Thursday, March 3, 2016

Getting Started With Sourdough

 I'll be leading a session on sourdough bread basics at this year's Hay River Transition Initiative's Traditional and Green Skills Event , this Saturday, March 5, so I thought it would be wise to revisit the process of starting and nurturing a traditional sourdough starter, or levain, as the French call it.  My starter is now 13 years old, so obviously it's been a while since I went through the whole process.  I've got a sort of time-lapse series of photos below, showing the starter progressing from a rather unremarkable mixture of rye flour and water to a still unremarkable, but bubbly, mixture of rye and wheat flour and water teeming with microbial life in the form of natural wild yeasts and various beneficial (or, at least, not harmful) bacteria, i.e., sourdough starter.  Or so I assume.  You'd need a microbiologist to analyze it in order to know exactly what's in there, but of course for home bread baking purposes, we take a pragmatic approach. 

Perhaps best to start with a definition.  Sourdough bread is bread that is leavened--made to rise--with a starter culture (see above, bubbling, microbial) rather than with storebought yeast, whether cakes of fresh yeast or active dry yeast, also called baker's yeast. The starter may be one maintained as I describe here, or it may just be a lump of dough saved from the current batch of bread, used to leaven the next batch, from which another lump is saved, to leaven the next batch....  A starter is, in brief, a homemade yeast factory.

Sourdough breads are different from "normal" yeasted breads in that they generally take much longer to proof (rise), are usually denser and moister, keep very well, and may or may not have a noticeably sour flavor.  The fact that sourdough breads may not be particularly sour points up one problem with the terminology.  I sometimes refer to these types of bread as "naturally leavened," but this isn't perfect, either, since the types of yeast you purchase are not unnatural, not at all.  The French understand that pain au levain just means bread leavened with a starter culture, but we lack a convenient, clear term for this.  Never mind:  as long as you understand that the "sourdough" bread you bake in Wisconsin or Minnesota or wherever isn't going to taste like that loaf you bought on Fisherman's Wharf while vacationing in San Francisco, we should be fine.

Starter is NOT "an ingredient"

The main piece of advice I always give to folks just starting out with natural leaven bread baking is to pay deliberate, concerted attention to maintaining the health and vigor of your starter.  The starter is a living thing that requires care and nurturing, rather like a moist, microbial child.  (Which, come to think of it, could well describe many regular, human children, as well.)  If you think of the starter as an ingredient in the bread, like salt, honey, flour, what have you, and assume you can just chuck X amount of poorly maintained starter into a dough and it will magically produce wonderful bread, well, that's not going to happen.  You'll be disappointed, and discouraged, and probably stop try to make sourdough breads, assuming it's just too hard; it's not.

But, if you take the approach that starter is not an ingredient in the ordinary sense, but rather that it is the bread itself, in nascent, incipient form, then you'll have a much, much better chance of success.  Starting with a relatively small amount of lively starter, you build up a dough which really is just an expansion of the starter.  Those microorganisms that thrive in a healthy starter will likewise colonize the whole dough through the processes of mixing, kneading, proofing, and finally baking, and they are what leaven the dough--make it rise--as well as providing that distinctive sourdough flavor and texture.

Ignore your starter at your peril.  Take good care of it, and it will make you very happy.  Below I'll talk about my general routine for maintaining and baking with a sourdough starter.  To begin, here's how you get your own going.

A basket of sourdough loaves from my farmers market baking days, aka "The Real Bread Years"(2003-2010).  From left, Wheaty, Strasbourg Seedy, Walnut Bread

Starting a starter

There are lots of ways to get a starter culture going.  Some people recommend using apples, bananas, cooked potatoes, even Champagne grapes to capture and nurture wild yeast.  You can even use a bit of commercial yeast to get things going—over time the wild yeasts that exist in the flour with which you feed the starter, and in the air around us, will give their unique qualities to the starter.

I favor a method of culturing a starter which I like it for its simplicity, and because it’s so true to the basic nature of bread, using only flour and water.

Go to the co-op and get a few pounds of organic rye flour—I use the kind distributed by Whole Grain Milling of Welcome, MN; it’s available at most co-ops in western Wisconsin and the Twin Cities.  Rye flour is excellent for starting a culture because it’s high in sugar and tends to have a lot of natural yeast in it

Day 1—In a glass or ceramic bowl (don’t use metal or plastic--unless it's NSF food service grade plastic, which in fact is what I keep my starter in now) mix ¾ cup of rye flour with ½ cup of filtered or untreated well water.  The mixture will be like thick porridge.  Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place—70 to 75 degrees—for two to three days.  (With the light on and the door ajar, our oven is right around 75 degrees.)  After two days the mixture should have swelled up a little, and it should have a bit of a sour smell.  If this hasn’t happened in two days, leave it another day.  Note:  Sometimes the flour can go moldy during this stage.  If you see mold on the mixture, throw it out and start again, making sure you use a very clean bowl.

Below is the mixture after two days.  You can see that it has puffed up a bit--note the slight separation between the bowl and the edge of the dough.  It may smell a bit sour, or it may just smell sort of grainy, porridgy.  As long as it doesn't smell horrible, poopy or dumpsterish, you're on your way.

Day 3: When the mixture is slightly swelled and perhaps a bit sour-smelling, discard half the mixture.  To the half remaining, add ½ cup of organic rye flour and ½ cup filtered water, mix well, cover with plastic wrap and put it back in its warm place for 24 hours.  [NOTE:  The reason we discard some of the starter in these early stages is that we need to keep adding flour, but don't want to wind up with too much starter.  If you find this instruction loathsome, perhaps find a friend or three or four to go in with you, and you'll all wind up with starter, and waste very little.  This concept is the basis of "friendship bread," a sort of dough-based chain letter.  Remember those?]

Below, the starter on day four, loosening up as the culture proliferates, starting to bubble.  It should smell a bit sour now.

Day 4—By now the mixture will be smelling quite sour, and may look a bit bubbly.  Throw half of it away again, and this time add ¾ cup of water, and ½ cup each rye and unbleached all-purpose white flour.  Mix, cover, let sit another 24 hours.

Below, the starter on Day 5, after its first wheat flour meal.  It's quite liquid and bubbly.  Exciting!  We're close to having a usable sourdough starter!

Day 6—Don’t discard any starter this time.  Add 2 cups water, ½ cup rye flour, and 1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (you  may need to move it to a larger container). Your starter should now be ready to use, but will benefit from a couple more refreshings.  Store it in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator.

Below, the starter on Day 6, much like Day 5, only moreso.  Very bubbly, developing a nice sour aroma.  A mature, well refreshed sourdough starter has an appealing winy or vinegary smell to it.  Old starter in need of refreshing will smell acrid and unappetizing--it sometimes reminds me of sniffing a can of wall paint.  That's not to say the smelly starter can't be saved, only to stress that a well maintained starter smells good, appetizing.

In the photo below, you can kind of maybe sort of see the texture of a very active starter.  It's aerated, light, almost mousse-like.

Moved to a larger container from the bowl I started it in, the new starter is fermenting robustly:

Here's why you go to the trouble of maintaining a sourdough starter.  I refreshed it a couple more times after Day 6 before baking, and below are the first loaves I baked with the new starter, mostly unbleached white flour, a bit of rye, whole wheat bread flour, and a handful of cornmeal:

 Maintaining the Starter

I have a sort of idiosyncratic program for feeding my starter, which involves three different flours.  It's a little more complicated than some methods, but I've done it for so long now, and have been so happy with the results, I'm not changing now.  The basic method is this:  To each 3 cups of existing starter, add 2 cups of water and 2 cups of flour.  That flour may be all-purpose or whole wheat.  I've not experimented with an all-rye starter, but that can be done, as well.  I'm sure the Internet will provide abundant advice.  Whatever you do, don't use bleached flour, because, 1) It's gross, and 2) Doesn't that sort of defeat the whole purpose of an endeavor like this?

My personal method is this:  as above, 3 cups existing starter, 2 cups water, then: 1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour; 1/2 cup whole wheat bread flour (from Whole Grain Milling), 1/2 cup organic rye flour.  Since almost all my breads contain at least some whole grains, I like having a slightly grainy starter, but I also find it too complicated to maintain more than one starter.  I honestly have no idea how I came up with this formula, only that I fixed upon it a long time ago, and it works.

After I have refreshed the starter, I let it sit at room temperature for a few hours or overnight, until bubbles start to form on the surface again, then refrigerate it.

About "the sponge"

A common technique in sourdough baking is to add one step prior to mixing up the final dough.  This is generally known as a sponge.  You can look at it as a final refreshing of the starter, but this time you add flour(s) specific to the type of bread you'll be making.  For example, in my recipe for a dense European-style rye bread, I combine starter, water, and rye flour only.  I mix this up the night before making up the final dough.  My whole wheat sourdough starts with a sponge of starter, water, whole wheat bread flour, and a bit of rye.  To make the dough, I add some more whole wheat flour and salt, finish by adding all-purpose unbleached to create a workable dough (though you could use all whole wheat).

The sponge method ensures good, vigorous fermentation, and shortens the proofing time for the dough.  It may mean the final bread is a bit less sour than if you mixed the dough without a sponge. That's either better or worse depending on your taste.  With an overnight sponge I would make up the dough at, say, 8:00 a.m., and the dough would be ready to loaf up at 1:00 or 2:00 p.m., ready to bake at 2:00 or 3:00--a lot depends, of course, on air temperatures, even relative humidity, the particular starter, etc.  Without a sponge the dough will need to proof probably twice as long.  You can try different approaches and see what works for you.

Establish a baking schedule

To get the best results from baking with sourdough starter, you have to plan ahead.  If you want to bake on Saturday, for example, you should take your starter out of the fridge on Thursday night.  (Your starter will probably look pretty unappetizing at this point, with some scummy-looking stuff on top, perhaps a layer of yellow or grayish water underneath, and the flour all sunk to the bottom.  Overnight, as the mixture warms up and the yeast becomes active, it should rise up in a uniform, bubbly mass.)   

Let it come to room temperature overnight.  Friday morning refresh the starter as described above—stir the starter and pour some off, leaving 3 cups; add the water and flour; mix well.  Friday night you may want to make a “sponge” for your dough, which is basically another refreshing of the dough, but with a flour blend specific to the type of bread you want to make.  Saturday morning you’ll mix the dough, and Saturday afternoon you’ll bake it.

If your starter hasn’t been refreshed for more than a week, take it out Wednesday (for Saturday baking) and refresh it twice—Thursday morning and again Friday morning—before making the sponge on Friday night.  It’s best to refresh your starter at least once a week, though you can leave it in the fridge for two weeks and maybe a little longer, and still bring it back to life.

When your starter has sat around unattended for a few days, you may see a thin liquid layer at the top.  No worries.  Just stir it into the starter and carry on.

There may also appear a sort of crust on top of the starter.  If it's quite thick, I sometimes lift it up and throw it away.  If not too thick, I just stir it into the starter along with any accumulated liquid.

Natural leaven bread baking has inspired many volumes of theory, recipes, and mystical reflection.  I can’t cover all aspects of the process here, but fortunately there are lots of books you can refer to.  Sometimes the experts contradict each other on the “best” way to do something.  Some books take a very precise, almost scientific approach, while others are almost like religious tracts.  Here are some books that I’ve found useful:

The Art of Handmade Bread, by Dan Lepard (or anything else by Lepard)
Baking with Julia, by Dorie Greenspan
Artisan Baking Across America, by Maggie Glezer
The Italian Baker, by Carol Field

In French:

Pains de Tradition, by Marguerite Rousseau (I really like  this one)
100% Pain, by Eric Kayser, et al

A couple of recipes:

A Mixed Leaven Loaf

Especially in a chilly winter home, adding a bit of active dry yeast to your sourdough can give a more satisfying result.  In no way do I consider this "cheating."  It's just another way of producing delicious bread.  It also shortens the process, allowing you to mix up a dough in the morning, bake it in late afternoon, and have lovely fresh bread for dinner.

This batch makes about 3 pounds of dough, enough for 3 smaller or 2 large loaves. These instructions are generally for free-form loaves baked on a stone.  It's the method that works best for this sort of dough.

1 1/2 cups warm water
1/2 rounded teaspoon active dry yeast
2 cups starter, 450 grams
1/3 cup rye flour
1/2 cup whole wheat bread flour
2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon honey, optional

Put the water in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle the yeast over the top. Let sit for 5 minutes.  Add the starter, salt, and honey. Stir in the rye and whole wheat bread flour, and 2 cups of the all-purpose. Gradually add more flour to form a dough, not too soft, not too firm. Knead the dough very briefly, just enough to bring it all together.  Then let the dough rest for 15 to 20 minutes. This resting period is important, as it allows the flours to uniformly absorb the liquid.  It also makes the dough lots easier to work with once you come back to it.

 After 15 to 20 minutes, bring the dough onto a floured countertop and knead until you have a smooth, elastic dough--it should bounce back brightly when you poke it with your finger.  Add flour as required to keep the dough from sticking to your hands or the work surface, but add just a bit at a time.  The kneading should take no more than 3 or 4 minutes, if that.

Return the dough to the bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise for 4 to 6 hours, until the dough shows definite signs of rising--it may not have doubled in size, but will now be soft and retain the imprint of a finger poke.

Divide and shape the dough as you prefer, and let rise another 1 1/2 to 2 hours--rising times depend HUGELY on ambient temperature; in a 62-degree winter home the dough will rise much more slowly than in a summer kitchen at 80 degrees.  Refrigerating the dough for part of the rising time is a good option if room temp is too warm.  Slower rising generally = better flavor and texture.

Preheat your oven with baking stone in place to 475.  When the oven is hot, move your loaves to a cornmeal-dusted peel and slash the surface as you like.  Slide the loaves onto the stone.

Adding steam to the oven helps create a good crust and promotes maximum expansion of the loaves.  Some people use a spray bottle to add water a couple of times in the first 10 minutes of baking.  I have sacrificed an old cast iron skillet which I keep on the bottom rack of my oven, a few inches below the stone, and I slide 5 or 6 ice cubes into the skillet at the start of baking.  With this method, you don't have to open the door again during early stage of baking.

Bake the bread at 475 for 10 to 15 minutes, until it just starts to brown, then reduce the heat to 430 and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the bread is nicely, uniformly browned, and the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  NOTE:  Baking times and temps will vary HUGELY from one oven to another.  Get to know your appliance, and adjust accordingly.

When the bread is done, cool on a wire rack.

Here's a recipe for a basic crusty, hearty loaf.  This makes about 2 pounds of dough:

Basic Small Batch "White" Sourdough

250 grams (1 cup) starter
1 cup water
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup whole wheat bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup cornmeal, optional
1 1/2 to 2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

In a large mixing bowl combine all the ingredients EXCEPT the all-purpose flour.  Add 1 cup of the AP flour and mix well, then add more AP flour a bit at a time until you have a soft but workable dough--i.e., not too sticky, not too stiff.

Proceed with proofing, shaping, baking as described in the Mixed Leaven recipe.


And here are a couple of recipes I put together for sourdough classes I taught a number of years ago, based on breads I made a lot during my farmers market baking career (aka "The Real Bread Years").  They are probably overly elaborate, possibly redundant in some areas, and possibly even contradictory to other things I may have said.  But, they will work.  Offered here without apology.  Well, with a little apology.  The batches are kind of huge, probably best to halve them.

European Sourdough Rye

4 cups water
1 ½ cups refreshed starter
3 ½ cups rye flour

In a large bowl, mix the water, starter, and rye flour to make a sponge.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand at least 8 hours or overnight.

1 ½ Tbl salt
1 cup whole wheat bread flour
5 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour, plus extra for kneading
1 tsp vegetable oil (canola, corn, sunflower, etc.—not olive oil)
Cornmeal for dusting the peel

Add the salt, whole wheat flour, and 2 cups all-purpose flour to the sponge and mix well.  Add another 2 cups all-purpose flour, mix again.  Add the 5th cup gradually, and when the dough is firm enough to knead place it on a floured counter or table. 

Knead, adding all-purpose flour as required, for 2 to 3 minutes.  Allow the dough to rest for 10 minutes.  Put the bowl in the sink and fill it with water to soak.

Knead the dough for another 5 minutes or so, adding flour very sparingly as needed, until the dough is smooth and elastic—it should bounce back almost immediately when you poke in your finger a half-inch.  (Note:  the whole grains in this dough mean that it will not be “smooth” the way a white dough is smooth; it should be uniform in texture, not lumpy.)

Wash the mixing bowl, dry it, and oil it with the 1 tsp vegetable oil.

Knead the dough for another minute.  Place it in the oiled bowl, then turn the dough over with the oiled side up.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, place it in a warm (70 to 80 degree) spot and let the dough rise till roughly doubled, 3 to 4 hours.

Divide the dough—however many loaves you want to make, it’s up to you.  This recipe will make 4 good-sized loaves, or 3 big loaves, or more smaller loaves, as you choose.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.  If using a baking stone, place the stone in the oven before preheating.  Place a small cast iron skillet on the bottom of the oven, or on the bottom rack. (Note:  A cast iron skillet used for this purpose will be ruined for any other use; we’ll be putting water and ice cubes in the skillet to create steam in the oven during baking.  If you have an electric oven, you may throw the ice cubes and water directly on the bottom of the oven, though this will discolor and slightly warp the floor of your oven over time.)

Shape the loaves.  Place on a peel or cutting board dusted with cornmeal.  Cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap or a plastic cover.  Let rise 35 to 50 minutes, till the dough appears well-risen, though it may not double in size at this stage.

Place the loaves on a wooden peel lightly dusted with cornmeal. 

Before baking you may, if you like, lightly dust the loaves with flour sifted through a sieve.

With a single-edge razor blade or very sharp knife, slash the top of the loaves—one long slash down the middle, or three diagonal slashes along an oval loaf, or any pattern you like, as long as it is fairly regular.

Have ready 2 ice cubes and ¼ cup water.
If using a baking stone, place the stone in the oven before preheating.  Place a small cast iron skillet on the bottom of the oven, or on the bottom rack. (Note:  A cast iron skillet used for this purpose will be ruined for any other use; we’ll be putting water and ice cubes in the skillet to create steam in the oven during baking.)

Slide the loaves from the peel onto the preheated baking stone.  Toss the ice cubes, then the water into the cast iron skillet—careful not to scald yourself with the steam!

Bake at 450 for 10 minutes, then turn the loaves around in the oven for even baking and turn the oven down to 425.  Bake another 15 to 25 minutes more, depending on the size of the loaves, until the loaves are nicely browned and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom (an instant-read meat thermometer will read 200 degrees at the center of a fully baked loaf)

Cool the loaves on a rack when done.  Allow to cool at least 1 hour before slicing.

Variations:  This dough is an excellent base for fruit or nut breads.  You can make three kinds of bread from one batch of dough.
Bake one third of the dough plain.
For Walnut Bread:  After the first rising:  Flatten one-third of the dough into a large rectangle.  Sprinkle with 8 ounces roughly chopped toasted walnuts.  Press the nuts into the dough, roll the dough up and knead  for a minute or two to distribute the nuts.
For Fig Bread: After the first rising:  Flatten one-third of the dough into a large rectangle.  Sprinkle with 8 ounces roughly chopped dried figs.  Press the pieces of fig into the dough, roll the dough up and knead for a minute or two to distribute the fruit.
You can also use raisins, dried apricots, currants, or a combination.  One of our popular breads is a “Very Fruity” loaf made with figs, dried apricots and currants.  Our Raisin Rye is made with black and golden raisins and currants—the “currants” I’m talking about here are the tiny raisins called currants or sometimes Zante currants, not the red or black currant fruit used to make jelly.

Organic Sourdough Wheat

1 ½ cups starter
4  cups water
½ cup organic rye flour
3 cups organic whole wheat bread flour

Make the sponge:  Mix all the ingredients above in a large bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at least 8 hours, or overnight.

2 cups  organic whole wheat bread flour
1 ½ Tbl salt
3 to 4 cups organic unbleached white flour, such as Swany White, Gold N White, etc.
1 tsp vegetable oil
Cornmeal to dust the peel or baking sheets

To the sponge add 2 cups whole wheat bread flour, salt, and 2 cups organic white flour.  Mix well.  Add white flour a cup or so at a time, and mix till the dough is too stiff to mix with a spoon.

Turn the dough out onto your kneading surface.  Knead for 2 minutes, adding flour as needed.  Let dough rest for 10 minutes.  Put the bowl in the sink and fill it with water to soak.

Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, again adding flour sparingly as needed.  At the end of this kneading the dough should be smooth and elastic—it should bounce back immediately when you poke it with your finger.

Wash the bowl, dry it, and oil it with the 1 tsp vegetable oil.

Knead the dough for another minute or two, put it in the bowl, turn it oiled side up, cover with plastic wrap and let rise till doubled in size, 4 to 5 hours.

Shaping and proofing the loaves:  This bread is best in fairly large loaves.  Divide the dough into 3 or 4 pieces.  Form into rounds or ovals.  Set them to rise on a peel, cutting board, or baking sheet dusted with cornmeal—or in floured bannetons.  Cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap or a plastic cover.  Let rise in a warm place for about 1 ½ hours, till well risen.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.  If using a baking stone, place the stone in the oven before preheating.  Place a small cast iron skillet on the bottom of the oven, or on the bottom rack. (Note:  A cast iron skillet used for this purpose will be ruined for any other use; we’ll be putting water and ice cubes in the skillet to create steam in the oven during baking.)

Just before baking, slash the top of the loaves with a single-edge razor blade or very sharp knife.  Have ready ¼ cup of water and 2 ice cubes.

Slide the loaves off the peel onto the stone.  Toss the ice cubes, then the water into the cast iron skillet—careful not to scald yourself with the steam!

 Bake at 450 for 20 minutes.  Lower the heat to 425, turn the loaves around in the oven for even baking, and bake another 12 to 15 minutes, till the loaves are very brown and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.  Cool on a rack.  This bread should cool for at least 2 hours before slicing.

Optional refrigeration method:   Chilling the dough makes it rise more slowly, and will give the bread a chewier texture, crunchier crust, and, with natural leaven breads, a more pronounced sour taste.  French bakeries often proof their bread at low temperatures for 18 hours or even longer.  You can get close to this quality by chilling the dough in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or overnight.  After removing the dough from the refrigerator punch it down and knead it for a minute or two.  Allow it to sit at room temperature for 2 to 4 hours to warm up—this will depend on how cold it was to start with.  Divide into loaves as above, then let the loaves proof a bit longer than above, 2 hours or more, so the dough has come to cool room temperature before baking.  Bake as above.