Sourdough bread is a treat that everyone should enjoy at least once. For some things, nothing fits nearly as good as sourdough bread or buns. It can put a ham sandwich in a completely new category. The tight texture and slightly tart taste compliments cured meats like pastrami, ham, and especially corned beef.
A lot of people are intimidated at the thought of making sourdough bread, because it sounds complicated. The reality is that making a sourdough starter can be one of the easiest things you will ever do in the kitchen, right up there with making ice, because you don’t really make the sourdough starter. You just invite it in.
Taming The Yeast Beast
The secret to good sourdough starter is yeast, plain and simple. Surprise! Your “sourdough starter” is just a common yeast culture. And the really great thing is that not only is yeast everywhere, but it’s also free for the taking.
Yeast is simply a single-celled fungus, closely related to mushrooms. However, the yeasts we use are microscopic…so small that it takes over 20,000,000,000 of them to make up just 1 gram (1/28 oz.) of yeast. Believe it or not, these little guys are one of the things that make the world work. They are used to make antibiotics for medical use, cosmetics, wine-making, beer brewing, fermentation, leavening baked goods, and much more. Yeast is very nutritious and healthy on it’s own.
There are thousands of species of yeasts, but for baking, we are only interested in one species…Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which means, “sugar-eating fungus” (creative name, huh…). This species thrives on various sugars, such as sucrose, maltose, dextrose..pretty much any and all sugars found in foods. The yeast eats the sugars, and gives off a combination of CO2, and ethyl alcohol (like what’s in beer and wine…). The alcohol kills any harmful or undesirable bacteria that may be present. Bacteria also like the sugars in your dough, but leaves horrible tastes and smells behind. The CO2 becomes trapped within the gluten threads in the dough, causing it to inflate like a balloon, known as ‘proofing’, or “rising”. The yeast also reproduces, which allows us to keep sourdough cultures for future use. We are basically ‘raising’ yeast, just like tiny livestock. And all for free….
There are many, many sub-species of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and every region has it’s own variety, lending it’s special taste to regional baked goods. San Francisco is particularly famous for local sourdough yeasts. You can, of course, import any yeast you like and use it as your starter culture, but it is super-cool to use the local yeast to make your bread and baked goods unique. Where I live, here in N. Georgia, USA, we have a wonderful strain of yeast that creates a sweetish, slightly floral sourdough that makes outstanding breads. It must be the mountains…..
The Basics of Sourdough Cultures
Sourdough, and yeast baking were discovered by accident, by trying to make flatbreads too close to where they were making wine, so how hard can this be, right? It all started in Egypt, over 4000 years ago. Of course, it wasn’t necessary to understand the science behind all this, and it wasn’t until 1676 AD, when Anton Van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope, that anyone really found out what was actually happening with yeasts.
Here is how the process works. Yeast only needs 2 things to survive: Food in the form of sugars, and water (every living thing on the planet needs water to survive…). We provide the food, in the form of ground grains like wheat and rye, and water, by mixing a slurry of water and flour. The type of flour we grind (or get from the store) will have an effect on the final taste of our sourdough. I personally like a mixture of Hard Red Winter Wheat, Hard White Winter or Spring Wheat, a little Buckwheat, and topped off with just a little bit of oat groats. This gives me a nice floral, sweetish sourdough with a wonderful light nutty finish.
So, we make the slurry by mixing flour and water, covering it with cheesecloth to keep bugs out (everything likes flour), and invite the yeast in. When we see the slurry bubbling, we know our invitation has been accepted. Now, we just let the yeast do it’s thing, keep feeding it, and provide a comfortable environment. The refrigerator keeps the yeast at it’s optimum temperature for longevity. And that is really all there is to it.
Starting Your Sourdough Culture
Start by figuring out what you want to house your starter in. I strongly recommend glass jars. Large pickle jars are perfect when you are not using them to make sauerkraut in (that’s for another article…). Clean and sterilize them well in at least a 10% Chlorine solution, and let them dry completely. The lids, too. Usually, 1 large (1/2 to 1 gallon) pickle jar will make plenty of sourdough starter to keep you in business for years.
Make your slurry from whatever grains and flours you want to use. Use equal parts of water and flour, until it is the consistency of thin pancake mix. Make enough to fill 1/4 to 1/2 of the jar. Do not make any more than this or you will be up to your eyeballs in starter culture in nothing flat. Pour the slurry into your jar.
Now, I will tell you a little known secret to making perfect starter every time. Remember before when I said that yeast creates alcohol, and that the alcohol kills nasty bacteria? It does, but it takes it a little time to create it. In the meantime, the yeast is vulnerable to attack from vicious bacteria and other microbes that want to chow-down on the slurry, and the yeast. But Mother Nature has provided another wonderful solution to this dilemma…pineapple juice. Yes, that’s right. Pineapple juice is one of natures best antibacterial deterrents. So, just get some unsweetened pineapple juice and pour a little on top of the slurry. Not a whole lot. We don’t want it to flavor the starter, just keep out intruders. The yeast will happily swim through the juice unharmed, and frolic in the slurry, while the evil bacteria stands outside and watches.
All you have to do now is get a piece of cheesecloth big enough to cover the top of the jar, and fix it in place with a rubber band. You can also use large mason jars, and leave the center lid insert out. Just screw the lid on over the cheesecloth and you’re good to go.
Set the jar in a cool (room temperature) place on a counter, and just wait. In a few hours, you will see bubbles forming. Success! After about 12 hours, you will notice a thin film of yeasty, beery smelling liquid on top. That’s the alcohol (yeast beer, or “liquor”). Leave it in there.
Mix up another 1/4 to 1/2 cup each of flour and water, add it to the jar, stir well with a wooden, plastic, or other non-reactive spoon (never use metal…), replace the lid and let it work for another 12-24 hours.
After the first feeding, every following 12 to 24 hours, remove half of the starter culture and drink it, eat it, cook with it, feed it to your pets, put it in your garden, or discard it (shame…). It is very healthy and doesn’t taste bad at all, sort of like a weak, thick beer. Now, mix up another 1/2 to 1 cup of slurry, and add it to the culture, stirring well. Replace the cheesecloth lid and allow it to continue working.
Keep repeating these steps for a week or so, than your sourdough culture is ready to bake with. Store it in the refrigerator and feed it once a week. When you bake, take a cup or so out, and feed the rest. You will have sourdough culture for years and years, if you take care of it.
If at any time you notice any weird smells, or it gets pinkish or grayish colored, discard the whole culture, clean and sterilize the jar, and start over. It happens sometimes, due to contamination. Don’t sweat it. After all, it is free. What do you want for nothing…?
Using Your Culture
Sourdough culture is outstanding used in lots of food. You can use it in cornbread, muffins, biscuits, pie crusts, pastries, pancakes and waffles, buns, and of course, bread. If you’ve never had sourdough pancakes and waffles, you’ve really missed something… Sourdough provides a much slower rise time, resulting in better flavor and texture in the finished product. Sourdough food has a slight tangy finish, more depth and complexity in flavor, and a tighter texture. Some people get impatient, and use a combination of yeast, and culture when they bake, but try to resist the temptation to be impatient. It’s worth waiting for, believe me.
As a rule, one cup of sourdough starter is plenty for two 2 pound loaves of bread. Just stir the liquor up into the culture before using it. The rising time may take as long as 12 to 18 hours, so don’t get in a hurry. You may also have to adjust the moisture in your recipes to accommodate the extra moisture in the culture.
Other than that, just bake your bread as you normally would. You will notice that the finished loaves have a tighter crumb, more firm texture, and a wonderful old-world tangy top-note that puts sandwiches and buns in a whole new food category.
8 Things To Keep in Mind When Using Sourdough Starter
Don’t be afraid to try making sourdough starter. If you love baking, and top-quality baked goods, this will revolutionize your baking habits. You’ll start looking for excuses to bake.
1. Sourdough will be much looser and stickier than traditional bread dough. It should actually be pourable. This is normal and nothing to worry about. You want it to be about the same consistency as ciabatta dough. Not like batter, but loose and sticky.
2. Sourdough is much more resistant to mold than traditional bread, and keeps much longer.
3. Sourdough starter works best when used at it’s peak, which is usually around 2 to 3 hours after its been fed. After that it begins to go dormant until the next feeding. You can tell when the culture is ‘peaked by looking at its surface. If it is domed, then its at its peak.
4. Don’t be stingy with the water. Sourdough is wetter than traditional bread. Because of the longer rise time, it has a much greater danger of drying out.
5. Two rises will give you a much better finished product, with more sourdough flavor and a better texture.
6. Sourdough will not necessarily double in size, like traditional dough. An 8 to 12 hour rise will be plenty, even if it does not double.
7. Don’t try to speed up the rise by putting it in a warm place like in the oven with the light on. You want a slow rise, and room temperature (72º – 78ºF) is perfect.
8. Sourdough is a bit more delicate than traditional dough, almost like using spelt or kamut flour. A mixer is too rough in it, so it needs to be kneaded by hand, and It needs to rest every so often. So, when mixing your dough, mix the water, starter, and 1/2 of the dough. Let it rest for 10 minutes or so before continuing. Add the rest of the ingredient, except the salt, and knead by hand for around 10 minutes. Let the dough rest for another 10 minutes. When the dough pulls away form the sides of the bowl, dump it out on to a floured work surface, and let it rest another 10 minutes. Now, add the salt and knead for another 10 minutes, and allow the dough to rest another 10 minutes. Check the dough by poking it with your finger. If the indentation comes back out, the dough is ready. If not, knead another 5 minute and check again. Repeat as much as necessary. Place the dough in a covered container and let it rise for 8-24 hours. The longer it rises, the better the flavor will be.
I will leave you with one of my favorite easy sourdough recipes. As always, check back with us often for more great articles.
Basic Sourdough Bread Recipe
- 2 cups sourdough starter
- 5 cups flour, your favorite bread mixture
- 1 cup or so of lukewarm water
- 1 tbsp salt
*Note: treat the dough gently, and do not use a mixer. Knead it by hand.
In a large mixing bowl, mix sourdough starter at its peak, water and 1/2 of the four. Let it rest 10 minutes.
Add the rest of the flour, knead for 10 minutes and let it rest 10 minutes.
Add the salt, knead for 10 minutes, and let it rest 10 minutes.
Turn the dough out on a floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes. Let it rest another 10 minutes.
Pour into large loaf pans, only filling them 2/3 of the way full. Cover and allow the dough to rise for 8-24 hours, until near doubled in size. The tops should be domed.
Place loaves in a cold oven, and turn the heat to 350ºF. Bake for around 1 hour, until the loaves sound hollow when thumped.
Place on cooling racks and allow the bread to cool before tearing into it.