Sourdough Bread My Way

When historians look back on the current pandemic, they won’t just discuss the rise of Zoom or politicizing masks, there will be discussions on sourdough breadmaking. What really made it so popular during this time? Was it the shortage of yeast, something to do while sheltering in place, or our survival instincts kicking in? 

Whatever the reason, I’m one of those new sourdough bread bakers. Over on my personal Facebook page I’ve been posting photos of my adventures in sourdough bread making. But I am hardly alone. You will find countless YouTube videos and blogs on the subject—many from far more experienced bread makers than me.  

But this morning my cousin Cindy sent me a private message asking some questions on my sourdough bread baking, something she is now giving a try. I was going to simply answer her in email, but then thought, this might make a good blog post.  Like I said, mine is just one of the many voices currently talking sourdough bread. Consider this post a successful beginner’s perspective. This blog post is really for Cindy, but you are welcome to keep reading if you want.

Sourdough Starter

For those who have somehow missed all those articles on sourdough starter and have no idea what it is, sourdough starter is the leavening agent for the bread. It’s what makes it rise. When making bread you might use something like yeast, baking powder, or in the case of sourdough, sourdough starter.

One reason sourdough bread appeals to the survivalist, all you need is flour and water to make it. And unlike yeast and baking powder there is no expiration date; it will last indefinitely, as long as you feed regularly.

Cindy got her starter from the King Arthur site, while I made my own. There are countess starter recipes online.  When making mine, I combined 150 grams whole wheat flour to 150 grams of lukewarm filtered water in a glass jar. I loosely covered and left in a warm spot in the kitchen. I say loosely covered, because it will expand, eventually doubling in size and if you cover your jar tightly, your jar might turn into a mini bomb.

Let it sit for two days, and then on the third day, feed it daily for about a week, or until your starter gets bubbly and alive. To feed, you remove half the starter, which is called discard, and then feed what remains in the jar. If I have 150 grams left remaining in the jar, I feed by adding 150 grams of all-purpose flour and 150 grams of lukewarm filtered water and stir well. Loosely cover and leave in a warm spot. Repeat each day.

Just because I use whole wheat flour the first day, and feed with all-purpose flour the rest of the time, does not mean that is the only way to do it. In fact, some bakers insist rye flour makes a better starter. I am simply sharing what works for me. If you feel adventurous, there are countless sources out there.

What to do with the discard? I simply move it to my “discard” jar. I then use the discard in other recipes, such as pancakes, waffles, or banana bread. I store my discard in the refrigerator in a sealed jar.  If any “hooch” develops on it or the starter (which is a liquid) I simply pour it off and dispose of.  I have never had a problem with mold. But if fuzzy mold develops on the starter or in your discard jar, I recommend throwing it out. Fortunately, I have not had that issue.

It takes about a week to make a starter. You will know when it is ready when it bubbles and doubles in size. I test mine before baking, by gently dropping a bit of the starter in a glass of water. If it floats, it will rise my bread. But the starter will not stay bubbly and double in size for long, it will drop down, and if you drop a bit of starter in water, it will sink, which means it won’t rise your bread. That’s why it needs to be fed regularly and only used to make sourdough bread when active.

Many people feed their sourdough starter twice a day. I don’t. In fact, I keep mine in the refrigerator and feed once a week. When I am ready to bake, I pull it out, feed it, and leave it on my counter or put it in my proofing box at a controlled temperature, until it doubles and bubbles. Sometimes I need to feed it twice within 24 hours to get it going. 

So why do you have to discard? To make room in the jar. Sometimes, if I plan it right, there is no discard, because I remove most of the bubbly active starter from the jar to bake my bread, leaving just enough starter to feed. I’ve done this when baking more than one loaf at a time.

Bakers often name their starter. Mine is Madeline, after my paternal grandmother who was an amazing cook. My sister named hers Auntie Margaret, after our aunt who loved to bake.

Okay, that’s enough on starter. But like I mentioned, there are countless sources out there you can explore to get more information on sourdough starter.

Wait, I lied. There is one more thing I want to say about starter. When necessary, move your starter to a clean jar. Maybe that’s why I haven’t had a mold issue because I regularly move it to a clean jar.

Tools for Sourdough Bread Making

Like everything, having the right tools makes it much easier to accomplish your goal. These are the tools I currently use, and frankly, they make my sourdough bread making so much easier. Not everyone uses these tools, but like I mentioned earlier in this post, I am sharing how I do this. 

Glass Jar

You will need a glass jar to store your starter. I also put a rubber band around the jar as a way to measure its growth after a feeding.

Kitchen Scale

When making bread, I weigh all the ingredients in grams. 

Instant read thermometer

I use this to make sure I don’t get my water too hot when feeding my starter or making my dough. I like to keep the temperature in the high 70s or low 80s. A quick note on water, I’ve read chlorinated water, like city tap water, can inhibit the starter. So use filtered water or let it sit on the counter for a while so any chlorine can evaporate. I typically fill a glass measuring cup with filtered water and pop in the microwave for about 30 seconds to get at the desired temperature.

Dutch Oven

I bake my bread in a cast iron Dutch oven.

Parchment Paper

Before placing my dough in the Dutch oven, I set it on parchment paper, and place it with the dough in the Dutch oven.

Proofing Basket

When I first started, I just used a bowl covered with a floured dish towel. For my birthday my sister bought me the Proofing Basket kit (you can get one on Amazon) and I love it!

The kit I recommend includes the Danish Dough Whisk, the Bread Lame (which is basically a razor blade cutter for scoring the top of the dough), a bench scraper and of course the proofing baskets.

Danish Dough Whisk

I frankly don’t know how I lived without the Danish Dough Whisk. I love it! When first making my sourdough bread I mixed using my hands. (I don’t use my Kitchenaid mixer when making sourdough bread). But now, I use my Danish Dough Whisk. 

Bread Lame

The bread lame makes it easier to score your dough before baking, and the bench scraper helps you move your uncooked loaf while preserving its shape.

Bench Scraper

Baking the bread!

Once again, there are countless sourdough recipes out there. This is simply the one I use. When making the recipe I’ve used all-purpose flour, half all-purpose flour and half whole wheat flour, and bread flour. My personal preference is bread flour.

Timing

One thing you need to work out is the timing. Sourdough bread making is not hard. It really does not take much of your time, once you get the hang of it. BUT the process takes a long time. Frankly, I think the most difficult thing about making sourdough bread is working out the timing of each step.

Since your starter needs to be at its prime for successful bread, bubbly and double and floatable, you need to strategically feed the starter so it will be ready when you mix your dough. I typically pull mine from the refrigerator the night before, feed, and then feed again early the next morning, so I can start my bread in the early afternoon.

Recipe
In a bowl add:
150 grams starter 
300 grams warm water
25 grams olive oil
500 grams flour
10 grams sea salt

I mix ingredients with my Danish Dough Whisk. When it comes together, I use my hands to combine in a dough ball, and then place in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a damp rag, and let rest for an hour in a warm spot in your kitchen.

An hour later, you are going to pull your dough, which is basically grabbing one side, stretching, and then folding over itself, and then moving around the loaf, repeating. When stretching, you don’t want to tear. I recommend looking up some YouTube videos on this process. 

This pulling only takes a few minutes. Re-cover, and then let set another hour. After an hour, do the pulling stretching again, and then cover and let set another hour and repeat the pulling stretching.  I do this about four times.

Remember when I said the biggest thing about sourdough was timing? Well, after your last pull and stretch, it has been about 4 ½ hours since you mixed up your dough. Now you need to let that pulled and stretched dough rise for another 6-8 hours. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and set in a warm spot. Depending on when you started, you might be working into the night.

I have another “tool” that I use for this process, a proofing box.  Some people put their dough in an unlit oven, I use a proofing box where I maintain the temperature at around 82 degrees. But my sister bakes wonderful sourdough bread and doesn’t have a proofing box.

 After my bread finishes this first rise, I put it in the refrigerator to finish and bake the next day. You can leave your bread dough in the refrigerator for up to two days, before the final “proofing” rise and baking.

When I am ready to bake my bread, I pull it out of the refrigerator, and roll it out on my floured board. I gently flatten it, fold into a ball and then place it in a floured proofing bowl. I cover it and let it rise for about two hours. Before the two hours is up, I place my covered Dutch oven in my oven and pre-heat to 500 degrees. 

After the two hours of rising, I roll my dough from the bowl onto a piece of parchment paper—a size that will fit into the Dutch oven. The top of the dough will have the imprints from the proofing bowl and a dusting of flour from the proofing bowl, giving it a nice design and shape. I take the bread lame and slice the top of the bread. Some people get creative in how they slice the top of the bread. 

Carefully insert the dough (cradled in parchment paper) in the Dutch oven. But be careful! The Dutch oven is hot! Re-cover Dutch oven and turn the oven down to 400 degrees.

Bake for 30 minutes in the covered Dutch oven at 400 degrees. Then remove the cover from the Dutch oven and bake for 20 more minutes in the uncovered Dutch Oven.

Remove from the oven, and gently (and carefully) remove bread from Dutch oven and place on a cooling rack. Let it cool before slicing. This is important! It is tempting, but do not cut into bread right from the oven!

After my bread cools, I typically cut the loaf in half, and then freeze half, as we don’t go through an entire loaf fast enough for it to stay fresh. 

So that is about it! Once you get down the rhythm of making sourdough bread, I think it’s fairly easy. And frankly, I don’t see myself ever buying store bought soughdough again, even after the pandemic ends.

It all started with bread…

Over on my personal Facebook page I’ve been posting about my adventures in baking while sheltering in place. Last night I shared this photo, my first attempt at homemade sourdough English muffins.

I wanted to tell you about my FIRST attempt at homemade bread. Because, in a way, my publishing career started with homemade bread.

I first tried to bake bread back in 1976 or 1977, during the first year we were married. I remember, because Don and I were living in the Wannamaker Apartments, across the street from the Covina Dairy.

My mother was not a baker, and while my Grandma Hilda baked bread in her youth, I don’t recall her ever baking it when I was at her house. So I was never around anyone while they baked bread.

I found a recipe in a cookbook and gave it a try. I had never worked with yeast before. It was a pretty little loaf, and hard and heavy as a brick.

Don and I laughed at the sad loaf. I wrapped it neatly in a kitchen towel and took it to one of our neighbors, friends of ours who lived in the Wannamaker Apartments. I presented them my gift of homemade bread.

Again, we all laughed and laughed.

I didn’t attempt to make bread again until around 1982. That year I put out my very first self-published book, Great-Grandma’s Recipe Book. Both my grandmothers had passed away a few years earlier, and I had in my possession their recipes. Both were excellent cooks. I wanted to share the recipes with family and friends, so I decided to first kitchen test the recipes to come up with directions (many of the recipes had no instructions) before putting together a book.

Grandma Hilda had a number of bread recipes, and guess what? I was actually able to bake them without turning out a brick!

I ended up using my Dad’s copy machine to print up my first book and had it spiral bound at a local office supply store. I gave copies to friends and family that Christmas in 1982. It was also when I came up with my publishing house name, Robeth Publishing, a combination of our children’s names, Robert Scott and Elizabeth.

A few years later, after we had moved to Wrightwood California, I started Mountain Hi-Desert Guide, a monthly community magazine for the tri-communities of Wrightwood, Phelan and Pinion Hills, and an annual full-color magazine, Wrightwood Magazine. They were all published under Robeth Publishing.

Today, Robeth Publishing is incorporated, and the publishing house I write under. I currently have around 40 books published, not counting audiobooks published by Tantor Media and Dreamscape. And in a way, it all started with bread…

Looking Back on 2020…

I was not terrific about blogging in 2020. Will I do better in 2021? I don’t know.

Today I sat down and wrote my annual Christmas letter. It’s a tradition in our family, where we each sit down and write about the year just ending. We normally do it on Christmas night, but some years, like in 2020, I waited until today. The letters are then put in a Christmas scrapbook. Now that our kids are adults—one living in Alaska and the other in Portland, they no longer contribute pages to the book. I wish they would.

2020 was a rough year for our country and the world. For me it started off bringing my mother home from the hospital after a stroke. We spent the next two months dealing with her rehabilitation and nurses coming to our home to help her with therapy and showers.

Just weeks after her therapy ended, the country went into a lockdown because of Covid, and since then we have been sheltering in place.

I did venture out to YouTube, and started an Authortube channel. I put out 15 videos, and then stopped when I didn’t have anything new to add. If I think of something, I might add another video, but it was only done as a needed distraction during the early days of lockdown.

I then turned to cooking. I started making my own homemade pasta, and even splurged on an attachment for my Kitchenaid.

After I figured out pasta, I moved to sourdough bread. My sister, who was also faithfully sheltering in place, had been making sourdough bread, so she walked me through the sourdough starter process and shared her recipe.

When it comes to pasta noodles and sourdough bread, I will be sticking to homemade. I love them both.  

I also tried cheese making for the first time, a simple farm cheese. My next adventure in the kitchen is fermenting. I think I will start with fermenting salsa.

When I’m not in the kitchen, I am in front of my computer. In fact, I am doing another sort of fermenting right now, figuring out the plot to my next Haunting Danielle book, The Ghost and the Mountain Man.

Professionally it was a good year for me. I published three Haunting Danielle books, and all were well received. Dreamscape Media released my Coulson Family Saga in audiobook, and I was thrilled with what the narrator did with them. Plus, I had several audiobook releases in my Haunting Danielle series, and I always love what that narrator does.

In November I had to say goodbye to a dear friend–Spooky the Halloween Cat. We estimate he was about eighteen. While he was my cat, the last two years he had moved in with Mom and been wonderful company for her. Mom cried for days after he traveled the rainbow bridge. She misses her buddy, but I know he is now with Lady and free from pain.

Wishing all of us a much better new year.