In modern American cooking, sourdough is regarded as a delectable mystery into whose folds only the indoctrinated foodie may enter. However, until a few hundred years ago, it was basically the only way to make leavened bread. It is thought to have originated nearly 4 millennia ago in Ancient Egypt, and has been a mainstay of the Western diet ever since. Once you start experimenting with it, you can see why: it’s deceptively easy and practical.
The basic idea is to foster the growth of organisms living naturally within the flour, and then to create conditions that promote the success of just two of the thousands present: yeast and lactobacilli. In the case of sourdough, this means a steady diet of flour and water. As long as you reserve a little piece of the culture and keep it alive, you can make bread. Together with a little bit of salt, these simple ingredients create one of the most unique flavors in our culinary lexicon!
There is a lot of information out there on sourdough, from how to make a starter from scratch to elaborate multi-day recipes for sourdough cinnamon rolls (delicious, but involved!). My take on this is that it’s great to have such resources at hand, but it can sometimes overwhelm the beginner (or even, intermediate) baker. In reality, all you need to make good sourdough bread is a strong starter, some patience and a sense of humor for an inevitable failure or two. If you possess these things, you will have good bread in no time, along with an arsenal of interesting sourdough side projects, like pancakes!
A simple recipe for successful sourdough baking
1. Procure a good starter from a friend. You are sure to know someone who has a jar stashed in their fridge. If you get one and it seems to be sluggish (i.e. it does not double in 8 hours or so when left at room temperature, doesn’t smell sour, or isn’t bubbly), that’s ok. You can revive most by leaving them out on the counter, covered, and feeding them every 12 hours or so. You will smell the sourness and see the increase in volume in a day or so. If you absolutely cannot find an established starter, it is possible to make one yourself. I am no expert on this topic and refer you to the vast library of the internet for better advice.
2. When I say “feed” the starter, I mean this: give it a few handfuls of flour and about the same amount of water. Mix this into the starter. I like to keep mine about the texture of thick pancake batter, or lava, as my brother the sourdough aficionado once put it. Because I know we are all familiar with the consistency of lava… Here is a picture of my starter after 12 hours of fermenting.
3. If you are not planning to bake soon, you can leave your starter in the fridge. You will still need to feed it every few days, but much less than you would at room temperature. You can tell it’s overdue for a resupply by the accumulation of a grey/green liquid on top. Don’t worry about this stuff; just mix it back in with the new dough.
4. A few days before you are getting ready to bake, take the starter out of the fridge. When your sourdough culture has been at low temperatures, it feels like you do on Monday morning before coffee: it’s not ready to do much. While the yeast will probably wake up and leaven your bread, you won’t get that fantastic sour flavor without adding the secret ingredient to all good bread: time. So bring your starter in from the cold and feed it every 12 hours or so for 3-4 days before baking.
5. As your starter grows, remember to save a half-cup or so for next time. After that, you can discard any extra dough or use it for another project. I usually do the latter and end up with sourdough pancakes, or something of the like. This is one of my favorite bonuses of sourdough baking!
6. Now it’s time to bake. Here’s an extremely simplified explanation of how bread works:
- Yeast produces CO2 when it metabolizes flour, this is what makes the bread rise. It is inhibited by salt, sugar, and the acid from lactobacilli.
- CO2 and water vapor expand when heated after you put the bread in a hot oven.
- If your dough has strong gluten, the fibers of the bread will be elastic and expand around the bubbles of hot gas. A lot of this rise comes from the initial heat shock (called oven spring), which is why a hot oven and a baking stone or dutch oven are important.
- Gluten is a network of proteins formed when water and flour meet, and is organized and enhanced by kneading. If you want a lot of even bubbles, knead more. If you want a more rustic, holey bread, knead less.
- Sourdough has almost nothing to do with the structural aspect of bread, except that if you let fermentation go too long, the acid it creates will kill the yeast and prevent the bread from rising. This is why letting your dough rise in the fridge is often recommended, as lactobacilli slows down more than yeast.
So now I’ve gone and done exactly what I set out not to do: written a lengthy exposition on sourdough. I guess there’s just a lot to say. However, hopefully this demystifies some aspects of bread baking, and will make the following recipe a little more intuitive!
(Almost) No Knead Sourdough Boule
slightly modified from this fantastic recipe
2 ½ c. sourdough starter, awake and sour smelling
3 c. high-protein/bread flour (see note)
1-2 tbsp. salt, depending on taste
a few tbsp. of water
*This recipe is designed to be made in a cast iron dutch oven. The results of an experiment using a baking stone will be posted soon.
Combine the starter, flour and salt. Mix until just incorporated (I do this in a Kitchenaid mixer with a dough hook). I have found that a slightly more slack dough gives better bubbles, so I add a bit of water until the dough is malleable, but not quite sticky. The amount of water you require will be different every time depending on the consistency of your starter, the flour, the weather…. It should just barely slide off the dough hook when raised.
Place the dough in a floured proofing basket (if you don’t have one, just drape a clean towel inside a mixing bowl and sprinkle it with flour). Cover to prevent the dough from drying and forming a crust. I like the author’s suggestion of inflating a plastic bag around it!
Here is where I differ from the original recipe: I get better texture (i.e. bigger holes) and improved rise if I do a few rounds of folding and stretching. This is a delicate way to improve gluten without interfering too much with bulk fermentation and bubble formation. Here is my technique: gently grab one side of the round and pull it away from the dough. Fold it back into the center, rotate the dough 30 degrees or so and repeat. Your dough should be wet enough that when you fold it back in, it sticks to itself easily. I do this for 2-3 full rotations of the dough, then flip it so that the seam side faces down. Let the dough sit, covered, for another half hour, then repeat. You will notice a significant change in the texture of the dough—it will transform from a rough and broken surface to the silky smoothness of a baby’s bottom. This is the gluten getting in line.
After two rounds, cover again and leave the dough out to rise until it doubles (5-8 hours). I like to err on the side of under-, rather than over-proofed bread, as the latter may collapse during baking. This means that the dough will still bounce back when poked with a finger. When the dough reaches this point, put it in the fridge for 12 hours or so. The reasons for doing this are: 1) to continue to develop the complex flavor of the bread and 2) to allow the gluten to develop slowly and through a method that spares our dear rustic bread bubbles. This is when I usually go to bed.
An hour before you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 500°F, or as high as it will go, and put the dutch oven inside. It is important to get everything as hot as possible. After preheating, carefully place a (pre-measured) circle of parchment paper in the dutch oven, then gently turn the dough out on top of it. Quickly replace the lid and close the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid, reduce the heat to 400°F and cook 15 minutes more. The bread is done when tapping on the bottom produces a hollow sound. Cool on a wire rack before eating. (This is the hardest part for me because I can barely resist the smell of fresh-baked bread and the promise of melted butter on top. However, there are rewards for delayed gratification—your bread will be much moister if you let it cool all the way!)
A few thoughts on subtleties:
Crust The dutch oven produces an amazing crust by trapping the escaping water vapor from the bread. I adore it but my husband doesn’t. If you want a softer crust, shorten the baking time with the lid on the dutch oven. You may have to cook a little longer overall to ensure that you’ve cooked through the whole loaf.
White vs. whole wheat flour You will never get as light and fluffy a loaf with whole wheat flour. This is because it contains ground up pieces of the bran and germ (because it comes from the “whole” grain) and these interfere with gluten development. However, they taste good and contain all the nutrients that were refined out of white flour. Since this loaf is our standard lunch bread that we eat day in and day out, I prefer the nutritional qualities of whole wheat to the size of the holes in a 100% white loaf. 50/50 works well for me, but if you want a lighter loaf, just increase the proportion of white flour. Adding 1 tsp. of vital wheat gluten for every cup of whole wheat flour also improves the texture.
1 c. sourdough starter, awake and sour
½ c. buttermilk
½ tsp. baking powder
1 tbsp. sugar
a pinch of salt
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp. melted butter, cooled
a few tbsp. all-purpose flour
extra butter or oil for cooking
If your starter has already been sitting out and is rearing to go, this recipe does not require any waiting. If your starter is cold, give it some food and let it sit for an hour or so.
Heat a skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. Combine all ingredients except the flour and stir until just mixed. Over-stirring here will cause gluten development, which you do not want for fluffy pancakes! Add the flour gradually and gently until the batter reaches a lumpy but pourable consistency.
Ladle the dough into the hot, greased skillet and cook until numerous bubbles appear on the surface and the edges begin to dry. Flip and cook for 2-3 minutes on the other side. Serve with fruit, syrup, powdered sugar, or the topping of your choice. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that we did not need very much sweetener on these pancakes. Their delicate flavor was best appreciated without too much interference!