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. You 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….
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.
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.
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.