There is nothing like the smell of homemade bread fresh out of the oven, my mouth waters at the very thought. It transports me back in time. When I was a little girl I spent many hours with my grandmother on the Cameron family homestead feeding the pigs, fetching milk from the parlour, and making bread for the week.
I have had a long love for sourdough bread, but the thought of baking it myself seemed far too daunting. A four-day starter, feeding it, natural fermentation, all seemed very complex yet intriguing to me. At the start of 2018 when everyone is making resolutions and declarations for the upcoming year, I found myself on the treadmill listening to an archived broadcast of Stuart McLean’s vinyl café called Sourdough. I was completely amused by the story where the infamous character Dave, finds himself babysitting his neighbour’s, Carl Lowbeer’s, sourdough starter. The starter came with its own genealogy, that was passed down through generations. Through the hilarity of the story, I knew that I had found my resolution, this year I would learn to make sourdough bread!
Where to begin? Typically I try to find an expert; we are fortunate enough to have an expert in the area at the Earltown General Store. However, luck was not on my side this time, the day before I was to roll up my sleeves and get into the dough their oven went down. Oh-la-la, this meant that I was going to have to take it on my own from there! So next stop, the internet. After much surfing, reading and watching video tutorials I believe that I have found the right one for me. The author had me when she wrote, “making a good loaf of sourdough bread feels like striving for the World Cup or an Olympic gold medal. It’s the challenge to top all challenges and takes real commitment, but it’s also something that’s completely achievable.” Voila, I could relate to this!
The long lead item is of course the starter, which is, to my delight, way easier than I anticipated. It all begins with equal parts water to flour, I know right, easy! During my time at cooking school in New York, I learned that it’s preferable to use a kitchen scale when it comes to baking since the measurements are best when they are precise (this goes completely against my freewheeling ways). So I dug out my kitchen scale with a nice glass bowl, took a deep breath and was ready to begin. I followed the instructions from Emma Christensen from thekitchn.com for making the perfect starter.
Emma’s lesson was easy to follow and turned out wonderfully! Four days to a beautifully ripe starter, each day following the simple instructions of feeding the starter equal parts water and flour. We are off to the races, thanks to the wild yeast in the air! Although according to Emma… “while the wild yeast is certainly the star of this show, it’s not actually what makes the bread sour. That distinctive sour flavour comes from two kinds of friendly bacteria – lactobacillus and acetobacillus – which grow alongside the wild yeast in the sourdough culture and help ferment the sugars in the dough.” There we have it, I have learned something new!
Without further ado, the time came to actually attempt my first sourdough bread. I felt like I was into this marathon and going strong. After reading the recipe several times over, I realized that it was going to take another whole day before I was able to place these babies in the oven. I think to myself this better be the best bread I have ever tasted! The Italian phrase piano-piano, came to mind as I worked my way through the recipe, essentially meaning one step at a time. Slowly and methodically I ticked off the instructions working my way through the list to complete Day 1 of the bread (make sure you have approximately 7.5 hours on your hands before attempting to begin). This is not for the faint of heart. At the end of the day I felt like a real mother to this dough ball, I had been tending it and looking after it for 5 days now, I really believe that it was taking on a personality, so I decided that it should have a proper name. Sam, yes, Sam the sourdough seemed like the perfect name. After a great night sleep I greeted Sam in the morning with excited anticipation. This was a big day for Sam and me, would we crush it and bring home an Olympic Gold in bread making or would Sam be a flop? I had faith that we were on track for success when I smelled the mouth-watering smells that filled my kitchen. The answer was revealed two hours later. I was nervous; I hadn’t felt this feeling since my last race in Lucerne. After Sam was cool, I gave a little knock on the crust. Time to slice him up to see what we had. The air bubbles were perfectly formed, the smell was divine, and the flavour was everything that I had hoped for. Sam was a hit, medal worthy for sure. Six days in the making but worth every minute. Now that Sam the sourdough starter is in my life, the time it will take to make the next loaf seems insignificant. I am looking forward to a year of practice and tweaking. Thanks to Sam this little experiment has been a slice, no pun intended!
HOW TO MAKE SOURDOUGH BREAD
Recipe adapted by Emma Christensen from thekitchn.com
Makes 2 loaves
Ingredients for the leaven:
1 tablespoon active sourdough starter
75 grams (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour or bread flour
75 grams (1/3 cup) water
Ingredients for the dough:
1 tablespoon salt
525 grams (2 ½ cups) water
700 grams (5 ½ cups) all-purpose flour or bread flour
• Small mixing bowl
• Large mixing bowl
• Plastic wrap or other covering for the bowls
• Pastry scraper
• Bread proofing baskets, colanders, or mixing bowls
• Dutch ovens or large heavy-bottomed pots with lids
• Lame, sharp knife, or serrated knife
1. Make sure your sourdough culture is active: If your sourdough has been in the fridge, take it out two to three days before you plan to bake. Feed it daily to make sure it’s strong and very active before you make the bread.
2. Make the leaven (overnight): The night before you plan to make the dough, combine a tablespoon of active sourdough culture with the flour and water for the leaven. Mix thoroughly to form a thick batter. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight, for about 12 hours.
3. Test that the leaven is ready: Generally, if the surface of the leaven is very bubbly, it’s ready to be used. To double check, drop a small spoonful of the leaven in a cup of water; if the leaven floats, it’s ready.
4. Dissolve the salt: Combine the salt and 50 grams (about ¼ cup) of the water for the dough in a small bowl. Set aside, stirring every so often to make sure the salt dissolves.
5. Mix the leaven and water: Combine the leaven and the remaining 475 grams (2 cups) of water for the dough in a large mixing bowl. Stir with a spatula or use your hands to break up and dissolve the leaven into the water. It’s okay if the leaven doesn’t fully dissolve and a few clumps remain.
6. Add the flour: Stir the flour into the water and leaven with a spatula until you see no more visible dry flour and you’ve formed a very shaggy dough.
7. Rest the dough: Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes or up to four hours. This is the autolyse stage where the flour is fully absorbing the water and enzymes in the flour begin breaking down the starches and proteins.
8. Mix in the salt: Pour the dissolved salt over the dough. Work the liquid and salt into the dough by pinching and squeezing the dough. The dough will feel quite wet and loose at this point.
9. Begin folding the dough (2 ½ hours): To fold the dough, grab the dough at one side, lift it up, and fold it over on top of itself. Fold the dough four times, moving clockwise from the top of the bowl (or giving the bowl a quarter turn in between folds). Let the dough rest 30 minutes, then repeat. Do this a total of 6 times, every half hour for a total of 2 ½ hours. The dough will start out shaggy and very loose, but will gradually smooth out and become tighter as you continue folding.
10. Let the dough rise undisturbed (30 to 60 minutes): Once you’ve finished the folds, let the dough rise undisturbed for 30 to 60 minutes, until it looks slightly puffed. This dough won’t double in size the way regular, non-sourdough breads will; it should just look larger than it did when you started.
11. Divide the dough: Sprinkle some flour over your counter and turn the dough out on top. Work gently to avoid deflating the dough. Use a pastry scraper to divide the dough in half.
12. Shape the dough into loose rounds: Sprinkle a little flour over each piece of dough. Use your pastry scraper to shape each one into loose rounds – this isn’t the final shaping, just a preliminary shaping to prep the dough for further shaping. Shape them into rounds by slipping your pastry scraper under the edge of the dough and then scraping it around curve of the dough, like turning left when driving. Do this a few times to build the surface tension in the dough (it makes more sense to do it than to read about it!). Flour your pastry scraper as needed to keep it from sticking to the dough.
13. Rest the dough (20 to 30 minutes): Once both pieces of dough are shaped, let them rest for 20 to 30 minutes to relax the gluten again before final shaping.
14. Prepare 2 bread proofing baskets, colanders, or mixing bowls: Line 2 bread proofing baskets, colanders, or mixing bowls with clean dish towels. Dust them heavily with flour, rubbing the flour into the cloth on the bottom and up the sides with your fingers. Use more flour than you think you’ll need – it should form a thin layer over the surface of the towel.
15. Shape the loaves: Dust the top of one of the balls of dough with flour. Flip it over with a pastry scraper so that the floured side is against the board and the unfloured, sticky surface is up. Shape the loaf much like you folded the dough earlier: Grab the lip of the dough at the bottom, pull it gently up, then fold it over onto the center of the dough. Repeat with the right and left side of the dough. Repeat with the top of the dough, but once you’ve folded it downward, use your thumb to grab the bottom lip again and gently roll the dough right-side up. If it’s not quite a round or doesn’t seem taut to you, cup your palms around the dough and rotate it against the counter to shape it up. Repeat with the second ball of dough.
16. Transfer to the proofing baskets: Dust the tops and sides of the shaped loaves generously with flour. Place them into the proofing baskets upside down, so the seams from shaping are on top.
17. Let the dough rise (3 to 4 hours, or overnight in the fridge): Cover the baskets loosely with plastic, or place them inside clean plastic bags. Let them rise at room temperature until they look billowy and poofy, 3 to 4 hours. Alternatively, place the covered basket in the refrigerator and let them rise slowly overnight, 12 to 15 hours. If rising overnight, bake the loaves straight from the fridge; no need to warm before baking.
18. Heat the oven to 500°F: Place two Dutch ovens or other heavy-bottomed pots with lids in the oven, and heat to 500°F. (If you don’t have two pots, you can bake one loaf after the next.)
19. Transfer the loaves to the Dutch ovens: Carefully remove one of the Dutch ovens from the oven and remove the lid. Tip the loaf into the pot so the seam-side is down. Repeat with the second loaf. (See Recipe Note if your loaf sticks to the basket.)
20. Score the top of the loaf: Use a lame, sharp knife, or serrated knife to quickly score the surface of the loaves. Try to score at a slight angle, so you’re cutting almost parallel to the surface of the loaf; this gives the loaves the distinctive “shelf” along the score line.
21. Bake the loaves for 20 minutes: Cover the pots and place them in the oven to bake for 20 minutes.
22. Reduce the oven temperature to 450°F and bake another 10 minutes. Resist the temptation to check the loaves at this point; just reduce the oven temperature.
23. Remove the lids and continue baking 15 to 25 minutes: After 30 minutes of baking, remove the lids from the pots to release any remaining steam. At this point, the loaves should have “sprung” up, have a dry surface, and be just beginning to show golden colour. Place the pots back in the oven, uncovered.
24. Bake another 15 to 25 minutes: Continue baking until the crust is deeply browned; aim for just short of burnt. It might feel a bit unnatural to bake loaves this fully, but this is where a lot of the flavour and texture of the crust comes in.
25. Cool the loaves completely: When done, lift the loaves out of the pots using a spatula. Transfer them to cooling racks to cool completely. Wait until they have cooled to room temperature before slicing.
Whole-wheat sourdough: You can replace up to half of the all-purpose flour with whole-wheat or whole-grain flour.
• All-purpose vs. bread flour: Bread flour will give your bread a sturdier, chewier texture and a loaf that’s easier to slice. Loaves made with all-purpose flour will be a bit more delicate, especially when you cut them, but still work just fine.
• If your loaf sticks to the proofing basket: This still happens to me all the time! It’s annoying, but not the end of your sourdough dreams. If some of the dough stays stuck to the lining of the proofing basket, try to gently disengage it or pinch it away with your fingers. Fold a pinch of dough over the tear and bake as usual. The crust will look a little rough where it was torn, but the bread will still taste delicious.