Old-Fashioned Cooking: Sourdough Bread


True old-fashioned sourdough bread is unquestionably slow food. Sourdough bread is not like regular yeast bread. The recipe below takes a relatively long time, but most of that is not hands-on. When you bake this bread you use all of your senses except hearing. It takes time and practice to know when sourdough bread looks, smells, feels and tastes just right.

Sourdough Bread Around the World

Any culture that grows or uses grain for human food has some version of a sourdough bread recipe. China has gua bao, or steamed buns. In India, cooks make traditional flatbread naan with sourdough starter. Russians and Eastern Europeans use rye flour, while Ethiopian cooks ferment teff to make injera. The Greeks soak basil leaves in water for an hour to seed their traditional starter. Turkish cooks use wheat flour to make bazlama, a circular flatbread. Sourdough may have very different flavors depending on the particular strains of wild yeasts in the starter and the types of flour used. Borodinsky bread is Russian, made from rye, molasses, coriander and caraway seeds. Italians have been making coppia ferrarese from wheat, lard, malt and (of course) olive oil since the 13th century. Maize, or flour made from corn, is used for eish merhahrah, the flatbread of Upper Egypt.

Making a Sourdough Starter

  • Day one: thoroughly mix one cup of flour and one cup filtered water in a medium-sized bowl.
  • Place a clean tea towel over the bowl. Allow it to sit in an area where the temperature is about 70-75ºF.
  • Day two through five: remove half the starter and discard. Mix one cup flour and one cup water very well and add to starter. Cover bowl and return to the warm spot.
  • Day six and seven: repeat the discard/feed process but do it every 12 hours instead of every 24 hours.
  • Day eight: repeat discard/feed process. If it doubles in size within four to 12 hours and looks VERY bubbly, it’s ready. Otherwise, repeat the discard/feed process and give it another day or two. Do not use or store until it doubles and bubbles within the four to 12 hour time frame. Store in the refrigerator.
  • Once a week: discard or use half the starter. Feed the remaining starter, let ferment overnight and replace in the fridge.

The Levain

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, a levain and a starter are not the same thing. The starter, which takes about a week to 10 days, is made specifically to store over a long period of time. You feed it regularly to keep it in good condition. Levain, which means leaven, is what you make from the starter to bake a loaf of bread. In France, sourdough bread is called pain au levain.

Classic Sourdough Bread

  • About 2 Tbs bubbly sourdough starter
  • About 1/3 cup filtered or spring water
  • About 1/3 cup organic all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups purified/spring water
  • About 7 to 7 ½ cups organic all-purpose flour (you can make up to 1/3 of the flour whole wheat)
  • 4 teaspoons fine Celtic sea salt
  • Organic rice flour for dusting bowls

About 48 hours before you want baked bread, thoroughly mix the starter, flour and water in a pint jar. Cover the jar with a clean towel and let the levain ferment until it is doubled, thick and very bubbly. It will take longer when temperatures are cool. Pour the water for your bread into a bowl. Use warmer water in winter, room temperature water in summer. Drop a tablespoon of levain in the water. If it floats, add the remaining levain and mix well. Otherwise, give it another hour or so and try again. Slowly mix in about half the flour, making sure it is well combined. Then gradually add the remaining flour, making sure there are no lumps of dry flour. Cover and let sit for about 30 minutes while you dissolve the salt in a couple of tablespoons of water. Mix the salt water into the dough, cover and let rest 30 minutes.

Stretch and fold the dough four times. This is not kneading. Instead you dip your hands in warm water to prevent sticking, grasp one side of the dough, lift it up and over to the other side of the bowl. Then turn the bowl a quarter turn and repeat. After the fourth turn, cover the bowl and let the dough rest for another 30 minutes. Repeat three more times. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured flat surface, cut in half and form two rounds. Cover with a clean towel and let rest an hour. Line two bowls or bread baskets with clean dish towels. Fold each piece of dough four times – bottom to top, top to bottom, left to right and right to left. Turn over and shape a round. Cover with another clean dish towel, let rise for an hour, then tuck the towel around the loaf and let it rise in the refrigerator for 12 hours. Now place the bowl in a large plastic bag and let it sit in the fridge for another 24 hours.

Get out your cast iron Dutch oven – the one with the cast iron lid. Put it in the oven and let it pre-heat for one hour at 500ºF. Uncover one loaf and dust it lightly with flour, then turn the loaf onto a floured surface. Use a very sharp knife or razor blade to cut a slash in the top. Remove the pot from the oven and CAREFULLY slide the loaf into the pot. Immediately cover the pot and return to the oven. Bake 20 minutes, then remove the pot lid, turn the oven to 465ºF and bake another 10-15 minutes. The loaf should be golden brown. Remove the loaf and let it sit on a rack for an hour. Reheat the pot at 500ºF for about 15 minutes and bake the second loaf in the same manner.

Store Your Bread

Now that you have this lovely stuff, store your bread properly. If you think you’ll eat it within four to five days, place it in a cotton bread bag or wrap in a large, clean tea towel. This allows the bread to breathe. Put it in a relatively cool place (a kitchen cabinet or bread box is good), but do not store in the refrigerator or put it in a plastic bag. The refrigerator environment is too dry and the plastic bag may cause sweating, leading to mold or bacterial growth. To freeze, wrap whole loaves in plastic wrap then in foil. Or slice, wrap each slice in plastic wrap and place in a freezer bag or wrap with aluminum foil. Freeze up to six months.

Rebaking Sourdough Bread

Once your bread has thawed, you can make it taste almost like fresh-made. Remove the foil and plastic wrap, then place on a cookie sheet. Reheat the whole loaf in a 200ºF oven for about 10-15 minutes. Individual slices will do better toasted in the toaster.

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