After I fully and whole-heartedly committed to bread baking, the next challenge I wanted to conquer was "natural" sourdough. No added, commercial yeast, just whatever happens to hit from the air around the kitchen.
I love, love, LOVE sourdough bread. The tang, the crust, the chew. Just wonderful. Of course (and I know there will be debate....) the best is from San Francisco. Those little yeastie bugs up there are special.
Still, I wanted to give it a try down here in SoCal. But all the methods I'd seen just seemed so....wasteful. I'm single, and even though I'm a bread freak, it's all I can do to eat a loaf of homemade bread before it gets so stale even the scavenger pigeons outside don't want it. And as I said, all the sourdough starter methods I'd found had you either using commercial yeast as a "helper" or discarding up to half your starter each time you refreshed it. That just seemed wrong to me. Plus the quantities involved were HUGE. HUGE. I'd have had to have cleared out my entire refrigerator to accommodate the starter.
Late last year, on a most wonderful website called "Serious Eats", there was a tutorial on sourdough starters, how to well, start them, cultivate them, use them and store them that seemed not only reasonable in terms of quantity, but pretty darned easy in terms of effort.
So I took the plunge, and started....(drum roll please)....."The B*tch". (A sly, or not, homage to Anthony Bourdain in "Kitchen Confidential"). I started my starter (hmmmm, start the starter....grammar, much?) in December, and she's still alive and thriving. She takes a little nap, now, pretty much all the time in my fridge, in a nice, sealed 32-ounce jar. Once a month (and I have a reminder in my Outlook task list), she gets pulled out and fed. Sometimes I use some for a loaf, sometimes she just gets warmed up, fed and sent back to cold storage. But she keeps workin'.
Last weekend was feeding time in the little kitchen. So while I had The B*tch pulled out, I decided to not only pull some starter for a pizza crust to stash in the freezer (always a good thing to have on hand), but also to make a loaf of bread.
Here's the starter in her little jar:
All nice and bubbly and active. She'd been fed the day before I harvested some for the crust and the bread, and left to sit overnight.
Here's the preferment after an overnight rest (starter plus some new flour and water):
Again, nice and bubbly and active. And, remember, there's ZERO commercial yeast in here. Just starter, that *started* (there's that pesty grammar again....) out with nothing more than flour and water. Just amazes me every time I do this.
So, you mix your preferment (rested overnight) with more flour (I used bread flour, the starter is usually all purpose) and water, a bit of olive oil and some salt, and knead until it's happy. About 10 minutes in my KitchenAid. Then you form it into a ball, and tuck it into an oiled food storage bag. Tuck that into the fridge again overnight.
That's the only downside about the whole sourdough experience. It does take some forethought....
After it's rested for a night (or 2) in the fridge, it's time to make bread (or for pizza crust, to toss into the freezer for future use). Pull it out of the zippy bag, and form into a ball. It'll look something like this...
before you take it out of the bag. It grew ! And this....
after you dump it out. Form it into a ball. The best way to do that is to take your hands (floured lightly) and cup them around the edges of the dough. Push lightly with the underside (pinkie side) of each hand in to the center of the dough, as you rotate it around, forming a ball. A lightly floured counter helps. After you've got a nice, fairly tight ball shape, turn it over, and pinch the edges of the bottom seam together, like this:
Then flip it over again, seam down, and repeat the cupping, rotating, pressure motion to ensure that seam will stay sealed. Put it onto a baker's peel, or a flat sheet pan (or the back of a rimmed baking sheet) that has been dusted with corn meal, and let the dough rise until it's doubled. Right before it goes into the oven, slash the top with a sharp knife or a single-edged razor blade.
Then slide it into a very well preheated 450° oven, onto a preheated baking stone if you have one. If not, preheat another flat cookie sheet, or an inverted sheet pan, and slide the bread onto that. The stone or the baking sheet should be on the middle rack. Pour some hot water into another pan you've put on the bottom shelf of the oven, and close the door quickly. Bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until the crust is nice and brown and the internal temperature of the loaf is around 200° (and it sounds "hollow" when thumped on the bottom).
Remove from the oven, and cool on a rack before tearing it open, slathering on that sweet butter and fleur de sel and enjoying.
Here's the baked loaf:
And the sliced bread, to see that lovely crumb and rise, all with, remember now.....NO COMMERCIAL YEAST!
Pretty cool, huh?
Here's the LINK to the cool, multi-step tutorial on "Serious Eats" which will take you to all the other steps in the process, as well as the original bread recipe.
And here's the link to Cookistry, which is the tutorial author's (her name is Donna Currie) own, most excellent and informative blog. I think you'll enjoy that blog as much as I do.
Sourdough. It's one of Nature's miracles.