In Ed Wood’s book, Sourdoughs from Antiquity he included a picture of a man in the Middle East tending bread loaves on wood planks outside his home. The man was using the heat of the sun to rise the loaves before baking them. That picture was an epiphany for me. Till then I believed that I had to measure ingredients carefully and follow rigid schedules to make bread. I realized that the man in the picture represented hundreds of years of people making bread without fancy weights and measures and perfectly timed schedules. Making bread was historically a very right-brained, intuitive, kinesthetic process! Yea!
Inspired by Mr. Wood’s book I ordered a starter from King Arthur Flour Company and began teaching myself to make bread with simple tools; a spoon, a bowl and an oven. For over a decade my neighbor Rick and I have kept the sourdough starter going, passing it to friends along with loaves of fresh bread. I constantly experimented with rising times and cooking methods, learning that there were many ways to get a beautiful loaf.
Consider these instructions a rough template. The amount of ingredients and rising/fermenting times will change depending on the humidity and warmth of the seasons and the way the starter adjusts to your particular style. After you’ve practiced several loaves, you can change the ingredients to make almost any type of bread you can think of. One of my favorites is Chocolate Bread.Directions for the chocolate variation are in the 4th question under the FAQ list.
Read the recipe through and the notes at the end to get an idea of the process. After you’ve made a few successful batches of bread you’ll have the confidence to alter ingredients and timing.
First: Grow a starter or get one from a friend. (It will take about 2-3 days to grow 4 cups worth from a small amount).
You can buy a dry starter and resuscitate it, or buy a moist starter from King Arthur Flour and enlarge it. Follow directions on the package.
Replenish the starter with enough flour to get a jar of about 4 cups worth going in your refrigerator. Ideally the starter is the consistency of thick pancake batter. Store the starter in a glass or ceramic pitcher/bowl with a loose fitting plastic lid.
Tools: Oven, 2 flat baking sheets, 1 deep baking sheet or shallow pan for the water.
Bowl, stout rubber spatula or wood spoon.
A pizza paddle or wide spatulas to move the dough loaves around.
Yield: 4 normal size loaves, 6 small loaves or lots of buns.
Bread Recipe: Plan for between approx. 10 to 24 hours for the process (your choice — read ahead and plan for what works best for you)
- 2 cups (approx) liquid starter culture (always leave at least a cup of starter in reserve for future bread baking)
- 8 cups (approx.) White unbleached bread flour, (approx. 3 lbs.)
- 5 cups (approx.) Baby Bottle Warm water* (appx 90 degrees)
- 4 heaping teaspoons Sea Salt
- 4 heaping teaspoons sugar (honey, organic white or brown sugar)
- 2 or more additional cups of flour
- Approx. ½ cup olive oil
Note: All measurements are very approximate. Adjust flour and water ratios til it feels right (tough if you have no idea what that means, you’ll just have to try it my way first then adjust your approach next time.) I allow 1 teaspoon of salt per medium loaf. The sugar is to counter the killing effects of the salt (on the yeast).
Step One: Approx 5 minutes to make. 8 to 24 hours to sit on your counter and ferment.
- Mix by hand the flour, starter and water in a very large ceramic or glass bowl until all ingredients are moistened. Do not beat, just gently mix.
- Let this sit for a minimum of 8 hours (in a warm kitchen) or as long as 24 hours. I prefer about a 12 hour period (I mix it in the morning and bake it in the evening). If it’s very warm, go with less time so that your culture doesn’t run out of life before it’s baked. This process is called the “sponge”. I cover mine loosely with a flexible plastic cutting board.
Note: after you’ve made a few loaves and have a feel for the process, see the FAQ’s for info on adding other flours at this stage.
Step Two: About 10 – 15 minutes to knead. Approx 1 to 2 hours to rise.
- Mix Salt and sugar with 1 cup of flour. Stir this mixture into your fermented sponge. Add additional flour if the dough is still wet. When you can no longer stir the bread, cover your hands until they are dripping in olive oil and dive them into the bread. Knead the loaf by turning the far edge over the loaf and towards your body. Smash it into the loaf, give it a ¼ turn and repeat kneading the loaf for between 4 to 15 minutes. (Depends on how fast it goes and your attention span).
- Add a little more flour if the loaf is too sticky, though err on the wet side as a wet dough yields a more open texture. If you make the mistake of adding too much flour, as soon as possible shake off the excess flour (save it to add to your starter) and add more olive oil to the mix until you can knead it again.
- Oil the bread bowl heavily. Put the dough in the bowl and pour more oil on top and spread it around so that it’s protected from drying out.
- Let it rise in a warm place til it’s about 50% bigger or almost doubled. (about 1 to 2 hours)
Step Three: Cooking. About 15 minutes to prepare your oven and loaves. 45 min. to bake.
- Pre-Heat your oven to 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Meanwhile put a large kettle of water to boil. Put a shallow metal pan in the bottom of your oven.
- Punch down your bread dough.
- With a knife, cut it into sections for loaves. This recipe makes 4 medium or 6 small loaves.
- Make about 2 to 6 kneading motions of each dough section and shape the dough into a round or long loaf. Shaping a loaf requires only childhood mud-patty skills, so don’t make this hard on yourself.
- Sprinkle a layer of flour on your kitchen counter and put the shaped loaves there.
Note: This step in the process is the ideal place to add flavorful ingredients to the bread such as – Chocolate chips, dried fruit, chopped nuts, cinnamon and sugar, sautéed onions and garlic, cheese, chopped jalepeno chiles, etc.
Either knead the ingredients into the dough before you shape it OR flatten out the dough and spread the ingredients over it. Roll up the dough and tuck in the ends.
6. Shake a generous sprinkling of flour (about 1/2 cup) on your 2 baking sheets.
7. Finish the dough –
A. The easiest: Pat flour all over the dough. OR
B. Beat a whole egg and spread it over the tops of the loaves.
Optional — Sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds .
8. With a sharp knife, slash the tops of the loaves approx ¼ to 1/2” deep. On round loaves I make an “X”. On long loaves I put 3 to 5 slashes the width of the loaf.
9. Slide the loaves onto the pan and put them in the hot oven.
10. Pour the boiling water into the hot shallow pan on the bottom of the oven and quickly shut the door to seal in the steam.
Bake for 45 minutes at 400 degrees.
How do I take care of the starter?
The starter is like a houseplant (a succulent). If refrigerated it needs care every 1 to 3 weeks. Keep the starter in the refrigerator with a lid that is on loosely.
Take it out of the refrigerator to feed it. Feed the starter a cup of white unbleached bread flour and 1 cup of baby-bottle-warm water. Stir and leave it on your counter for 8 hours to let it warm up and come back to life. Before I “put it to bed back in the refrigerator” I give it a “snack”. Stir in about ½ cup of flour and put it back in the refrigerator. If you need a lot of starter, add extra flour, never much more than twice your amount of starter. (ex. you have 2 cups of starter — add 2 cups of flour and water OR you have 4 cups of starter — add 4 cups of flour and water.)
If you’ve neglected the starter for a long time (4 to 6 weeks) give it a chance and try to revive it. You might have to feed it and then after 6-8 hours pour off some and feed it again. Repeat this cycle 2-3 times til it’s bubbly and happy again.
If you’re making bread every day you don’t have to return the starter to the refrigerator as it can live comfortably at room temperature if fed daily.
What is Natural yeast anyway?
Natural yeast is a “wild” yeast compared to the store bought hybrid yeast. Both types of yeasts are a single cell fungus that breaks down the starches in wheat flour through the process of fermentation to create sugar that gives off carbon dioxide gas that makes the bread rise. Natural yeast starter has yeast and lactobacilli (similar to the lactobacilli in yogurt or other cultured foods) in a symbiotic relationship.
A store-bought hybrid yeast is like a corn field. It all grows at the same rate and is harvested at the same time. A natural yeast starter (the lactobacilli is part of the starter) is like an old growth forest. Imagine trees and other plants of varying heights that grow at different rates. The lactobacilli create the rich flavor and their presence retards bad molds from growing in the starter. For this reason, a natural yeast starter is responsive to a wide variety of temperature and humidity changes and doesn’t need a strict schedule, though with use, you’ll learn that your starter is most powerful (lots of bubbles and puffy) at a certain point in the fermentation process.
How do I add whole grains to my loaves?
At Step 1 of the recipe substitute up to half of the white flour with whole wheat. If you use a low-gluten flour like oat or rye, substitute ¼ of the flour. As you experience the results, increase your whole grain/white flour ratio. I’ve used 100% whole spelt or wheat grain, but the loaves have always been smaller and denser than loaves made with more white flour. It’s up to you.
I want to make some different breads. What is the easiest way to do that?
Add flavorful ingredients to the bread such as – Chocolate chips; dried fruit; chopped nuts; butter with cinnamon and sugar; sautéed onions and garlic; cheese; chopped jalepeno chilis, etc.
At Step 3 either knead the ingredients into the dough before you shape it OR flatten out the dough and spread the ingredients over it. Roll up the dough and tuck in the ends. One of my favorite breads to give as a gift isChocolate Bread. I knead in about a cup or more of dark chocolate drops into each loaf, it’s delicious!
How do I plan the bread around my life?
I prefer a fermentation time (Step 1) of 8 to 12 hours. I’ll start the bread Friday night and then do Step 2 and beyond Saturday morning. If I have time during the week, I’ll start Step 1 in the morning before work, then begin Step 2 and beyond when I’m home for the evening. If my plans change and I need to slow things down, I put the dough in the refrigerator. If I need to speed things up it doesn’t work very well as the yeast/lactobacilli don’t have time to do their work. I suggest slowing down the process.
My bread doesn’t taste very sour. What’s up?
Possibly your starter won’t produce a very sour taste. The lactobacillus are responsible for the sour flavor. You could order a starter from a San Francisco company and give that a try. I did that and discovered that while the starter was stronger in flavor, it wasn’t wildly different. (After 6 months I combined it with my other starter because I didn’t notice enough difference to make the hassle worthwhile of keeping separate starters.) The other thing to think about is that your palette has been tampered with. Many commercial bread companies put citric acid (also known as sour salt) in their loaves to make them taste sour. You can order citric acid from King Arthur Flour company and give it a try. I’ve never tried the product, consequently I have no idea how it would react with my starter. If you try it and like it, let me know.
Why do I add hot water to my oven when I bake the bread?
In the oven, the maximum rise is in the first half of the baking period. The steam bath keeps the outside of the bread loaf flexible enough to allow the yeast to rise as much as it can during that time. During the second half of the baking period the steam contributes to creating a crunchy crust.
Mail order sources for Starter:
King Arthur Flour Company
*If the water in your area is heavily chlorinated, use filtered or bottled water or boil a pot of water and leave it out overnight.
Other Reading: I highly recommend Edward Espe Brown’s, The Tassahara Bread Book. It was the book responsible for my first bread success. Though the yeast I used then was packaged, The Tassahara Bread Book is the classic that started me making bread.
Here’s a note from Bob’s Red Mill — the Oregon flour I use for my bread: “All of our products are non-GMO and identity preserved. This means that the seed that was planted for the plants that yield the grain originated from a non-GMO source. We have little control over factors such as wind drift and pollen drift, so we do shy away from advertising our products as non-GMO and printing it on our packaging,” says Jennifer Barnes, Customer Svc., Bob’s Red Mill.
©Cristina Acosta 2007 – 2015