It isn't, I think, any sort of accident that ancient brewers and bakers used to call their sourdoughs “goddisgoode.” Old fashioned long-fermented sourdough bread has several distinct advantages over quick-risen bread made with commercial yeast. The crust, for one, is chewier and more satisfying, the bread has deeper flavors, and the loaf itself stays moister much longer. Even better, the long fermentation allows the grain more time to break down before baking, making the grain's nutrients more available to the body.
Catching Your Yeast
Here is where baking begins to get really thrilling. Buckle up. After reading some acclaimed sourdough recipes by master bakers, some that took a full two weeks to get started and thrice-daily feedings, I was about to lose heart. Then I recalled my general approach to cooking. Wing it. A few hundred years ago, no one had lengthy recipes like these; they usually learned from elders. Why couldn't I at least give it a shot? It is not a baking gene with which some lucky few are born, but simple knack and guts. Exactly everything that had eluded me thus far in bread making was suddenly right there in front of me. Let me explain.
Wild yeasts, or let's say ambient yeasts, are quite different from commercial bread yeast or Saccharomyces cerevisiae, literally “sugary fungus of beer.” The wild guys are sometimes a different species altogether, for example, in San Francisco it's S. exiguus, which apparently only thrives in the cold fog, just 90 miles from my house, but a completely different climate. Here it is blazing hot, usually still in the 90s in late September. This year, we had a strange summer and the grapes ripened really early, then all at once the weather changed, down in the 70s on October 1, with rain in the forecast. So I thought, time to catch some wild yeast.
This is the simplest thing to do. Put out some food, and the babies find it. They like to eat flour. Simple as that. They're also usually already on the flour you buy. If you have some grapes around, the powdery stuff on the outside is exactly what you're looking for; that's yeast. You can chuck the grapes into a flourand- water slurry and let them go. Whole wheat flour works well, and rye even better. You can use both. Raisins work fine, too. Let the flour, water, and fruit, if using, sit outside or on the counter uncovered for a day. On the second day, cover loosely with a kitchen towel, but never seal with plastic wrap, which prevents the living yeast from breathing.
From this point on, it is only a matter of regular feeding. On the second day, feed the barm (as it is traditionally called in England) about a cup each of unbleached bread flour and water, stir, and leave it alone. On the third day, add flour and water again, a little more than before. Feed it every day. If you don't, the alcohol produced as the yeast gobbles up the sugars (which come from the broken-down carbs) overwhelms the yeast and bacteria. The bacteria are what give the bread its sour bite. You want both of them to be happy. And there is no reason to put it in the fridge, since we are going for antique methods. All this means is you have to use some every day, give some away, or toss a little in the trash. Heaven forfend!
After about a week, your starter may be ready to go. My first was ready on October 4, 2008, and was named Durga after the Hindu goddess whose name means “unfathomable” female principle of unforgiving rage and enduring, endless love. This was her day.
Wild Yeast Bread
Make your bread with a cup of starter, a cup of water, a pinch of salt, and enough flour for a firm dough. Knead for a good 10 minutes, then let rise for about two hours. Knock down the dough and then form into a Pugliese shape, sort of like a football. Let it rise a second time for about three hours covered with a dishcloth, then slash it two or three times diagonally with a sharp knife just before baking.
The key is in the baking. Crank up the oven to 550 degrees, or as high as it goes. Throw a couple of ice cubes onto the oven floor, and let the steam build up. Transfer your dough gently to the peel. Then slide in the bread onto a preheated pizza stone. You will see the thing rise to nearly double in volume, bursting out of the slashes. It will take maybe 20 to 25 minutes until it is deep brown and sounds hollow when thumped. Let it cool on a rack for a few hours, then slice it.
The crumb on my first loaf was a little dense, and clearly Durga was still a little young and weak. But the crust was absolutely phenomenal: thick, crusty, chewy, all at the same time. It was a revelation. Everything I had been looking for in bread.
Larger Sourdough Boules and Other Shapes
After a few weeks, your starter will be powerful and will smell like yogurt. At this point you can go for bigger, more interesting shapes. Begin with a cup of starter, two cups of water, and about seven cups of flour. This will take about four hours to rise the first time, though it really depends on the temperature in your kitchen.
Once it rises, punch down and work the dough into a round shape by rolling under the edges so that the upper surface is taut and slick, and let rise another two and a half hours. At this point, you can cut a circle from the center with a cookie cutter, giving you a shape like a huge bagel, the sort of Italian breads I used to buy in the Bronx. The “hole” can be baked separately as a roll, too. Or, you can divide the entire bread into little rolls, which come out super-crisp and chewy. Two long thin baguettes are also an option. For a cleaner line and better expansion, try snipping them with a scissor rather than slashing with a knife. Or you can bake the round as is, a big sourdough boule. If you are having trouble with the bread rising, you can add a pinch of commercial yeast to the dough, just for some extra lift. But don't put it in your starter or it will probably dominate the native yeasts.
Here's what eventually happens: You get into a rhythm of feeding the starter, every day, or even every other day—there is no need to be uptight about this—by just plopping in a bit of flour and water and stirring it up. I have found that baking is best a full 8 to 12 hours after feeding, when the bubbles and lifting power are strongest. There is also absolutely no need whatsoever to put your starter in the fridge—unless maybe you're going away. Even then, let a friend mind it. I have kept Durga right on the counter for months and she is perfectly happy. I have also gotten in the habit of baking maybe twice a week, and I am now convinced that the bread is better than anything that can be purchased. Even my favorite store-bought ciabatta tastes flat now.
As it gets colder, the yeast gets sluggish and needs more time to rise. This turns out to be a good thing. In a cold December kitchen, I make the dough one day and leave it out all night to bake first thing in the morning. Resist using any commercial yeast—it's a shortcut for which you will sacrifice flavor, and if you leave it too long, it will overferment and taste unpleasant.
If you can let the dough rise in a willow brotform, as it's called in German, all the better. This is a spiraled basket thing, which you flour, then plop the dough in after its first rise, cover it with a towel, and let rise a second time. Don't worry if the dough doesn't look like it has risen twice in volume; most of the rising happens in the oven with the initial blast of heat. The basket also lets the dough surface dry out slightly so that when it is slashed the dough doesn't pull and deflate. After you turn it out onto a floured peel, slash the top deeply into a star pattern with an X-acto or really sharp knife. (I bought a French contraption, a curved razor on a stick, for $25—but it doesn't work as well.) These slashes will open up while baking, but the spiral pattern stays there as well. It is absolutely breathtaking to behold, and delicious as well. I also tried the perforated metal baguette forms, which leave little dots on the bottom like you see on commercial French bread. I prefer the stone, and I think it is absolutely essential to a good lift in the oven. As an experiment, I made one loaf on the stone and another on a baking sheet—same dough, temperature, and steam in the oven. One sprung up beautifully; the other was flattish and dense.
Some other observations: the flour really does make a difference. It must be bread flour with high protein content, and I have always had better results with organic flour. But beyond this, do play with various combinations of flour. Half dark rye flour, in which case don't knead the bread. It needs a longer rise, yields a gorgeously dense, seriously sour bread, the like of which I have not tasted since spending the summer doing research in northern Germany. A bit of graham flour or whole wheat flour improves the taste and texture a lot. Spelt is also really tasty.
Most important, with bread baking, you have to accept inconsistencies. Every now and then something will go wrong. The dough will be accidentally deflated, will stick to the bowl, will come out too dense, or may overferment. That's fine. 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.
And should you, dear friend, at some point become neglectful of your sweet, hard-working starter and forget to feed her, for perhaps a week, and upon your return find her stinking to high heaven? Yes, she is dead. But no worry, there is still yeast ll over the place. Pour this starter out, clean the bowl, and put n more flour and water, feed regularly, and within two weeks ou will have offspring ready to do some serious lifting.
This is a good bread for the peasants—a hunk of crust to sop up your supper. You'll want to start by building yourself a rye sour. Rye ferments magically—even if you want a wheaten loaf, you should make a rye sour. If you've had trouble making yeast-leavened rye breads in the past, you should try sourdough ryes. Rye flour lacks the high gluten content of wheat, and sometimes makes a weak, puddly loaf, but it performs much better when allowed to ferment slowly.
Mix a pint of fresh dark rye flour and a pint of water. Put it on the counter, loosely covered. The next morning, add a cup of rye flour and a cup of water. Continue adding flour and water daily, transferring the sour to a clean bowl every other day or so to keep crusty build-up from growing mold. Within a few days, the mix should turn sour and bubbly. If it doesn't, throw it to the hogs and start again. There are billions of hungry yeasts and bacteria in your kitchen that would love nothing more than a good bowl of flour and water. They can't avoid temptation indefinitely—sooner or later, you'll find some grateful yeasts. After a week of successful souring, you can try baking with the starter. Continue feeding it daily. A day or two of neglect is not a huge problem, so long as you keep it well fed for a few days before you plan to bake. Skim off any odd-looking scum that might form on top.
A note on the freshness of flour: Once whole grains are ground into flour, they oxidize rapidly, and the fats in them go rancid. In fact, most people who object to whole grains object to the off-flavor of rancid whole grain. While saving up for a good grain mill, I keep my wholegrain flours in the freezer. Feed the sour the night before you plan to bake. The next morning, mix a quart of sour with a tablespoon of salt in a large bowl and stir well. Add six cups fresh wholegrain flour (rye, wheat, spelt, or kamut), and stir with a hefty wooden spoon. The dough will no doubt be too stiff, so work in a cup or more of warm water as you knead. The moisture level of whole grain flour can vary so much that precise measurements are downright deceptive. If you pick up a fist-size chunk of dough, it shouldn't give you much resistance when you pinch through the middle of it. The wetter your dough, the holier and chewier your bread will be—up to a point, of course.
There are many ways to knead dough, but the main idea is to efficiently agitate the whole mass without ripping it. I rapidly lift the dough on the side opposite me and push it into the middle, rotating the bowl a bit with each fold. The dough will grow less sticky as you knead—but if it sticks too much, wash your hands. (Dough doesn't stick very well to clean, wet hands.) You can also knead on a clean tabletop (but that usually requires flour), or push a stool up to the counter and knead there, so long as you maintain a height advantage. When you can see long strands in the dough, and it looks quite smooth and silky, turn it smooth-side up, cover the bowl with a tea towel, and leave it in a warm spot. Let it take its time rising—it can double its size in four to eight hours. To tell if it is ready, poke the dough with a wet finger. If the hole doesn't fill in at all, gently push the dough down, knead it briefly, and let it rise as before. This second rise should take less time.
Once it's risen twice, scoop or push the dough out onto a well-floured surface and swiftly form it into loaves. If you don't have a baking stone and peel (which I heartily recommend), just place the loaves on greased baking sheets or in loaf pans. Two longish loaves work well, or one loaf pan and a smaller loaf.
Cover the loaves with a tea towel and let them rise again until soft. Test them by licking your finger and poking the dough gently, up to the base of your fingernail. When the dough very slowly fills in the dent you made, it's ready to bake. This may take a couple of hours or more.
Get the oven really, really hot—most ovens max out at 550, but try it hotter if yours can do it. Brush the loaves with water or delicately spread it with your fingers) and slash them with a very sharp knife or razor. Pop them in the oven. A few minutes later, quickly open the oven door and throw more water on them—or ice cubes on the oven floor. Depending on their size, they may take 30 to 45 minutes to bake. Let the temperature fall toward the end of baking, especially for the larger, more compact loaves. You can reduce it to 350 degrees or simply turn off the oven, if it holds heat well. When they are nicely burnished and make a hollow sound when thumped, pull them out of the oven. Be sure to let them cool thoroughly before wrapping them for storage. Whole-grain loaves keep best in the refrigerator or a cool room.
Note: If you neglected your sour the day before baking, make a sponge first thing in the morning: Mix two cups sour with two cups each water and flour, stir thoroughly, cover, and leave in a warm, sheltered spot for three to four hours. Once it forgives you and bubbles up, add flour, salt, and water, and proceed as usual.
Sourdough Herb Muffins
These are a crusty, moist quick treat. The sour makes them taste remarkably cheesy. Since a few twigs' worth of fresh rosemary and oregano, and whisk with half a cup white flour, half a teaspoon baking soda, two teaspoons salt, two tablespoons sugar, and a quarter cup oat bran.
Add one and a half cups sourdough starter, one egg, three tablespoons melted butter, and two to three tablespoons whey, buttermilk, or sour milk. Whisk briefly, pour into a greased 12-muffin pan, and bake at 350 degrees until golden.
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Ken Albala is a professor of history at the University of the Pacific. He is the author or editor of 14 books on food history, including Beans: A History, which won the 2008 International Society of Culinary Professionals Jane Grigson Award and the Cordon D'Or award for Food History/Literature. He has also edited three food series and a 4-volume Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia for Greenwood Press. Albala serves as the co-editor of the journal Food Culture and Society.