Sourdough bread is tangy, chewy, and gone in a day or two in my house. Sourdough was probably the first type of bread ever made, and it is simplicity itself: flour, water, salt, and time.
When flour and water are mixed, the protein gluten begins to form chains. Over time those chains get long and hold the dough together. What yeast and sourdough starter do is chow down on sugars in the flour. They excrete carbon dioxide, which is trapped in the gluteny prison that is the bread dough.
The flavor of sourdough is so unlike bread bought at the grocery store because of time. Generally speaking, the longer bread rises, the more flavor it has. You can’t just go leave your favorite bread recipe to rise for six hours and expect good results; it takes a bit of planning to get a loaf to rise for hours and hours but still retain its shape and integrity, but that’s a subject for another post. Sourdough, though, does lend itself to slow-rise breads because it isn’t as vigorous as instant yeast.
Day 1: In a quart-sized glass or plastic container, combine 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup rye flour. Stir with a plastic spatula until well mixed. Cover with a cloth or set the lid on top (do not seal the lid). Place in a warm, draft-free location with more-or-less constant temperatures (not a window sill, for example).
Day 2: Scoop out about half of the mixture and compost it or pour it down the drain. Add another 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup rye flour, stirring well. If you’re lucky, you’ll already be getting bubbles, but don’t worry if not.
Day 3 and Beyond: Repeat previous step of tossing half of the mixture and adding 1/2 cup each of water and rye flour. Bubbles will start to appear as the yeast gets established, eats the sugars in the flour, produce carbon dioxide and alcohols, and turn the mixture sour. You might have a few days of really funky stink, but unless it turns red, green, or black, push on through the smell. When it starts to smell like good sourdough, you know you’re almost there. This should take one to two weeks. When your sourdough smells consistently sour and each day after you feed it and the bulk doubles in size before shrinking back down, you are ready to use the starter. It should be thicker than soup but wetter than dough.
Weaning to a New Flour: Once the starter is established, you might consider weaning it onto white flour or whatever basic flour you plan to use. This is done over three or four days. On the first day, replace 1/8 cup of the rye flour addition with white flour. On day two of the shift, do half white, half rye. On the third day, 3/8 cup white flour and 1/8 cup rye (throughout this process, continue to add 1/2 cup water each day, of course). By day four, you should be able to just use white flour.
Using the Starter: Sourdough isn’t as vigorous as store-bought yeast, so your bread will rise more slowly. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time the first time you bake with it. The day before baking, feed the starter a bit more than usual. What I do is figure out how much starter I’ll need the next day and put half that much flour and then make up the rest of the weight with water in a new container. I then scoop my starter into this new container and mix it all together. That way, when I pull out what I need the next day, I am left with the full amount of starter. Be sure your container is at least twice as large as your starter, otherwise you’ll end up with starter all over your counter.
Storing the Starter: Unless you’re baking bread every day or two, throwing away half of the starter every day to feed is wasteful. Once the starter is well established, you have a few storage options.
Refrigerator: If you’re baking each week, you can feed the starter with 1 cup flour plus 1/2 cup water and pop it in the refrigerator. Pull it out the day before you bake and feed it.
Drying: If you need to store it for longer (up to a few years), the best way is to spread out, say, a cup of vigorous starter (just like you were about to bake with it) on parchment paper. Spread it thin with a spatula and let it dry. Once completely dry, peel it off the sheet and crumble it into flakes. Store them in an inert container (don’t forget to label what it is and the date). To use, mix a 1/4 cup flakes with 1 cup water and let sit for a few hours, stirring occasionally. Once the flakes are dissolved, add flour until the mixture has the usual consistency. You probably will have to take it through a day or two of feeding and dumping to get it back to its fighting shape.
Freezing: Some warn against storing your starter by freezing it. It might kill the yeast. I know others who have done this successfully. Simply put a cup of vigorous starter in a freezable container or bag and pop in the freezer. To reuse, let it thaw and feed it for a day or two. Easy, peasy.
A Basic Recipe
1 lb 2 oz – bread flour
1 t – salt
7 oz – starter
8 oz – water
Add the water, salt, and starter to a bowl (I use a stand mixer with a dough hook). Mix until the starter is dispersed. Add the flour a bit at a time until it is all mixed in. Either let the mixer knead the dough for 8-10 minutes or do it by hand on a lightly floured surface. You want the dough to be sticky. Add water if it doesn’t leave a few bits on your fingers by the end, as it is probably too dry (the right amount of stickiness comes with experience; you’ll know it was too dry if it ends up being too dense with small holes in the crumb). To tell if you are done kneading, pull a small glob of dough into a thin sheet. If you can stretch it out to a few inches across (you can see the strands of gluten!), you’re ready to let it rise.
Place the dough in a greased bowl with a damp cloth covering it in a warm, draft-free location. Let it double in size. Depending on your starter, the water temperature, and the air temperature, this could take between one and six hours. Once doubled, I pop it back on the floured surface and give it a quick knead. Then back in the bowl to rise again. Once risen, you can carefully remove it and form it into a loaf, either rolling it gently and putting it in a loaf pan or creating a free-standing loaf (a post on these techniques to come, as they require some explanation and a video). Don’t be too aggressive in pushing the air out of the dough at this point.
Once the loaf is rising again, preheat the oven to 425 deg. F. You can wash the top of the loaf with water, egg white, or nothing before popping it in the oven for about 35 minutes. They usually say it is done when you tap the bottom and it sounds hollow, but I just use a thermometer to check the internal temp. When it reaches 195-200 deg. F, it is done.
Let it cool on a rack for a half hour to an hour (if you can stand it) before slicing it open.