Sourdough Bread

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Hannah has three rules for bread: "Patience, Wonder, and Nae Stress." She started making bread at 14, spent several years baking professionally, and now bakes about twenty-five pounds of dough at home, every two weeks. Below, she describes her routine, along with suggested amounts for a smaller batch. If you're already a baker, you can pick and choose any particular twists you like; if you're new to baking, read through it all to get a sense of the whole before you start.

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.

Here's Hannah:

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:
1. Feed starter, twice (3 p.m. & 11 p.m., the day before)
2. Make dough (7 a.m. on bake day)
3. Ferment dough (7 a.m. to 3 p.m.), knock it back (mid-morning), divide and mold it into loaves (midday), set loaves to rise and heat oven (midday)
4. Bake dough (2-4 hours later) (mid-afternoon)

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.

Water:

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.

Salt:

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:

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.

Starter:

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. 

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.

Ingredients

  • 10 cups flour (we use mostly fresh ground, hard white spring wheat. Try all whole wheat, half white/half whole wheat, or all-purpose with a bit of rye ... experiment!)
  • 4 to 4-1/2 cups water
  • 3-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 cup starter (measured right after feeding, as it grows in volume! If you have none, see the end of the chapter.)

Instructions


Step 1: Activate and Prepare
 
  • Starter (First and Second Feedings)
  • Active starter has been left to ferment from 4–8 hours after a feed and is full of bubbles—it looks alive. To reach this point you need to begin 16 hours or so before you want to make dough. I keep a small ball of starter in the fridge.
  • Say at about 3 p.m. the day before I want to bake, I take 1 tablespoon of starter, mix with 2 tablespoons of flour, 1 tablespoon of water and mix it together, let it sit at room temperature for 8 hours or so.
  • At about 10 or 11 p.m., before I go to bed, I feed it again by adding 8 tablespoons of flour and 5 tablespoons of water. I measure out what I need (3/4 cup for this recipe), put the remaining 1 tablespoon into a clean, loosely lidded jar and put it back in the fridge. (If you ever forget this step, you can pinch a lump of dough from a proving loaf and put that in the fridge. Salted starter isn't ideal, but a few feedings will quickly diminish the impact of any salt.)
  • Next morning, about 8 hours after the second feeding, the starter is ready to be incorporated into the dough.

Step 2: Make Dough

  • Kneading is key to good bread. Wheat flour contains gluten and gliadin, proteins that, when hydrated and kneaded, turn into long, elastic, extensible chains, which trap the CO2 produced by yeast during fermentation.
  • It is not critical exactly how wet or dry the dough is. Since I'm no longer a commercial baker, I don't expect (or want) to make exactly the same loaf every time, so I don't worry. I can vary my 'same recipe' greatly just by changing the amount of water in the dough. Dry dough gives a denser texture or 'crumb;' wet dough a more 'open' and springy one. With this recipe, start by adding 4 cups of water, then the extra half cup in increments until you get a dough that doesn't feel too tight. Flours vary in how much water they absorb, both according to the type of wheat and daily humidity. Hence it's impossible to give precise amount of water. It's all in the hands—after a few batches you'll be able to feel if the dough is too wet, too dry, or just right.
  • So mix all the ingredients except salt—just enough to incorporate everything. Then let the dough rest—anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes. That gives the flour time to fully absorb the water, the protein chains to lengthen and relax, and fermentation to begin. That 'conditioning' means less kneading!
  • Time to add salt. (If I'm not using a recipe, I figure 1 tsp of salt for every 1.5 lb loaf. This is the only place where the amount is fairly critical.) Salt improves the texture of the dough by toughening the gluten, but it also inhibits fermentation, which is why it's good to add it as late as possible.
  • There are many ways to knead, but basically, you're aiming at turning the 'shaggy mass' of just mixed dough into a cohesive, elastic, smooth ball. 10–15 minutes of kneading is required.
  • Don't add too much flour! Many people don't like sticky fingers and mess. This results in them adding flour and more flour 'til nothing sticks. And that results in a dull and boring loaf. Loaves, as with love, do better with lubrication. The wetter the better, both to stop the dough sticking and to improve hydration. So dip your hands in water whenever you find them dragging in the dough (scrape them clean in-between times too).
  • To test if the dough has been kneaded enough, take a small handful and stretch it out with both hands like a piece of rubber balloon. If it thins into an even, translucent sheet, it's kneaded. If it's just ropy and tears apart, knead more. I wait until the very end to add spices, herbs, sesame seeds or dried fruit, since some spices inhibit fermentation, and seeds and nuts can tear up the dough and reduce the volume of the loaf. I knead them in gently and quickly.

Step 3a: Ferment and Knock Back

  • Fermentation is the key to flavorful bread. It's an ongoing process from the moment you introduce the starter to the flour and water until the loaves inside the oven reach 120 F, at which point fermentation stops as the yeasts die. The key ingredient is time. Experiment to see what you like—longer ferments make more flavor and more "sour;" fast, short ferments can produce bland loaves.
  • Knocking-back is a technique used to prolong fermentation—you leave the dough in bulk 'til it doubles in size, and then you "knock it back"—by gently compressing and degassing it. This gives yeast organisms new reserves to feast on, and they develop more flavors.
  • If my schedule requires it, I'll skip bulk fermentation almost entirely, dividing and loafing the dough soon after kneading (with maybe half an hour to let the gluten chains relax so I'm not fighting them). Then, to maximize flavor development in the one rise I let the bread do prior to baking, I let it proof on a long, slow, cool fermentation (i.e., cool water, cool room).

Step 3b: Ferment and Divide Loaves

  • I scale my loaves at 1-3/4 lbs, as I like them to all finish cooking at once. (Mine is an old 24-pound unit, $12 at a used store.) I divide any extra dough into 2-4 oz. pieces, rounded into balls for pita bread, and left on a floured board with cloth on until bake time.
  • Then I "mold" them into balls so the crease is at the bottom. This is hard to describe in words (but easy to demonstrate!) I roll the dough and press it against the table with the inside of my hand. Tension is key to creating a smooth uninterrupted 'skin' on each loaf, which in turn makes the form-defining crust. Hint: let the loaves sit for ten minutes or so, while you flour your baskets, then reshape them. The ten minute rest lets the gluten relax again so you can produce a tighter loaf. Formed loaves go upside down in floured baskets.
  • Why baskets? Sourdough, artisan loaves generally prove more slowly than yeasted ones and are often wetter, so benefit from support as they rise to maintain their shape. The loaves then get covered with a damp cloth and left to rise. If I'm in no hurry, I leave them for about 4–6 hours at room temperature (which is mid 60s in our house, not the 75 F of most cook books). If I'm in a hurry, I leave them for about 2 hours in a warm place (such as near a radiator). If I'm in the opposite of a hurry, I leave them for 6–10 hours in the fridge (or, at one workshop this summer, in the boot of the car on a cool summer night). This last might need "goosing" with a warm rise at the end. This is useful if you need to go to bed, need to go to work, whatever. You choose. Remember that.

Step 3c: Ferment and Fire the Oven

  • Exactly when you fire up your oven can vary greatly, depending on your oven, your bread, and what else you're planning on cooking in the oven. In general, however, you'll probably want to fire your oven for somewhere between one and three hours—about the same amount of time that your loaves will need on the quick-rise schedule. So just before or just after I loaf the bread, we get the oven going. If it's a hot summer day and my starter was very active, they prove faster and the oven will need to be ready sooner. If it's cold and wintry and the house isn't very warm, the oven can wait until a bit later. When in doubt, fire it up sooner—it's easier to have a hot oven waiting for bread than the other way round.
  • You'll also want to take a look at chapter two, on "Firing and Baking in Your Oven," page 43). We typically fire ours for 2 hours or more (including soaking time), and need the heat to be deep enough to bake 2 batches of bread, followed by pies/stews/meat/vegetables/steamed bread, etc. If you only want to bake one batch of bread, allow less time—this is all an opportunity to experiment. The main thing to remember is that it's better to have the oven too hot than not hot enough. But you can also knock the bread back again (deflate and reshape the loaves), or speed up their rising. Somehow it nearly always works. Patience. Nae stress.
  • If you are using an indoor electric/gas/conventional oven, pre-heat it to 500 F for at least an hour before you bake; preferably with a baking stone, bricks, or other heat retaining mass floor in the oven to improve the crust of the bread.

Step 4: Bake

  • When the oven floor is clean, but before the equalizing soak, the temperature is ideal for pita bread, which cook in a minute or two. Evenly roll out your small 2- to 4-ounce balls into small circles a scant quarter inch thick. Place on a peel, slip into the oven, and watch. In 30-60 seconds, they'll puff up into a beautiful sphere. I leave them 10-20 seconds longer, then pull them out. The intense heat causes the water in the bread dough to turn to steam which, in trying to escape, inflates the disk to make a perfect pita pocket. Tear it up right away and eat with good butter, or olive oil and garlic, or stuff with salad, feta cheese, whatever you have to hand. (They dry out quickly and don't keep so well.)
  • When your oven has reached a good baking heat turn each loaf out of it's proofing basket onto a wooden 'peel,' dusted with cornmeal to help it slide off. Using a razor blade or sharp knife, carefully held at about 45 degrees, slash each loaf deeply. This controls splitting as the loaf "springs" in the hot oven, as well as making a more beautiful crust. The steam which makes for a trademark "artisan" crust will be adequately provided by the dough itself—each pound of flour will give out about 2 ounces of water as steam. If you must add water for steam (for a small batch of bread, for example) you can use a spray bottle—but regular spraying will shorten the life of your oven, unless you have a high-pressure "misting" nozzle or an electric steam cleaning unit that will prevent liquid water settling on the oven.

When are the loaves done?

  • A stem thermometer plunged into the loaf should read 190 F or a bit above; over 200 F is overbaked—it will taste OK, but stale quicker for lack of moisture. Other signs are touch and sound—these really come from experience. The loss of water during baking makes a lighter loaf; handle enough 1.75 pound loaves, and you can tell when they're down to 1.55-1.6 pounds. A baked loaf also sounds hollow when rapped on the back with your knuckles—but beware, the superior crust on hearth baked loaves can give you a false positive result—i.e., the crust is fully baked, but the center may need a few more minutes.
  • Remember, too, that bread continues to cook out of the oven. Tempting though it is, try to wait an hour before breaking into a warm loaf, else you'll find it a bit gummy. This is another reason to make pita bread—make use of the too-hot-for-regular-bread oven heat, and have something to curb your impatience and hunger for fresh bread without sacrificing an actual loaf. Cool the bread on wire racks so air circulates freely around it.
Yield: 
Serves 4

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