On Persistence, Failure, Hope, and Sourdough

I have faced many challenges in my life, but I swear to god the most difficult of them has been producing a moderately successful loaf of sourdough bread.

I will admit, some of the obstacles were self-created. Including the decision to take on baking sourdough bread in the first place. Why did this seem important to me, especially given that I had a literal QUART of commercial yeast in my fridge? Perhaps it was just CoVID FOMO—seeing all my friends posting joyfully about their science experiments. I don't think I've succumbed to social media pressure before, but I will admit to experiencing it in relation to this particular baked good.

I made my journey that much more difficult because of my determination to reject Bread Bro culture. (Is this someone else's term? I'm co-opting, if it is.) Bread Bro culture is, to my mind, aligned with Grill Boss culture and Pizza Guy culture and Authenticity culture—areas in the larger field of professional and amateur food culture that have been taken over by men and have a subtle but unmistakable taste of testosterone. It is hard for me not to see a task that was carried on by European grandmothers for centuries, and has now been coopted by male professional and home bakers committed to applying scientific principles to a messy process, as akin to the medicalization of childbirth or the shoving aside of naturopathic knowledge by the pharma industry. (I like medicine and pharmaceuticals just fine; I also appreciate that there are ways in which they've limited our understanding of our bodies, especially for women.) I hate Bread Bro culture the way I hate Chef culture. It recasts what has long been women's work into a realm of expertise to which women are often excluded or seen as irrelevant. (Don't believe me? Check out some of the sourdough recipes posted by women on food sites and blogs—and then look at the comments.)

I also hated—HATED!—the amount of wastefulness built into the process of making sourdough according to most methods. Discarding half or two-thirds of your starter daily in order to feed it afresh—sometimes on a daily basis—seems like such an American approach to problems. The methods advocated by many sourdough experts are inexpertly translated from bakery production to home production; you never actually discard starter in a bakery, because you're always baking bread. But if you're not baking multiple loaves a day at home, you either have to throw away perfectly good flour via discard, or you have to find creative ways to use that discard, often with recipes that ask you to use even MORE flour. (Where are all of you getting endless supplies of bread flour during CoVID quarantine, by the way?!)

I also couldn't get my mind around the timing, which seemed to require that you start your baking at a specific time so that you did not end up putting a loaf in the oven at 2 am.

With the help of a crack team of sourdough experts, though, I managed to work through many of my dilemmas.

I am so far from being an expert it's not funny. If you want to make a perfect loaf, go elsewhere. Seriously. But I seem to have figured out a way to make one loaf of bread and one batch of super delicious crackers a week, without too much stress. Of course if you want to make more, that's easy to do to.

You do need a few tools: a decent kitchen scale, and a bench scraper.

First, get your starter.

I'm not even going to pretend when it comes to starter. I cannot in good conscience make one on my own because of the amount you have to discard in the process. I got my starter from a very kind neighbor, and I suggest you do the same. (Thanks, Ripley.) Once you have a starter, instead of discarding, spread the love by gifting yours to your neighbors.

Store your starter in a glass, straight sided container, like a mason jar or some such. BEFORE YOU ADD ANYTHING TO THE JAR, weigh it, and mark the weight of the jar on the bottom. Trust me, it'll make life easier.

Second, get your starter good and ready.

Thanks to my friend Matias, I realized that you don't need to keep a massive starter. I start with 60 g of sourdough starter, which I feed with 60 g of flour (a mix of white and whole wheat) and 60 g of water (60 + 60 + 60 equals 180 g total). When I make a loaf of bread, I use 120 g of starter—which means I have 60 g left, that I can then feed and stick in the fridge for next time.

So theoretically, one does not need to discard any at all, right? WRONG. Because if you keep your starter in the fridge, you need to feed it once or twice or even three times to get it up to speed, which means you need to discard 120 g each time you feed. (Remember? Discard 120 g and then feed with 60 g flour and 60 g water.) Those two or three discards? Save in a jar and make sourdough crackers which are seriously delicious. (Recipe below.)

So: the day before you want to make bread, take your 180 g of starter out of the fridge. Take 120 g out of the jar and set aside. How do you know you've taken 120 g out of the jar? Jar weight (remember? you marked it on the jar) plus 60 g—that's the number you're going for on the scale. My mason jar weighs 285 g, so if I want 60 g of starter, the whole shebang should weigh 345 g. I take starter out until I'm down to 345 g.

Now, to the jar, add 60 g flour (a mix of white and whole wheat) and 60 g water (room temp or tepid).   Mix well so no dry clumps of flour remain. Put an elastic band around the jar to indicate the starting level of your mixture. Set the jar on a counter (or, if your house is cool, in the oven with the light on).

Using that elastic band as your guide, check on your starter periodically to see if it's doubled in volume. How long did it take? If your starter doubled in volume in 4-5 hrs, you're probably okay to bake. If not, feed it again. (Remove 120 g, add 60 g flour and 60 g water.) Depending on how lazy or active your starter is, this may take one, two, or three rounds of feeding. Mine takes one, but I give it two because I don't quite trust the process yet.

(Remember: you're saving that 120 g discard from each feeding for crackers.)

When your starter gets to the point that it doubles within 4-5 hrs, check it. You should see lots of tiny bubbles around the side of the jar, and bubbles dotting the top. If you stick a spoon in it, it should feel airy and light—like a sticky soufflé. It should smell sort of lovely and tangy and sweet at the same time. You can triple check that you're ready by taking out a small bit and dropping it into a glass of room temperature water—it will float. You are now ready to make a loaf.

Third, mix your dough.

A lot of recipes call for making a levain in order to bake, which seems wasteful to me, no matter what the benefits of taste are. (A levain involves taking out a little bit of your starter and feeding it so you have a separate offshoot of your starter.) I don't do this. Why? Because I keep the precise amount of starter I need for my amount of bread baking. See how that works?

Almost all current sourdough recipes also talk a lot about hydration levels for your dough; the current fashion is to make a super wet dough so that the resulting bread has lots of big holes, which requires at least a 75% hydration (that is to say, your water weighs 75% of what your flour does). Mine is slightly less than that, because I like holes but I don't want my butter to fall through the bread and because I like being able to handle the dough fairly competently.

So, this is what I'm currently doing.

The Recipe

Take 450 g of bread flour or all purpose flour, plus 50 g whole wheat flour. Mix in a medium bowl with 350 g tepid water. It will look shaggy and not quite cohesive—that's okay. Put a clean cloth over the bowl and let it sit for an hour or two. When you come back, you'll see that the dough has become moist and smooth.

(While the flour and water mixture are hanging out, feed your remaining 60 g of starter with 60 g flour and 60 g water. Let hang on the counter till it's doubled in volume, then stick in the fridge for the next time you bake. Note: if you bake less than once a week, you'll still have to feed this starter once a week.)

Now take 120 g of your freshly fed-and-doubled-in-size starter. Add to the flour-water dough, along with 10 g salt. Mix this together well, using your hands—you'll be sort of pinching and grabbing to get the starter and salt into the deep heart of your dough ball. It will feel squooshy and weird, but you need to keep mixing until the surface of the dough is not slimy and wet.

Cover the bowl with a towel and stick in your oven with the light turned on. Let it rest and rise for at least 45 minutes.

Now take the dough out of the oven and do your first "turn": scooping from the bottom of the bowl, lift the far end of the dough up and stretch it gently before you fold it towards you. Turn the bowl a few degrees and repeat this motion. Keep turning the bowl and stretching/folding the dough over on itself until you've done a full round. Cover the bowl and put it back into the oven.

Repeat this stretch and fold business every 45 mins to an hour, over the course of about 4 hrs. Make sure you do at least 3 or 4 rounds. As the dough rises, it will develop some air bubbles; as your doing your ministrations, try not to deflate those.

By the end of the 4 hrs, the dough should be sort of gorgeous and moist, and considerable pouffier than before; ideally it will have doubled in volume, or close to. If you feel like it needs to rise more, keep it for another hour or so in the lights-on oven, undisturbed.

Now, shape. 

This is the messy and not easy part. No way around it. But even if you don't get it right, the bread will still taste good so no need to stress. Because it's sort of hard to describe, you can look at the tutorial on the King Arthur Flour site for three different approaches.

Lightly dust a wooden cutting board or counter with flour. (Rice flour seems to work well for this.) Using wet hands or a wet spatula, scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the work surface. Cover the blob with a bowl and let it hang out for half an hour while you steel your nerves.

Now, grab the right side of the dough, stretch it out a bit, and fold it over the top. Do the same for the left side. Do the same for the top and bottom. You've basically created an envelope-type fold and created a roughly roundish shape. Using your bench scraper, flip the dough so that the folds are on the bottom and the smooth side of the dough is on the top. Cover with a bowl and prepare your bread proofing basket.

Take a dish towel and sprinkle rice flour all over it. Don't be stingy. Now rub that flour into the towel. Use some muscle. Add more flour. Rub rub rub. Trust me, it works. (After you are done with the bread rising business, DON'T throw this towel in the wash. Instead, put it in a freezer bag and throw it into your freezer for next time. Saves flour and the buildup of flour makes it "non-stick." Just sprinkle and rub with a little more flour next time you use it.) Use the towel to line a medium bowl or basket or colander—something that will allow your loaf to keep a round-ish shape.

Now return to your rested dough. Your goal is to shape it into a taut ball. There are a variety of ways to do this, including using your bench scraper to spin the dough ball to create the shape, or do as I do which is to pick up the ball and sort of use gravity and a gathering motion to create a taut dome. Place the ball, smooth, taut side down, in the towel lined basket. Sprinkle the top of the dough with a bit more flour and fold the towel loosely overtop.

You can now let it rest for its second rise in the oven, or, if the timing doesn't work, let it rest in the fridge. Remove from fridge and place in a lit oven when you're ready.

For the second rise, you're looking for the dough to visibly expand. It may not get to a full doubling of volume, but as long as you can see that the dough has puffed, that is a good sign. Take a flour-dipped finger and poke the dough—it should leave a dimple that slooooowly starts to repair itself. (If you've taken it out of the fridge, it will take significantly longer to achieve this; if you're going straight to the second rise, 2-3 hrs should work.)

Half an hour before you bake, remove the dough bowl from its warm rising spot and put it on the counter. Put an empty Dutch oven or cast iron pot in the oven. Preheat to 500 F. After half an hour, get the dough into the pot. This is how I do it: I place a piece of parchment paper on a small cutting board or plate. Unwrap the towel from the top of the dough, invert the parchment/cutting board over the bowl of dough, and flip the bowl so that the dough and towel plop onto the cutting board. Remove the towel.

Slash the loaf: with a razor blade, lame, scissors, or very sharp thin bladed knife, make a few cuts in the top of the loaf to allow the dough to expand during baking.

Using the parchment as a kind of sling, transfer the dough to the hot Dutch oven. Cover with the lid. Bake at 500 F for 25 mins. Uncover the pot, and grab a corner of the parchment paper to remove it like a magician pulling a table cloth out from under a set table. Lower the heat to 450, and bake for another 25 mins. (Check the loaf periodically—yours may take a little less or a little more time.) The crust should get dark brown but not burned, obviously.

Remove the Dutch oven from the oven, and CAREFULLY lift the bread out of the pot. Let cool completely on a rack before cutting into it. Then eat it.

Timing

Baking sourdough bread, I've discovered, is a long-term project. You can make a loaf in a day, but (thankfully) you can also stretch it out as needed.

8 am: Feed your starter for the second or third time (depending on what it needs)

12 pm: Mix flour and water for the dough

1 pm: Add starter and salt to dough and mix

1-5 pm: Let the dough have its first rise, stretching and folding the dough four times over the course of 4 hrs

5-6 pm: Let the dough rest, preshape, rest, shape [You can put the dough in the fridge at this point!]

6-8 pm: Let the dough rise in its basket/bowl/colander/towel set up [If you've put the dough in the fridge, add at least an hour to this second-rise period!]

8 pm: Preheat oven

8:30 pm: Bake bread

9:15 pm: Take bread out of oven and let cool

Next morning: breakfast!

And now, the crackers.

Remember the discard that was produced when you were getting your starter ready to use? It's hopefully in a container in your fridge by now. There will be probably 240 or 360 g of it—maybe 3/4 or 1 cup. Preheat oven to 325F. In a bowl, mix with 3-4 TB melted butter, 1 tsp salt, and whatever dry or fresh herbs you have on hand. Using a spatula (a metal offset spatula works well), spread in a thin layer on two sheets of parchment or two silicon mats set in cookie sheets. If you'd like, you can sprinkle with some Maldon salt and more herbs. Put trays in oven. After 10 mins, take them out and "score" the crackers using a pizza cutter or knife—basically cut a grid into the surface. Put back in oven for about 45 more minutes. Let cool and break along score lines.





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