I remember way back when I was in Brownie scouts, one of my troop moms gave me a gallon-sized Ziploc bag with about an inch layer of thin, cream-colored liquid in it. There were little bubbles, and it was a little thinner than pancake batter.
“Friendship bread,” they told me (and my mom, who had no idea what to do with this bag of stuff given to me). We were to knead it for a few minutes each day for a week, and at the end of the week, make bread from it.
It was a lovely idea, but I couldn’t keep a living, breathing hamster alive, let alone bread starter. The bag sat on our counter for a day or two, during which I half-heartedly poked at it from time to time, until my mom threw it away.
It would be many years before I would learn about breads and starters. It would be, well, last week, before I finally sat down, opened several of my cookbooks, and taught myself what sourdough starter was, how it was made, how it worked, and why it was essential. It started, as so many things do, with Amanda and me watching the Cooking Channel. Someone had baked bread, and I remarked that if I could learn to make sourdough bread, we would be in business. Amanda agreed, encouraging me to learn this, to make her some sourdough.
What my girl wants, my girl gets. And thus began Project Sourdough.
Sourdough starter is essentially a mix of flour, water, and yeast. Some people add salt, some people add sugar. There are as many ways to do this as there are loaves of bread, it seems, and if you do some Internet research, you can end up flustered by the rules, tricks, recipes, admonitions, and snobbery over things like wild yeasts, water, and the type of flour to use in your (clearly) handmade clay bowl from organic clay and distilled water from your backyard.
It’s bread! It’s one of the oldest things we as a species know how to make. Let’s cut the crap and make the blasted thing!
That’s what I thought anyway. That’s the moment I usually come to when I think that, through the beauty of technology and the Internet and wider knowledge base, we have essentially wrapped back around to making something difficult when it’s really quite simple.
So I forged ahead. I picked a recipe from a Betty Crocker cookbook (there are worse people to start with than Betty). In a bowl, I mixed yeast, all-purpose flour, bread flour, and warm water. I covered it loosely with plastic wrap, put the bowl on a cookie sheet, and took the whole thing into the laundry room (I had clothes in the dryer, making the room a bit warmer), and I left it there. When I checked it an hour or so later, it had doubled in volume, and there were bubbles popping in slow motion along the top of the batter.
You have to continue this process for 2-4 days (some people do it for a week! whatever you have time for), feeding the starter along the way. Feeding it sounds like a complicated process (or at least a fussy one), and it can be, but it’s also quite easy. To feed the starter, you scoop about a cup of it out; you can give it to a friend (Friendship-style!), use it to make pretzels or pizza crust or something, or you can just throw it away. [You have to eliminate some of the starter because if you just keep adding to the bowl without getting rid of any, the starter will get too big and will overflow.] Once you scoop out a cup of starter, add scant cup of flour and scant cup of warm water, alternating between the two. Be careful not to stir it too much; you just want to incorporate the ingredients. Once they’re mixed in and there’s no dry flour visible, cover it loosely, and leave it alone until the next day.
I fed mine for two days before transferring it to a Tupperware container, first scooping out a cup and a half to try making my first loaves of sourdough bread. The rest went into the refrigerator (after I fed it one last time). Every Sunday, now, I will take it out, bring it to room temperature, and feed it again with 1 tablespoon flour, 1 tablespoon warm water, and a teaspoon of sugar. That’s the way to keep it going. That’s the way to keep my pet sourdough starter alive.
But the really exciting part of all of this is the bread. On Sunday, I made my first sourdough bread from a starter, and it was a success! The sourdough flavor is light – I’m under the impression it will get stronger as it gets older – and the crust is chewy. We ate it alongside salads last night, toasted, drizzled with olive oil, salt, and Italian herb seasoning. (That was delicious!) It makes great toast, great snacks… I mean, it’s bread. It can do no wrong. Right?
A Few Things I’ve Learned About Bread This Week
In the interest of helping my fellow cooks, here are a few observations I made about baking sourdough bread:
– If you spill starter on anything, wipe it up immediately. I’ll be frank: it’s a bitch to clean up. It’s sticky, and once it dries, nothing but soaking with hot water will get it off. So if you accidentally, I don’t know, dribble it on the counter, your stand mixer, and then drop a spatula coated with starter on your foot, wipe it all (including your foot) immediately, or hours later, you’ll wonder what that crud on your toes is.
– Don’t over-complicate it. Yes, there are “best” ways to do it, and you should definitely do your homework. The science behind bread-making, especially when dealing with starters and yeast, is helpful to know. Yeast feeds on sugar (which is why when people get yeast infections, they’re told to cut sugar out of their diet); salt is helpful as a flavoring agent, but it tends to slow down yeast production. Bread flour has proteins in it that are more suited to forming the strands of gluten that are essential for bread to rise; more suited than all-purpose flour, although either will do. In a pinch, mix them together.
– You can’t screw it up. There was one website I found that set me free, in a way, because it gave a lot of “what if” scenarios: what if my starter doesn’t bubble/expand; what if my bread doesn’t turn out; what if??? And the website essentially said what we all need to know: it’s just bread. You can’t screw it up. If the starter doesn’t bubble/expand, try feeding it again, place it in a warm environment (I swear by the laundry room when the dryer’s going), and try again. If it still doesn’t rise, throw it out and start again. If the starter begins to look pink or orange, throw it out; it’s contaminated.
Sourdough Starter and Bread Recipe
Recipe adapted from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (2000)
3 1/2 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour (not self-rising)
1 package of regular or active rise yeast (or 2 1/4 teaspoons)
2 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
Mix flour and yeast in large container/mixing bowl. Gradually beat in water until smooth. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand in warm place 2 to 4 days or until bubbly and sour-smelling. Transfer to 2-quart or larger plastic container with tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate until ready to use.
To keep starter active: Once a week, beat in 1 tablespoon bread flour or all-purpose flour and 1 tablespoon warm water until smooth. Cover loosely and let stand in warm place until bubbly (12-14 hours). Cover tightly and refrigerate. [Newer Betty Crocker recipes say to add a teaspoon of sugar as well, which I’m going to try next time.]
To replenish starter: For each 1 1/2 cups starter used, beat in 1 1/3 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour and 1 1/3 cups warm water until smooth. Cover loosely and let stand in warm place 12-14 hours or until bubbly. Cover tightly; refrigerate until ready to use.
Sourdough bread recipe
1 1/2 cups sourdough starter
4 1/4 to 5 1/4 cups bread flour
1 package regular or active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup very warm water (120 to 130 degrees)
1. Starter should be consistency of thin pancake batter; if it’s not, stir in enough warm water to achieve consistency. Stir starter before measuring. Then measure out 1 1/2 cups cold starter and bring to room temperature (starter will expand as it warms up).
2. Mix 2 cups flour, the yeast, and the salt in a large bowl. Gradually beat in starter and warm water with an electric mixer on low speed, alternating between water and starter. Beat on medium speed two minutes, then high speed 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Stir in enough remaining flour to make a soft dough.
3. Place dough on lightly floured surface. Knead about eight minutes or until smooth. Place dough in a large bowl greased with olive oil, turning dough to grease all sides. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place, 30-60 minutes or until double. Dough is ready if indentation remains when touched.
4. Grease large cookie sheet with butter and then sprinkle lightly with cornmeal. Gently push fist into dough to deflate. Divide dough in half using sharp knife; be careful not to cut in a back and forth motion; just one gently press down with the knife or pastry blade. Shape each half into a 5-inch ball, then cut two slashes in an X shape across the top of the dough, about a 1/4″ deep. Cover loosely with plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray and let rise in a warm place 30-45 minutes, or until double.
5. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake 35-40 minutes or until golden brown and loaf sounds hollow when tapped on bottom. Remove from cookie sheet to wire rack and cool.