The key to sourdough is remembering that it's alive, like all fermented food: sauerkraut (German for "sour cabbage"), yogurt (soured milk), miso (fermented bean paste)—not to mention beer and wine. The 'souring,' or fermentation, is done by wild yeasts and bacteria that are everywhere—on the grain, the grapes—even on our hands. So when you combine flour and water, those wild organisms bloom and ferment. You provide them with water and food in the form of flour, they produce carbon dioxide as a byproduct, and this is what leavens the bread. All this wild activity also makes the wheat more digestible and nutritious; and makes possible a tasty, long-lasting loaf of good food! Making sourdough is an experiment that anyone can re-create. A 'recipe' just provides basic information but, like dancing, you learn by concentrating on the music and your partner (flour and starter), and by jumping in to find your own rhythms and style.
Good bread takes time, but it does not take time from you. Think of it as gardening, if you are a gardener ... plants grow in their own sweet time, and though you can adjust a great many things about their environment you can't do the growing for them ... you have to wait. And while you wait, for your sourdough or your onions, you can do the hundred and one other things you want to do.
The basic process is simple. The directions that follow are for a simple three loaf sourdough recipe (and a bit extra to make a pita bread or two in the initial extreme heat of the oven). I assume some familiarity on the reader's part with making leavened bread. I should also say that when I make our 24-pound batches of dough every other week, I don't weigh the flour or water—just the final dough and the salt. Every batch is a little different and I like it that way. But I have adapted my methods to come up with an easy-to-follow recipe if you're wanting one.
When we teach oven and bread workshops, we come across a fair number of people who are confused or intimidated by sourdough (one woman journalist just brushed the matter aside by saying, "it's a guy thing"!) If you spend hours poring over the many beautiful artisan bread books around, comparing this formula with that, these baker's percentages with those, this starter-schedule with the other one, you could easily feel overwhelmed. So, whilst I admire many of those books, I'm offering something different here. People are stressed out enough without feeling they must control every moment of the process. "Staff of life," maybe, but let's not beat ourselves over the back with it. You can have great bread without great stress.
Four Steps to Bread: What You Do, When You Do It:
The timeline is just an idea of how things work—but I seldom make bread on the same schedule twice. How? By recognizing and responding to three things: temperature, time, and starter. I adjust temperature by warming or cooling the flour, water, and dough, as well as the thermostat; I adjust timing by how long I prove or retard the dough, and when I "knock it back"; and finally, I watch the starter and use more or less of it to shift how fast or slow things go.
Main Ingredients: Flour:
We use organic flour. For the whole wheat loaves I make these days, I find fresh ground is best (buying berries is also cheaper than buying flour)—the dough is livelier as well as sweeter. I use hard white or red winter (or spring) wheat berries.
If you're wanting all or partially white loaves, use an All-purpose flour, rather than 'bread' flour. The latter will of course work, but in hearth breads, the higher protein wheat tends to make for a rubberier crumb. Pastry flour (or lower protein "all purpose" flour in some parts of the country), which has less gluten-forming capabilities, will make a dense and more crumbly loaf. Rye contains different proportions of the gluten forming proteins, and less gluten. Instead, gas in leavened rye is trapped mostly by chains of sugars called pentosans, which form a gum when hydrated.
Some people who think they are allergic to gluten might actually be allergic to just wheat, or even to commercial yeast, and so can enjoy pure naturally leavened rye. True gluten intolerance, however, applies also to rye.
Also keep in mind that whole wheat and whole rye flours have a greater mineral content than white, which can aid fermentation—even if you use just a small amount.
How much water you add to your flour depends on what dough you're after, and what flour you use. High protein flours generally absorb more water than low protein ones. Doughs vary in their 'wetness', from the stiff doughs of Latin America, to the by now infamous wet slippery dough required for good ciabatta. Generally, the softer (wetter) the dough, the more extensible, irregular, and chewy the crumb.
Hard or heavily chlorinated water might affect your bread by inhibiting fermentation. In the first instance, you could buy bottled water; in the second you could simply let the water stand overnight at room temp to evaporate the chlorine.
Avoid iodized salt. Sea salt is available cheaply in bulk in most whole food stores. I've nothing against the many "gourmet" salts available these days, but get the finer grained stuff, so as not to tear up any gluten strands.
Salt is a fermentation inhibitor. Bakers use it to control fermentation, to produce moister loaves, to make bread taste good, to give color to the crust and to toughen the gluten which makes the bread hold more CO2 as the dough ferments. (It is gluten's ability to trap the bubbles of CO2 from fermentation that lets the dough rise; that's why wheat is the grain of choice for leavened breads).
Scalding your flour with boiling water is an ancient practice that bursts the starch granules in the flour, releasing additional food for fermentation and making the dough sweeter. (Tuscan saltless breads are made with scalded flour in part to offset the flavor losses due to lack of salt.) The practice may have begun with brewing, to accelerate fermentation and perhaps increase alcohol content. In addition to the additional food for yeasts, scalding the flour also puts a higher percentage of water into the dough, making a wetter, more tender crumb, and loaves that won't dry out so fast.
Scalding can make a nice tender whole-grain, sourdough pizza crust. We've also had some success using it in experiments with the kind of low-protein, "soft" wheat that we grow in Oregon. Monica Spiller has done extensive research on the uses of scalding, and has put much of it on her website, barmbaker.com.
We typically scald about 1/10th or less of the flour in a batch of bread (more if we're using soft wheat). Pour boiling water on flour, stirring constantly. Say 1 cup of the flour in this recipe with 1-1/2 cups boiling water. Then add 1-1/2 cups cold water—stir until it's like smooth porridge. Let cool to room temperature (cover to prevent skin forming), then incorporate it with bread recipe (minus the 3 cups water, and 1 cup flour). Experiment.
Here's the low down on starter if you don't have some already: Starter, "levain," "chef," sourdough are all terms describing a fermented mix of water and flour. This is nurtured 'til the wild yeast population is strong enough to leaven bread.
This is where the "wonder" of bread-making comes in: simply mix 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup water at room temperature. Let sit for a few days and you'll notice bubbles and a yeasty smell: signs of fermentation. Discard 1/4 cup, then feed what's left with 1/4 cup flour, 1/4 cup water. Leave for 8 hours at room temperature. Repeat every 8 hours for a week or two (including discarding 1/2 of it each time). As it gets stronger, it will get more bubbly. After a few weeks it should be ready to go. Or ask around and see who might give you some of theirs.
Once your starter is strong enough to leaven bread, you needn't keep it out at room temperature, nor feed it so often. Mine sits in the fridge for 12 days out of every 14. I just get it out 16 hours before I incorporate it into the bread dough. (See steps 1 and 2 earlier). Always remember to put some back in the fridge after it's had 2 feedings; and it's best to put it in a clean glass jar to avoid mold problems.
How much starter to use:
Another way to control the fermentation rate of your dough is to vary the amount of starter you use. I tend to think that "less is more"—and find that halving the starter does not halve the rate of fermentation. It slows it certainly, but I think it makes the starter work harder—a workhorse versus a pampered pony. Typically, starter is 6–12% of my final dough weight. Many recipes use up to 30%. I guess they're in a hurry. and find that halving the starter does not halve the rate of fermentation. It slows it certainly, but I think it makes the starter work harder—a workhorse versus a pampered pony. Typically, starter is 6–12% of my final dough weight. Many recipes use up to 30%. I guess they're in a hurry.
What if the starter goes moldy?
If there's a faint 'bloom' on it, I'll generally scrape away the offending part and use what's left. If your whole starter has gone bad, throw it out, and start over.
How important is the consistency?
If you want the same bread every time, starter consistency may be important, but over the 8 years of its existence my starter has been the consistency of pancake batter, peanut butter, thick cream cheese, and now just like bread dough. Starter consistency will change the final dough, but think of it as biodiversity—none of the differences are bad! Starters are resilient. Treat them with love and care and they'll last you a lifetime.
Step 2: Make Dough
Step 3a: Ferment and Knock Back
Step 3b: Ferment and Divide Loaves
Step 3c: Ferment and Fire the Oven
Step 4: Bake
When are the loaves done?
When Marvin Gapultos had a craving for adobo but didn’t know how to make it, he decided to learn his family’s recipes. Since then, he has shared the flavors of Filipino food through his Los Angeles-based food truck The Manila Machine, on his blog Burnt Lumpia, and in The Adobo Road Cookbook.