Sourdough Bread

To create the country-style bread I was looking for, I started with the wonderful “Primal Bread” chapter in Jeffrey Steingarten’s book The Man Who Ate Everything. (If you like food and enjoy good writing, you should go find this book—it’s delicious.) I did my best to duplicate the steps of the rather “high church” method he eventually settled on. I didn’t quite have it, but I did produce edible bread out of three ingredients: organic flour, spring water, and salt. Right. No yeast. It volunteered. I was amazed that it worked.

After a few weeks of experimentation, some false starts, and a few murdered sourdough starters, I settled on the method that follows.

Le Chef

The first thing to do is build a starter. Steingarten starts with just flour and water, and lets wild yeast populate it. I tried that, and it worked surprisingly well, especially when I left it in the bread machine for a while. I thought an environment where yeast hangs out regularly would be helpful. If you’re in a bit more of a hurry, try the following:

Mix in a small bowl to form a dough ball. Program the “Home Made” cycle on the bread machine, to preheat only for about 30 minutes. Put the dough ball in the machine and let it preheat.

Flour a board with more whole wheat flour and knead the ball for 2 minutes. Put it in a clear glass bowl (so you can watch it). I like to use a glass measuring cup. Cover with a clean towel, with an elastic band around it to hold it tightly on the top of your cup or bowl. Put it on the top of the fridge or a similar warm place.

In about 24 hours, you should have a dough ball roughly double in size, with some evidence of air bubbles in it.

Le Levain

In two stages, I built up my chef to the full amount of starter, or levain, that I would need for regular bread-making. In the first stage, I added the following to my existing chef:

I found that more yeast was unnecessary. I repeated all the stages described in the previous section. Again, it took about 24 hours to grow.

In the second stage, I added the following:

Repeat the stages in the previous section.

Le Pain

Divide the levain into two parts: 1/3 and 2/3. Put the smaller part in a container that can be loosely covered, and put it aside for now. Make the bread by adding the following ingredients to the bread machine (in this order):

Program the “Home Made” cycle on the bread machine to preheat for 30 minutes, knead for 15 minutes, let the bread rise for 2 hours, and then STOP. Start the machine. When it gets to the kneading stage, take a peek a couple of times to make sure it has the right amount of moisture (flour varies). Otherwise you can go do other things while the machine does its stuff.

When the machine is done . . .

If you don’t have a banneton or a special rising basket, find a relatively smooth towel and a ceramic or glass bowl that’s the shape you want. Spray the towel with cooking spray and heavily flour it. Line the bowl with it.

Remove the dough from the bread machine and plop it onto a well-floured board. Roll it out with a rolling pin until it is an oblong shape about 2 cm thick. Roll it up from one end, and then – I don’t know how to describe this (and I'm not very good at it) – tuck one end of the roll in and stretch the other end over. Then plop it seam side up into your lined bowl.

Turn the oven on hot for 1 minute. Turn it off again. Put the bowl of dough into the oven and let it rise for around an hour.

Take the bowl out, and put a baking stone into the oven. I use a pizza stone, but lots of other things will work. I also put in an oven-safe dish of water, in the bottom of the oven. Preheat to 400 F (200 C).

When the oven is hot, sprinkle some corn meal onto the pizza stone. Turn the dough out of the bowl and put it on the pizza stone. I find a peel is a useful tool to use for this step. The seam side should now be down. Use a sharp knife to cut three or four slits in the top. Bake for about 45 minutes. If you tap the loaf with a spoon or knife, it should sound hollow, even near the bottom. That means it is done.

Take it out and let it cool for at least half an hour before you eat it. Don’t put it in a plastic bag or other air tight container until it is cool.

Care and Feeding of the Levain

Remember the 1/3 of the levain that you kept out? It is the beginnings of your next loaf, so you need to take care of it. I’m still working on this part. I keep mine in a glass container that has a loose lid. I cover it with a clean towel and use an elastic band to hold the towel on tight. I do not keep it in the refrigerator, because our refrigerator is unreliable and occasionally freezes things. My starter has not enjoyed that experience. Others have much better experience keeping theirs in the fridge, and it’s probably a good way of keeping it dormant when not in use.

When I don’t use my starter for a few days, the bacteria starts to get the upper hand over the yeast (I think that’s what is happening). When that happens, I get it out, flour a board, knead it for two minutes, and put it back. I think the additional flour and air revives the yeast a bit, and I can then wait another day or two before I use it.

When I want to bake, I add the following to the levain:

Mix in a small bowl to form a dough ball. Program the “Home Made” cycle on the bread machine, to preheat only for about 30 minutes. Put the dough ball in the machine and let it preheat.

Flour a board with more whole wheat flour and knead the ball for 2 minutes. Put it in a clear glass bowl or measuring cup. Cover with a clean towel, with an elastic band around it to hold it tightly on the top of your cup or bowl. Put it on the top of the fridge or a similar warm place.

When my levain is in reasonable shape, I usually find it is ready to bake with after about 8 or 10 hours. Go to the section called Le Pain above and make bread.

Variation

I decided a few months ago to switch my starter over to white flour, so that I could vary the whole wheat content anywhere from none to about two-thirds. I did this by just adding white flour instead of whole wheat every time I built up my levain to start another loaf. Gradually the whole wheat vanished into nothingness. Now my bread procedure is slightly different, as follows:

Enjoy

I am now making bread like this once or twice a week, and am thrilled to find that it is almost exactly the bread I was hoping for. Bread is a very individual thing, and this will not be to everyone’s taste, but I really like being able to produce a loaf so close to my ideal.


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Last Updated: 15 March 2003
WebMaster: Dave Shipley  urbship@magma.ca
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