I started making my own sourdough a few years ago, growing and nurturing a starter. In this society where there seems to be a phobia of gluten and breads and starches, it's important to remember two things: (1) finding balance is more important than artificially trying to micro-manage nutrient intake, and (2) sourdough, made on long fermentation with natural yeasts, is very different from mass-produced quick-yeast breads. I'm not a nutritionist nor a doctor, so do your own research about why you should rethink bread and sourdough specifically, but in the meantime here are some words about it:
The key to sourdough is natural yeast. You don't buy this at a store. You cultivate it over weeks, then years, by growing and tending a starter -- a levain -- a mother dough. There are many articles online about ways to do this. It involves, simply, some flour and water in a container, exposed to air, taken through a couple weeks of a fermentation cycle until what remains is a goopy bowl of flour, water, and living organisms in balance that smells yeasty, beery, and wonderful. Your starter is fed routinely, woken to make a new batch of bread, and cared for with approximately the same diligence as a needy houseplant. In the fridge, starters need feeding every week or so. On the counter, at least once, if not twice, per day. But one of the easiest ways to start a starter, is to borrow a chunk of someone else's and start feeding.
Hour 0 (4pm)
In a bowl, I combine by weight (because it's more accurate):
300g or roughly half of my starter (see feeding the starter below)
500g flour, mixture to your liking (approx 4 cups) I tend to do 25% multigrain and 75% white bread flour
12g salt (approx 1 tablespoon)
360g of warm (not hot) water (approx 1.5 cups)
By combine, I blend this into a loose, rough ball and cover on the counter to hydrate.
Hour 0.5 thru 1.5 (430 - 530pm)
Not so much kneeding, but pulling and folding and stretching the dough every 15-30 minutes. By the end of this process it will form something of a cohesive ball as the gluten relaxes. The trick is to give the new dough enough time to hydrate, form a singular ball of dough, but not get on a runaway fermentation before you can get it into the fridge.
...in other words, cover and put it in the fridge. Go watch some TV. Sleep. Go to work. Run an ultramarathon. Your call.
Hour 14 (8am)
You can fridge ferment longer, multiple days if necessary -- in fact get it in there overnight and pull it out when it's convenient -- but let's call this a 24 hour bread and work from there. I usually overnight in the fridge, and in the morning pull the bowl out to warm up on the counter at room temperature for a couple hours before working again. The longer you fridge-ferment, the more "sourdough" your bread will taste... but more than three days is probably pushing it.
Hour 16 (10am)
Flour the counter-top and then by kneeding gently, form the ball into either (a) one large ball for a dome loaf or (b) two equal oblong balls for two loaf pan-sized loafs. For a full sized dome loaf I flour the ball and then rest in a proofing basket, covered. For two loafs, I put parchment into two cast iron loaf pans and place one oblong ball in each, covered.
Proofing is subjective. This process can take 6 - 10 hours in my house depending on humidity, season, and room temperature. I give myself lots of lead time, and have sometimes found myself baking bread at 11pm because the proofing took so long. The dough will have at least doubled in size and will leave a small indent when poked gently with a finger (the poke test). But let's be optimistic:
Hour 24 (4 pm)
If I've attempted a big, dome loaf (great for parties and dipping breads), my large cast iron dutch oven with a lid goes into the oven for a pre-heat. When my 475F oven (without convection) is hot, the dutch oven comes out, I roll the dough out of the basket, do a little quick slash with a sharp knife across the top, re-lid, and back in the oven for 30 minutes. At thirty minutes, the lid comes off and another 12-15 minutes is usually enough to brown and finish the loaf.
If I've tackled a double loaf (better for sandwiches and morning toast), both loaf pans with risen dough go directly, as is, uncovered, into the pre-heated 475F oven (without convection) for thirty minutes. No additional browning time required.
For both, watch carefully for the last 5 minutes of baking. It's a narrow window between deliciously brown and just plain old burnt like toast.
Cool on the counter for about an hour. Voila: Bread.
Feeding a Starter
I usually feed my starter by baking bread.
When I make a new batch, I use half the starter for the dough then feed the remaining half with:
1 cup of flour
0.5 cup of warm water
If you're not making bread, once per day or so (if it's on the counter) or once per week (if you've kept it in the fridge) discard or use half the starter and feed the other half as above.
I watched a YouTube video a while ago about what you can do with the half of your starter you're discarding besides tossing it in the trash or baking with it. The interesting thing I found was mixing in some spices ... or some cinnamon and brown sugar ... baking or pan-frying that. It's a tasty treat.
Someone kindly split their starter, and now you have a little bag or container with something that looks like goopy, raw dough: what are you supposed to do with it?
- Find it a clean home. A clean container of about 1 liter with a lid, that will fit nicely in your fridge. Label the container. And transfer it inside.
- Wake it up. Even if it's only just been split, it needs to be fed. Your goal is to get it up to a volume of roughly two cups of flour and one cup of water. So if, say, I gave you a little baggie of starter, you'd want to add one cup of flour and half a cup of warm (not hot) water. Stir this together all evenly.
- Let it sit at room temperature for about 12 hours covered loosely by the lid. It should double or triple in size.
- Either (a) bake with it as in my recipe above or (b) discard half, repeat step 2 above and then put the container with the lid tight into the fridge for 1 week to ten days between regular feedings.
A friend of mine killed her starter.
I didn’t ask how. Vacations. Life. A summer heat wave.
So a few days later I just split mine and delivered one half it to her in a plastic pouch.
Problem solved, and she could go back to baking loaves.
This marks the third time I’ve split my mother dough into some giftable offspring.
Sharing starter starter seems to me to be almost a core tradition embedded deep in the subculture and shared process of breadmaking.
Starting a new starter from scratch is not difficult, of course, but neither is it a quick process.
Even if your newly gathered and grown starter is ready to use in a couple of weeks, there are countless feedings of wasted flour during that span and even then I’ve found that a good, productive starter takes many more weeks (or months) to mature and hit peak efficiency.
So instead we share. Half for me. Half for a friend.
I did this by scooping half of my starter from its home with a spatula from the little plastic tub where it has lived for the better part of two and a half years. That half went to my friend. Shared, the travelling half got a new home, a fresh feed of its own and a chance to bake bread for another family.
The remainder got a feeding and returned to its corner to enjoy the fresh dosing of flour.
Such a simple act…. but at the same time a clever and marvelous way to spread a bit of sourdough joy with friends and neighbours.
The Youtube algorithm tends to show me a lot of baking content these days, and my playlist offered up a recipe for a thick crust pan pizza. I skipped the pizza part and instead used some of the pizza advice and a half a recipe of my sourdough bread to whip up a tasty cheese bread that complimented our evening meal of beef stew.
500g bread flour
250g active sourdough starter
250g hard cheese
3 garlic cloves
60ml olive oil
10g finishing salt
I made my basic sourdough recipe using the flour, water, salt and starter. This went through the typical hydration and folding cycle and then got covered and popped into the fridge overnight. Technically, I only used half of this to make the pan bread and used the other half to bake some simple sourdough rolls, but I’m sure any innovative baker can figure out something clever to do with half a recipe of ready-to-rise sourdough dough.
I oiled up my ten inch cast iron pan (using half the oil) and halving the dough from above, I balled and then flattened it, shaping it into a thick disk that sat about an inch from all sides of the pan. It was about 8am when I did this, and I wouldn’t go onto the next step until nearly 5pm when the dough disk had risen to a lovely volume that was closer to being ready to bake.
My folks had given us a huge wedge of gouda cheese as part of a Christmas basket, so I grated down a bunch of that. I also crushed the garlic in the remaining oil. Just like one might do with a loaf of foccacia I dimpled the surface of my dough disk with my finger tips then spread the garlic oil roughly over the surface.
Here’s the first trick I learned from that Youtube video. I took about half the grated cheese and made a thick edge right up against the edge of the disk and touching the cast iron. The point here is that as is melts it drips along the crack and gets all fried and crusty making a crispy cheesy edge.
The point is, you want the cheese (and quite a bit of it) right up to the edge of the dough.
With a saltier cheese I may have skipped this extra finishing salt sprinkled atop this whole creation. I like salty garlic bread, probably an artifact of growing up on garlic bread made from buttered toast sprinkled with garlic salt not real garlic, but it really does bring an added dimension to the finished product.
This spent 28 minutes in a 425F oven, but I was watching it carefully for the last five.
The second trick I learned from that Youtube video came right at the end. I checked the browning on the crust of the bread after I pulled it out of the oven to make sure it wasn’t too brown (it wasn’t) and then lit up the stovetop where I continued frying the bread right there in the cast iron pan for another 3 minutes. That crust just browned up a little more and it popped out of the pan glorious and crusty and cheesy as I expected.
My biggest problem was making sure there was some left over for tomorrow.
It was delicious, fresh and steaming hot from the oven, and I’ll be adding this to my regular rotation for family meals or perhaps even to share with friends some day again.