For the holidays, I have been given the best gift ever, and have a full week off from work. That’s right. Monday to Sunday. After years of going and going in this industry, a little time to rest is an amazing thing. Since I get bored easily, though, I decided to cook up a storm, try harder home cooking methods, and finally try tackling a project that has intimidated me as a cook: home sourdough bread baking. Using natural yeasts, of course. I gave it my best efforts this week, and here are some things I learned:
For even more bread baking, here is a great article from Bon Appetit on the subject.
Tools of the trade
A good starter takes time and good ingredients:
One of my closest friends is a baker, so I am already at a huge advantage here. Her pastries are divine, especially for someone that was trained classically savory (we studied together at culinary school).
“Always start your sour the night before, Lana, ” she pretty much yelled at me on Monday. “Don’t worry, we’ll make it together.”
Starters, or pre-ferments, are essential here. A mix of flour and water that pulls yeast from the air, that lets the bread rise when baking. A starter can be kept and maintained for years, as long as it is fed consistently.
She gave me the formula that I would be using this week for my starter:
12 oz water (by weight)
6 oz rye flour (organic)
6 oz bread flour
Apparently rye flour is very good at pulling yeast microbes from the air, even better than bread flour. My friend found this information out by staging with one of the best bakers I know personally, so I think that’s an incredibly useful factoid.
She mixed it together and told me to add 6 oz each water and bread flour every 12 hours. Further investigation on my part made me want to make this a full sour starter, so I adapted the recipe.
12 hours after the initial starter, I added 6 oz each of water and bread flour, then let the starter sit in a warm spot with a paper towel between the container and lid, for about 18 hours.
Little bubbles of activity in the initial sour
On Day 3, I experimented using some of the sour (more on that later) for making bread. I took 8 oz each of the initial sour, bread flour, and water by weight, and mixed it together. I tossed the rest. At this point, it should smell like alcohol and fermentation; this is a good sign that the right bacteria has begun to eat the natural sugars in the flour.
On Day 4, feed your starter 8 oz each of water and flour, and let sit.
Day 5: your sour should be fully developed and fermenty and lovely. Mix 8 oz of sour (discard the rest) with 16 oz of water and 24 oz of flour (rye or bread). Let sit one more day at room temperature, then you can add to the fridge; slow down process and feed 8 and 8 oz flour and water every three weeks to maintain. You can use part of the starter at any point to make more sourdough at this point.
At this point I am still in the baby stages of my own starter, so I can only guess if I can maintain mine for some time. Only time will tell. My friend warned me, “It’s like having a child!” and I’m inclined to take her seriously.
Now on to the main event: The Breadbaking process
I woke up relatively early to a starter that had doubled in size, smelled like ferment and alcohol, and was bubbling happily. So I was excited to try using it in making delicious, homemade bread. Here’s how my day went:
I scaled down my recipe a bit, since I was only tying to make one boule (round loaf).
I added about 2 lb of bread flour to 1/2 lb of the pre-ferment, and about 1 lb 9 oz water. Mix with a stand mixer with the dough attachment for about 3 minutes on medium speed, then rest. Add salt and a tablespoon of water and mix until dough is smooth, about 2 minutes. Then let rest at room temperature for about an hour.
After this point, it all gets very formulaic. You want to slap your dough, and fold it in on itself so the gluten develops properly, and then let it rest for about an hour, and then do it again, but only letting the dough rest for 20 minutes the second time.
Basically, you cannot stress out the dough. That’s the important thing here.
I really hope he’s not panicking
Once the dough has rested for the second time, you want to pre shape and proof. To make it easier on myself, I decided to do a boule shape; it’s large, round, doesn’t require as much shaping practice as a skilled baker, and fits in a dutch oven beautifully. Amazing.
One last thing I learned: Don’t have the tools? Get creative.
Who has a proofer in home nowadays (or ever)? Hardly any young cook, especially those that I know. But the want to learn is out there, believe me. So the only thing we can do is get creative. Proofing bread is essential to the process; a humid environment is key to this. So I like to shower with my food. That’s right. I set the bowl in the bathroom while showering; the steam released by my shower proofs the bread and helps it expand and become light and airy.
Proofing near the shower–notice the toothpaste in the background
In that same vein, I don’t have a steamer in my traditional oven. But steaming bread is also essential to creating that light, airy texture. There are two ways to beat this: Use a stone, either fireplace or pizza, in a preheated oven. When you add the bread, throw ice on the stone to release steam for the baking process. Open oven in last 15 minutes to create golden crust.
Also don’t forget to score your bread–helps release any pent-up steam. I clearly need to practice my designs. Less is more.
Or you can use a dutch oven, covered, in the oven, to bake bread. Uncover bread for last 15 minutes to create golden crust.
In the end, I had a pretty flat loaf. I think I tripped up a bit with adding salt too early, and proofing a bit too soon as well. It still tasted good, and my family was impressed with my efforts. I was too. I t was a full day event, including resting times, proofing times, and my time spent studying up on the subject. So much was learned, most so that bread baking can elude even the best of us, so I shouldn’t feel bad that I at least produced something I can be proud of.
…Maybe too proud of.
I also saved some starter, so ill be trying to make another loaf probably in the next couple of days, especially since I still have some time off and now I’m kinda (dough) hooked (sorry for the dad jokes, I can’t help myself sometimes). I’m definitely inspired to continue exploring this incredibly interesting niche in the cooking world.