We make sourdough bread multiple times per week here at Castle in the Country from a starter that began life on April 15, 2005. It is used here for french toast, croutons, picnic baskets, dinners, breadcrumbs…very little goes to waste. I like the simplicity of ingredients: Flour, water, salt. I like the complexity of the flavors brought on by the biology of the microorganisms used here. I like being connected to a process that is as old as civilization. I like eating the bread, chewy and firm structured; this is the exact opposite of that bane of our modern existence: wonder bread.
I will not go into a lot of detail about the starter other than that I followed the instructions of Peter Reinhhart in his book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, using raisins as the source for the wild yeast. There are basically three ways to get started, either purchase a “kit” from some famous strain such as San Francisco starter, or you can follow a recipe in a book or by using google, or you can take a part of a friend’s starter and call it your own. Your starter basically becomes a pet that you feed and care for, in fact, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, many people have a name for their starter such as, “Happy” or “Steady Eddie.”
Ingredients (really basic here)
4C + 1C Flour (bread or high protein flour is better, but all purpose will do fine)
1 1/4 C + 3/4 C Water
1/2 T Salt
(see what I mean by really basic?)
Stand mixer-Unless you like the Zen experience of kneading the dough by hand. Remember, you will be making a batch of this bread weekly, so the Zen aspects of kneading by hand can quickly loose their appeal. That is why I recommend a sturdy stand mixer. Be sure to check the manufacturer’s recommended maximum batch size. Kneading bread with a dough hook is very hard on the motor and gears of a mixer. Most of the heavy-duty mixers max out at about a 4Cup batch size. Don’t push the capacity of your equipment unless you really wanted a new mixer anyway. Before I bought my used Hobart, I burned out a Kitchenaid about every 12 months.
Room in your refrigerator to store the dough on a baking sheet prior to baking.
A pan you don’t care about to use as a steam tray in your oven.
Cooking spray, oil, or butter for coating the bowl when the dough is rising. (This can be omitted if you are a purist.)
First, get your starter out of the refrigerator where you have kept it in suspended animation for up to a week. Make sure it is healthy-basically if it is gray, slack, and runny, it should be refreshed before using it for bread-you waited too long between refreshings. Pour off any liquid (called hooch and indeed containing ethyl alcohol) that may have accumulated on top. You will be refreshing the starter as a part of this procedure.
In the mixing bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, add 4 cups of flour (see my comments about batch size above,) 1/2 T salt,1/2 Cup starter, and 1 1/4 C water. These quantities are guidelines, feel free to tinker to get the right ratio based on your preferred flour.
Knead for 5 minutes or so until smooth and elastic. This is NOT smooth and elastic:
Meanwhile, add another 1C of flour and 3/4 C water to your starter, mix it up, cover and allow to ferment for 4 hours or so. When you see bubbles breaking over the surface, it is ready to store in the refrigerator. It will keep there for 3-5 days without too much degredation.
Spray a bowl (I use the same mixer bowl) lightly with oil, turn the kneaded dough over, cover and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 6-8 hours. Remove from the bowl and form into a long baguette shape:
Shape into whatever style you want and place onto the baking pan you will eventually bake the bread on. Here, I have a combination of one baguette and four small round loaves (this is a double batch.) Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. This retards the rise and allows the flavor of the bread to develop. You could leave it in your refrigerator longer-up to 3 days-for even more flavor complexity.
Take the pan out of the refrigerator and allow dough to wake up and rise for about 3 hours. Preheat your oven to 450 and place a steam pan on the floor of the oven, or the lower rack for electric ovens. Slash the risen dough with a sharp knife to allow for expansion:
You are done!