week, sometimes more than one, and have given zero dollars to Big Bread. (The flour millers, on the other hand, have been loving me, but what’s new?) And it’s friggin’ delicious, no matter how I use it. But most importantly, it’s easy, forgiving, and versatile.

Yay, sourdough!

Making sourdough is a learning process, with a good deal of trial and error, but also with consistently tasty results – even a “mistake” can be turned into something delicious. Times and amounts of ingredients can vary season to season, location to location, and you’ll get a (literal) feel for what, er, feels right for a good loaf. Here, I’ll give you the basics on how to make the starter, as well as how to make the bread and maintain the starter.

Sourdough Bread

You will need:
Basic Sourdough Starter (recipe and directions at the bottom)
1 to 1 1/4 c flour (unbleached all-purpose or bread will do)
1 c rye flour
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp yeast
1-2 tbsp water, as needed
1-2 tbsp black and white sesame seeds, or other seeds (optional)

Directions

Making Bread Out of Your Starter
After finishing your third feed for the starter, measure roughly 1 1/2 cups into a sealable container and keep in the fridge. This is your friend that you must maintain. (We named our first one “Job.” I’ll let you figure out why.) You should have about 3 cups of starter left to work with for the bread.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the 3 cups of starter, 1/2 tsp yeast, 2 tsp salt, and flours. If using the seeds, add them here, too. Start with the smallest amount of flour, and add as you go if your dough is too sticky or doesn’t come together – otherwise, the bread will turn out super dry or not rise properly. (If your bread does turn out too dry, however, you can fix it with a tablespoon of water at a time during the first mix.) You should end up with a shaggy, sticky dough. I’m lazy and use my mixer for this with the bread hook attachment, but you can use your hands or even a food processor (the latter will, obviously, go much faster than manual mixing).

Allow the dough to rest in an oiled, non-metal bowl for 3-4 hours, or until the dough rises to 1.5-2 times its original size (this will go faster in warmer weather or a warm kitchen). Turn dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead until a smooth-ish ball forms. Form a boule by tucking the “ends” of the dough ball underneath itself, so the top is smooth. Allow the dough ball to rest for an hour on the counter, or on a lightly floured flexible cutting board or pizza peel. You may also put the bread on a lightly oiled or parchment paper-covered baking sheet.

While the dough rises and rests, preheat the oven to 465 degrees F. Position the bottom oven rack on the lowest setting. Place an oven-safe pan (a cast iron skillet works great!) on the bottom rack. Position the top rack in the upper third of the oven. If using a pizza or bread stone (highly recommended), place on the top rack during the last 10 minutes or so of preheating.

Once the boule has roughly doubled in size (it may be a bit smaller – that’s okay! Just make sure it has, indeed, risen, or you will need to wait longer unless you want super dense bread. Spoiler: you don’t), sprinkle and spread a very light layer of flour on top of the boule. Using a very sharp knife, make a series of long slashes on the top of the dough – this is to release gases and make sure your bread doesn’t explode during baking.

Fill a measuring cup with 1 c of hot water. If using a regular baking sheet, place the sheet on the top rack. If using the peel or cutting board, slide the dough carefully onto the baking stone. Immediately (and SUPER carefully – hot steam is no joke) pour the hot water into the pan on the bottom rack, and close the oven door. Bake for 40-45 minutes, turning the bread halfway through baking to obtain even browning. The bread is finished when it sounds hollow when tapped. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Making the Starter

These steps just take a good deal of waiting, but it’s totally worth it! I used commercial yeast for this batch. When I actually experiment with the yeast that floats around my kitchen, I’ll post the recipe and results upon success! You’ll need flour, water, and yeast for this part.

Directions for Basic Sourdough Starter:

Mix together 1 1/2 cups of flour, 1/8 tsp of yeast, and 1 1/2 cups warm water. (Make sure it’s not super hot, or you’ll kill the yeast, and then you’ll be sad.) Stir, then cover loosely and put in a location that won’t be in the way of everything (we use the top of our fridge). Stir the mixture every 8-12 hours. It will eventually become bubbly and sour-smelling – hence, sourdough! This process, depending on the warmth of your kitchen, can take anywhere from 1 to several days – ours took about 4, since we started Job in the winter and it’s c-c-c-c-cold here in the mountains. Either way, once the mixture is super bubbly and about doubled in size, the starter is complete!

Feeding a hungry starter. Mmmm.
Mix thoroughly. After each waiting period, this guy should be bigger, bubbly, and smell a bit like cheese.

To maintain the starter in the most basic way, name it, keep him/her/them in the fridge, and feed it at least weekly by mixing 1/2 cup starter with 1 scant cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water. Many recipes will say “discard the remaining starter,” but I refuse to advocate for throwing out such a useful, tasty thing. There are many ways to use spent starter, which I will detail in a different post. For now, satisfy yourselves with feeding and using the starter as follows:

Using Starter for Bread

Once the starter is…started, and you’re ready for bread, use your virtue of patience once again and prepare to wait just one more day or so. Take your starter out of the fridge, if you’ve been keeping it there like a good baker (obviously, if you’re using your starter for the first time, it won’t have been in the fridge). Feed your starter 2 cups of flour and 1 cup warm water about 12-24 hours before you want to make the bread, using a nonmetal bowl. Be sure to thoroughly combine the starter, flour, and water so you don’t have surprise! pockets of flour, which are not tasty or conducive to good bread. Keep the bowl, once again, covered in a non-trafficked area (like the top of your fridge) while you complete this process. Proceed with the recipe at the top of this page once the third feeding is complete.

Sourdough is a learning process – you may find fewer or more feedings are necessary, that you may need to wait for shorter or longer periods of time, and that different flours, waters, and yeasts work best for you. The key is to keep trying and keep going, and be ready to mess up! Cheers, and enjoy your sourdough.

5 comments

  1. I’ve had good luck (twice) with making a starter by putting a fresh from the vine grape into a 1/2 flour, 1/2 unchlorinated water mixture that half filled a quart mason jar.

    I would think that blueberries or any fruit that can be used to make wine would also work…but I’ve always had grapes around, so I never had a need to try anything else.

    Like

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