What is sourdough?
Sourdough is a way of life but it’s also a type of bread made with a natural leavening agent relying on a slow fermentation of the dough. Sourdough bread has a bit of a sour taste, and is very popular in San Francisco and in Paris.
Thanks to Clotilde who gave me a little bit of her own starter, I’ve been feeding my sourdough starter and making sourdough bread with him for 8 years. (Check out Clotilde’s blog for info on how to get started).
You can baptize your starter if you like. Mine is called Fluffy. It has a delicate smell half-way between vinegar and candy. Watching it double in size and then go down like a soufflé is a real treat, kind of like having your own kid - or a somewhat immature boyfriend - and feeding him except it doesn’t cry and it will never walk - and you can totally let it starve for a few days, it will jump right back again. We quickly became best friends. Then I realized I was falling in love with him (watch season 2 for details of our relationship)
You can start your own starter from scratch, a fun process taking about a week before the good bacteria lactobacilli win over the bad ones (the good ones smell good while the bad ones smell, well, bad). To make your own starter, check out the life-changing tips - you will learn how to get started and how to travel the world with your new companion/lover/friend.
The whole point of maintaining a natural starter is to make your own bread with nothing else than these three ingredients - flour, water, salt. This is truly amazing and beats every other kind of home made bread (no-knead bread, regular bread with artificial yeast, soda bread) both on a level of taste and looks. The crust of home baked sourdough bread will blow you away. And nothing beats the smell of sourdough bread rising in the oven.
You can read an essay I wrote about falling in love with sourdough bread here.
My sourdough bread recipe
Let's be honest here, it's more a process than a recipe. A good sourdough bread is not recipe dependent, it requires time and perseverance. It's fascinating to see the texture of the dough change and evolve. Bread after bread, I'm still amazed at what 3 ingredients can do. Because it's only water, flour and salt, choose them carefully. Just like with everything else, the more you bake, the better your bread will be.
It takes me roughly 3 days to make sourdough bread. But the active time is maybe 30 minutes. The rest is just planning, timing and waiting. Making bread is both relaxing and meditative. You can also be creative, test new techniques, new flours, new flavors.
On day one, I usually get my chief starter up to speed (meaning I feed it well so that it's rising well). On day 2, I make the starter for the bread and mix that starter with flour and water - then salt. I usually do this on a day when I'm at home so that I can give the dough the turns it needs every hour or so. On day 3 or 4, sometimes 5, I bake the bread.
If you're a beginner, you could divide the recipe in half to start small. I usually make this much - which is enough to bake 3 loaves during the week. Proofing the dough in the fridge considerably slows down fermentation and I've left sourdough in my fridge for up to 3/4 days - the more you leave it in the fridge, the more sour it will taste. But you can't leave it too long either otherwise it will overproof and your bread will be flat.
If you've never used sourdough before, start feeding your starter once or twice a day to get used to its cycle. Try baking once a week or even once a month (keep your starter in the fridge if you're not gonna be using it for a while). With your discarded starter, make pancakes! Your first loaf will already impress you. But your 100th will most probably be spectacular.
If you haven't bought a scale, try to get one - baking bread (and baking in general) requires a good amount of precision (and measuring in cups will only lead to approximation). My scale is so thin and light that I bring it in my suitcase when I travel - and I haven't changed the battery once in 5 years.
I use a cast iron pot to bake bread (Le Creuset and Staub make great reliable pots, and you can buy these second-hand) but you can use a cast iron skillet, or a baking stone too. Before investing in a cast iron pot, I used to bake my bread in a Pyrex glass pot covered with a round baking pan - it was a bit wonky but it worked very well!). This is a hight hydratation loaf meaning the dough will be very wet throughout. Bonus point: it will give your loaf a delicious and moist crumb.
• 1000g of flour (I use white unbleached, organic and not enriched. Bread flour is great.)
• 200g of spelt flour (or whole wheat or buckwheat or any other cool flour that's not pure white)
• 300g of well fed starter (look for big bubbles and a nice sound when your spoon goes across it - it usually takes 4-6 hours to reach that state)
• 1000g of water (some use filtered water, I don’t)
• 25g of salt (I use coarse grey salt from Guérande - I bring a 1kg bag from France and that lasts me the year)
• Mix the flour, starter and water and bring together in a dough with a spoon - cover with a tea towel and leave at room temperature between 30 minutes and two hours - this step is called autolyse and lets the starter and the gluten develop before adding the salt. You can also start the autolyse before putting in the starter - just mix the flour and water to together and leave at room temperature - for 3-10 hours - this is is called extended autolyse and leads to great results - and less 'turns') I usually do a 3/4 hours autolyse with just water and flour (while my starter is still growing, then when it's ready (6-8 hours after feed) I add the starter to the mix.
• After 30 mn or an hour, add the salt. Dip you hand in water and bring the outside of the dough towards the middle (these are called 'turns'). Turn your bowl as to do this, so that you can do 4 turns. Cover with a towel and let sit for another hour (or 30 mn).
• Repeat this process an hour or so later (every 30 mn is fine) - for a total of 4/5 times. After the final 'turn', let your dough sit at room temperature for another 4 hours. (You could put the dough in the fridge at this stage if you need to and pick up the next day).
• If you want to add things to your bread (hazelnuts, raisins, walnuts, goji berries, rosemary, pepita seeds, prosciutto, cheese), it's best to do it around turn 3 or 4. That said, I often forget and add these at the last minute when I'm diving the dough - that way I can have one plain loaf and a couple of different ones.
• Divide the dough in three equal parts. Using a little bit of flour on your work surface, fold the dough in three like an enveloppe a few times then shape into a ball. Cover each ball with a bowl and wait 20 minutes. Then shape your dough some more. Put the dough in little proofing baskets or in bowls (lined with a linen cloth, or with some rice flower - nice side to the bottom of the bowl) and cover with cling film or just another linen.
• Let the bread ferment for another 5-6 hours - depending on the temperature of the room - the hotter the weather the faster your bread will rise. At this point, you can also let your dough in the fridge overnight or more (this will slow down the fermentation process - I usually do this because I like a more sour sourdough bread).
• Right before baking your bread (you dough should be nicely risen) : preheat your oven at 500°F for 45 minutes. Take a cast iron pot, oil it with paper, sprinkle rice flour in it and place the bread dough in the middle. Sprinkle rice flour on the dough and make incisions with a knife, a cutter, or even better a razor blade. Make your incisions superficial (a few millimeters) and angle your blade 3/4 over your dough. Make quick and decisive incisions : this is not the moment to hesitate! Place your cast iron pan in it for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the lid and let the crust brown.
• Once your bread is baked, remove from the cast iron pot, tap the bottom of the bread and check for a hollow sound. Let cool for a couple of hours while resisting the temptation to cutting it. The bread will sing a little - the crust crackle as it cools down. Why wait? Hot bread is not that easy to digest and letting it sit for a few hours before eating it will let you taste all the flavor (every 'bread' tastes 'good' when it's hot, a sourdough bread tastes great when it's no longer hot, and even the next day : and that's what we're trying to make here!)
• To keep the bread fresher for longer, wrap in a tea towel or a linen cloth. You can freeze bread too - not forever though. Sometimes I freeze slices so that I can take them straight from the freezer to the toaster. If I have baked too much bread - I usually find someone to give it too, not that many people can say no to homemade bread!