Sourdough Bread

Sourdough Bread

We have a new favourite loaf around here. It’s homemade sourdough, made from a starter. I am even more committed to baking my own bread after the recent price-fixing scandal here in Canada, which originated with what has been called the Emporium of Bread-Swindling. It’s also another way to ensure zero waste: bake bread, wrap it in a tea towel, done.

I use the recipe in my trusty favourite, Nancy Baggett’s Kneadlessly Simple. She gives instructions for a “cheater” starter; a small amount of yeast is added to the flour and water mixture, rather than relying on the ambient wild yeasts floating around. I have no objection to this sort of cheating, so I mixed up my starter on January 31. A day later it looked like this as the fermentation had already begun. 20180201_164633.jpgYou can see the bubbles forming as the yeast consumes the sugars and starches and releases carbon dioxide. The children were rather fascinated that yeast poo is what makes bread rise.  This whole project turned into a bit of a science experiment. The process lasts several days, at a few minutes a day.  It’s too much for me to think about when I’m teaching  undergraduates, but it suits me well when I am properly in the slow lane.

As instructed by Nancy, I fed the starter daily for the next ten days and then baked my first loaves. I’ve made two batches so far. My test subjects report that the taste is tangy and delicious, the crust crisp and delightful. The loaves certainly smell divine. I need to practice slashing the top; at the moment my loaves are a bit lopsided. Every time I feed the starter and put it back in a warm place on the counter next to the stove, or bake with it, I remember my first time reading By The Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mrs Boast comes to visit and gets a little baking lesson.

“But how do you make the sour dough?” Mrs. Boast asked. “You start it,” said Ma, “by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours.” “Then when you use it, always leave a little,” said Laura. “And put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water.” Laura put in the warm water, “and cover it,” she put a clean cloth and the plate on the jar, “and just set it in a warm place,” she set it in its place on the shelf by the stove. “And it’s always ready to use whenever you want it.” 



Get some distilled water from the supermarket, or put some tap water in an uncovered jar and leave it over night so that the chlorine can evaporate. People with wells don’t need to do this. Then cover it until you need it.

In a glass jar or bowl, put

1/2 cup white flour
1/8 tsp instant or bread-machine yeast

Mix in about 1/3 cup of your water, until the slurry is about the same consistency as gravy or pancake batter.

Cover with a clean cloth and set aside until the next day.

On days 2-5, and days 7-10, add 1/3 cup of flour, and enough water to keep the same consistency as at the beginning. As needed, top up your jar of water so that you have enough low-chlorine stuff to keep going.

On day 6, discard about one third of the glop before adding the usual amount of flour and water.

After about ten days, your starter should smell pleasantly sour and have visible bubbles on the top and visible through the sides of the jar.

About 4 hours before you want to mix up your dough, discard 1/3 of the starter and add 1 cup of flour and 1/2 to 2/3 cup water. Cover and let sit for at least four hours until it’s very bubbly.

The bread itself (for two boules)

7 cups white all-purpose flour
1 heaped tbsp salt
1/2 tsp instant or bread-machine yeast
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/3 cups sourdough starter
3 cups cold water

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix liquid ingredients in a large measuring cup or glass bowl.

Combine the two until you have a stiff dough, At this point I divide the dough into 2 smaller bowls for rising, since my largest bowl is not big enough to proof this much dough. I do long for one of these….mason-cash-about-us

Cover the bowls and let sit overnight. I usually mix up the dough in the afternoon before the kids come home from school, and then bake before supper the next day. Last night Little made borscht, a perfect companion to homemade bread. 20180221_180134.jpg

Oil two Dutch ovens liberally. Take a stiff spatula and fold the dough in from the outside of the bowl towards the middle, turning the bowl as you go. The dough will deflate a bit and you will have a neat circular mound in the middle of the bowl. Add 1/2 cup of flour to the dough, and pat it in, turning the dough over as you do so. If the dough is still sticky and slumps a bit when you let go of it, pat in more flour. When the dough is quite stiff, make the dough into a smooth ball, tucking the rough bits underneath. Put it in the Dutch oven, and brush more oil on the top. Using a serrated knife or kitchen scissors (my rather ragged efforts are with the scissors), cut 3 slashes in the top and then 3 more perpendicular slashes, so that it looks like a tic-tac-toe game.

Put the lids on the pots and allow the dough to rise for up to 2 hours. It tends to rise rather slowly, so don’t rush it.

Preheat the oven to 450°C. Spray the loaves with water and put the pots in the oven. Turn down the temperature to 425°C and set your timer to 45 minutes. If the edges are browned, remove the lids and let bake for another five minutes to brown the tops. If the edges are still a bit pale, keep the lids on for another five minutes, and then brown the tops for an additional five. Executive summary: total baking time 50-55 minutes.

Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove bread from pan. The crust tends to brown quite deeply because of the oil, but this does not mean that you have burnt your loaves. 20180220_171321.jpg

So now you have two loaves of bread, and leftover starter. Stir  1/3 cup of flour and about 1/4 cup water into the starter, cover with a clean cloth and refrigerate until the next time you want to bake, preferablywithin a week. If left for too long, starters can become too sour and may have to be discarded. I will be baking sourdough again next week. So there, Emporium of Bread-Swindling.


Back-to-school Baguette

Back-to-school Baguette


I’m spending part of this Labour Day baking baguettes. It’s a cool and rainy day and tolerable to have the oven on. I’m glad to have a bit of baking therapy to help me get over the back-to-school anxiety pervading the house. And this way the sandwiches on the first day of school will be amazing.

On our summer holiday this year we spent a few days in Quebec City. One day we walked all over the Plains of Abraham, the fort and the old city. (Thank you, National Battlefields Commission, for such an informative website about the whole struggle for Quebec, and not just the battle on September 13, 1759. And I learned a new word: justaucorps, the long fitted eighteenth-century coat.)

We paused for lunch in the glorious Jardin des Gouverneurs, overlooking the St. Lawrence, with a big monument to Wolfe and Montcalm, the victor and the vanquished.

20170817_124101We bought our lunch at a little grocery store nearby. The non-celiacs had baguette with ham and cheese, reportedly absolutely delicious. I promised the family then that I would make baguette in time for the first day of school. This week I stocked up on ham and Jarlsberg, and here I am baking the bread.

One piece of specialized equipment can be used here: the baguette pan. You can also make your own out of several layers of aluminum foil (more relaxing handwork) or just bake the loaves on a cookie sheet lined with a silicone mat. They will spread a bit that way, but still be delicious. 20160422_143831

The recipe is from my old favourite, Kneadlessly Simple. As with all the recipes in that book, you start the day before by mixing up the sponge so that it can rise overnight. The dough could not be simpler to mix up. Then, the next day there is a certain amount of forming and shaping. This is where the anxiety-calming occurs: sprinkling a handful of flour over the pieces of dough, forming rectangles, folding and rolling, and finally slitting the narrow loaves with a sharp knife. I’ve made this bread enough times that I can feel when the dough is the right texture and it’s somehow comforting to know this with my body rather than my brain.

Here is the basic recipe. I always double it since the children can eat a batch in the wink of an eye.


3 1/4 cups white flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp instant or bread machine yeast
1 1/2 cups cold water, or a bit more


Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add water and mix (with a wooden spoon or dough whisk) until spongy but still quite firm. Add a bit more water if the dough is too floury. Cover with a silicone mat and leave overnight to rise.

The next day, the dough will look quite wet with little bubbles on top. Scatter a handful of flour over the top and massage it into the bread. As the dough becomes less wet, start kneading it with one hand (leaving the other hand clean for touching your tap or knives or whatever). When it feels dry and squishy and springy, dump it out onto a silicone mat with a little flour dusted on it. Cut the lump of dough in two and leave it alone for ten minutes. This will allow the gluten to relax and make shaping easier. 20160422_143827

In the meantime, oil your nifty french bread pan or whatever pan you are using.

After ten minutes, start shaping your dough. Push it into a rectangle about the shape of a piece of paper and fold it in thirds as if you were folding a letter. Then make it into the same size of rectangle, but this time roll it along the long side so that you have a sort of snake. Pinch the edges well together and continue rolling your snake until it’s the same length as your loaf pan. Put the snake in the loaf pan and slash the tops diagonally three or four times with a serrated knife. Admire the professional effect.


Allow to rise for 45 minutes to two hours, whatever works best for your schedule. About 20 minutes before you want to bake, put a broiler pan or cookie sheet in the bottom of your oven and turn it on to 500°F.

When the oven is hot, spray the loaves with water and put the pan towards the back of the oven. I use the middle rack, but a lower rack may work better in your oven. Carefully pour 1 cup of cold water into the hot pan on the floor of the oven. Shut the door quickly to capture the steam. Turn the oven down to 475°F.

Bake for 7 to 9 minutes, and then remove the pan from the oven. The loaves will look somewhat solid and slightly coloured. Using a palette knife or thin spatula, loosen the loaves and slide them onto a cookie sheet lined with a silicone mat. Put back in the oven for 6-8 minutes, then turn them over and bake for a further 4-6 minutes. These times are a bit approximate and will depend on your oven.

Then remove your glorious loaves and allow them to cool. I will guard mine until it’s time for the lunches to be made.





Bread: the original and best

Bread: the original and best

I, celiac, bake a great deal of gluten-filled bread. I bake bread at least three times a week. Right now I have cinnamon-raisin pinwheel bread in the oven , at the request of Little. Two loaves of whole-wheat bread are in the freezer, with a half loaf of the same in the bread basket. I will probably bake bread again tomorrow. The bread I bake most often is the classic white boule, pictured above. It is the only bread recipe I have committed to memory. It always works, it is fast and easy and I can put it together even if I am tired and it is 10:30 at night and I realize that we are almost out of bread.

A bit more than three years ago, I was in Sunnyside Library with the whole family one Saturday and the spouse had the children with him so that I was free to roam the adult books on my own. (It was a thrill!) I happened upon this book at the end of an aisle: Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads by Nancy Baggett. The concept is that you mix up the dough, let it sit for about 12 hours or more, and all the little yeast hoolies do the kneading for you. Intrigued, I took the book  out and tried out Crusty White Peasant-Style Pot Bread.

It was fabulous. I renewed that book three times for three weeks each and tried out one or two recipes each week. At that time my celiac disease had not yet been diagnosed so we all chewed our way blissfully through loaf after delicious loaf. Baguettes, cheddar and chiles bread, cinnamon-raisin swirl, yeasted cornbread, rye, pale ale pot boule….oh yum. At the end of all my library renewals I went out and bought the book. It has since been well-used. The pages are falling out of the binding and marked with grease and flour and my coffee cup.

I decided to bake almost all our bread from that point on. We still buy factory whole wheat for the correctly squishy grilled cheese sandwich, and sometimes we get crumpets or English muffins. I kept baking even after I found out I could not eat gluten.

It is unbelievably cheap to bake your own bread. I buy the ten-kilo bag of flour at Costco for $7.65 and it lasts for about a month of baking. I use about $5 worth of whole wheat flour during that month too. In that period I make between 20 and 30 loaves of bread.

It is so much fun deciding which kind to bake, and by now everyone has favourites so I am happy to take requests. I just love baking, and it doesn’t matter to me if I can’t eat the product. Last year I decided to bake my way systematically through the whole book just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything good. At the end, the classic white boule was still the original and best. Nancy Baggett’s recipes are usually for one loaf and I almost always double them so as to able to keep the rapacious hordes satisfied.

Here’s the recipe for two boules: I use completely average Canadian grocery-store ingredients: Redpath sugar, Sifto salt, Fleischmann’s yeast. In the winter, the water that comes out of my Ottawa taps is almost in ice-cube form already.


8 cups white flour
2 tsp white sugar
1 tbsp plus one tsp (or 4 tsp) salt
1 1/2 tsp quick-acting or breadmaking yeast (f you want to bake the same day, double the yeast to 1 tbsp)
4 cups ice water


2 large mixing bowls
Measuring spoons and cups
One wooden spoon or Danish dough whisk
One spatula
2 Dutch ovens (cast-iron ovenproof pots)

Mix dry ingredients together in a very large bowl. Little likes helping me measure and mix. I use a Danish dough whisk to combine the ingredients. I got three for Christmas one year after this bread-baking mania began. Slosh in the cold water and mix for quite a long time until all ingredients are combined and it looks wet and gluey with no traces of flour. No kneading: just mixing.

When I was first starting out with this book, I couldn’t figure out why my dough was always way drier than that pictured in the book. But then I remembered that Canadian flour has more gluten than American flour and just added a bit more water to make things squishier. If you have made bread before using a more conventional recipe, the dough will seem quite wet and soft. Go with it and do not fret.

Divide the dough and put one portion of it in another bowl to rise. I have one bowl larger than the other, so I divide them unevenly. This works fine since my Dutch ovens are not the same size either.  So now you have two bowls of dough. In every recipe Nancy Baggett advises covering the bowl with plastic wrap, but I am a professional loather of plastic wrap. What a silly, one-use object, and especially irritating if it sticks to itself and not the bowl. I went out and bought silicone airtight lids, which go through the dishwasher and can be used in the fridge or microwave as well.

If I want to bake in the afternoon, I mix up the bread in the morning and bake 3-4 hours later. If I’m not in a rush, I either mix the bread in the morning and bake it in the evening, or I mix it up after supper and bake the next morning or whenever that day works out. One can delay baking by putting the bowls in a cold place until one is ready. Whatever you decide, when the bread is nearing the top of the bowl or indeed is pushing the lid up, take a spatula and fold the dough in towards the middle of the bowl while rotating it. 20160530_101241This organizes the gluten (hey, I can’t eat gluten, but I can organize it) for baking. Leave for about an hour, depending on the warmth of the room, and then turn on the oven to 450° F (235° C). Put two cast-iron pots (the pots need to have lids, but leave the lids out of the oven for this first phase) into the oven when you turn it on. Have your oven mitts at the ready.

When the oven is hot, remove one pot and dump the contents of one bowl into it. Don’t worry if it looks a little messy; you are doing artisanal baking after all. Spritz water onto the top of the loaf, put the lid on and put the pot back in the oven. Repeat with the other pot. The water creates steam inside your little Dutch oven and that steam gives you the lovely crust. 20160530_103856Turn the oven down to 425° F (220° C) and set the timer for 50 minutes (maybe check after 45 minutes if you are doing this for the first time). The loaves should look solid but a bit pale at this point. 20160530_113121Take the lids off the pots, set the timer for five minutes, and bake the loaves lid-free for that time. Remove the bread when it is browned and crisp.

I usually find that the loaves come right out when I tip the pots over onto the cooling rack. Let cool. Often the teenager comes home from school 15 minutes after baking is over and he has at the fresh warm bread for his snack. The other loaf I put in the freezer for another day.

The gorgeous crackling noise that the bread makes as it cools is known as singing.