Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sourdough Bread Recipe

Tonight I made my second loaf of homemade sourdough bread. I made my first loaf a couple days ago, and it didn't turn out as well (I used whole-wheat flour, and it was much heavier—it takes some experimenting to get it right). But tonight's loaf turned out to be one of the most delicious, most beautiful loaves I've ever baked (if I do say so myself). Here's how I did it:

In order to make homemade sourdough bread, you have to begin with a starter. There's a really cool tradition of sourdough starters that goes back to the Gold Rush in the early 19th century. Due to the fact that many miners considered their bread starters as precious as the gold they panned for (fresh yeast bread was hard to come by in the western frontier), some even carried their starters in a small container hung around their neck. The putrid mingling of the bread batters with—let's not kid ourselves—outrageous body odor led to them earning the nickname, "Sourdoughs."

Anyway, enough with the history lesson.

Making a starter is simple, but it's a little involved. After all, the active yeast is a living thing.

Sourdough Starter
In a medium-sized tupperware, combine about a cup of flour with about 3/4 cup water. Add a tablespoon of honey (this is to help feed the starter; some folks use sugar, some even use pineapple juice). Stir with a wooden spoon until it resembles a thick pancake batter. Then, cover it! This is important—when the starter begins to ferment, it will attract fruit flies unless it has a lid on it.

Repeat the same action the next day, and again the next day. Eventually, the starter should get kind of bubbly and frothy, and smell kind of...well, sour. This is how you know it's working.

When you end up getting a good three or four cups of starter built up, begin taking away and discarding about half of the starter each time you feed it (by this time, you'll only need to feed it once every few days). If—like me—you feel kind of wasteful and uneasy about simply throwing away half your starter, you can give it to a friend for them to start their own, or you can begin making bread!

Sourdough Bread
Once your starter is good and bubbly, you can start making bread. Literally all you need is pretty much flour and water and starter:

—3 cups bread flour (I use King Arthur Flour, since it's a small business with a social and environmental conscience)
—2 cups water
—3/4 cup of starter
—1 teaspoon salt (optional)
—1 tablespoon butter (optional)

Combine the flour, water, and starter and mix until it makes a wet dough. You may need to add more flour to keep the consistency of bread dough. However, with sourdough bread you want to make sure the dough is a little bit wetter than regular bread dough. Fold in the butter and salt, and knead for about 5 minutes.

Pat the dough into a ball, and then place in a well-greased bowl. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, and then cover the bowl with a towel.

Here's where things vary:

If you're in a hurry for bread, you might try placing the bowl in the oven with your oven light turned on. This will help it rise faster. Then again, if you're in a hurry for bread, why are you making sourdough?

Otherwise, just leave the dough on the counter, covered in the towel. Keep an eye on it until it is doubled—the rising could take anywhere from a few hours to just over a day. When the dough is doubled in size, carefully scoop it out of the bowl and fold the ends in, overlapping them into a round loaf.

For baking, you will need some sort of covered pan. I have seen covered stoneware bakers, but I just use a small chicken roaster that we've owned for as long as I can remember. If you're in a pinch, you can also use two deep-dish pie pans—simply use one as the pan and one upside-down on top of it for a lid. The reason for this is that it helps trap the moisture from the dough inside the pan, creating a thick, shiny, golden-brown crust that you see on most sourdoughs and baguettes.

Before you put your dough in the oven, take a small kitchen knife and make three or four cuts in the top of the loaf, then three or four more cuts to make 90 degree angles. This helps the dough to expand easily while baking.

Set your oven to 500 degrees (no preheating necessary), and place your loaf in the oven immediately. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for 10 minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown.

Homemade Butter
What's better to go with homemade sourdough bread than homemade butter? Even though almost everyone has made butter this way (maybe when you were a kid), I'll post it anyway.

All you need is some heavy whipping cream and some salt. Pour about 2/3 of a cup of the whipping cream in a glass jar along with about a teaspoon  of salt (or more, depending on taste). Screw the lid on and shake pretty thoroughly for about 10 or 15 minutes, or until you can feel/hear that all the liquid in the jar has solidified. Unscrew the lid, and you should have a jar full of creamy, tasty white butter to go with your sourdough.

I enjoy the spirituality of making bread. There is a deep, soulful connection that comes with producing your own food and investing the time and energy it takes to provide your own sustenance. Besides: someday, in the post-apocalyptic not-so-distant future, you're going to need skills like breadmaking and canning! (kidding)

Best of all, though, with a bread recipe that literally only has three ingredients, you can feel good about making conscientious, simple food! Enjoy!

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