Sourdough

Debbie, at Stopping To Get My Bearings  asked about how I made the loaves in the prior post.

Hopefully this is organized enough.  It’s more of some notes and thoughts than a precise recipe.

I’ve found that sourdough bread–or any bread, for that matter–is somewhat difficult to turn into a precise recipe because of the imprecise nature of the ingredients, the kitchen environment and the things used to bake the bread.

  • I measure flour by volume knowing the amount of flour actually in the measuring cup depends on how tightly the flour gets packed in the measuring cup.
  • I live in the desert.  When I spent some summers at my grandparents’ house in (humid) Ohio,  I needed more flour than I expected to get the dough to “feel right”.
  • The altitude makes a difference.  I was used to making bread at around 1200 feet (375 meters) above sea level.  When I was at 8,000 feet (2400 meters) above sea level, the bread from my first baking attempts was very much appreciated by the birds and squirrels.
  • Cast iron, glass, shiny thin metal and dark thin metal bread pans also change how the bread bakes and how long it needs to bake.  The 400F degree oven temperature that  I mention below works for my cast iron bread pans.  If you use different pans you might need to lower the oven temperature a bit to compensate for the differences.
  • The size of the bread pans makes a difference.

First the starter.  King Arthur Flour has a pretty good recipe here.

One thing I never see mentioned is the importance of using UNCHLORINATED water for all things involving the sourdough starter and sourdough bread.    Yes, unchlorinated is bold, underlined, all caps and red.  It is that important.  Chlorinated water is a sourdough killer.  You’ll see I keep repeating myself with regards to unchlorinated.

I made my starter before I had found the King Arthur website.  What I did was to use unchlorinated water and all purpose flour in a well stirred 50-50 mix (1 cup of water and 1 cup of flour) and I dropped an unwashed grape from my grapevine into the mix.  I got lucky and my starter “took right off” the first time.  I used a grape because that’s what I had.  I suppose a different kind of fruit would work as long as it hasn’t been too thoroughly washed.

When I read King Arthur Flour’s starter recipe, it turned out that I pretty much followed their recommendations for the timings of my starter’s feedings for the first few days of it’s life. Again, don’t forget to use unchlorinated water.

Once the starter was going well (after just a few days), I followed, with one exception, King Arthur Flour’s refrigerator storage instructions.  I use 1-1/2 cup of unchlorinated water and 1-1/2 cup of flour when I feed the starter.  This makes a more liquid starter and obviously a larger amount of starter, but its “thinness” also makes it a little less likely to “escape” the jar as it expands.  If you repeatedly have to clean up the kitchen counter after a sourdough feeding, reduce the amount of starter and (unchlorinated…see, I keep repeating myself) water that you use for a feeding.

It’s important to use a glass, ceramic or plastic container for the starter’s home.   I learned this back in college when I used a large soup can to hold the starter and  I had a metallic tasting starter.  My girlfriend (a microbiology major) suggested glass and the metal taste soon disappeared.

One other thing.  It’s alright if the inside of the top of the glass jar gets “crusty” looking.  About once a year, I move the starter to a new jar and wash out the old jar.

Oh, one more “one other thing”.  We had a Belgian Sheepdog (named Shadow) who jumped up on the counter and ate a bowl of sourdough pancake batter.  He loved the stuff.   However, later in the day, every few minutes there would be a squeak from his tail end and he would jump up, spin around and start barking at the noise…and we would suffocate.   We called our vet and after she quit laughing, she advised us to put him outside and to watch him for signs of bloat.  He was fine by diner time.  However, after that, any sourdough anything had to be put into a dog proof spot.  Given a choice between a steak and the sourdough, he would have had a tough time deciding which to take.

The three dogs we have had since Shadow, have all longingly sniffed the air when I’ve got sourdough “working”.  Jessiecat doesn’t seem interested in sourdough, so maybe it’s just a “dog thing”.

 

I use a regular mouth quart mason jar to hold the starter and cover it with a few layers of paper towels secured by a wide mouth screw band.  This works to keep the bugs out, yet allows the carbon dioxide gas, made by the starter, to escape.  My   “sourdough hangover”  post shows how I cover the top of the jar.

 

Back to making the sourdough.

I follow King Arthur Flour’s refrigerator storage instructions recommendations for preparing the starter for a “work day”.

Stir 2 cups of warm  (again unchlorinated) water, 1 cup of starter and 4 cups of flour in a large (4 quarts or larger) non-metallic bowel, cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place.  In the summer the kitchen is warm enough for the bowl to sit on the counter.  In the winter, I put the bowl in the oven and turn on the oven light.

I’ve used both all purpose and bread flour with little difference in the results.

The timing here depends on the temperature of the dough and your starter.  I’ve had it take as few as 2 hours to as long as 6 hours for things to be ready.  Basically look for the dough to get bubbly and looking like the starter at King Arthur’s   feeding and maintaining your starter page.  I’ve heard this sometimes called a sponge and I can see why it got that name.  It does look like a white sponge.

When it’s ready, stir in 2 teaspoons of salt and 2 teaspoons of sugar into the dough.

Then stir in 3 more cups of flour.  I use a very strong fork that I found at a thrift store for the stirring duty.

Here’s where it gets less precise.

I drop the dough out of the bowl onto a flour dusted kitchen counter and start kneading the bread.  It is nearly always sticks to my hands and the counter top.  If it does, I add about 1/4 cup of flour and knead for a couple of minutes.  If it’s still sticky I’ll add another 1/4 cup of flour and try it again.  I keep doing that until the dough sticks just a very little bit to my hands but doesn’t leave clumps on my hands.  Once I have it how I think it should be, I’ll knead the dough for about 15 minutes.

Put your hands together like you’re going to do CPR, push down with your palms except also push slightly forward so the dough flows away from you.  Roll the dough at the front back to the center and push down again.  After a several  “pushes and rolls” turn the dough 1/4 turn and keep going through this cycle for 15-20 minutes…push and roll several times, 1/4 turn, push and roll several times, 1/4 turn and so on.

I have a 1 foot tall stool that I stand on so I can use the weight of my upper body to help push the dough–like I said,  it’s sort of like doing CPR.

I spread some butter in a large bowl, drop the dough in there, wiggle it around and and then turn it over.  I use the same plastic wrap as before to cover the dough and let it rise.  As I mentioned before, if the kitchen is cold, the electric light turned on in the oven makes a nice warm place.

Again, the starter determines how long it takes for the bread to rise.  When the bread doubles in volume, I take the bread out of the bowl and divide it into 3 pieces and knead each piece just 3 or 4 times, shape it into a bread pan shape, kind of pinch the ends of the dough, put each piece into a greased bread pan and cover them with more plastic wrap.  When the dough, again, doubles in volume, I take the bread out of the oven.

I then, put two oven racks in the lowest position,  bring the oven to 400F degrees and get a pizza pan and a large glass of water ready.  Also, I mix a teaspoon of cornstarch and a cup of water together in another glass and have a basting brush at the ready.

The final thing I do with the dough is to take a very sharp knife and essentially scratch the tops of the dough. The “scratches” are about 1/8 inch (a few mm) deep.  You can see the results of the scratches in the bread picture.

When the oven is ready, I put the pizza pan on the lower rack, fill the pizza pan almost full of water, “paint” the loaf tops with the cornstarch-water mixture and put the full bread pans on the upper oven rack.  After 10 minutes, I paint the loaves again with the cornstarch-water mixture and let them bake until they are done.

The length of baking time is somewhat critical, but it’s not easy to say exactly how long it will be.  It depends….sorry I can’t be more specific than that.  Basically I look through the oven window and when the loaves get that nice brown top, I wait another minute before I take the loaves out of the oven.  So far it has always been between 20 and 25 minutes after I “painted” the loaves the second time (a total baking time of 30-35 minutes) before I take the bread out of the oven.

As I take each loaf pan out, I turn the bread out onto a wire rack.  When I was in college and couldn’t afford a wire rack, I improvised and used the cold electric stove heating elements on my stove to hold the bread while it cooled.

If you have bigger bread pans than I have, then you might need to only split the dough into two pieces.  I had been splitting the dough into two pieces, but as the bread baked,  it would almost “explode” and get all cracked looking on the sides.  Splitting the loaves into the three pieces fixed that perfectly.

I use cast iron meatloaf pans.  They work perfectly for me and the bread falls out of the loaf pans when I flip them over.  I love cast iron when it’s well seasoned.

I have used glass bread pans, as well shiny and dull dark grey bread pans.  The non-cast iron ones make bread with more of a crust on the bottom and sides of the bread and the baking time is different.  Sometimes the bread would stick slightly in these pans, but running a thin knife along the sides of the pan fixed that problem.

It took me a few tries to get it right and when I make a big move to a new area, I go through the learning process again.    Fortunately the birds and squirrels didn’t mind my mistakes.

 

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10 thoughts on “Sourdough

  1. What a nice surprise to find your post this morning. This is exactly what I was hoping for. So many little possible steps to make it right.
    I’ll have to stop by the store to get a jug or two of unchlorinated water. I’m hoping a regular grocery store grape will do.
    You don’t see sourdough in the stores or bakeries here as much as when I lived in California.
    I’ll post an update on my results.
    Thanks for your thoroughness.
    Debbie

    • I would think any “wild” food used in fermentation would work. Wine makers, brewers and bakers aren’t *that* different until they serve their creation. 🙂

      I got a sourdough starter going in college and my fiancee used some as a microbiology “lab experiment”…and helped me to understand some of what happens in the starter.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I’ve always wanted to try this but was unsure of how to make a “mother” (this is what I’ve always heard the starter called). I’ve never seen water marked “uncholorinated” in the store—would that be distilled? Thank you, Chrisor

    • If you get water from a municipal water system, it is likely that chlorine is added to the water to keep bacteria and algae from growing in the water. but

      If you get water from your own well, then you would know if you added chlorine.

      Distilled, deionized, RO filtered and even plain bottled water should have no chlorine in it.

      Probably letting water stand in a container for 24 hours, or boiling it for a few minutes should (I’ve not tried it) eliminate the chlorine.

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