Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sourdough Bread

I have tried in vain to make sourdough bread for years. I have started every kind of starter, waited weeks at a time, feeding them. I am sure I have wasted at least 50 pounds of flour feeding defunct starters.

My friend Rachel shared her starter with me, so I have no idea how to begin a starter like this one. This one is so active, so deliciously aromatic, so feisty that it often overflows everywhere. I feed it every day. It only eats white flour and water, in equal parts, but as much really as I would like to feed it. Sometimes just one cup each, most times 3 cup each to replace what I take for bread.

Unlike previous recipes I have tried, I never replace the starter from my bread's sponge. I take starter out, but only return fresh flour and water. The living starter seems to really dig this.

The recipe below may sound involved and scary, but it really isn't. If you are like me and home all day, it is nothing to add something like this. There is a few minutes a day to feed the starter, a few minutes to make a sponge while the coffee is brewing. Then about 5 minutes to create and knead the dough, after which a long rest period where you forget about the whole business. Then you take another 5 minutes to form loaves and forget about it again. The end is really the most involved part, where you have the oven going and are keeping an eye on the loaves. In just two weeks I have a pretty solid grip on how long and how hot my oven needs to go, so the baking is not too worrisome. I have also let every step but the baking go longer and the bread is fine. (I should mention that if you let the first rise go more than double, the bread is quite sour, as opposed to lightly sour.)

Keeping in mind that I have only been about this two weeks, here is the recipe as I was given it. (Thank you, Rachel!) The recipe is for bread made in a Kitchen Aid mixer, but I see no reason why you cannot make it by hand, or in a Bosch, etc.

Place 4 cups very active starter in your mixing bowl
add 1/4 cup of sugar and
1 cup whole wheat flour, mix.

Let this rest for 20 - 30 minutes then add

2.5 teaspoons of salt
a few tablespoons of oil
one more cup of whole wheat flour and
while mixing with the hook, add white flour.

I have no idea how much flour I add. If you have bread making experience you will know when it is good, but I found that unlike my quick yeast whole wheat this dough wants to be more firm. Not stiff, but not at all sticky. When this dough is right, it is easy to handle and you won't need flour to keep your hands clean. When you get there,

grab the dough and make a nice ball, and set it back into the bowl without the hook.
Cover with a piece of plastic wrap or some such thing and let rise a few hours, I honestly don't know how long.

When it is risen, punch it down and form loaves.

This is something I had to learn by trial and error. If the dough is too wet, the loaves will sag out, and while tasty they are shaped more like ciabatta. It is best if the loaves when formed are tight and high, holding their roundness well. Divide the dough in half and take one half. I use a scale to divide.

Use your hands to press it out into a rough rectangle. Mine are usually just smaller than a piece of paper.

Then come from one long side and roll it up, rolling firmly but gently over and over, more than there is dough.

Just keep rolling it into itself, occasionally tucking in the ends like a burrito.

When it is all rolled into a pretty loaf, pinch the bottom along the seam line lightly and set it to rise on a piece of parchment over a baking sheet.

Do the other the same and set it alongside the first. Cover with a dry towel and let rise again, about 2 hours.

When the loaves are ready preheat the oven (I use a baking stone, so I have it in there and preheat to 500 degrees. Otherwise preheat to 425) and once the oven is ready, slash the loaves with a very sharp knife or razor blade 1/2 inch deep several times.

Immediately slip loaves into the oven (If using a stone, put the tray the loaves are on near the baking stone, and carefully grab the parchment to slide parchment and all onto the stone, Turn the oven to 425) With either method you also want to slosh either 1 cup of water or ice cubes onto the bottom element and close the door. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then turn down to 325 and finish the loaves.

I cannot give you exact times, because every oven is different. In fact, looking at the original recipe I was given she tells me to: "Bake at 425* for 15 minutes with a cup of ice cubes or water tossed into the bottom of the oven.  Reduce heat to 375* and bake for 25 more minutes." My oven must be too hot or some such, because the first time I over cooked the loaves, and the temps and times I have give are what I have settled in to. I encourage you to pay close attention and make this recipe yours as well. My first time, I over cooked the loaves. One time I suspected they were slightly underdone. After the first 15 minutes the loaves should be puffed and nicely browned, then lower the temp and finish them out. Bread is generally done when its internal temp is 200 degrees, so employ a probe thermometer if you have doubts. (Have I told you about my probe thermometer? I use it constantly.) Bread which is done sounds hollow when you pick it up and drum on its underside.

I let my loaves cool in the oven, taken off the parchment and slipped onto the bare racks, with the door open and the oven of. As tempting as they are hot, I prefer mine cooled a little before we cut into them.

I feel so much success with this method that I feel I will never use another recipe again. I am baking it so much to keep up with demand that I am buying a 1 gallon crock for my starter, I need that much around. (To be more clear, I don't need a whole gal1on, but this starter is very active and needs lots of room. I will keep about 1/2 gallon at any time, but it needs room to grow when it is happy. My 1/2 gallon jar is not big enough as you can see below by the mess!)

If you bake bread often, the starter can live out on your counter like mine. I am told it can also live in the fridge as long as you let it warm up and feed it once a month.

As far as making your own starter, the only advice I have is don't feed whole wheat and do feed it all the time. Whole wheat makes a dense, dark, briny starter. My starter is like champagne, and flows like maple syrup. It smells like good beer or cider. It is delightful, nothing footy or cheesy about it. I hope you have as much luck as I have!
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