When the weather is cold and wet outside, one of my favorite things to eat is a nice hot bowl of veggie chili with a fresh slice of buttered sourdough. Mmmmmm, sourdough! Back in CRAFT Volume 04, San Francisco-based writer and “fermented-food devotee” Eric Smilie offered his clear and easy sourdough bread recipe. Check it out in this week’s Flashback and get your bake on. You can also still pick up the full back issue of CRAFT Volume 04 over in the Maker Shed.
Get a Rise Out of Sourdough
The yeasty way to a truly good loaf.
By Eric Smillie
My heart sank as I stared at the dark, deflated crust, hardly the loaf I had hoped to bake using wild yeast from a home-fermented starter. I needed help. I found clarity in Laura McNall, a baker for 22 years with the Cheese Board Collective, a worker-owned cheese shop and bakery in Berkeley, Calif., that uses more than a dozen 14-pound buckets of sourdough starter every day. “When you’re dealing with fermentation,” consoles McNall, “it’s alive and it’s got a life of its own … Sometimes it doesn’t work out.” Eventually, however, it did. Now my only problem is keeping my tangy sourdough loaves out of the hands of my ravenous roommates.
For the starter:
Filtered, non-chlorinated water
For the bread:
Active starter within half a day of climax
Unbleached white flour
2 tsp kosher salt
The magic of sourdough is that you can leaven bread with a culture of yeast and lactobacillus (the same bacteria that turn milk into cheese) drawn from thin air, just by mixing flour and water in a glass jar. The yeast creates gluten and makes the dough rise, while the bacteria produce acid that imparts a distinct flavor and keeps spoiling microbes at bay.
Every place has its own airborne microorganism population, and each can give rise to a starter with a unique character, says sourdough sage Ed Wood, the author of Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker’s Handbook. Wood has been baking for some 50 years and sells heirloom starters collected from places like South Africa and Italy through Sourdoughs International (sourdo.com). Contrary to popular belief, he says, a starter can travel. Some people think “that if you send a culture somewhere else in the world, it will be contaminated by the local flora and fauna,” he says. “That, basically, is a lot of baloney.”
Once established, a healthy starter can last forever. Wood claims he collected a starter in Giza, Egypt, that hadn’t changed much since about 2500 BC. The oldest sourdough cultures are in the Middle East, and, he adds, “by and large, were passed from father to son for hundreds of years.” Here’s how to start an heirloom of your very own.
Step 1: Start the starter.
Thoroughly mix 1/2 cup flour with 1/3 cup water in a mason jar. Cover with a towel or loose lid, and let it sit in a warm place for a day. Stir occasionally to aerate.
Step 2: Enrich the base.
After 24 hours, pour out all but about 1/4 of the mixture, and thoroughly mix in 1 cup flour and 3/4 cup water.
Step 3: Keep feeding the starter.
Repeat Step 2 daily. In 3 to 5 days, the starter should have a rich, beery smell and be bubbly throughout, climaxing in frothy activity some hours after each feeding. A day before baking, feed it enough to meet your recipe with some left over.
Different instructions recommend bafflingly different ratios of flour to water. The wetter the starter, the more quickly it will run through its life cycle. My starters do best at banana-milkshake consistency, but cultures and environments differ, so experiment with ratios and temperatures as necessary. Wood suggests that bakers put new starters outside, where wild yeast will be prevalent.
Step 4: Knead the dough.
Thoroughly mix the starter, flour, and salt, and let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
Then knead the dough gently but persistently for about 15 minutes, until you can make a gluten window — a thin, translucent membrane of dough that forms when you slowly stretch a walnut-sized lump between your thumb and forefinger. Add flour or water, by the tablespoon, to moisten or dry the dough as needed.
Step 5: Let it sit. Then sit some more.
Shape the dough into a ball, put it in a large bowl, cover with a damp towel, and let it rise in a warm spot until it doubles in size, about 5 hours. Then gently press the air out of the dough, form it into a loaf, and place it on an oiled baking pan under a moist towel until it doubles in size, about 2 more hours.
Step 6. Bake.
Set the oven rack to medium height, and preheat to 400° about 15 minutes before baking. Mist the dough lightly with water, slide it into the oven, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
When baking, always save a bit of starter from which to regenerate. To preserve, let it sit for a few hours after feeding, then cover it loosely and put it in the fridge, where Wood says it can stay for as long as 6 months without new food. When you’re ready to bake again, feed it the night before, and by morning your wild pet will be back in action.
About the Author:
Eric Smillie is a freelance journalist and fermented-food devotee.