This past Christmas, Santa gave Sylvia a book I’d been reading about on lots of natural/mommy/frugal blogs: Suzy’s Sourdough Circus. It was an impulse purchase for Santa, but has turned into one of Sylvia’s favorite bedtime stories — she even wants me to read the recipes. The book talks through making sourdough bread, with the starter being represented by little naked living things that dance and sleep and grow.
Now, I’ve had several sourdough stints in my past, and usually I eventually end up with a sorry mess in the back of the fridge that I’ve forgotten to feed, and, although the bread’s been good, it hasn’t been fabulous. But with Sylvia’s new interest in sourdough, we made a starter and then found a really fabulous no-knead bread recipe on YouTube that truly replicates bakery sourdough.
If you’re new to sourdough, it’s essentially a dough containing wild yeast that you keep living in the fridge. It has a wonderful sour smell and a bubbly consistency. It can be used in lots of recipes, although this month we really haven’t varied from the basic bread.
Making the Starter
In the past, I’ve used starter recipes that begin with water, yeast, and flour. I think one had salt. In this case, I went super-simple, following the advice in Wild Fermentations by Sandor Ellix Katz: 2 cups any flour, 2 cups non-chlorinated, room-temperature water. (If you use tap water, just sit the water on the counter for a few hours to release the chlorine before using it.) Stir it vigorously to get it going, cover it with cheesecloth or a coffee filter, and leave it on the counter for a while. Every now and then, give it another stir. In about a week, it’ll start getting bubbly as it picks up wild yeast from the air. (This is why you want to cover it with something porous, not a jar lid. I started mine in a wide-mouth quart canning jar covered with a coffee filter.
If it doesn’t start getting a bit bubbly and sour-smelling after 4 or 5 days, or if you’re feeling impatient, you can add a little bit (from a pinch to 1/2 tsp.) of commercial yeast. Because I was going to be traveling and wanted to get this going, I added a good-sized pinch around day 3.
Making the Bread
This video from YouTube is one of the best quick explanation of the technique, even though it’s trippy and hypnotic.
To encapsulate without the kooky voiceover, here’s all you need for a great loaf of sourdough bread:
1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup non-chlorinated water
2 tsp. salt
3 cups flour
Mix this together (don’t knead) and let it rise, as you would any bread dough, all day or overnight. I’ve been making the dough at night and baking the bread in the morning. The video shows a super-simple way to form the bread: flour the counter, gently pour the dough onto the flour; then fold in the left side, right side, top, and bottom. That’s it.
To bake, heat the oven to 490 – 500 degrees. Heat a pan with a lid (I use our trusty 5.5-quart Le Crueset). After about 20 minutes, plop the dough into the pan and cover with the lid. Bake like this for 20 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 20 minutes. That’s it.
Feeding the Sourdough
Every time you use the sourdough, it needs to be fed again. When I use a cup, I just add about 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup water, stir it up, and let it sit on the counter while the bread is rising. When the bread goes in the oven, the starter goes back in the fridge.
Storing the Sourdough and the Bread
Ideally you store the sourdough in a crock with a loose-fitting lid. Previously, I’d kept the sourdough in my fridge in a canning jar, but this time I recruited a decorative crock that had been sitting in our TV room. The lid is loose, which is what I’ve read you should use, but this is probably up for debate. My mother-in-law tells me that the crock that came with her sourdough has a tight-fitting lid with a seal and works just fine. Live and let live, I say.
The bread has this great crunchy crust when it comes out of the oven, and, to keep the crunch, the bread should be stored in a paper or cloth bag — not a tightly closed Ziploc. If you put it in a Ziploc, the crust just gets more soft. Not bad, but not as bakery-like. (I think the crust gets too hard in an open bag, and the bread gets stale. I prefer to let it get soft in a Ziploc. But, live and let live, I say. –Ed.)
I figure that a loaf of this bread costs maybe 50 cents, and it truly tastes like bread from a bakery. Also, since it doesn’t require kneading, the hands-on work is next-to-nothing — maybe five minutes to mix the bread and feed the sourdough, and another five minutes of hands-on time when it’s getting baked. Totally worth the trouble.