Sourdough is more than baking, it's like keeping a very demanding pet. Luckily it produces something that is beyond bread. Something very special. Made without commercial yeasts, it instead uses a starter that is kept alive to provide a steady supply of wild yeast and delicious flavours.

A large part of the appeal of sourdough is the thought of the starter, passed down for generations, an heirloom. It is true that an old starter is better. This is simply natural selection: the stronger yeasts survive.

A sourdough starter can be bred in many ways, and when we chose to do it, we tried every technique we could find (alt.food.sourdough being a good source) and played them off against each other. A duel to the death, with the fastest-growing starter getting the chance to form the beginning of a long lineage, and to the rest: death down the sink.

Some involved grapes (the bloom on the skin is yeast), some potatoes, and unfortunately we never recorded which starter the winner came from, but choose one we did, and last I heard it was still going strong, 4 years later. Many have gone on for decades. Your best bet is to find someone willing to give you some starter of theirs.

The starter itself is quite a delicate thing; a fine balance between the yeast and the lactic acid that gives the bread its unique flavour. The recipe i give below is the one we developed and used for two years while I worked in the restaurant. It is for absurdly large quantities, but i thought it would be better to keep them as they are, and they can be reduced as needed. The recipe is arranged as a timetable, designed to have the loaves ready for lunch. It relies on them being made every day. You can skip a day or so, but starting sourdough is a big commitment, and you really must keep going, or the precious starter will die.

This is a truly wonderful loaf. A kind of pain de campagne, I guess, with a great crust, a good open texture, and just the right amount of sourness. It goes beautifully toasted with chicken liver or foie gras parfait. Roasted bone marrow is delicious spread on sourdough toast, if you're not squeamish. Serve these with parsley salad, cornichons, caper berries, onion marmalade and other pickles.

Sourdough

Makes 8 x 1350g (3 lb) loaves.

Midday

Mix all the ingredients together in a large mixer until glutinous. Replenish the starter with equal parts wholemeal flour and filtered water. Chlorinated water is bad for the starter. Leave this sponge in a warm place until:

5pm

Add these ingredients to the sponge, adjusting the amount of water to acheive the right texture and consistency. Knead well in the machine for around 10 - 15 minutes. Transfer to a very large container, cover with cling film, and leave at warm room temparature until:

11pm

Line 8 x 2.5 litre containers, such as ice cream tubs, Tupperware, or special bread baskets, with bread cloths. These can be any cloths that are reserved for this only, and not washed. Dust the cloths with semolina to prevent sticking, and give a nice crust. Scale the dough at 1350g / 3 lb, mould them into loaf shapes, and place into the lined containers, folding the cloths loosely over them. Leave in a warm place, and go home / go to bed / go out.

8am

Up bright and early! Heat your oven to 230° C. Put large metal trays, or preferably ceramic baking stones onto the oven shelves. The oven needs to be very humid, so you may inject steam if you have that facility, or just chuck a load of water onto the oven floor.
Take a bread- or pizza-peel, or just a flat tray, and, one by one, turn out the risen loaves onto it and quickly slash to parallel gashes in the loaves with a razor blade or sharp knife. Carefully slide them onto the oven shelves, replacing some of the loast steam before you close the door each time, to maintain the humidity and get the very best crust.

Bake until well browned: around 45 minutes. When a beatifully coloured crust has formed, reduce the heat to 180°C, and leave the oven door ajar. You are trying to reduce the humidity now, to crisp the crust!

When fully done, with a hollow sound when you tap the base of the loaf, remove from the oven with the peel, and allow to cool on racks.

Repeat every day until you die.

Apologies for the commercial bias and vast quantites: it does take a lot of commitment to attempt these wonderful loaves on a domestic scale. Commitment which I sadly lack, although I did make them every day for years.


Mention of cruel things in this wu does not imply ascorbic condones such practices. However tasty they may be.
The opposite of a cheechako, a sourdough is an old hand, an experienced person, or someone who has been in the area a while. The term comes from the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1850s when would-be miners rushed up to Alaska/the Yukon convinced they could strike it rich. Preparing for months spent on their claims, they had to have everything they were going to need, including sourdough starter if they wanted any bread products. (One school site also notes that "A Sourdough is an old time Alaskan who people say has soured on Alaska with no dough to get out," but most of the sites I saw seemed to consider "sourdough" a badge of pride.

Exactly what makes you a sourdough is defined differently in different places; surviving a winter seems to be the minimum required.

  • "If you're there to see the river freeze over and still around when it thaws in the spring then you've made the grade." --http://www.all-abroad.com/stories/yukon.htm
  • "The old time definition of a Sourdough was: one who had peed in the Yukon, slept with a squaw, and killed a bear. In these more politically correct times, the definition is: one who has spent at least a year in Alaska." --http://www.lifeinak.com/glossary.htm

Other sources:
http://www.yukonwinter.com/activities.html
http://www.explorefairbanks.com/fairbank/fairbanks.nsf/
SitePages/SchoolPacketFAQ?OpenDocument

Based on my own personal, anecdotal, and subjective observations, a sourdough start has a home. I mean, it seems to belong near where it was first started. It's as if the wild yeasts know from whence they came and prefer to be in that place.

For example, I have a sourdough start that came down from my Aunt Alice, my grandfather's aunt. She made this start in the 1930s, and it has proliferated throughout the family. I got the start from my grandmother, and Cousin Edith had some of the start, and Cousin Lillian did too, and so did various other relatives who lived nearby.

Aunt Alice lived about ten miles from where I grew up and not more than forty miles from my grandmother. My grandmother made the most incredible sourdough English muffins - just the right amount of rise to the dough, perfect air pockets, that tangy bite from the sourdough itself. With her homemade raspberry jam, ye gods I don't think there has ever been a better combination in this world.

Anyway, I got the start from my grandmother and starting baking bread and English muffins and it went really well. Then when my wife started graduate school, we ended up moving about 300 miles away from home. There was also a drop in altitude from about 4000 feet above sea level to about 700. And my sourdough went flat.

Oh, it didn't quit working or anything that drastic. It just was slower to rise, never rose quite as high, and it lost some of its bite. However, anytime I'd go back home and take my start along, it would perform like my grandmother's again. It's as if it knew it was home and celebrated by rising a bit higher, a bit faster, letting out just a touch more of the sourdough flavor.

Now that I'm back near where I grew up, the sourdough is back to normal. But when my cousin came up to visit and took some home with her to Texas, about 1500 miles away, she never had good results at all.

Maybe it's all in my head. Maybe sourdough acts exactly the same no matter where it is. But I don't think so. I really believe that sourdough works better, tastes better, and truly is better when it is near its ancestral home. San Francisco sourdough is best in San Francisco. Alaskan sourdough is best in Alaska. And Aunt Alice's sourdough belongs here.

I come from a rice eating family. We just don't do bread that often. But I've got a cussed streak that likes to do things the hard way. I've long wanted to bake gorgeous crusty bread that makes the whole house smell good. The toasty smell of the sesame seeds as your teeth crunch through the crust into the warm, soft interior.

Sadly, I've made a vast quantity of truly inferior bread. However, I've finally found something that works for me. Ironically, it's a sourdough. That thing which is a lifeform all its own. That other mouth to feed that lurks in the back of the refrigerator, mocking me when I forget to feed it.

You see, sourdough starter may require more work to maintain than a packet of active dry yeast, but the bread that comes of it is so much better! It doesn't stale as quickly, and the texture is unmatched. My starter is not very sour, but the resulting bread hits the nose with a tang and a richness that causes me to drool just thinking about it. And there is an element of faith in it as well. That this little vat of batter I've been nursing along with judicious applications of flour and water will actually deign to lift my dough into a plump, delectable, toothsome loaf. It's magic, really. Alchemy in its most satisfying incarnation.

So, here's my recipe. It's scaled to proportions that a rice eating household can look at with complacency. It's also a basic bread, something that can easily accept additions. Me, I like it best with sesame.

yclept's sourdough

Makes 15-16 2 oz. rolls or 2 small loaves.

NOTE: 1/8 cup (1 oz. by volume) of all-purpose flour is about 0.2375 oz. by weight. I’ve simplified the quantities in the recipe a bit, though, so the figures don’t match up. Don’t worry, it’ll all work out in the end! And, while it may be confusing, just remember that all ounce measures for dry ingredients refer to weight. The times noted are about how long each step will take, including any fermentation time.
8 hours in advance of when you plan on preparing the dough:

Levain:
6 oz. (by weight) sourdough starter
3 oz. (by weight; or about 1/2 c. + 2 tbsp.) whole wheat flour Note: you can use only all-purpose flour for the entire recipe, if you want. I prefer the complexity and results of a blend.
Mix well. It should be a very stiff dough, and keep its shape. Cover with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out, and leave at room temperature (70-75°F) for 8 hours (no more than 10, or else the yeast will be exhausted). Use a medium bowl, large enough for the finished dough after rising.
After 8 hours, it should look about the same, perhaps a bit larger. But when you poke it with a wooden spoon, it will be filled with a network of small and large bubbles. Proceed with your bread recipe from here.
Dough ingredients:
9 oz (by volume) water, room temperature
6 oz (by weight, or 1 1/2 c.) bread flour A high protein flour that is particularly good at gluten formation
9 oz (2 c.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1.5 tsp. salt
1-2 tbsp. olive oil for coating the bowl (or use sesame oil from the top of the sesame paste)
optional:
2.5 oz. (about 3/4 c.) sesame seeds (1 oz. lightly toasted and cooled for the dough, 1.5 oz. for topping)
1.5 oz. (a big glop on a soup spoon works for me) sesame paste
a bit of beaten egg white for getting the seeds to stick

Making the dough: (about 5 hours before baking)

30 minutes - Mix & Knead

Add the water to the levain and break it up well with a sturdy spoon or paddle. Add one or two handsfull of bread flour and stir until well mixed. Add the salt and any optional ingredients, stir them in, and then starting with the bread flour add more flour a few handsfull at a time until the dough is thick and getting hard to stir. You shouldn’t have needed to use all the flour at this point. Using some of the remaining flour, flour your kneading surface well and turn your dough out onto it. Scrape all the little sticky bits out of the bowl, 'cause you’ll be using the bowl again.
Knead the dough, adding flour as necessary to keep it from sticking to the board and your hands. Knead for 15-20 minutes, until the dough keeps its shape with almost no settling when formed into a tight ball. Do not skimp on this step. This is where chewy, light loaves are made or broken. Try to add as little flour as possible into the dough after the first 10 minutes or so. Shape it into a tight ball and then set it aside while you prep the bowl.
Shake out any loose bits and generously oil the bowl. Put the dough in smooth side down, then turn it so that the whole ball is coated with oil. Cover it with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and set it in a draft free place that is about 75-78°F.

2 hours - 1st Rise.

Let the dough rise for about 2 hours until it has increased about 25%. Sourdough isn’t like breads made from active dry yeast, it won’t puff up hugely during the proofing. However, if you poke it, it will be soft and you’ll leave a well defined dent. If it has risen to this state before 2 hours, either put it in a cold spot until you’re ready for it, or go to the next step immediately. If it hasn’t risen to this state, put it in a slightly warmer spot for another half hour, then proceed. If your house is very cool, around 65°F or less, you can also just make each rise twice as long. Only do this if your dough seems very cold and sluggish, or else the yeast will be exhausted before it hits the oven. Hungry, energetic yeast will give you strong oven spring when the yeast warms up and bursts into activity. This is what gives you high light loaves, that last 10 minutes of frantic rising in the glare of the oven. So, don’t let the yeast wear itself out before then.

30-40 min. - Dividing/Shaping

Deflate the dough and pull it out of the bowl, knead it briefly to incorporate the oil and to squeeze out the bubbles. The oil will help keep the dough from sticking, but use just a bit of flour as necessary. Cut the dough into 2 to 2 1/8 oz. portions for rolls or cut it in half for 2 small loaves.
If making rolls, shape immediately: Knead them into dense balls and place seam down on a generously floured surface to rise (cornmeal or semolina are also good for flouring at this point, as they won’t get absorbed easily into the dough).
If making loaves, separate the dough into 2 equal portions, and knead into dense balls. Round loaves can proof at this point, but if you’re making rectangular loaves let the dough rest for 30 min. before shaping. If making rectangular loaves or using loaf pans, shape the dough into logs (press into a flat oblong about the desired width, then roll up along the long side, and place seam side down). Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp towel.

1:45-2 hours – 2nd rise (proofing)

Let rise for about 2 hours in that same 75-78°F spot. An hour before baking, preheat the oven to 450°F. Place a basin of water in the bottom of the oven, make sure the rack is in the middle. Use a baking stone if you have it.

Baking:

Rolls: 25-30 min. per batch. About 15 min. before the 2 hour proofing time is complete, take the rolls and cut deeply across the tops, 1/4 to 1/2 an inch deep, with a razor or very sharp knife. If coating with sesame seeds, brush the tops of the rolls with egg white and sprinkle generously. If using a cookie sheet, make sure the rolls are at least 1.5 inches apart. If using a baking stone, remember that distance for when you put them in the oven, directly onto the stone. Cover prepared rolls until they are ready to bake, especially if you are working in batches. Bake until deep golden brown. Do not underbake them! The crust needs to be deep golden brown to stay crisp and characterful when cool.
Loaves: Cut the top of the loaf deeply, down the middle for loaf pans, several diagonal slashes for logs, and cross-hatched for rounds. Bake 20 min, then lower the temperature to 400°F and bake 30-40 min. until the loaves sound somewhat hollow when thumped on the bottom. They should be deep golden brown. Remember, free form logs bake faster than loaf pans and rounds! However, do not underbake the loaves. Check every five minutes if you have to. A loaf tends to look darker in the oven than out. Let it get dark. The crust is what suffers most in an underbaked loaf, don’t let sogginess happen to you!
Remove the bread, place on a rack to cool. Rolls can be eaten almost immediately, although it’s a good idea to let them cool for about 10 minutes first. Loaves should be permitted to cool to room temperature before cutting unless you plan on eating the whole loaf right away. If you are planning on eating it all, again, let it cool for about 10 minutes first. This lets the interior finish any residual cooking, and it won't dry out as quickly when you break into it, and it steams and fogs up your glasses as you salivate.... Oh, um, sorry! Where was I?

I like to eat rolls hot, with some sweet butter and homemade strawberry preserves, or perhaps some pear butter or apple quince butter.


This recipe is what I’ve come up with after mucking about with Bread Alone (Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik, William Morrow and Co., NY, 1993) for a while. It’s an informative recipe book full of an abiding passion for delicious bread.

If the weather is cool, I usually have a sourdough culture going. I'm happy to send a culture of sourdough starter anywhere in the US. Check my homenode to see if I have any, or msg me if you'd like some.

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