Tag Archives: sourdough starter

For the Love of Carbs #2

Bread class continued with good spirits and much laughter, as we embarked on focaccia, ciabatta and a new method of making sourdough.


Is that apprehension I’m sensing?

First up, some brave souls brought in their starters for Abby to evaluate. We learned that a starter is ready to use if a small bit floats when immersed in water. Sadly, most of our efforts sank like a stone. (Cue “My heart will go on”.)

To make both focaccia and ciabatta, you begin with a “poolish”, which is pronounced poo-leash rather than rhyming with “foolish” which is how we felt about our sinking non-starters. This is essentially another type of starter that is ready much faster and keeps the dough nice and airy.

Abby kept us on a strict schedule so we could bake these during class. Unfortunately, my benchmate and I made the crucial mistake of flouring the tops of our ciabattas, not realizing they’d be flipped over. (Or possibly not paying attention?) And I opted not to cut the dough into rolls, ending up with a pale loaf bearing more than a passing resemblance to a manatee.


Ciabatta in the oven


Abby suspects they’re not quite ready.

Our focaccias weren’t much prettier, being pancake-flat. But despite their wonky appearance, both breads were pretty tasty.


Focaccia resembling paddleboards

The big excitement of the evening came when we learned a new technique that brought out our inner dominatrix. Abby had e-mailed us a video to get us “in the mood”. It’s called the slap and fold method, or, as my friend S dubbed it, Food Porn: You slap your dough on the counter, stretch it up and slap it down again. After about 5 minutes the dough is ready to rest, and so are you.

Who knew that bread making had a racy side? Or that my wardrobe needs a black leather apron?!

                                  (Above, clockwise: focaccia at home – I added rosemary -, ciabatta, sourdough.)

I can only imagine what’s in store for us this week. Stay tuned, dear friends.

For the Love of Carbs

Whoever said, “Man cannot live by bread alone” clearly didn’t live in my house. To that end, I’ve embarked on a series of 3 consecutive weekly classes in bread making, hoping to hone my skills or at the very least make and eat lots of yummy things.

Our first class was Tuesday night. Ten strangers introduced ourselves, commenting on each other’s aprons (the best one: printed with unpronounceable Scottish phrases) and gleaning levels of expertise. We ran the gamut from novice to knowledgeable.

Few things bind people together more than a shared interest; in this case hunger, as the class runs from 6-9 pm and no one had had dinner. As we descended on the snack table – samples of the bread we’d soon be baking – things quickly loosened up.

And then the work began. Abby, our intrepid instructor, handed out sheets of recipes (blue emmer sandwich bread, sourdough and challah) and led us back to the industrial kitchen where we started our first loaf.

First lesson: Measure your ingredients by weight, not volume. Turns out, it’s more accurate since flours vary in density, and it’s easier too. You put a bowl on a scale, set it to zero, and reset it to zero after you’ve added each ingredient. To quote the Monkees, now I’m a believer.

The whole group got down and dirty as we over- or under-loaded our bowls, covered ourselves in flour while dumping it out to re-measure, and got sticky bits of dough in our hair and jewelry. (Note to self: don’t wear a watch.) If you’re a clean freak, this “sport” may not be for you. One tip if you don’t want to keep running to the sink: keep a bowl of extra wheat flour available and rub your hands in it to remove most of the dough.

Then we started kneading. Not only is this a great upper-body workout (3 hours of standing and punching dough should cancel out all those calories, right?), it must be one of the earliest forms of therapy. PINCH! That’s for your annoying neighbor. POUND! That’s for your obnoxious boss. FLATTEN! That’s for every bad relationship you’ve ever had.

We also learned a great trick for preserving your starter if you don’t make bread multiple times a week: Roll some of the sticky starter in wheat flour and keep rubbing until it dries out into a crumbly nub. Abby says it will keep for quite awhile in the fridge (will have to ask how long “awhile” is) until you’re ready to reactivate it.

To keep your starter bubbly and active you’ll have to feed it 1-2x a week. (Starter is a fairly demanding pet but at least it won’t pee in the house!)

Keep it loosely covered in the fridge. A day or two before you plan to bake, dump out about 90% (this takes self-discipline as it seems so wasteful), then add back equal parts water and flour (half wheat/half bread flour) – making at least 130g (1 cup for your recipe plus extra to maintain it). Cover loosely and let it sit out on your counter for 8-10 hours. When the starter gets airy and fragrant, repeat the process.

If you don’t plan to bake for a few days, feed your leftover with more flour than water or dry it out as suggested above.

Exhausted but exhilarated, we left with three batches of dough to bake on our own, plus a dried nub of starter to resurrect. Abby encouraged us to name our starters – hers is Shiva. Since I have a tendency to kill mine on a regular basis, I’m naming him Lazarus.


“Meh” on the blue emmer bread. It was kind of flabby and spongy. A little too much like health food and not enough like “indulgence”.

“Yay” on the sourdough method, although the amount of dough we made was a bit small for my cast iron Dutch oven. And my usual method yields a darker, crisper crust.

“Pretty good” for the challah – I prefer the recipe in the Silver Palate Cookbook. DH says this one reminds him more of a brioche.

Looking forward to this week’s class. Especially the snacks.

p.s. Final tip: Don’t add salt with the rest of your ingredients.  Let dough hydrate (aka rest) for an hour and then mix in the salt.  Apparently it interferes with gluten production. Did not know that.

[main photo source: pixabay.com]


Sweet on Sourdough

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)

Sensational Sourdough

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.

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.IMG_1059

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.

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.