Sometime just before Thanksgiving, I came across a post on Instagram about a baker offering a step by step tutorial in creating your own sourdough starter and then would be walking us through the process of making bread. Sourdough bread has been something on my "baking bucket list" for a couple of years and I never took the plunge into it because I found it intimidating and thought it was one of those time consuming projects that I simply didn't have time for. So, I didn't do it.
I've seen plenty of sourdough bread in bakeries and at farmers' markets but one of the first places I learned about the benefits of sourdough bread versus conventional bread was through Michael Pollan. I was introduced to Michael through the documentary Food Inc and then went on to read his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and watched part of his documentary series "Cooked." I recommend making time to look into his work it if you haven't already because it's eye opening and it ignited my interest in farm to table, cooking from scratch etc. He has some beautifully written "rules" about food and while I can't say I adhere to them 100% of the time because...well, life, I do love the concept of staying in touch with where our food comes from and preparing food more slowly and intentionally for my family.
Sourdough bread has a rich history and is considered more nutritious than regular or conventional bread. This health benefit appears to be largely credited to the fermentation process. While I'm obviously not a medical expert and cannot give medical advice, there is some sentiment that the growing need for gluten free products has more to do with issues with conventional flour and flour products and the way grains are processed versus eating properly fermented and risen bread.
Back to Instagram, LeAnne over at Lion's Bread (@lions.bread) began a daily video tutorial series about making a sourdough starter from scratch. If you aren't already following her, you need to because she has gorgeous recipes and photos. This tutorial was incredibly helpful and she answered all sorts of questions that were pouring in and kept in touch with followers who were posting about their sourdough starter babies. It truly is a simple process with simple ingredients of wheat flour and water...it just takes time. The starter process basically requires that you "feed" your starter over the course of a week to allow it to ferment to a strength with which you can bake bread. I highly suggest that you to go to the tutorials to watch for yourself (I linked it here but I will link everything again at the end of this post), but basically you will start by mixing together a weighed portion of filtered water and wheat flour in a non-air tight jar, leave it to rest on your counter top in a warm place and almost everyday for a week you will discard a portion of the starter and feed it with another portion of weighed filtered water and flour. It takes maybe 2 minutes per day. As you go through this process, you will visibly see the starter bubble up and increase in volume before your eyes.
After about a week of discarding and feeding, you test the strength of the starter by placing a small portion of it in a container of water for a "float test." If it floats, you're ready to bake bread! Once you have your starter built to bread baking strength, you don't have to feed this little guy everyday for the rest of your life. You can put it away in the fridge and feed about once per week to keep it going and you'll need to take it out for a feeding or two and let it rest on the counter again 1-2 days before you want to bake a loaf of bread. For example, I'm going to take my starter out tonight, feed it and check it in the morning. Depending on how it's looking, I may feed again or I may move to the next step of the bread making process from there.
LeAnne's full post on each step of the bread making process is here (with a link to the tutorials) and I strongly recommend you read through it and don't just skip to the recipe because it's loaded with helpful information. In addition to the ingredients for the bread, you will need a kitchen scale, a small bowl, a large bowl, some plastic wrap, a dutch oven, clean dish towels, parchment paper and a plastic bag. Other items that are really helpful include a bench scraper and a banneton proofing basket. I baked a couple of loaves per week for about a month before I ordered a proofing basket and just used a bowl instead during that time frame, but the proofing basket does make a difference in the shape and appearance of the loaf of bread and they're an inexpensive investment. The one I recently purchased is here for your information, less than $11. It's definitely worth it if you try this out, enjoy it and plan to make your own bread once in a while or all the time. Dutch ovens can also be a big kitchen investment with Le Creuset being the holy grail in this category but last year, I bought one for my husband similar to this cast iron one here and it's been a great addition. He's used it a lot for game meat cooking...and now I've taken it over a lot for bread.
LeAnne's post will walk you through making a levain which will act as the leavener in your bread: no yeast required! After that, it's onward to mixing the dough which isn't a lot of work but intermittent steps of quick tasks and then let it rest and repeat. There is no kneading. Rather, there is a stretch and fold process that LeAnne's tutorials walk you through. The dough then rests to rise in a "bulk fermentation" stage, gets pre-shaped, shaped and then goes into the fridge overnight for proofing. About an hour before you're ready to bake, you'll take it out of the fridge to let it come to room temperature while you pre-heat the dutch oven for about 30 minutes...you want that thing hot, hot, hot (please don't forget your oven mitts when handling it!). Then, all that's left to do is bake both covered and uncovered for the recommended times and the hardest part is to let it cool before cutting into it. LeAnne explains that the bread is still baking inside when you take it out of the oven so as hard as it is to resist digging right in and piling on the fresh butter, you just have to wait and enjoy your kitchen smelling amazing until it cools.
Freshly baked bread has always had a place in my heart with recipes like Irish Brown Bread, which is from my grandmother and mom, but I'm particularly loving the sourdough process because of the process itself. It's like the baking equivalent to surrender. I can white knuckle my way through almost anything, but sourdough baking asks something different of me. I read somewhere that sourdough becomes more of an understanding than a recipe and I've found that to be true as I keep learning by baking the bread. There have been loaves I've prepared by following the recipe verbatim and I'm learning that sometimes it hasn't risen enough in bulk fermentation and I need to leave it longer. Sometimes it has. It could be temperature differences or other variables. The bread is ready when the bread is ready...simple as that. I can't make it happen all on my time line and there's no instant gratification. It's not hard work but the bread takes time, which is a beautiful element of slow living and something I'm trying to grasp more of these days.
Despite my somewhat different results with the loaves I've baked, I want to be clear that there hasn't been a bad one yet! They've all been delicious...nice flavor...rustic and cozy. A few of the things I'm working on refining in my technique include how much the air pockets rise. I think the loaf above had nicely risen pockets, but I've also had loaves with smaller pockets. Also, my crust is coming out of the oven crisp and firm but it seems to soften as it cools and I'm not hearing that sourdough cut when I slice into the bread. If anyone has any tips on what I should experiment with to try to tweak these, they are greatly appreciated!
And another bonus about your sourdough starter is that you can use it for so much more than bread. There are many recipes out there for pizza dough, rolls etc.. While I haven't had a chance to try a lot of them, I did get in this batch of sourdough pancakes and they were incredible. The recipe I used is here. I prepped the pancake sponge the night before and they were a perfect Saturday morning breakfast.
To wrap this post all up, is sourdough bread worth the hype and effort? Absolutely!! It's a neat project to get the kids involved with too as there is so much to learn. A huge thank you to LeAnne and all of the generous information she has shared on this topic. To get all of her information, here are the links:
Lion's Bread Sourdough Bread
Sourdough Starter Tutorials and Dough Prep Tutorials on Instagram @lions.bread
I'm happy to answer any questions anyone might have as a newbie sourdough baker! Don't be intimidated....you can do this! Happy baking!
New England wife and mom. Faith, fitness, yoga, baking, cooking and constantly cleaning my kitchen.