A few months ago I began the process of creating my own sourdough through a tutorial provided by The Lost Art of Real Cooking. I shall attempt to relay my adventure to you readers here. Unfortunately, my camera has been acting funny, so I am limited on the pictorial imagery, but will upload more soon! Note, I have uploaded more photos!
First the book suggests you begin the starter by catching your own yeast. This can be completed in at least two ways according to the author. One is to mix whole wheat flour with water and leave the watery paste uncovered for 24 hours. Whole wheat flour has naturally occurring yeast on the grain. Further, the atmosphere of your home has yeast particles floating around in the air. Who knew? Secondly, you can use grapes or raisins as they also have a natural yeast on the surface. I opted to do both. I mixed 1 cup of water, 1 cup of whole wheat flour, and one handful of raisins to a stainless steel bowl and left it uncovered for 24 hours. The instructions say you should then cover the mixture (they never tell you when to remove the raisins, I did this on day 3 or 4, when I realized I didn’t want them in my bread!)
Everyday, I added about 1 c of bread flour and 1 c of water, per the instructions. The book says after about one week, the yeast will be strong enough to make bread. Mine was not ready in a week. My first bread attempt left a puddle of doughy paste on my table. I was beginning to give up. Then one morning, I began to stir my starter and I noticed sizable bubbles had formed overnight. The mixture had doubled in the bowl in the 8 hours after adding my flour and water. Now, it was ready. (In the picture you can see the starter forms a slight crust on top overnight, this is ok, just stir it back in).
To make bread, you simply add a cup or so of starter, 1 t salt, a cup or so of water, and enough flour to make a bread dough. Knead well, cover, and set aside for a few hours until it has risen. This takes a little longer than “fast acting” yeast you buy in the store. I would often do this before going to bed at night. When the dough has doubled, form into your favorite bread shape. I generally ended up with a fat oval-like shape. (You could do a french bread loaf, smaller dinner rolls, or a large, fat oval-whatever your heart desires!) I then cut a few slashes across the top. This rises again, but takes less time than the first rising. I would often do this before leaving for work/school. It would then be ready to bake when I got home. I crank up my oven to 500 with the pizza stone inside. The book suggests throwing in a few ice cubes to build up steam. This seems to form the thicker, crunchy crust on the outside. I bake for 15-20 minutes, until the bread sounds hollow when thumped. The outside is always golden and the inside, heavenly.
As the book predicted, the sour flavor has developed more fully over time. Within one month, my bread was comparably sour to my memory of San Francisco sourdough. The best part, you never need to refrigerate your mixture and your house will smell like a bakery each time you walk in the door!
The book also emphasizes that you should not add commercial yeast since they are developed to be stronger and faster growing. The commercial yeast will literally take over your starter and destroy the sour flavor you have developed. Feel free to play with the flour you use to make the bread. The author suggests rye, whole wheat, and spelt as texture and flavor enhancers. You can also use whey, leftover water from boiling potatoes, any liquid you desire instead of water. Also think of the lovely things you could add to the dough; fresh herbs, peppercorns, the sky’s the limit!
I also do not feed my starter daily, I have found that every other day is reasonable (this is extremely helpful, as traveling with a bowl of sourdough starter over Thanksgiving raised a few eyebrows!).
Now, all this should not let you, dear reader, think that this was an adventure with only one mishap. One day I arrived home to find my starter had literally grown out of the bowl. At the time, I was storing it on my refrigerator and I discovered a sourdough blob (think Ghostbusters) oozing across the top and down the sides of my refrigerator. That taught me the important lesson of keeping my starter a little thicker. I now add a little less water than flour everyday. Further, I stopped cleaning up the natural crust that formed around the top of the bowl (visible in the picture), as this keeps the starter in check.
It should also be noted that not every loaf is perfect. I recently took a loaf to my mother’s house for Christmas Eve, only to discover that it was not completely baked. I figured it could save some of the loaf by making croutons. This was also not the case. I did manage to make some good jawbreakers. The author also addresses the inconsistency of homemade bread making by saying this “If you want exactly the same thing every time, you might as well buy it at the store. But life is so much more interesting with surprises-usually good ones.” I couldn’t agree more!
My loaves are really unlike anything I can find in a grocery store. We have some bakers who sell bread at the farmers market. They do create a loaf that is comparable, but at a significant price. I find that this bread holds up well over time, makes great bread crumbs and croutons (usually), and has a deeper flavor with a chewy, satisfying texture. Further, my bread really costs no more than a few cups of flour and my time. No complaints here!
I now bake with my starter about twice a week. Usually a loaf of bread, but I have also used the starter to make dinner “rolls”, sugar cookies, and pizza crust.
Sourdough Herb Muffins:
Adapted from The Lost Art of Real Cooking
Mince fresh rosemary and oregano, if you have them. I use fresh rosemary but dried oregano (about 1T fresh, or 1 t dried). Whisk with 1/2 c white flour, 1/2 t baking soda, 2 t salt, 2 T sugar, 1/4 c wheat germ (or whole wheat flour).
Add 1 1/2 c starter, 1 egg, 3 T melted butter, and 2-3 T sour milk or buttermilk (I make sour almond or soy milk using lemon juice). Whisk briefly (this will form a bubbly mixture, do not overmix or they will not rise well in the oven). Pour into greased muffin pan and bake at 350 until golden (15-25 minutes).
These are incredible, they taste like they have cheese in them and are great with a bowl of soup and take very little time to make.
Make a basic bread dough, but also add 1-2T honey or another sweetener and 2-3T olive oil. Rise once in a bowl then roll out to 1/4-1/2 inch pizza crust. Rise for at least 30 minutes. Top and bake on pizza stone until golden. I made the Rustic Squash Pizza using my sourdough starter.
Sourdough Sugar Cookies:
Cream together 1 c sugar, 1/2 c butter and 2 T milk or cream. Add2 eggs, 1 t vanilla extract, a pinch of salt and 1c of starter. Fold in 2 c flour and 2 t baking powder. Refrigerate for 30 minutes until fairly firm. Roll on lightly floured board til 1/2 inch thick and cut with cookie cutter. Bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.
I simply dusted these with powdered sugar. These taste similar to shortbread and would great with homemade icing or a drizzle of chocolate. I think I will add some citrus zest for my next batch.
Inspired yet? Go get the book from the library. The recipes require time and often use antique cooking techniques. If this is something that appeals to you, you will probably end up wanting to add it to your cookbook collection. The recipes are written in narrative format (my preferred style) with gentle guidelines. They teach you about making homemade ghee, cultured butter, and yogurt-yum! You can learn how to make sauerkraut, pickles, and other fermented veggies. They explain the art of preserving fruits and vegetables. They teach you the skills required for making homemade pasta and tortillas. The book teaches you the art of preparing meat. You can gain skills in wine and beer-making and will learn to make one killer pie crust.
Dear readers, I hope you are enjoying this holiday season and had the opportunity to break bread together and to enjoy the conviviality of the season!