homepage logo

Sourdough simplified

By Staff | Mar 27, 2020

-Submitted photo A pizza peel or rimless cookie sheet works well for transferring dough to a preheated baking stone.


Grit Magazine

I’ve often wondered how it is that bread, which is so basic to most of the world’s food cultures, has turned into something that we are intimidated to make ourselves. Homemade bread is often much more nutritious, and certainly less expensive, than “artisan” breads available commercially. As farmers, homesteaders, or sustainability-minded city dwellers, we not only want to learn to do more for ourselves, we want to be more economical in our use of resources. In other words, we don’t want to waste time, money, or effort.

Slow down

Why do people shy away from making their own bread? The main reasons I hear are that it seems mysterious, complicated, and inaccessible (especially sourdough), or they really just don’t have time for bread-making. I get it, life gets so busy you can barely keep up, but I’m going to change your mind about it.

Bread is very simple: flour, salt, yeast, and water. Bread made with commercial yeast ferments fairly rapidly; the entire process takes around four hours or so, from mixing to taking it out of the oven. This speeding up of the process-originally designed to benefit commercial bakers-actually makes yeast bread more challenging to find time to make. Between mixing and baking, several processes happen, and transitions happen quickly, so over those four hours of baking your dough, your attention is required almost constantly.

In the case of sourdough, a sour culture (starter) populated with wild yeast takes the place of commercial yeast. Wild yeast multiplies more slowly than commercial yeast, so the whole process slows down as a result. Slowing down the fermentation not only results in better-tasting, longer-lasting bread, it also allows for much more flexibility in your schedule.

These days, my normal weekly baking routine covers about 24 hours. Here’s how it works:

– Day one, morning: Refresh sourdough culture (3 minutes). Ferment at cool temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

– Day one, evening: Mix and knead dough (20 to 35 minutes total, depending on kneading technique). Ferment dough at cool temperature overnight (8 to 12 hours).

– Day Two, Morning: Preheat oven and baking stone, then shape dough (5 minutes). Proof dough for 1 hour as baking stone preheats. Bake bread (45 to 50 minutes).

That’s it! Total hands-on time is around 30 minutes. And as you can see, most of the 24 hours is the sourdough culture and dough fermenting. By utilizing slower-fermenting wild yeast, combined with cooler fermentation temperatures, your bread dough will develop wonderful flavor and texture as the yeast and lactobacilli do their magic. And, by slowing down the process, it won’t be a catastrophe if something comes up and you have to be away from your kitchen for a little while. With this recipe, they’ll be no more blocking out four hours of time or worrying about your dough over-rising. You can even sleep nights!

Starting your starter

A lot has been written about sourdough starter: what kind of flour to use, how often it needs to be fed or refreshed, whether you should add yeast, sugar, etc. Some starter recipes I’ve seen were eye-glazingly complicated, requiring multiple feedings every day as if it were some kind of exotic pet.

Let me simplify it for you. To make a starter you need two ingredients: flour and water. Yes, you can make starters from non-grain sources like potatoes, but we’re keeping it simple here. The wild yeast and bacteria are in the air, and they’re on the grain.

To make a starter from scratch, I recommend using organic flour. Once it’s active and bubbly, it’s not so critical, but you go to some effort to get the thing going, so give it its best chance to start out right.

It’s also best to avoid chlorinated water. Any kind of bottled water is fine, including distilled water.

We’re fortunate to have our own spring-fed water supply, which is the water I use for making bread.

I recommend measuring ingredients by weight rather than volume, because it results in more accurate measurements. Escali makes a small, lightweight scale that measures in 1-gram increments. It costs about $30 from King Arthur Flour (www.kingarthurflour.com) and is my favorite kitchen scale.

Day one

In a large bowl (glass or stainless steel), pour 75 grams (scant 1/3 cup) tepid water.

Stir in 50 grams (1/3 to 1/2 cup) organic unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour, and 50 grams (1/3 to 1/2 cup) organic stone-ground whole-wheat flour. Dough will be tacky.

Then, you can cover with plastic wrap and it let stand at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day two

The culture will look much the same as it did on Day One, although it may have risen slightly.

Add 30 grams (2 tablespoons) tepid water, 50 grams (1/3 to 1/2 cup) organic unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour, and 5 grams (1 tablespoon)

organic rye flour.

Cover and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day three

The culture will have expanded 1 1/2 to 2 times its original volume. You should be able to see bubbles forming below the surface, and the smell will be slightly yeasty and fruity.

Repeat feeding steps of Day Two.

Day four and on

The culture may be ready to use any time in the next few days. Here’s what to watch for:

Surface of culture looks dimpled or bubbly and may rise to a dome.

Cutting through with a paring knife shows air pockets being trapped by gluten strands.

If it doesn’t already look like this, simply repeat day three steps daily until it does. Transfer starter to 1-quart container (wide-mouth Mason jar works fine) and secure lid.

Store starter in refrigerator and refresh once a week by following day two steps. I put about 1/3 cup of the starter in a separate container to use for baking. Then add flour and water to the original container, let it sit at room temperature for an hour, then put it back in the fridge.

The stiffer the starter, the slower it ferments. Slowing down the fermentation process means you can refresh it less often. I aim for roughly twice as much flour as water, by weight. For example, when I refresh my starter, I use about 50 grams (scant 1/4 cup) water and 100 grams (2/3 to 1 cup) flour. If it seems too dry, add a little water; if too wet, add a little flour. You’ll get the hang of it.

A new starter culture becomes active much more quickly at room temperature. Once it is bubbly and has increased in volume (indicating it is active), store it in the fridge. At room temperature the acidity will build up much more quickly, increasing the possibility of endangering the yeast in there, as well as forcing you to refresh it more often. Simplify, remember? I want you to have fun making bread; 2 a.m. feedings for your starter is not fun. Or so I’ve heard.

Making bread

Making sourdough bread is very similar to making yeast bread. You use starter instead of yeast, and the dough is fermented slowly instead of quickly. Otherwise, the steps are the same.

I prefer an organic unbleached bread flour of about 11.5 percent protein. For whole-wheat flour, I recommend stone-ground. I routinely make a French-style sourdough bread with 70 percent white flour, 24 percent whole-wheat, and 6 percent rye. Another favorite in our house is 80 percent whole-wheat, 20 percent white. It’s quite fun to experiment with different combinations; just be prepared for varying textures and degrees of lightness in your bread, particularly if you are using mostly whole-grain flours.

My standard master recipe for bread (above) is a formula I use for just about any kind of bread I make. It makes a good big loaf of bread. I have used it for many different breads with excellent results.

Simple sourdough

1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups tepid water, unchlorinated

About 4 cups, (depending on type of flour, I recommend at least 20 percent unbleached bread flour)

Scant 3/4 cup to scant 1 cup starter or pre-ferment

10 grams (scant 2 teaspoons) sea salt

Refresh starter or make pre-ferment 8 to 12 hours ahead.

In large bowl, mix together water and flour. Let stand for at least 20 minutes. This hydrates the grain and starts the process of gluten formation, making hand-kneading easier.

Add starter or pre-ferment and salt. No need to mix it all in, kneading will take care of that.

Knead dough. I leave the dough in the mixing bowl, turn the bowl with my left hand, while kneading with my right. I dip my kneading hand in cool water whenever the dough starts sticking to my hand. I knead for a total of 15 minutes, like so: knead 5 minutes, let dough rest for 10 minutes. Knead 5, rest 10, knead 5, and you’re done.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap, or put dough in a straight-sided, clear 2-quart container with a lid. I love the 2-quart dough-rising bucket from King Arthur Flour; this batch of dough pretty much fills the container when it doubles, making it so easy to know when the dough is fermented and ready to shape.

Ferment dough 8 to 12 hours in a cool spot. Keep an eye on it until you get used to how the dough behaves in your conditions. For best flavor (and easiest schedule), it should take at least 8 hours to fill the container, or double in volume. If it is rising much faster than that, put it in the fridge for a while to slow it down.

Preheat oven to 475 F. Preheat baking stone, and shape and proof the loaf. A thick baking stone like mine takes a solid hour to get good and hot, so I turn the oven on, then I shape the loaf. I like to use inexpensive willow baskets (bannetons) for proofing. In my cool kitchen, the hour that the oven is heating is the perfect amount of time to proof that loaf.

Note: The dough will not double in volume again. It won’t rise a lot during proofing, but you should see a little movement.

Turn loaf onto pizza peel or rimless cookie sheet for transferring to the baking stone. I prefer to use a sheet of parchment paper on the peel to transfer the dough to the oven. Slash loaf about 1/4 inch deep, and immediately slide it, still on the parchment paper, onto the hot baking stone. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool for about an hour before cutting.

Italian Biga

If the starter in this article is out of your comfort zone, try using a pre-ferment. This is a lot like a sourdough starter, with two important distinctions: It’s made with commercial yeast, and is usually made within hours of when you are going to mix up your bread dough.

For most breads that I make, the pre-ferment would be mixed 9 to 16 hours before I am going to mix my dough. It is amazing how much flavor this adds to even plain white bread. Many of the white breads of Italy are made with a pre-ferment called biga. In France, the pre-ferment is called poolish. Other common names for pre-ferment are “sponge” or “barm.”

Scant 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast

1/4 cup warm water

3/4 cup plus 4 teaspoons water, room temperature

2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour

In medium bowl, stir yeast into warm water to dissolve. Add remaining water and flour, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes.

Cover and let rise 6 to 24 hours in a cool spot. Use right away or store in refrigerator up to five days.

Excerpted from GRIT. To read more articles from GRIT, please visit www.grit.com or call 866-803-7096 to subscribe. Copyright 2020 by Ogden Publications Inc.

Please Enter Your Facebook App ID. Required for FB Comments. Click here for FB Comments Settings page