This week I said goodbye to someone who means a lot to me. He’s moving from Chicago to San Francisco to achieve all the goals he’s been working toward for the last twenty years. He isn’t a big part of my life but the spot he occupies in it is a space I protect no matter how bad or good our relationship might be at any given moment. It’s hard to put into words how amazing he is and the profound effect he’s had on me so, because I usually bake away my feelings, I’m putting it into bread.
I’ve chosen sourdough to make as an homage to him, not just because he’s moving to San Francisco and that’s one of the things the city is known for, but because, I’d like to say, it’s one of the most fascinating breads to make. There are many steps to take, it’s a lot of work, a lot of time, and it’s complicated. It also requires a degree of passion and ambition to transform the flour, water and salt into bread layered with complex flavors unmatched by any other bread. In short, it can take even the most experienced of bakers outside her comfort zone.
But really, I just want to make sourdough because this kind of stuff excites me and his move just reminded me of how awesome sourdough bread is.
What makes sourdough sour is the starter. Making the starter is the process of collecting wild yeast from the air using only flour and water. This is used for the sponge (the step before dough is actually formed). Over time it ferments and enough yeast is collected so that you don’t have to add dry yeast, active yeast or instant yeast to make your bread. As a bonus, the fermentation adds the distinct sour flavor. The thing that’s really amazing about sourdough starter is you can keep the same starter for a very long time as long as you keep feeding it. The bakery responsible for sourdough’s fame is Boudin Bakery. Not only did it make sourdough famous, but it also claims to be San Francisco’s oldest continuously running company. It has been using the same starter since the mid-1800s and refers to it as the “mother” dough. According to the bakery, the mother dough was even saved from the Great Earthquake of 1906 — it’s well-protected and well-preserved.
How to Make Sourdough Starter:
- mix together 5 oz. of water and 5 oz. of rye flour
- let it sit, loosely covered for 24 hours at room temperature
- after 24 hours, throw away five ounces of the mixture and replace it with 2.5 oz. of water and 2.5 oz. of all-purpose flour and let it sit for another two days
- after the fourth day, repeat this process (“feeding” your starter) — removing 5 oz. and replacing it with the 5 oz. of 50/50 combination of water and flour twice a day for two or three days
When it’s properly fed at room temperature, it’s very bubbly and active. When it’s refrigerated, it separates a little bit and the alcohol sits on top of the starter — don’t worry, just stir it a little bit before you discard and feed it. It’ll be back to bubbly in no time.
And there you have your starter. If you keep your starter at room temperature, you should continue feeding your starter daily. However, to keep your starter for… ever, you can refrigerate it and feed it once a week. When you want to use it to make bread, remove it from the refrigerator and feed it twelve hours before you start your recipe. If you’re concerned about wasting flour when you discard the starter for your feedings, you can enhance the flavor of other recipes with it — I have used it with flatbread and pretzels but it can be used in pancake or waffle batter as well.
- 4 oz. starter
- 4 oz. (warm, approximately 75℉)
- 5 oz. all purpose flour
In a medium bowl, combine the water, starter and flour. Stir until it’s well-combined. Cover with plastic and let it rise for 2.5 hours.
- 8 oz. water (warm, approximately 75℉)
- prepared sponge
- 16 oz. flour
- 2 tsp salt
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine water and sponge. Using the hook attachment, mix on low and add the flour a few tablespoons at a time until it’s all combined. Add the salt. Let the dough stir for 30 minutes. Form a ball from the dough. Place it in a bowl prepared with cooking spray, cover tightly with plastic and let rise for approximately three hours or until it’s doubled in size.
When the dough is ready, gently stretch the dough out and fold it into thirds. Cut in half and form two balls of dough. Place on a pan prepared with cooking spray. Spritz the tops of the dough with cooking spray, cover loosely with plastic and place in refrigerator overnight.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. How you want to place the dough in your oven is up to you, but a pizza stone produces the best results. Personally, so that I handle the dough as little as possible, I line two 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper and gently transfer the dough to the pans where I let the dough rise for another 3 hours or the dough has doubled in size.
With two pizza stones on your oven racks and a pan of water on the bottom of the oven, preheat your oven to 500℉. Make sure it’s really hot — do this at least 45 minutes before it’s time to bake.
When the dough is ready, score the tops of the dough with slashes ½-inch deep. Spritz the tops of the dough with water and immediately place in the oven. Let bake for about 40 minutes (give or take a few, in the first 10 minutes, occasionally spray the tops with water. When it’s golden brown (you can let it get pretty dark), tap it to see if it sounds hollow — that’s when you know it’s done. If it makes you more comfortable, you can check the internal temperature with an instant read thermometer. The temperature should be 200℉. Allow your bread to cool for a few hours on a cooling rack before you slice it.
I’m always surprised when my bread turns out exactly the way it’s supposed to because most things just don’t bend to my whims and desires. The experience gives me clarity and confidence to do bigger and better things.
I’m very pleased with my sourdough bread. It was totally worth all the effort I put into it.