Quarantine Sourdough

Yup, like everyone else, I’ve been making bread during the quarantine. Yes it’s cliché but a good boule makes for fine barter with the neighbors for TP, Lysol wipes, or whatever else you’re short of. It’s also super easy once someone shows you how to do it.

Now I’m not going to claim being some grand wizard of bread – I’m sure there’s countless bakers who’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know, but I did start baking professionally at the ripe age of 13 in the local bakery. In other words, I’ve made a few loaves in my time. Some were even edible.

There’s no shortage of ad-infested sourdough recipes all over the Internet. Why do another? Fair question. Well, I’ve looked at more than a few of them. The words over-complicated and confusing immediately come to mind. Same for Youtube videos. Never found one I liked, let alone fully agreed with. So, yeah, I’m tossing my $0.02 in on Sourdough. Deal with it. ? Oh, mine’s ad-free too.

Now before I waste your time, I should warn you’ll need a couple of items beyond the bog-standard kitchen stuff. First, a stand mixer with a dough hook. Yes, there are “no knead” recipes. This isn’t one of them. I learned to make bread in a massive commercial mixer. I use a KitchenAid Pro 600 now. Proper bread dough is far too gooey to hand knead. Next, you need a good probe thermometer. I swear by my Thermapen. You’re also going to need a baking stone and ideally a peel. You can get by transferring dough to the oven on parchment paper if you’re careful, but treat yourself to a peel at some point. You’re worth it. Besides, it’s a game-changer for your homemade pizza. No, you cannot bake bread on a cookie sheet. Don’t go there. You need the stone.

Making Your Starter

OK, buckle up. You’ve got two weeks of work ahead of you. Wait, wait. It’s not bad, I promise. Grab a standard quart mason jar (or something similar in size), some flour and a bottle of still water. Put 1/2 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of bottled water in the jar. Stir it up good with a fork. Cover the jar with some cheesecloth or a dish towel to keep bugs out. Put the jar somewhere where the cat won’t knock it over and ignore it for a day. Add another 1/2 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of bottled water and stir. Repeat this process for two weeks. If the jar starts getting full, dump half out and just keep on going. If a brownish liquid forms on top, pour it off. If you forget a feeding for a day or two, no biggie. At the end of two weeks, you should have something that smells slightly sour and slightly boozy. It should also go pretty darn bonkers an hour or so after feeding now, meaning there’s plenty of healthy yeast in there. Why use bottled water? You’re cultivating tiny amounts of wild yeast and lactobacillus that live naturally in the flour. Tap water has chlorine which can suppress the critters growth.

Maintaining Your Starter

You’ll be using a cup or so of starter every time you bake. If you make bread weekly, just leave Ralph (you did name your starter, right?) on the counter and keep feeding it. If you’re taking a break from baking, toss Ralph in the fridge. If you’re taking a really long break, A. Re-examine your life choices, and B. Pull Ralph from the fridge once or twice a month and feed it. If the jar starts getting crusty, pour Ralph into a clean one. Simple.

If Ralph was given the chill, bring it back to room temp and feed the day before baking.

Making Bread

3 cups flour
1 1/4 cups water (90F)
3/4 cup starter
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon yeast
1 teaspoon non-iodized salt

So let’s pause here and talk ingredients. First, what’s this “cups” and not ingredients weighed down to the milligram? The horror! Screw that. Bread is extraordinarily forgiving. You have a measuring cup, use it. Oh, the recipe can readily be doubled if you’ve got the mixer capacity and a big enough bowl as I did below.

There’s lots of flours on the grocery shelves. Stay away from self-rising and cake flours. All-purpose and bread flours are the droids you’re looking for. Which you use is dealer’s choice. Bread flour will give you a slightly chewier bread. All-purpose slices better for sammiches. I usually go 50/50.

Water can be plain ole tap water now. Does need to be 90F or lower though. Any higher and you risk stressing or even killing the yeast.

Honey and regular yeast – WTF? Consider them safety nets. If your starter isn’t quite up to snuff, a little extra yeast insures you’ll get a usable boule and not a sidewalk paving stone. The honey is just a little treat for the yeasties who’ve got a big job ahead of them. You’re not going to taste it in the bread. If you’re confident in your starter, both the honey and yeast are optional. I use both.

Let’s go!

Put the warm water in the mixer bowl and stir in the yeast. Allow the yeast to rehydrate for 5 minutes.

Add the remaining ingredients except the salt to the bowl. Mix with dough hook just until everything is incorporated. Shut off the mixer and let the dough rest for 15-30 minutes. This is called the autolyse rest and it allows the flour to fully rehydrate. It’s surprisingly important to the bread’s texture and flavor.

Now add the salt and run the mixer for 5 minutes to knead the dough. Why did we wait on the salt? Salt can suppress yeast growth. If you haven’t noticed by now, good bread is all about making our yeasties happy so they can grow and have lots of sex. Giving the yeast that 30 minutes salt-free lets them know that party’s started!

While the dough is kneading, lightly grease a large bowl with Crisco. When the knead is complete, transfer the dough to the bowl with a scraper or spatula. The dough is going to be very sticky and sloppy. This isn’t like making pizza or dinner rolls. Don’t let that throw you. Cover the bowl with Saran Wrap.

The dough now needs to rise for 3 hours with hourly folding. To fold, wet your hands and slowly pull the dough up from the side of the bowl and tuck it to the opposite side. Do this four times around the bowl and re-cover. The point of this exercise is to build structure into the dough without fully knocking it down. You’ll notice the dough getting stronger and less gooey with each fold. At the three hour mark, do one last fold and flip the dough over in the bowl. Set a timer for 2 hours for the final rise.

If you’re not using a peel, spread out some parchment paper on the counter. Toss out generous amounts of flour and carefully pour the risen dough out onto the counter. Sprinkle dough with more flour and cut it in half with a scraper. Now use the scraper to shape each half into a nice ball by pushing gently around the bottom. If things start sticking, use more flour. You really can’t use too much flour at this point. Once you’re happy with the shape, set a 40 minute timer.

Place your stone in the oven and dig out that broiler pan that came with your stove that you never use (if you can’t find it, an old cookie sheet will work too.) Place it on the shelf below the stone and preheat the oven to 450F.

At the 40 minute mark, go scrounge up a new razor blade. A really, really sharp kitchen knife will work too. score the top of each boule, about 1/4″ deep. While deeper scores may look pretty, it really messes up the uniformity of the bread for toast or sandwiches.

Transfer the boules to the hot stone with your peel, or pick up carefully by the parchment paper and lower to the stone (leave the parchment paper in the oven.) Pour 1 cup of water into the pan below the stone and quickly close the oven door. This flash of steam mimics a commercial bread oven and gives the bread that nice crispy crust we love.

Bake for about 30 minutes. Don’t trust your eye for doneness. Jab your temperature probe in and verify the internal temp has reached 200F. Nothing worse than undercooked bread, especially after getting this far! If the temp is good, remove the boules to a wire rack to cool.

That’s it! You’re done!