Friday, November 4, 2016

Back to Basics: Sourdough Starter

I LOVE fresh bread! When I was in high school, my mom would buy the frozen loaves of bread dough by the bushel (ok, actually 5 loaves, I think), and I would take a loaf out of the freezer in the morning, then bake it when I got home from school. I would end up eating half the loaf myself, unable to resist the temptation of melting butter and gooey jam on the hot-from-the-oven bread slices.

Although I've been trying to limit our refined carb intake, I have been intrigued with making bread from sourdough starter I made from scratch, as the process is believed to have some health benefits. Maybe a way to have my bread and eat it, too! When I saw two different recipes from different sources within a month, I decided it must be fate, so I gave it a go.

The first starter I tried was a recipe from New York Times Cooking, but after two attempts at this one (both times, mold developed), I decided to go a different, even simpler route. The July edition of Cooks Illustrated had a method that was simply water and flour, so I didn't think I could go wrong.

This is not a quick process, taking a lot of patience. It takes a couple of weeks before the starter is even ready to use. Following the directions exactly, the first couple of days went according to plan. Things got stinky and bubbly, but eventually, it got a layer of liquid on top that was never mentioned in the article. Undeterred, I carried on, but the bubbles seemed to subside. I have been playing with the ratios of water to flour, so I'm hoping that it will eventually get to the right point. In the meantime, I am still using the starter to bake bread, with mixed results.

This was the beginning:

After about 12 hours:

It was exciting to see this come together from just flour and water. Makes me think that I could survive on my own (as long as I could grind stuff into flour and had a source of clean water, I guess. Oh, and fire and a pot).  Anyway...

I've tried a couple of different methods, but so far it hasn't quite worked, in that my dough always spreads out, rather than keeps its shape and rises up. I tried using less water, more flour, but I still got a flatter, more ciabatta-type bread in shape, but still distinctly sourdough flavor. The second time, I tried kneading more flour in after the second rise in an attempt to get the dough a little stiffer so it wouldn't spread out as much as previously. That didn't work, because I kneaded out all of the air bubbles, and it was really chewy.

I'm still not ready to give up on this, though, because the sourdough flavor is spot on. I'm still playing around with different flours (bread, AP, wheat) and their ratios to see if I can figure it all out.

Below is the method I used for the starter (adapted from Cook's Illustrated).

Sourdough Starter

Equal parts (by weight) of unbleached, all purpose flour and whole wheat flour
Room temperature, distilled water (chlorine in tap water can inhibit the yeast-making process)

I started with about 10 oz each of all purpose flour and whole wheat flour and combined them in a big jar. This is what I used to start and feed the starter.

1. Use one cup of flour mixture and 2/3 cup of room temperature water in a glass bowl until no dry mixture remains. Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature until bubbly and fragrant (stinky, really). It could be as soon as 36 hours, or up to 72 hours, but it will look something like this:

2. Measure about 1/4 cup of the starter and transfer to a clean glass bow (or jar). Stir in 1/2 cup of flour mixture and 1/4 cup room temperature water and combine until no dry mixture remains. Cover and let sit for 24 hours.
Repeat step #2 every 24 hours (you will have to make more of the flour mixture before you are done) until the starter is pleasantly aromatic (doesn't make you gag to smell it) and doubles in size 8 to 12 hours after being fed. It could take up to 14 days. At this point, the starter is now mature and can be used to bake with. Cooks Illustrated suggests that you should us starter within 1 hour after it starts to deflate once it reaches its peak.
To store and maintain mature starter:
Measure 1/4 cup (2 oz) starter and transfer to a clean bowl (not metal) or jar. Discard (or use) remaining starter. Stir in 1/2 cup all purpose flour and 1/4 cup room temperature water (so a ratio of 2 to 1) and let sit at room temperature for 5 hours, then store in refrigerator. Feed weekly (more often if stored at room temperature).

Here's the bread recipe I've been working on:
3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup bread flour
1 3/4 teaspoon salt
12 oz room temperature water
1/3 (3 oz) mature sourdough starter

Whisk flours and salt together in a bowl. Combine water and starter in a separate, large bowl. Add flour to the water/sourdough mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until dough comes together, then knead by hand until a shaggy dough ball forms and no dry flour remains (although the dough will seem a little dry -- that's okay). Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for 12 to 18 hours (I find the longer end of the range is better).

This actually needs a little more flour:

Lay a sheet of parchment large enough to cover the bottom and up the sides of a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven (my cast iron one got the best results, although I also used my Le Creuset, and that worked fine, too) on the count and spray generously with vegetable oil spray (or just pour some oil on and spread until covered). Shape dough into ball by pulling edges underneath to the middle, then put the dough, seam (bottom) side down to the oiled parchment. Transfer dough and parchment to the Dutch oven and cover with plastic wrap.

This is how it looked when I first put it in the oven to rise:

Put Dutch oven into a cold (unheated) oven on the middle rack. On the lower rack, place a baking dish or cake pan and fill with boiling water (about 3 cups). Close oven door and let dough rise for at least 2 hours (I've left it up to 4) until doubled in size.

This is how it looked after the second rise:

Remove the pan of water from the oven and remove the plastic wrap from the Dutch oven. Lightly flour the top of the loaf (optional, I have found), then use a razor or sharp knife to make a long slash on the top of the loaf. Cover pot with lid and and place in middle rack of oven. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Bake bread for 30 minutes, starting time when you turn the oven on to heat. 

After 30 minutes, remove lid and continue baking until loaf is a deep brown and registers 210 degrees, about 20-30 minutes longer. Carefully remove loaf from pot and cool on a wire rack. The "remove loaf from pot" to cool is important, because I found if I left it to cool in the pot, the bottom crust of the loaf got crazy hard, almost too hard to bite through. You're also supposed to let cool completely before serving, but who are we kidding? There's nothing better than some melting and butter and jam on a still-warm slice of fresh bread. Just try not to burn your mouth (or fingers!). Enjoy!

It's still a little trial and error, and I will post updates to this if I have any breakthroughs, but if anyone else has tips for sourdough starters and baking, I am all ears!