Alchemy of the Simple: Sourdough Hearth Bread

Chocolate Sourdough Boule before baking

Chocolate Sourdough Boule before baking

Culture.  Starter.  Wild yeast.  Fermented flour.  I've wanted to write about sourdough for some time now.  But each time I reached to the back of my fridge, pulled out my crusty Le Parfait jar with a few tablespoons of milky paste in it, I hesitated.  There is magic in sourdough; alchemy in flour, water, & salt.  I learn a little more of it with each 'stretch and fold', but there is always more to learn, to smell, to taste.  Who am I to profess to know how to teach it?  

My starter

My starter

Maybe we all have a little magic to teach.  We may not be masters; perhaps only beginners.  But we share what little is revealed to us, and in another's hands, the mystery expands.  The unknown bubbles over -- and the seekers put it to good use, leaving a little for learning (and a little for sharing).  And so it is with my sourdough starter, gifted to me, and freely gifted out, built up and taken down, wiser and older than I'll ever profess to be. 

Starter, flour, water, & salt.  Before its first rest, right after mixing

Starter, flour, water, & salt.  Before its first rest, right after mixing

My starter came to me around the same time I was learning to preserve fruit.  I had received an unctuous, gently spiced and sweet handmade gift of apple butter around Christmas from an island mama and I was mesmerized.  Island apples, sugar, & spice.  Alchemy.  And then the starter, in an 8oz mason jar with holes poked through the lid, gifted from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend --as it is with the best kind of starters.  I could instantly smell the crackled crust, smeared with grass-fed butter, and delicate plum preserves. 

Stretching- use the windowpane test - stretch it until you can see light through but not so much that it tears

Stretching- use the windowpane test - stretch it until you can see light through but not so much that it tears

...and fold it back onto itself, working around the bowl in a circular motion.

...and fold it back onto itself, working around the bowl in a circular motion.

After a few 'stretch and folds'

After a few 'stretch and folds'

But this starter was particularly special.  Not only because of the care attended to it by each successive friend, but by the care attended to it for more than a century. This was the oldest starter on the island, that made the very best bread, served at the exceptional Inn at Ship Bay Restaurant, owned by Chef Geddes and his wife Mary Anna.  The starter has been passed down in Mary Anna's family since the Yukon Gold Rush days -- having married into her mother's side of the family via her Auntie 'Gret's husband Uncle Morris.  I get goosebumps when I think of that tiny jar, passed down from so many hands, rolled up in bedrolls and stoked with body heat to stay warm, having warmed prosperers with countless meals of Yukon flapjacks and fresh hot bread in dismal, frozen conditions.  

Ready for the final proof in the refrigerator or unheated area

Ready for the final proof in the refrigerator or unheated area

I've got a thing for old stuff, I'll admit.  I love thinking of the lives a thing (a living thing - the fruit tree, this starter) has touched.  Tucked in the back of my fridge, I lovingly restore it when fresh bread calls -- but it's been in so many other kitchens, on so many other tables.  One simple, simple thing, has shared so much.  Mary Anna jokes that the starter was part of her dowry upon marrying Geddes, who enlivens it each day to make the best sourdough loaf around (the perfect companion for soaking up the layered pan jus and garden fresh drizzles and sauces Geddes artfully creates for his dishes).  I think a lot about terroir these days - in fruit, family, and rootedness -- this starter has a deeply rooted place and history here.  I am grateful to be part of its ritual.  

Inverted - after a long 8+ hour cold fermentation/proof

Inverted - after a long 8+ hour cold fermentation/proof

If you haven't guessed by now, starter is just flour and water activated by a little warmth, time, and all the beautiful little organisms that make a home in it, and multiply.  Before coming to me, I'd only baked quick breads and soda breads.  But the starter intrigued me.  Having set on a path to eat intensely local, and make as much of our food as possible from scratch, the notion that three ingredients could make artisanal bread, floored me.  No commercial yeast.  Nothing fancy.  Just time, technique, and intuition.  

Score your loaves with a knife or lame to aid the bread's expansion

Score your loaves with a knife or lame to aid the bread's expansion

Artisan Sourdough Hearth Bread

Artisan Sourdough Hearth Bread

I didn't start with intuition, and neither will some of you.  Intuition can be learned.  And you will learn it if you bake bread enough.  I set on a course to make beautiful, delicious bread.  And I eventually got there - with many a flat pancake loaf, bloated boule with balloon size holes, and burnt crust, in between.  But if you need inspiration- I've never made anything that didn't taste good.  If not, fully delicious, toasted with butter and handmade preserves.  

Chocolate Sourdough Hearth Bread

Chocolate Sourdough Hearth Bread

I've fallen in love with the rhythm of making sourdough - the feel of it before it's fully developed between my fingertips as I stretch and fold, stretch and fold - the earthy smell of starter fed several hours before, the kneading against my palms -- the unexpected delights of pancakes, muffins, quick cakes, and flat breads made on the fly with spent or unused starter.  

When I need balance, comfort, or a reassurance that the impossible can and does happen, I pull out my sourdough starter and I bake.  I add water and flour and I wait.  I mix in more water and flour, and then a pinch of salt and I stir.  I knead a little.  I let it rest.  And then I stretch and fold, stretch and fold, stretch and fold, until it's pillowy with newly found lightness.  Patience is what good bread requires.  If it's ready, then I gently shape, rounding the curves so the skin holds firm.  Then I leave it alone, somewhere cool, until the next morning, when I slide it on a blistering hot stone and bake.  I wait again, watching for the 'oven spring', listen as the crust edges crackle above the lip I scored into it, and inhale deeply -- each time more mesmerized, that these basic ingredients, and time worn techniques, yield something so astonishing.

And so I hope it is with you.  That you find something to bake, or mix, or stir, that reminds you of the alchemy of the simple.  The transformations that are possible from what seems like nothing.    Like the fruit, soaked in sugar, and preserved to become something more powerful than when plucked from the tree.  Like flour, water, and time.  Magic happens. 

Sourdough Hearth Bread

It is difficult to give you a recipe for sourdough bread.  Here is a template for a beginning.  It may work for you perfectly,  But more likely it will need to change, based on the starter, your needs, your schedule, your flour, & home environment.  Do it over and over again, and note your changes as you go.  I promise, you'll have it down soon enough.  Don't forget to share.   

Tools:

  1. Digital scale (if you want to bake good bread, invest in a scale)
  2. Non-reactive bowl
  3. Shower cap or plastic wrap (really, the shower cap is genius - reusable, fits perfectly)
  4. Dough scraper
  5. Seasoned proofing basket (well rubbed with flour) or colander lined with tea towel and dusted heavily with flour

Basic Artisan Hearth Bread  (72% hydration)*

Yields 1 large ~950 g loaf or two smaller loaves

Refreshed Starter, 133% hydration**:  150 grams
Total Flour***:  485 grams (50 grams whole wheat flour + 435 grams white bread flour)
Water:  300 grams
Sea Salt:  11 grams

Sourdough-2784.jpg

Timeline:

This is very flexible.  I generally pull out my starter the evening before I want to mix my dough - and that usually means it's two days before I will actually bake.  Here's two options. 

Day 1 Evening: Pull our starter & refresh.

Day 2 Mid-morning: Start making dough. Stretch and fold leisurely throughout the day. 

Day 2 Evening: Shape and do final cold proof overnight in the refrigerator.

Day 3 Morning: Preheat oven and bake.

OR

Day 1 Evening: Pull our starter & refresh.

Day 2 Morning: Start making dough. Stretch and fold during the morning keeping to schedule below (45 minute rest time in between, but no more).

Day 2 Early afternoon: Shape and final proof at room temperature for 2-4 hours.

Day 2 Early evening: Preheat oven and bake.


Refreshing your starter:

1 part starter : 2 parts water : 1.5 parts flour

Frothing with yeasty pleasure !

Frothing with yeasty pleasure !

Alright! We're ready to get started.  First step, pull out your starter from the refrigerator.  I don't recommend keeping your starter on the counter.  Doing so requires daily "feedings" and if you ask me, is high maintenance for someone who might bake once a week, or once a month.  I keep my starter in the fridge in between bakings (though sometimes I'll bake a few days in a row or make pancakes, but I always return it to the fridge).  I like to give it a good 12-24 hours to freshen up (overnight is great).  For this recipe, pull it out the night before you want to start.  Let it warm to room temperature and feed it.  

For a 133% hydration starter you will "feed" it in these proportions: 1 part starter : 2 parts water : 1.5 parts flour.  (2/1.5 = 133%).  Measure your starter.  I keep my starter in the same vessel and I know how much that vessel weighs so it's easier to plop the starter on the scale and weigh it without removing it from the jar.  I'm lazy.  But it saves me from dirtying another dish.  For first-timers, you may have to remove the starter from the jar to find out how much you have.  If you have 50 grams of starter, you'll feed it 100 grams of water and 75 grams of flour.  If you have less starter, you may need to feed it twice (space feedings at least 8 hours apart) to get it up to the volume required for the recipe (150 grams).  If you are refreshing a starter that has sat in the fridge for more than two weeks without being used, I would allow an extra day and pour off about 75% of the refreshed starter before feeding again, to properly balance the pH.  ALWAYS KEEP A SMALL AMOUNT OF STARTER LEFTOVER TO REFRESH THE NEXT TIME YOU BAKE. 

Starter is refreshed. What now?

Is your starter ready?  Okay, let's move. 

  1. Mix together all ingredients except salt in a large non-reactive bowl.  This doesn't need to be perfect.  The idea is to make sure all the flour particles have been moistened so they can fully absorb the water.
  2. Cover and rest 15-30 minutes.  This is where the shower cap is super handy.
  3. Add salt and knead for 5 minutes.  (I choose a bowl big enough and knead directly in it). Alternatively you can move the dough to a floured surface and knead liberally.  If I know I'm going to do a lot of stretch and folds and a long final cold proof, sometimes I barely knead at all.  Do what works for you.  Learn to knead though, it's fun, and a great workout.  
  4. (Optional).  If you have add-in's, work them in now.  I find it's easiest to remove the dough from the bowl and spread it out in a rough rectangle and add half the toppings on the top side, flip is over, and spread the rest around.  Knead gently to work them in. 
  5. Bulk Fermentation (steps 4-8).  Return to bowl (or keep in bowl).  Cover and rest 15-30 minutes.
  6. Stretch and fold at least one full rotation.  Check out the photos above for the stretch and fold technique.
  7. Cover and rest at least 45 minutes.
  8. Stretch and fold at least one full rotation.  Come on, do a couple!
  9. Cover and rest at least 45 minutes (you can repeat this cycle a few more times if you have the time)
  10. Shape to a freestanding boule(s) and place in a banneton (a colander lined with a heavily floured towel is a good substitute).  This is when you split the dough into loaves (1 large one or 2 small ones for this recipe) and shape them in preparation for the final proof.  You can find several tutorials on bread shaping via a google search but the basic method is to pull one side over the other, and then pull that side back over the one you just closed.  Rotate around doing this a few times until the dough starts to form a 'package' - with the skin tension on the bottom of the dough.  Move the dough and place on rising surface such that the side with the tension is facing downwards.  This is important to ensure the bread had good oven rise as the part exposed to air while proofing can get a little dry and crust over.  I really like proofing the dough in the bannetons - it makes less of a mess and helps the dough keep it's shape.  I've also used a colander lined with a linen towel dusted with flour- works nearly as well but it's a little harder to invert it when the bread is ready to bake.  You can also nestle the loaf between a few floured towels if you have nothing else.  
  11. Final Proof.  Cover with plastic wrap (with room to double) or a shower cap.  Put in a cold room or refrigerate overnight or for at least 8 hours.  You don't have to do this cold.  Alternatively you can leave it at room temperature for a much shorter period of time, but you'll need to watch it to make sure it doesn't overproof.  You're going for no more than a double in size.  I like to let it rise less to avoid the risk of deflating in the oven.   I use the poke test- poke it in with your finger- if it pops back quickly, it's not ready.  If it takes about a minute, it's ready.  If you do a long, slow, cold final proof, you don't have to fuss as much.  It should have good oven spring (the rise you can watch during the first 10 minutes of baking) even if it doesn't look like it doubled.  And the flavor will be more complex from the long, slow, ferment. 
  12. Preheat oven to 500 degrees with a baking stone if available. I like to place a cookie tray or cast iron pan at the bottom of the oven to pour water on in step 13 (for steam!).  I have also busted the glass in both of my ovens by doing this so - proceed at your own risk!  You'll get awesome crust though. 
  13. Invert your banneton onto a bread board/cookie sheet and gently coax out the bread so that the tight rounded side faces up.  I use a bread board dusted with semolina flour for the transfer, you could use a cutting board or a cookie tray.  Regular flour works fine too, but use lots of it.  Oats are great, so is coarse cornmeal.  Semolina, if you have it, works perfectly.  
  14. Score your loaf.  Give it a nice little slash (or several) with a very sharp knife or lame (I got one for $2).  Slashing the bread is not just decorative - it helps control the rise. 
  15. Slide the loaf into the oven onto the stone.  If you don't have a stone, use a cookie tray.
  16. Pour 3/4 cup water onto the cookie tray at the bottom of the oven (optional). Close the door quickly to trap as much steam as possible  
  17. Turn temperature down to 450 degrees and bake for 15 minutes. 
  18. After 15 minutes reduce the temperature to 400 degrees and bake for another 20-25 minutes (until internal temp reaches 200 degrees or if you knock on the bottom of the bread and it sounds hollow).  Smaller loaves will cook faster.  If you make one large loaf it'll probably need the full 25 minutes.  
  19. Attempt to allow to cool before you bust into it (to allow the crumb to set).  Or not.  Eat lustily and make some more.

This seems like a lot of steps, but you'll get the hang of it, I promise.  The bonus is that this recipe is just a canvas.  You can switch up flours, add nuts, dried fruit, herbs, go nuts.  But try to get the feel for a plain (most magical) loaf first.  This will allow you to 'feel' when the dough may need extra water - for example if you use a higher proportion of whole wheat, it likely will, or if you add certain add-ins that absorb lots of liquid.  Or try leaving your starter out on the counter for a week or weekend - make pancakes! Muffins!  Deviate.  Life is too short. 

Details/Notes:

*A note about hydration: I've noted above this recipe is 72% hydration.  Bakers talk like this- you don't have to, but if you're technically minded, it might help you get started.  It will absolutely help you understand how your starter reacts with the rest of the ingredients however.  You'll also need to understand it if you want to veer from this recipe to others and adapt.  72% hydration means that water comprises 72% of the total flour.  Ignore the salt or other add-ins.  This is easy to calculate if your starter is 100% hydration (meaning that to refresh it you add equal amounts of water and flour by weight NOT volume - i.e. to 50 grams of starter you add 50 grams of water and 50 grams of flour, and hence).  If your starter is 100% hydration, you would calculate the dough's hydration by taking 50% of the starter in grams to represent water, adding the 300 grams in the recipe and dividing that total by the 485 grams of the flour plus 50% of the starter.  That calculation looks like this:  (75+300)/(75+485) = 67%.  You're probably confused now since I said above this recipe is 72% hydration.  It is.  I keep my starter at 133% hydration, meaning it's a wetter, more liquidy starter.  I do this because I find it expands and grows better in my house this way, as opposed to being stiffer (i.e. more flour).  It's your call.  But if you're just starting out, I advise you feed your starter based on my proportions below to achieve 133% hydration and follow the recipe above.  If you insist on using a 100% hydration starter, no problem, just amend the water in the recipe to maintain a 72% hydration dough:

Refreshed Starter, 100% hydration*:  150 grams
Total Flour**:  485 grams 
Water:  330 grams
Sea Salt:  11 grams

**My best recommendation on how to acquire starter is to ask around -- someone is bound to have one and would be happy to give you a tablespoon to get started (seriously that's way more than you need).  There are also many reputable sources online where you can buy them.  If you're feeling adventurous- make your own! I could write an entire post about this but instead I will direct you to an excellent method here.  

***Flour:  10% whole wheat flour gives the bread optimal texture.  That would be 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 435 grams of unbleached white bread flour.  If you don't have wheat flour, don't sweat it, do without, just note your dough will be softer.  The better your flour, the better your bread.  I highly recommend Fairhaven Mills, based in the Skagit Valley.  Their organic flour is predominantly from wheat grown in Washington.  I dig that! When you get into it you can try grinding your own flour from Bluebird Grain Farms Organic Wheat Berries (or sprouting them!).

Clockwise from left: Walnut Wheat Levain, Basic Sourdough Boule, Chocolate Sourdough

Clockwise from left: Walnut Wheat Levain, Basic Sourdough Boule, Chocolate Sourdough