It’s the Great COVID Sourdough Experiment!
As we lose connections and community due to the isolation of quarantine, it’s been a beautiful sight to see so many turn to the kitchen instead of the bottle. Or both, but at least all the cooking gives us a good base for the booze! I could wax poetic about the similarities between sourdough starter and the sour mash process in making whiskey, but this is about bread. I would rather be talking about whiskey. Always. We will again soon.
Disclaimer: I am not a master baker. These instructions are based on my experiences, including a few failures. I’ve tried to make them simple without skipping anything important.
If you’re one of the lucky ones that picked up a starter from me, you have 100 grams. Yes, you need a kitchen scale. No, it’s not all that optional. Volume measurements are unreliable and unpredictable. You can get a digital scale for $15-20 at some groceries, most box stores, and definitely on Amazon. Learn to use the tare function.
The baby needs to be fed. If you picked up from me, feed the same day. Mix equal parts of starter, flour, and water. For flour- I use organic, unbleached bread flour, but you can use any good AP or bread flour you like. You should use slightly warm (at least room temperature), filtered water- your tap is full of crap that can harm the delicate yeast colony you’re going to be nurturing. This is not the yeast I’m used to talking about and I’m a little sad, but we bake on.
- Stir the starter. I use the handle of a wooden spoon for this.
- Mix together, in a separate container, 100g of flour with 100g of water until smooth, and then add to starter. Stir together until just incorporated.
- Cover with tea towel or paper towel- it needs to breathe- for up to 12 hours.
The starter should begin to bubble rather quickly, depending on the temperature of your kitchen, and will eventually expand up to double in size. Make sure your container can handle the volume or you’ll have a bit of a mess on your hands. Starter that has both large and small bubbles and is mounded is the optimal for baking; this is referred to as “ripe” starter in recipes. If its surface is flattened out with only small bubbles, you’ll need to feed again. You’ll get the hang of it.
If you’re not 100% confident if she’s ready to go, drop a half teaspoon or so into a glass of room temperature water. It should float. If not, back to a feed.
The Fun Stuff
Now you should be ready to bake! You can find zillions of recipes online, ask your grandma, search Facebook, or make the one below. Measure out what starter you need for your favorite recipe, weigh what you have left, feed the starter equal parts of flour and and water, and go again.
If you’re not planning on baking a loaf every few days, you have options. Hands Off: About 2 hours after you feed the starter, cover tightly and place in the refrigerator. You can leave it in there until you’re ready to bake with only a weekly feed. Hands On: If you want it at the ready, you’ll need to feed at least once a day, twice preferably. Again, you’ll get to know your starter and how it acts. As the temperature rises, you’ll need to adjust. In any case, you’ll have to try pretty hard to kill her, so don’t stress too much. A few feedings will usually get her back to where she needs to be.
(If she smells rank or has pink or red streaks, you’ve succeeded in yeasticide and will need to start from scratch with a fresh starter, although now we know you can’t be trusted.)
Both the refrigerator and the countertop method will require that you discard a bit of starter, much more so with countertop. You can wash it down the drain, share it with friends, or check out some of the “discard” recipes. Discard recipes are good. Eventually, you’ll probably do a little of each of these. Just don’t throw it in the trash. You’ll be sorry.
Basic 3-Day Schedule
- Day 1: Before you go to bed, take your starter out of the fridge. Stir in any liquid that might have collected on top. (This is just a little alcohol created from the fermentation… back to my favorite words!!) Measure out a generous scoop into a bowl, feed it equal parts flour & water, and cover. Let it do its work overnight.
- Day 2 Morning: When you wake up, check on the starter. It should be active and bubbling. If it’s not, don’t sweat it; just give it another feed. (Told you you’d have a lot of discard!) Go back to the float test if you’re not confident.
- Day 2 Afternoon: Make dough according to your recipe. Bulk ferment overnight. Right now, evening temperatures are cool, so the rising process is slower than the summer. As it warms up, you might want to do this step in the refrigerator to slow it down and allow the sour flavors to fully develop.
- Bake Day: Divide and shape your loaf (or loaves). Place in enameled cast iron pot for second rise. Score the top. Bake. Cool (this is the hardest part).
Straight Up No Knead Sourdough
After reading way too many blogs and cookbooks and recipes, this is my amalgamation. Should be* perfect for first-timers. Follow directions. Be precise. Set timers. Pay attention. After all, we’ve got nothing but time on our hands right now…
If you’re following the schedule for a morning bake, start this on Day 2, late in the afternoon/early evening.
- 150g ripe starter
- 250g 110º filtered water
- 25g of your best extra virgin olive oil
- 500g unbleached bread flour
- 10g finely ground sea salt
- flour for work surface
- finely ground cornmeal or semolina for finishing
- Mix together your starter, warm water, and olive oil in a large bowl. Add in the flour and salt. Stir together with a wooden spoon or your hands until all of the flour is incorporated.
- Rest (autolyse) for 30 minutes. This step helps form strong gluten, making the dough easier to handle and shape.
- Still in the bowl, work the dough into a rough ball, taking only 15-20 seconds.
- Rise up! Cover your bowl with plastic wrap and put it in a warm spot in your kitchen (top of the fridge seems to be a winner for most). If that spot happens to receive direct sunlight, place a clean tea towel over the top of the plastic. You’re looking for the dough’s volume to be 1½ – 2x its original size. Bulk ferment overnight. My house is drafty this time of year, so I’ll do this step in the oven on proof mode. Easily replicate that setting if you don’t have it by just turning your oven light on. But watch it! A light can put out a lot of heat; you want it to be in the 75º arena.
- Optional: Stretch & folds before you go to bed.
- Good morning!! Scrape the dough out on to a clean work surface using a bench scraper. Flour your hands. Very lightly flour your work surface if the dough is at all still sticky. Starting at the top, fold the dough over toward the center. Turn 45º and fold over the next section of dough. Repeat all the way around. Flip the dough over, seam side down. Continue to shape the dough into an even, slightly flattened ball by gently cupping the sides of the dough with your hands, rotating it, repeating until you are happy with the size and shape. Hint: the size should easily fit into your Dutch oven.
- Two choices here: 1- heavily dust the bottom of your Dutch oven with cornmeal or semolina, or 2- line your Dutch oven with parchment paper, or 2½- line with parchment paper and dust with cornmeal. I use parchment for easy removal from the pot and like a light dusting over the top of the dough as well.
- Put dough, seam side down, into Dutch oven and let rise second time. This rise is much less dramatic, though it produces a light, fluffy puffy appearance after 30 minutes to an hour. Keep an eye on it! You don’t want to over-proof at this stage. (Over proof, more of my favorite words about booze.)
- Prepare your oven- preheat to 450º for at least 30 minutes. Don’t do this with the dough in the oven!
- Slash your bread just before placing in oven. Using a very sharp knife or razor blade, cut about an inch deep, at an angle, 4-6 inches across the top. This allows steam to escape and also makes it look pretty.
- Place dough in the oven with the lid on your Dutch oven. Immediately turn oven to 400º. Bake 20 minutes. Remove lid and continue to bake, uncovered for 40 minutes. The loaf should be golden in color, with an internal temperature between 205º and 210º.
- Crack oven door and turn off oven. Let sit 10 minutes before moving loaf out of pan to a cooling rack. Let the bread cool. It needs to cool at least an hour or you’ll have gummy bread. Nowhere near as good as gummy bears and a waste of 2 days!