Sourdough means a culture of “wild” (vs store-bought) yeast and bacteria that adds flavor and leavening to dough. The name is a bit of a misnomer since not all sourdough is sour. You will have to trust me on this — there is a sourdough bread that you will love. You have only to bake it.
The Sourdough Starter
There are lots of different ways people use to make sourdough starter, but the one I followed came from King Arthur Flour’s article, Creating your own sourdough starter. It is straightforward with nice pictures. It can take a week to ten days before your starter is ready to make good bread. You can also order powdered starter for free here and I recommend doing so because if your own starter fails after a week of trying, you can at least take comfort knowing that a free starter is on the way. And of course, if you know anybody that bakes, or have a local bakery, you can always ask for a tablespoon of starter and then just feed it and use it as if you gave birth to it yourself.
Once you have a sourdough culture going, you can use it for many things ranging from pancakes/waffles, to batter for onion rings, and of course, you can use it to make great bread!
One important thing to realize is that if your water is chlorinated, you may have a difficult time getting the starter going. While some people recommend leaving the water out overnight to let the chlorine dissipate this doesn’t work for all forms of chlorination.You can use bottled water if you like. I use Zero Water filters, which are among the few that filter out chlorine.
Maintaining the Sourdough
Once my sourdough starter was growing happily (after about 8-10 days of feeding out on the counter), I decided to store it in in the fridge, so I would not need to feed it daily. I keep a few tablespoonfuls of starter in a 1/2 pint wide-mouth mason jar. The “wide-mouth” is important because it is easier to add the flour and water when it is time to feed the starter. Mason jars are a lot less expensive if you can find them in a hardware store or a yard sale. When storing my starter, I use a plastic lid which screws on loosely, rather than the canning rings and metal lids which can form an airtight seal. You can also store it in plastic Tupperware or re-purpose a plastic peanut butter container if you like.
There are as many ways to maintain a sourdough starter as there are people who maintain them. This is because the culture is very stable and difficult to kill. In fact, if you scraped out as much starter as you can from your jar, you could regenerate it all simply by taking your “dirty” jar with stuck bits of starter, adding 10 grams of water, swishing it around until it was cloudy from the bits of starter stuck to the jar, and then mixing in 10 grams of flour. In 6-12 hours you will have a happy viable starter to carry on with.
You can follow King Arthur Flour’s maintenance procedures if you like, but just note that you don’t have to stick with feeding 4 ounces of starter four ounces of flour and 4 ounces of water. You can just keep a ratio of 1:1:1 meaning 1 ounce starter is fed 1 ounce of water and 1 ounce of flour. And you can use even less, which why I like going to grams on my scale, feeding 10 grams of starter 10 grams of water and 10 grams of flour. Don’t worry if you are not exact here, your starter is hardy and will forgive any mis-measurements.
The Rest of the Dough: Flour, Water, Salt
My “daily bread” is a “lean” bread, consisting of only flour, water and salt. It is “lean” because it has no added fats in the form of oil, butter, lard, etc. These things are fine to add to bread. They just aren’t necessary.
The reason you don’t see “yeast” as an ingredient is because you don’t need to add commercial yeast to a sourdough bread. Indeed, some purists would have you drawn and quartered for adding yeast while maintaining that you were making a “sourdough”.
I am pretty sure that salt is salt is salt, and that it does not matter what kind of salt you bake with. That said, I use Kirkland Pure Fine Sea Salt, available at Costco or online.
The basic technique I use for baking my typical loaf entails making a “levain” (i.e., adding the sour dough starter to some water and flour, and letting the mixture become gassy over the course of 6-12 hours). When the levain is ready (really, it is now fed starter that has been left to develop for 6-12 hours) mix the flour and water required for the “dough”, and let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour (hydrating the dough). You then add the levain to the hydrated dough together with the salt, and do a series of “turns” or “folds”, in a bucket if you like (it is neater and easier to clean). I use the Cambro 12 Quart Round container for the mixing of the final dough (lids usually sold separately) and the Cambro 6 Quart Round to mix up the levain. You can use any tuperware suitably sized, but the Cambro containers are great.
Once the dough is ready, you’ll divide the dough, shape it, let it “proof” in a basket/broform or towel-lined bowl and then you will cook it in the oven, after putting it into a cast iron Lodge Combo Cooker or other dutch oven. The dutch oven acts as a tiny steaming vessel, trapping the steam from the loaf and making sure the bread is in moist hot environment which promotes “oven spring” letting the bread grow tall while it bakes and keeping the crust from getting too hard too early in the bake. Halfway through the bake, you remove the top of the dutch oven and put it under the bottom.
It is not unusual to start the process on Day 1, and finish baking on Day 3. And, given the timing of things, this usually means taking up some portion of the weekend for those who are working during the week.
The techniques are described more or less similarly in Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread and Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt and Yeast. I have both books and if I had to recommend only one, I think I would go with Forkish, even though I love both of them. They both include the wasteful practice of suggesting you make more “levain” than you will use, which is obviously wasteful. Once you get the hang of things you won’t need to do this. But, if you follow the recipes as written you will wind up with a lot of extra starter/levain, which you can use to make great pancakes or waffles.
The picture above, by the way, is of two loaves I baked. The knife is for show, as it stinks for cutting. I wound up buying a cheap knife that works quite well for cutting my bread.
Part 2 shows my baking of the Overnight Country Brown.