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Over the next couple of days, we’re going to slow it down and spend some extra time in the kitchen embracing the slow art of making homemade sourdough bread.
Now, before you dismiss the idea of making sourdough bread let me just encourage you: If I can find the time to make sourdough bread, you can, too!
I lack the patience for baking on most days. There are those rare times when I’ll get the urge to make cookies or cupcakes, but most of my time spent baking is due to a special occasion or because there are ripe bananas on the counter (hello, banana bread).
On top of the fact that I lack patience in the baking department, making sourdough bread has been a struggle and challenge for me. I’ve taken classes, read online tutorials, and experimented over the years with various sourdough methods. I’ve even purchased sourdough kits from the store. I’ve tried it all. On top of that, it’s hard to find good sourdough bread in my area. Well, that is, real sourdough bread that’s made with basic ingredients: flour, water, salt, and a sourdough starter.
Every one of my attempts resulted in less-than-ideal bread. I’d always give up and keep purchasing sourdough bread from the Whole Foods’ bakery (which is actually really tasty and it’s made with good ingredients).
Last spring, I purchased a book from Amazon called, Tartine Bread. The book is written by the master baker and owner (I believe, I’m still a bit unclear about the owner part) of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Tartine makes some of the most famous sourdough loaves in all the land, so I figured the book might help me on my quest to achieve good, homemade sourdough bread. After reading the book–which is very short considering that the first few pages contain the most important information–I felt confident enough to attempt homemade sourdough, again.
Trying to make sourdough bread, again, meant that I had to create a sourdough starter, again. I had the sourdough starter process down, so I quickly whisked together the flour and water needed for the base of the starter and then let it sit for a few days until it “came to life.” Once the starter was active, I was ready to try my hand at the Tartine method.
My first attempt at making sourdough bread, using the Tartine method, was a huge success. I had never created such perfect sourdough before. The crust crackled, the crumb was deliciously moist, and the holes in the bread were definitely Instagram-worthy. It was at that very moment that my love for making homemade sourdough began.
Over the past few months, I’ve tweaked the Tartine method, using the lessons from the book and the classes I’ve attended in my local community, to create a process that works for my schedule. I’ve also played around with using different flours to make the actual sourdough bread.
As I’ve played in the kitchen, I’ve shared my sourdough loaves over on Instagram. Many Instagram friends have messaged me, asking for the sourdough recipe. So here we are today. Together, I want to help you embark on your own (homemade) sourdough journey. I’m going to share my recipe and tips, from making the starter (yeast) to mixing the bread dough to baking the sourdough loaf, and then it’s your turn to experiment in your kitchen.
Before we can make an actual loaf of sourdough bread, we need to make a sourdough starter–the base on which sourdough bread is formed. Before sharing how to make a starter, let’s talk about what exactly a starter is and why it’s so important. Then, in a couple of days, I’ll share how to use this starter to craft a loaf of homemade sourdough bread.
Sourdough Starter 101
A sourdough starter is simply yeast. Sourdough yeast differs from commercial active dry yeast (and other store-bought yeast varieties) in that a starter is made up of wild yeast. Wild yeast lives everywhere, so the intent of creating a sourdough starter is to capture the naturally-occurring wild yeast and use it for baking bread.
To make a starter, two simple ingredients are combined: water and flour. Wild yeast is already in the flour and air, so at this point it’s just a matter of “capturing” that yeast. After just a few days of the water and flour mixture sitting on the counter, the starter will begin to show signs of life–there will be visible air bubbles throughout the batter, the batter will rise and fall, and it will smell slightly sour (but not in a rotten food way). Once the starter shows signs of life (the good bacteria at work), the starter needs to be maintained with regular feedings of fresh flour and water. Think of the starter like a pet. A pet that gives you delicious bread! That’s my kind of pet.
Once the starter shows signs of life, a loaf of sourdough bread can be made using the starter as the yeast. Not only does a starter help the sourdough bread rise, it also breaks down phytic acid in the bread (thanks to the bacteria), making the bread easier to digest. <–This is just one of the reasons why I’ve wanted to learn the art of making sourdough at home, and why I think it would be beneficial for others, too. According to Discover Magazine (check out the article, it’s fascinating), “Sourdough is teeming with bugs—some 50 million yeasts and 5 billion lactobacilli bacteria in every teaspoon of starter dough.”
Using wild yeast to make bread is a practice that’s been around for a very long time. It’s a practice that’s beneficial for us in a day when people are afraid of bread and gluten. We’ll talk more about this next time, when we actually make bread together.
First, let’s make a sourdough starter…
How to make a from-scratch sourdough starter, and maintain that starter, for making homemade sourdough bread.
To Make a Starter:
- 100 grams whole wheat flour
- 100 grams filtered water
To Maintain/Feed an Active Starter:
- 50 grams whole wheat flour about 1/4 cup
- 50 grams filtered water a bit less than 1/4 cup
To Make a Starter:
In a high-rimmed jar, mix together the 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. Once combined, the flour and water will be thick and resemble a very thick pancake or waffle batter. Cover the jar with a cheesecloth and secure the cloth over the jar with a rubberband.
Your work is done for now. It's time to wait and let the natural yeast do its work and bring your starter to life. I recommend placing your starter near a fruit basket (on the counter).
After about 2-3 days, you should notice that your starter looks and smells different. It may have a slightly sweet and sour aroma, visible air bubbles may appear in the starter, and the starter has risen. The starter will also change from a thick and hard-to-stir to batter to one that's a bit more pliable.
Once the above characteristics are apparent (your starter is "active"), discard about 80% of that starter. Yes, this is a lot. No, you can't use this for anything. It's a sacrifice that must be made.
Now it's time to feed the active sourdough starter with 50 grams of fresh flour and 50 grams of filtered water. Stir the fresh ingredients into the remaining, active starter, place the cheesecloth back on the jar, and secure the cheesecloth with a rubberband. Place the starter back on the counter (near a fruit basket, if possible).
To Maintain an Active Starter (AKA: Keep It Alive):
Once a day, refresh your starter by feeding it with fresh flour and water. If your starter is super active (rising and falling often), you can feed it twice a day, but I've never needed to do this. After the first feeding (mentioned above) you'll only need to discard 50% of your starter before feeding it with 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water.
If you're not going to regularly bake bread, you can keep your mature starter (it's been alive and healthy for a couple of weeks now) in the fridge. To do this, at feeding time, discard 50% of the starter, feed the starter, and cover the starter. Place the starter in the fridge to hibernate. This is also a good way to keep your starter alive if you're going to be traveling and won't be around to feed the starter on a daily basis. There's no need to feed the starter until you pull it back out of the fridge because you're ready to start baking bread again. The starter doesn't need to be fed while it's hibernating in the fridge. You'll need to pull the starter from the fridge at least 12 hours before starting the sourdough bread process, discarding 50% of the starter, giving the starter a fresh feeding (50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water), covering the starter, and placing it back on the counter.
I've had the most success using whole wheat flour to make and maintain my starter. Plus, whole wheat flour is pretty inexpensive, which is important to me since I'm discarding and feeding my sourdough starter on a daily basis.
I personally don't keep my starter in the fridge, because I usually bake bread 1-2 times a week and don't mind the regular feedings. I keep my starter in the fridge to hibernate when we travel, or during busy seasons of life when I won't be able to regularly feed my starter and make bread.
Now that my starter is mature and thriving, I don't actually weigh the 50 grams of water and flour each time I feed the starter. I know, just from eye balling it and using a 1/4 cup measuring cup, what my starter should look like when it's fed. Once you get to a point of regular feedings, you'll get to know your starter and the ideal feeding appearance and consistency very well--so don't feel like you need to use the scale for this once you're a pro. You will need a scale for the initial starter creation and each time you make bread, because weight measurements are far more accurate than volume measurements.
Now that you have a starter, you can make sourdough bread. A Sourdough starter can also be used to leaven more than just a loaf of sourdough bread. You can use a sourdough starter to make sourdough waffles or in place of the leavening agent (i.e. baking powder) in quick bread recipes. It can also be used to make pizza dough. Google is a wonderful resource for recipes.
For troubleshooting (mold, etc.), Cultures for Health is a great resource. I recommend checking out this article.