Embracing Imperfection: Sourdough Bread

Mmmn, fresh bread

Mmmn, fresh bread

When I sketched out my little list of ‘things to blog about’, sourdough bread was right at the top of the list. You see, I LOVE bread, am an avid baker, and am somewhat anthropomorphically attached to my sourdough starter, Herman. Herman was born in New Orleans, traveled with me to three different homes in two states, was dried and packed in a box for 7 months while I did my dissertation research, and has been a constantly, low-maintenance companion for (I think) 6 years or so now.

This is Herman:

Herman, the well-traveled sourdough starter

Herman, the well-traveled sourdough starter, right out of the fridge. When it warms up, it gets bubbly, the water is reabsorbed, and the jar is about 3/4 full.

Not much of a looker, Herman, but it makes wonderful bread. At any rate, I make bread every few days, but this week OF COURSE, I’m trying to get good pictures (not my strong suit)…so every loaf was turning out not quite right. A little flat, a little over-risen, this fancy braid thing I did wasn’t quite right, the browning was uneven. But after a few rounds of this I remembered:

Even imperfect homemade bread is about a THOUSAND TIMES better than storebought bread.

Who wouldn't want to eat that?

Who wouldn’t want to eat that? Fresh baked sourdough with butter and our own honey.

And this might even be doubled for sourdough. A THOUSAND TIMES. Warm fresh bread…who doesn’t love that? Even if it’s not perfectly Pinterest-y (again, I might have a little thing about this). All cooking is on some level about the process, not just the end result, and bread baking is a particularly pleasant process. The beauty of sourdough is that it fits itself around your schedule, and is actually very little physical work, since time develops the gluten and the flavor, instead of lots of kneading. Plus, if the RECIPE says it’s not always going to be perfect, perhaps that will make you more willing to jump into the mercurial but rewarding world of bread baking. So here goes, my recipe for the Care and Feeding of a sourdough starter, and the making of (imperfect) Sourdough Bread.

Starting your own Sourdough Starter

This is more of a set of instructions than it is a recipe. And again, there are much more specific sets of rules on the internet, if what you want is rules. But if you’re comfortable with embracing the process and seeing how it comes out, I promise this will eventually work. In a pint jar or other small container, mix together 1/2 c water (if you have chlorine in your water, let this stand overnight before using) and 1/2 c unbleached bread flour. I use King Arthur, and really like it. Let it sit out on your counter overnight.

The next day, scoop out half of the mixture, and throw it away. I know, it’s a little wasteful. You could put it in with your compost, but be aware: dried sourdough is like concrete. If you pour it into a container, you’re going to have to soak that container to remove the residue, in cold water. Hot water makes it worse, trust me. Then add a half cup of unchlorinated water, and a half cup of your bread flour. Mix it up with the remaining goop in the jar, roughly with a spoon. Don’t worry AT ALL about getting it evenly mixed. Over time, all the flour will hydrate and it will smooth out on its own.

Repeat this process daily. In a few days, you’ll start to see a few bubbles around the edges. With repeated feeding, this will grow to be an active, bubbly, working sourdough. For me, this took about ten days, but it might take a bit longer. You will see lots of bubbles from the side of the jar, and it will get BIGGER after you feed it. At this point, either make some bread, or toss it into the fridge with a cover on it. Use it, or feed it again, within the week.

You could also get some starter from a friend. I give folks splits of mine all the time. Then you’re ready to go right away, but even without that, you can grow your own.

(Imperfect) Sourdough Bread

Tools needed:
Sourdough starter, a largish bowl or mixer bowl, a rubber spatula, a dough hook (if using mixer), dutch oven or large heavy pot or quarry tiles or a cookie sheet (more on this later)

  • Bread flour
  • Water (again, no chlorine)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon fat of your choice (I put lard in it, but before the demise of Acorn the pig, I used olive oil or butter)

Okay. When I make bread, I use my Kitchenaid mixer, but you can also do every step of this with your hands in a bowl. I’ll tell you both ways.

Step one (the sponge):
In the bowl of your mixer, or the large bowl, place half the stringy, goopy, bubbly starter in your jar. It will be very elastic, which is good. Now, before you go any further, feed the starter again. Half a cup each, flour and water. You’re going to leave that jar out on the counter while your sponge rises, which will let the remaining starter work on the food you just added.

Meanwhile, to the starter in the bowl, add 1/2 c flour and 1/2 c water, and stir to combine. Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel and leave it alone for a while. Don’t refrigerate either your sponge OR the jar of starter at this point. I almost always start my sponge the night before I intend to bake. Remember, you’re making the bread fit into YOUR schedule, not the other way around.

Step two (the dough):

Sponge, bubbling away

Sponge, bubbling away

It’s the next morning, and we’re going to turn this bubbly mass into bread. Add the salt, sugar, fat and about a half cup of flour to your sponge. We’re going to add flour a bit at a time, because sourdough is never exactly the same, nor is the humidity of your kitchen. Oh, and about the fat: I didn’t used to put fat in my bread. However, I’m the only one here who eats it, and if you don’t add the fat, it stales in about a day or so. I can’t eat a loaf of bread in a day. So I add the fat, and get three solid days of bread out on the counter in great shape. It’s a good deal. Plus, lard or butter in your bread, even this little bit, is DELICIOUS.

Stir in the flour, using a bread hook or your clean hand. How does it feel? Is it sticky? It probably is. Add a little more flour, and mix it up some more. Does it feel a little dry? Mix some more, and that loose flour will get taken up by the dough. You might need to add a little flour a few more times, and if it’s particularly dry, you could add a little slosh of water. You’re looking for an end result that is a little sticky, but not goopy. It should feel like a cohesive, but sticky, ball. Here’s what it looks like at this point:

Sticky dough ball

Sticky dough ball

When you pull your hand out of the dough, the ball should be trying to stay on your hand AND stay in the bowl. Toss some flour on the counter with your other hand, scrape out the dough, and plop it on the counter. Scrape off the stringy stickiness still on your hand, and add it to the dough. Go wash your hands. Oh, and cover your starter jar and put it in the fridge. It will wait there until you’re ready to start the next batch.

Now we’re going to knead, but this isn’t a giant long muscular production, like you might see on a cooking show. The purpose of kneading is to develop the gluten in the bread, the elastic protein that will hold bubbles of carbon dioxide created by your yeast (the wild yeast you’ve been feeding in the starter). Mechanical action develops the gluten but so does time, and your bread has already been aging quite a bit, in the starter and then the sponge, and again coming up in the final rise.

Dust some flour on your hands, grab the edge of the ball, and push it firmly into the middle. Rotate about a third of the way round the ball, and do it again. Repeat. After 15 or so of this pushes, the outside of the ball won’t be sticky anymore. Instead, it will be smooth, dusty with flour, and your dough will look like, well…a ball of dough.

Kneaded dough

Kneaded dough

Tada! It’s all ready for the final rise. Fancy bakeries do this in beautiful round baskets, to help the ball hold its shape (like this), but I use a 2 dollar plastic strainer basket from the Asian market. You could also use a bowl, or even a pot. Line your chosen container with a clean dish towel (NOT a terry one, a smooth one), dust it liberally with flour, and plop in your dough, smooth side down. It will look like this:

Ball in basket, ready to rise

Ball in basket, ready to rise

Cover the strainer with the other end of your towel, so the dough doesn’t dry out. Now we’re just going to leave it alone for a while, until it’s roughly doubled in size. On a warm day, this might take two hours or so. On a cold day (like it is here today), it might be more like 6 or 7. But wait! Didn’t you say the bread is going to fit into MY schedule, Fae? What if I won’t be AROUND in 6 or 7 hours? I’ve got stuff to do, people to see!

No problem. Pop it in the fridge. You can let it rise while you’re home, and if you have to leave, leave it under refrigeration, and that will slow down the rise. Mix your dough when you get up in the morning, leave it out until you go to work, take it back out when you get home! It’ll warm back up and continue rising. It can stay in the fridge for DAYS at this point, and will only get more flavorful. Take it out, let it warm up and continue rising. You’ll know it’s ready to bake when it’s roughly doubled, or when you can gently poke it and the dent rises back up. It will look like this:

Slightly over-risen dough

Slightly over-risen dough

Now, I actually forgot about this batch, because my back is out and I was doing other stuff. It got a little bigger than I would usually go, and fell just a bit in the oven. But it’s still delicious!

When you’re ready to bake, turn your oven on to 450. If you’re going to bake it in a dutch oven, large covered pot, or on quarry tiles, put them in to heat as the oven heats up. Quarry tiles are how to mimic a pizza or bread baking stone on the cheap: buy them at your local home improvement store (ask for 4 unglazed quarry tiles, they’re only a few dollars each). You can keep them right in the oven on the oven rack, so they’re ready whenever you want to bake bread. They’re also lovely for heating up a frozen pizza on. Alternatively, you can bake your bread on a cookie sheet. It won’t be quite as crusty and beautiful if it’s not cooked covered, but will still taste amazing.

When your oven is good and hot, turn the ball out of the basket right onto your chosen cooking surface. Take a sharp knife, and cut 3 quick slashes into the surface, about a half an inch deep. Bake (covered if you’re using a dutch oven or pot) for roughly 30 minutes or until it smells great and is deep brown. Darker is better for this. If you’re worried about whether it’s done, you can stick an instant read thermometer into it: over 160 is what you’re looking for. But I promise you: if it’s brown, it’s finished. Here’s mine:

Coming out of the oven

Coming out of the oven

Isn’t that pot FABULOUS? I taught cooking class for adult ed for a while, at a local high school, and one fall they were THROWING OUT all the equipment from the home ec classes that weren’t being taught anymore. I totally grabbed it and brought it home. God knows how old it is, but cast iron only gets better with time. Free is my favorite brand.

That’s really all there is to it. And you know, that loaf isn’t perfect. It’s a little over-risen, so a bit flat on the bottom, and the slashes pulled the dough, rather than making a beautiful pattern on the top. But it TASTES great.

Yours might not be perfect either. Every sourdough loaf is a little different: it’s a living thing, your conditions change, you might let it rise a little more or a little less. But it will be WONDERFUL nonetheless.

Okay, that's delicious. Embrace the imperfection!

Okay, that’s delicious. Embrace the imperfection!

Until next time,

~Fae

This post submitted to Homesteading Blog Hop #23! Thanks for visiting.

About faegood

Nerd. Cook. Animal lover. Pen for hire.
This entry was posted in Recipes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Embracing Imperfection: Sourdough Bread

  1. V says:

    Imperfections make things and us unique it would be a boring world without them!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. deuce marie says:

    That looks so delicious and since I have had the pleasure of eating your cooking I know it is. I am loving your bog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Connection, and the Matriarchy of Sourdough | Species Confusion

  4. After reading this post I am genuinely feeling complicated about my choice to live gluten free and not become a sourdough expert baker.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My starter doesn’t have a name, except when it runs over in the fridge. Then my husband calls it the blob. My sponge never gets that bubbly. You must have a special secret. – Margy

    Liked by 1 person

    • faegood says:

      I think it likes the climate here…but overall, it’s pretty active since I use it every other day or so.
      Yours runs over in the FRIDGE? Mine doesn’t change much once it’s in the cold.

      Like

  6. Pingback: Praise the Lard: home rendering lard for baking | Species Confusion

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