At the beginning of the year, my knowledge of sourdough bread was limited to what we learned on vacation in July 2012: you could buy it in San Francisco, the natural yeast there gives it a distinct flavor, and it is delicious.
When I started learning about dealing with gut issues, one option is to go gluten free. I didn’t feel good about that. So after a little more poking and stumbling around I discovered that if you make sourdough bread, the grains soak for 12+ hours and are broken down significantly so that they are easier to digest. There are many other health benefits to sourdough bread, such as using naturally occurring yeast instead of the quick-rise variety, but as I am no expert and there are lots of other sources available so I won’t go into those details here.
I talked with a neighbor about the possibility of sourdough bread being part of the solution to my gut problems and while I was trying to figure out how to take care of kefir grains, she figured out how to make her own sourdough starter and started baking delicious bread. I was super overwhelmed with all of my food changes and kept refusing her offers to get some of her starter, but one day she dropped it off and I spent two days reading everything I could about sourdough in hopes of keeping it alive.
It turns out it is quite simple. There is also so much to learn and a million variations, but here is a great place to start if you’ve never thought about sourdough and want to give it a try. I recommend finding a neighbor who is also interested and one step ahead so that when you kill your starter she can give you another one (thanks Phoebe!).
Here is the process I follow with some tips along the way:
1. Get a sourdough starter from a friend, buy one (this website also has my favorite ebook, video, and tutorials about sourdough and other cultured foods), or make your own. You only need to do this once, and then you are set to go for life as long as you take care of it or preserve it when you want to take a break. Keep it in the fridge until the day before you want to bake with it, feeding it about once a week. If a dark layer of liquid forms (called hooch) pour it off or stir it in for an extra tangy starter
2. Feed your starter until it is happy and ready to cook with. There are lots of scientific methods for feeding your starter, but what works for me is starting with about 1/4 cup of starter and mixing in 1/4 cup wheat flour and a 1/4 cup water. Mix it together really well (I was scared to stir it the first time for fear of hurting it – turns out it likes getting air). It shouldn’t be watery – go for a little bit stiff. Do this roughly every 12 hours for a day and half until it is bubbly and is doubling in size. Test it by dropping a little bit in water and when it floats, it is ready to bake with. In a pinch you can pull it out of the fridge in the morning, feed it every few hours during the day and have it ready to use that night.
Here is the starter right after I mixed in the flour and water and how it looks after a few hours. The dark line is a little bit of dried starter that shows where it started at before I fed it.
3. 16-18 hours BEFORE you want to be eating your bread (so this between 3-8pm for me) mix together the starter and water, then add the flour and salt. This is called “soaking” the grains. I’ve tried a couple of different recipes but the one I like best (and came recommended by a friend, I don’t take any credit for the amazing discovery) is this Sourdough No Knead Bread. I usually double or triple the batch: 1/2 cup starter dissolved in 3 cups water. If I remember, I add salt next, but I usually forget the salt and the bread turns out just fine. Next, I mix in 7+ cups of wheat flour until the dough forms into a ball that isn’t sticky. I’ve used both hard red wheat and hard white wheat and I really like both, but the white is lighter (in texture and color). I cover the the bowl once it is all mixed together in a ball and let it sit for 12-16 hours.
4. After 12-16 hours of soaking, the mixture will be a lot bigger. I could hardly sleep the first night I tried sourdough in anticipation that resembled waiting for Christmas morning as little kid.
5. I’ve had a wide range of wetness in my bread making attempts. When it is dry enough (because I added lots of flour), I divide it into two pieces, flatten it out on the counter and fold it over on it self twice, let it rest for 15 minutes, and then put it in the bread pans to let it rise a second time (called “proofing”). Sometimes I don’t add enough flour and the dough isn’t workable in any way, so I simply divide the dough into two bread pans to let them rise for a second time, shaping them the best I can. After 30 minutes, I preheat the oven to 500 degrees with the pizza stone or dutch oven inside.
6. Most sourdough recipes call for a dutch oven. I don’t have one so I have figured out that putting them in bread pans, covering the pans tightly with aluminum foil, and setting the pans on a pizza stone that I heated up with the oven works perfectly fine. The goal is to trap the moisture to create a crusty bread, so any variation that does that works. I’ve also created a round loaf by putting the bread directly on the pizza stone and covering that with aluminum foil. I’ve been saving my pieces of aluminum foil with my bread pans and use them over and over again.
After the dough has been sitting for an hour and the oven has preheated for 30 minutes, I put the covered pans in to bake for 30 -35 minutes. Then I turn the oven down to 450 and take off the aluminum foil (or take off the dutch oven lid) and let it bake for 15 more minutes.
7. I admire the bread and the crackling sound it makes while it cools on a drying rack and breath a huge sigh of relief that no matter how bizarre the dough looked before going into the oven that it turned out great.
8. Eating is always the best part. I put one loaf in a freezer bag and put it in the freezer once it is completely cooled. This bread freezes perfectly. I pull it out the night before I want to use it and it is ready to slice by breakfast. I’ve never had a dud loaf – I never know what I’m getting but it always tastes great.
One of the fun discoveries of eating sourdough bread is that everything tastes fancier. Grilled cheese sandwiches are amazing. Thick, toasted slices slathered in hummus (or honey!) make a delicious snack. Bread that we haven’t eaten in a few days gets made into incredible french toast. If we get too much starter, we pour it directly onto a hot griddle for sourdough pancakes.
I’m still at the beginning of my learning and I would love any ideas, tips or advice that you have to share on the sourdough bread making process. If you jump into the sourdough world I’d love to hear how it goes, see pictures of your bread, and learn along with you. My neighbor and I frequently swap slices of bread to share and compare and talk about different techniques and I’d love to extend the collaboration – it’s just so exciting.