Story and Photos by Meg Geyer
Bread, a food filled with history, and the cornerstone of so many great dishes. From crumbs, to croutons to loaves, good bread can be hard to find. Many people rely on their local grocery store to get their loaves. While this may be convenient, the quality of the bread is often overlooked.
Aside from the huge difference in taste, the additives found in store-bought loaves far outnumber the basic ingredients of bread (flour, water, salt, and yeast). In fact, high fructose corn syrup is found in many store-bought breads.
Stop compromising the quality of bread when it can simply be made at home. Sourdough bread may seem intimidating to bake, but Fear not, nature does most of the work.
Sourdough bread is tangy, chewy, delicious, and trendy. It is one of the world’s oldest styles of bread, and is based on the fermentation of flour and water. The trick to baking a perfect sourdough loaf comes from the starter. The starter supplies the flavor and acts as the rising agent in the loaf. A starter is flour and water that has fermented over time (usually 7+ days), supplying sourdough’s unique flavor and acting as a rising agent. Unlike yeast, the sourdough starter requires a longer proving time once it is incorporated into the dough.
I know what you are thinking, “fermentation, doesn’t that mean bacteria?” Don’t be too skeptical, because the bacteria created in the starter comes from the same bacteria in the air that you breath in every day.
Creating a sourdough starter will be the most intense part of your bread journey, because this is when the bacteria need to be fed. Since you will be maintaining a colony of bacteria for the rest of your bread journey, you’ll want to keep in mind that bacteria don’t grow as fast in colder environments, and that your starter will have a sour aroma as it develops – that is a great sign!
My sourdough journey began because I am an amateur baker wanting to improve my skills, and I am a true sourdough fanatic. With a brand new bag of flour and a ceramic jar, I began the fermentation process. I saw growth and began to smell the distinct scent of sour within days. By day seven, bubbles covered the top and a tangy aroma filled the air. I was ready to bake. I played it simple and decided to bake baguettes. Although a classic french baguette is typically not sourdough, it can be. To my surprise, and my roommate’s, it worked. We enjoyed the baguette with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic. Since then, I have baked many loaves. Some have been under kneaded, others underbaked, but plenty have been good. I have come to love the process of making bread. The joys I get from it are simple – like feeding my starter and watching it rise, or kneading the dough and feeling when it is ready for proofing. The biggest joy is sharing it with others. From bread and butter, to panini to pizza there is always something for everyone. The versatility of sourdough is endless, and I challenge you to give it a try.
Ingredients to Start Your Starter:
- 1 cup whole rye (pumpernickel) or whole wheat flour
- ½ cup cool water
Ingredients to Feed Your Starter:
- A scant 1 cup unbleached All-Purpose Flour
- ½ cup cool water (if your house is warm), or lukewarm water (if your house is cool)
- Day 1: Combine whole rye flour and water in a non-reactive container (glass, crockery, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic). Ensure your container is big enough for growth, at least 1 quart capacity. Cover loosely and let it rest for 24 hours at warm room temperature (70℉).
- Day 2: You may or may not see slight growth forming in bubbles. Discard half the starter (roughly ½ cup) and feed it. Let it rest for 24 hours.
- Day 3: Now the bacteria are active! Your starter should be bubbly and have a fresh, fruity aroma. It’s time to feed your starter twice a day for the next 5 days. It is important that you feed it as if it were a pet – consistently. Don’t forget that every time you feed your starter you must discard half. Discarding half allows you to maintain your starter and offers the yeast more food to eat. After all the ingredients are incorporated, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for approximately 12 hours before repeating.
- Continue this process and watch the starter double in volume and develop a tangy aroma. If an oily film develops on top of the starter, just mix it in, its normal.
- Day 7: Your starter should have risen and be full of bubbles while giving off a pleasingly acidic, but not overpowering, smell. Great job, you no longer need to feed your starter daily. Before you begin baking, feed your starter!
During the creation of your sourdough starter you probably noticed the starter rise and fall. It is essential that you feed your starter before every bake. This way, it will be in its prime growth stage when you incorporate it into your dough. I typically feed my starter and give it a couple of hours to double in size. Usually, this occurs right before I go to sleep so I can begin baking in the morning.
What’s next? Begin baking! Don’t forget that after using the specified amount of starter in the recipe, you’ll need to replenish it by feeding it. Once you are done using it, cover it and throw it in the fridge. I recommend feeding your starter once a week to maintain it.
Rustic Sourdough Bread
- 1 cup ripe (fed) sourdough starter
- 1 ½ cups lukewarm water
- 1 to 2 teaspoons instant yeast (depends on starter)
- 2 ½ teaspoons salt
- 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- Combine all ingredients and knead to form a smooth dough.
- Allow dough to rise in a lightly greased, covered bowl for 90 minutes.
- Divide dough in half and shape dough into two oval loaves. Place loaves in lightly greased, covered bowls until very puffy – about 1 hour.
- Preheat oven to 425℉.
- Spray the loaves with lukewarm water and make two fairly deep diagonal slashes in each with a serrated bread knife.
- Bake the bread for 25 to 30 minutes, until it’s a deep golden brown. Remove from oven and cool loaves on rack.
A great source of recipes with tips and tricks is King Arthur Flour.