As soon as we arrive at our summer place in coastal Oregon, I’m seized with an uncontrollable urge to bake. I don’t know if it’s the tang of the sea air, the crisp nights, or the mist that makes everything look a bit magical, but something makes me want to light a fire, curl up with a good book and wait for dough to rise.
Every summer begins with a new batch of sourdough starter; it’s one of the first things I do after dusting away the winter cobwebs. This is part ritual, part challenge (every loaf is a little different because I’m truly an amateur) and partly the desire to fill the house with the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread.
Sourdough is one of the oldest types of bread, dating back to the Egyptians in 1500 BC. French bakers brought sourdough to California during the Gold Rush and it’s been associated with San Francisco ever since. When you mix flour with water and expose it to air, wild yeasts join the party, converting the natural sugars in flour to acids that impart a sour flavor. As the yeast interacts with the flour mixture it produces carbon dioxide, the cause of the active bubbles that make bread rise and create its distinctive holes.
Like a beloved pet or houseplant, sourdough starter needs to be “fed” regularly; otherwise it gets stale and dies. Since we’re only here for four months a year, I can’t keep mine going indefinitely. (I don’t suppose TSA would be too thrilled if I brought a jar on plane rides back and forth!) Plus, I sometimes want to eat something else. But if you’re willing to feed it every few days, you should be able to keep your starter going for months or even years, as professional bakeries do.
The first bread you make will be rather mild; it will develop its unique-to-you flavor after a few batches, when the wild yeasts that grow in your climate have a chance to develop. It will also become more ragged and hole-y as the starter matures.
Every bakery (and baker) has a special recipe and process. I’ve combined and adapted elements of several recipes, including ideas from the wonderful The Best Bread Ever cookbook and the legendary Tartine’s. Although there are a number of steps and it takes awhile, the following is pretty much foolproof (though I’ve had some batches turn out mysteriously dense)– you’ll quickly develop a sense of how the dough should look and feel. Have fun!
What you’ll need:
• Flour (rice, whole wheat and bread flours)
• Container for starter, a food processor and a mixing bowl
• Cast iron pot with lid, about 10” diameter
• Thermometer that goes up to 220°F
• Spray mister (Pylones makes a cute one)
STEP ONE: Starter
In a clear container or bowl, mix 2 cups of unbleached bread flour with 1½ cups of warm water and stir well. (I use a rectangular container about 5” square wide and 6” tall because it stores well in the fridge.) Cover with cheesecloth and leave near an open window.
STEP TWO: Wait
Stir the mixture twice a day for 2-3 days; then add ½ cup of whole wheat flour, ½ cup of bread flour, and enough water to restore its original consistency. Continue stirring another day or two until the starter develops a layer of foam about an inch thick. The bubbles will be very active at this point and the starter will be stretchy and fluid.
STEP THREE: Dough (Warning: this is about a 5-hour process!)
1. In a food processor, combine 1 cup of starter, 1 cup of warm water, 3½ cups of bread flour and 1 teaspoon of salt. Pulse for 20 seconds, adding a bit more water if the dough doesn’t come together in a ball or seems dry and crumbly. Let it rest for 5 minutes, then pulse for another 25 seconds. Transfer the dough to a bowl and let it rise for 30 minutes in a warm or sunny part of the room.
2. Dip your hands in water and, going section by section, pull one quadrant of the dough to stretch it over the rest. Repeat the action for all four “edges” of the ball of dough. Put the ball back in the bowl, cover with a towel, and let it rest for 30 minutes.
3. Repeat the folding/stretching action every half hour for a total of 6 times (3 hours). By the end of the 3 hours, the dough will be much softer and should increase in volume about 20-30%. If not, continue the folding/rising process one or two more times.
4. Transfer the dough to a work surface and dust with flour. Flip the dough over so the floured side is on the bottom. Using a smooth rolling motion, pull the corners of the dough out and up towards the middle as you roll it into a taut round ball. Cover with a towel and let it rest for 30 minutes.
5. Line an 8-10” bowl with a fresh towel. Combine ½ cup each of whole-wheat and rice flours in a separate container and sprinkle the towel generously with some of the mixture. Reserve the rest.
6. Uncover your dough. Dust the top with whole-wheat flour and flip it over so that the floured side is on the bottom. This will become the crust.
7. Beginning with the side that’s facing you, pull out the bottom two “edges” of the ball and stretch them up to the middle of the dough. Next, pull the two “sides” of the ball and stretch them over the center. Finally, lift the top two “edges” and stretch them over the previous folds. (Imagine folding a piece of paper: bottom corners up, sides in, top down over everything)
8. Flip the dough over and roll it into a smooth, taut ball. All the folded sides will be on the bottom. Don’t worry that the seams are still visible!
9. Transfer the dough, seam side up, to the prepared bowl. Sprinkle some of the rice/whole wheat mixture on top, fold the towel lightly over the dough, and put it in the fridge.
STEP FOUR: Wait overnight.
Alternatively, let the dough rise in a warm (70-80°F) environment for 3-4 hours. But it tastes better after a long, slow rise of 12+ hours.
STEP FIVE: Bake.
1. Take the bowl out of the fridge and let the dough warm up to room temperature.
2. Put a cast-iron lidded pot (about 10” diameter) in a cold oven and preheat to 500° F. Wait 30 minutes after the oven reaches this temperature before proceeding.
3. Carefully take the dough out of its bowl, place it on a counter and dust the top with some of the rice/whole-wheat mixture. Using a sharp knife or razor blade, slash the top of the bread in a few places. This will allow air to escape as the dough rises in the oven. Be careful not to press down too hard; you want to maintain the round shape.
4. Using oven mitts, take the hot pot out of the oven, remove the lid and gently drop the dough into the pot. Replace the lid and put the covered pot back in the oven, reducing the heat to 450°F.
5. Bake for 20 minutes. Open the oven door, remove the lid and spritz the oven a couple of times with water to create some steam. Spritz again after another 2 minutes. Continue baking (uncovered) for about 20-25 minutes until the crust is a dark golden color. Check the internal temperature: the bread is fully baked when it’s 205° to 210°F at the thickest point.
6. Cool the bread on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before slicing.
Yield: one large loaf.
3 shallow, vertical slashes will create an oval shaped bread. A criss-cross pattern creates a round loaf.
Keep feeding your starter every few days to a week: Add 1 cup flour + warm water to maintain the original consistency.
An update: For a fluffier loaf, add 1 tsp. yeast and increase water (to approx. 1.5 cups) so your dough is a bit wetter. It will get quite airy, which will make it harder to turn into the cast iron pot so you may wish to score the bread IN the pot rather than before. Whatever works for you!
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