I just waved goodbye to a dear friend as she started the drive to her new residency – with a jar of “Tamar”, my sourdough starter* in her cooler. I was going to print some instructions to send with the starter, but decided it might be better to put those instructions here for her – and for all of you who have thought about making sourdough bread (but think you are too busy).
This is a legitimate question. What I’ve learned from making my own bread during the pandemic is that it’s more than just having delicious, warm bread to sustain you. I won’t wax too poetic, but there are three reasons I think you should ponder baking your own bread:
- A sourdough starter is a living thing who is there to help feed you
- Making the bread is an act of self-care, a gift to yourself
- This is a profoundly slow and deliberate act. Mindfulness doesn’t get any better than this.
So, if you are intrigued, I’ve thought about this for a while and here is how I think this could work for residents – even during a crazy 80 hour week.
Step 1: Get or make a starter
There’s a decent chance that someone where you work bakes sourdough bread. If they do, they will be delighted to give you some starter. It’s not a bad way to make some new friends and/or expand your circle of friends.
If you don’t find someone with starter, make your own. Sourdough starter comes from the bacteria and yeast that are in our environment so it’s a matter of mixing flour, water and time. If you want to help out some scientists while you make your starter, check out the NC State Sourdough Project.
Step 2: Understand the big picture
- Sourdough starter is a living thing. You need to feed it once a week by adding some water and flour. Period. If you want to stop here and just have the starter around “in case” you decide to bake, this is all you have to do.
- You are going to love the science of this. I’ll even predict you’ll end up using a scale to make sure your grams of ingredients are exact… but remember, as much as this will feel like science, its also how our ancestors made bread thousands of years ago. Don’t lose that perspective.. or that connection… when you bake.
- It’s a four-step process with variations depending on the recipe:
- Mix the 4 ingredients (starter, flour, salt and water) to make dough
- Rise – long and slow. Overnight in the fridge, 2-6 hours on the counter. It varies by the recipe.
- 2nd rise – usually. for 1-3 hours and in a container to shape the dough
Step 3: Find an easy recipe to start with so you don’t get overwhelmed…
Here’s a really easy first recipe:
- Mix the dough (1 cup starter, 1.75 cups lukewarm water, 5 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon of salt)
- Let it rise for about an hour then stretch it out and fold it onto itself several times. The recipe says repeat this once an hour for a total of three times, but you can skip the 2nd and/or 3rd times if you need to.
- Put it in the refrigerator overnight.
- Flip it over, seam side up into a bowl or loaf pan (to shape it) and let it sit for 2.5-3 hours.
- Flip it back over (seam side down) into your pan, slash the top to provide a controlled way to expand and bake.
Step 4: Map out a schedule
Let’s say it’s Thursday evening and you are off on Friday. Here’s how this recipe might work for you…
- Thursday when you get home, mix the dough. If you don’t have time to let it rise on the counter for an hour and stretch it, just put it in the refrigerator. (Trust me, it will work). Take the starter that didn’t go into the recipe, feed it, and put it back in the refrigerator.
- Friday when you wake up put the dough in a bowl or loaf pan and let it sit for 2-3 hours on the counter. This will mold it into whatever shape you want.
- Heat up your cooking container (dutch oven, oven proof pot, tray) as you preheat the oven.
- Put parchment paper on top of the bowel and flip the dough out of the bowl onto the parchment paper.
- Use the parchment paper to lower the dough into your hot cooking container.
- Score the top and bake!
- (Don’t forget to let it sit for an “hour” before you slice it… no matter how good it smells)
It’s an art. Everyone has bread that bombs.
Don’t worry! Just keep the starter alive, regroup and try again!
If you find you are having issues with getting a good rise, it’s ok to put some dry yeast in as “insurance”. Poilâne’s famous sourdough includes it as part of the recipe, so it can’t be a “failure” in the sourdough world!
What to study next
If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you are Type A. You’ll probably get a notebook and treat this like a science experiment … like I did. Go for it! It turns out that even though sourdough bread has only 4 ingredients (starter, flour, water, salt) there are lots of variables that can affect the loaf e.g. temperature of the water, humidity in the room, etc. There is real joy in paying this much attention while creating something that is so sustaining. On the other hand, if this doesn’t make you happy, just make the bread!
Did I mention?… it’s not just bread…foccacia, pizza dough, pancakes… just wait until you find all the cool things you can do with sourdough starter and discard!
Blogs and websites that have helped me a lot
King Arthur Flour – Sourdough Baking: The Complete Guide (Check out their blog, too)
Here are some of my favorite books so far (all links are to independent bookstores)
Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, by Emilie Raffe
Do/Sourdough/Slow bread for busy lives by Andrew Whitley
Starter Sourdough: The Step-By-Step Guide to Sourdough Starters, Baking Loaves, Baguettes, Pancakes, and More
I wish you mindful baking and joy from your sustaining and delicious bread!
*There is a tradition of naming sourdough starters.