I’m taking a break from the moving and packing madness to give an update on my sourdough progress. I’ve been trying to post this update for weeks but the truth is, I’ve been trying and failing at various sourdough methods each time I bake a new loaf so, at this point, I’m still in the learning stages just as much as you. The first loaf was a disaster. The second good, but not even slightly sour. The third, good taste but quite small. The fourth… ah yes, we’re finally getting there.
Let’s go back a few steps. I showed you my sourdough starter a few weeks ago. The initial stages went great. It bubbled away like I suspected it should and Mister eventually asked why does it smell sweet and yeasty in here? Like.. beer? so I went ahead and considered that a pat on the back for a job well done and packed the starter away in the only glass jar I could find, one from IKEA, previously home to lentils. Then it sat in the fridge taunting me. I knew the day was coming when I’d need to feed this creature and starting having visions of a Little Shop of Horrors I’d created in our fridge so I named him Seymour (even though I know it should be Audrey) and decided to eat him before he ate us.
As with any hobby, if you call baking a hobby, I quickly discovered that people are into this stuff. There are discussions of using package yeast vs. capturing wild native yeast (huh what?), how often to feed, flour to water ratio, the whole deal with the separated liquid (apparently this is called hooch. I watch a ton of Lockup marathons so I’m very informed on all matters hooch related, I assure you). It’s information overkill. I read around, dismissed anything that sounded too time consuming or complicated then just approximated a version of things that combines everything I read. I started writing this post while working on my first loaf of bread which, to keep the story short, landed itself in the trash. As I continue along, each version is slightly more successful, so I’ll try to summarize what I’ve learned so far.
Apparently a starter can be kept at room temperature but needs to be fed twice daily. Sometimes on weekends we don’t even manage to feed ourselves twice daily, so this is clearly the stuff of baking professionals and kitchen masterminds. Instead, I’m storing my starter in the fridge so all my lessons are based on that premise.
I spent a lot of time reading about starter maintenance because I really, inexplicably, am emotionally invested in keeping this thing healthy and using it for generations. I’ll provide links where I can, when the info is from a specific source, but I mostly browsed through tons of sites and compiled it all in my head.
I feed my starter the night before I intend to start baking. Or, if I’m not baking and the start has separated a bit in the fridge, I feed it a small amount. My initial starter was quite runny, but I later read that the idea is to use equal weights of flour and water, not quantity. Since I don’t have a very accurate kitchen scale, I go with the generally agreed upon quantity of 1 c of flour + 2/3 cup of water. Or, if I’m just doing a quick feeding to tide things over, I’ll use 1/2 c of flour + 1/3 c of water. I stir these directly into my storage container, no need to dump it out. I set it aside to rock out at room temperature, bubbling up and multiplying, then off he goes back into the fridge.
Some Lessons Learned
Feed your starter before baking to ensure it’s healthy. On my first loaf, my starter was slightly less than two weeks old but the visible hooch was an indicator that it should probably be fed. Plenty of sites say that you can just take out starter for your recipe and feed what remains, but I’m going to disagree and say that your starter should be freshly fed before baking. Also, based on what I’ve read and tested, a routinely fed starter is easier to keep healthy and yields better flavor. My initial breads were fairly bland, both because the starter is pretty new and because it wasn’t fed often and thus wasn’t very active or healthy.
You can over rise. This happened on my first loaf. It had a very strong flavor of alcohol, almost as if it’d been dipped in vodka. Disgusting. The culture needs something to feed on, so if the sourdough runs out of food during rising, it’ll eventually consume it’s own waste which I suppose leads to the alcohol flavor. Don’t over rise.
A Basic Recipe
I’ve really struggled to find a recipe that gives me one loaf of great bread with a nice sour flavor. For some reason, almost every recipe I find makes two loaves and we very simply don’t eat that much bread. I started here, with an Emeril Lagasse Basic Sourdough Recipe because it was the only one I found that was written for just one loaf. I’ve since used it twice and its… okay. I can never manage to work the full 2 c of flour into my starter, likely because it’s thicker, which has given me the biggest lesson of all – bread is more of a method and art than a strict list of rules.
I’ve finally just decided on my own recipe, inspired by this Classic San Francisco Sourdough Bread. Emphasis on the inspired part, guys. I follow their suggestions.. ish.. but have entirely changed the quantities to suit my needs.
1 1/2 cup Sourdough starter (unproofed)
1 cup flour
~3 cups bread flour
1 cup warm water
3/4 teaspoon salt
In a large bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups unproofed sourdough starter (directly from the fridge is fine) with 1 cup warm water and 1 cup of all purpose flour. Cover with plastic wrap and leave on the counter overnight.
In the morning, stir your mixture. Place 1/2 cup back into your starter jar. This helps me keep the quantity at a usable level and takes the place of a feeding.
To the remaining mixture, add 3/4 teaspoon salt and bread flour, 1 cup at a time to make stiff dough.
Knead until smooth. Place in oiled bowl. Lightly oil top of dough to keep from drying out. Cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge for 8-12 hours (this could be overnight or while you’re away during the day).
Lightly punch down dough and shape into cylinder. Place into bread pan. Cover and leave to rise 1 1/2 -2 hours until risen and puffy.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Cut slashes in top of loaf. Bake for 45 min until golden brown and loaf sounds hollow when thumped.