"It isn't bread that feeds you; it is life and the spirit that feed you through bread."
--Angelus Silesius in The Cherubic Pilgrim, 1657
There is a sourdough purist inside me who has been searching on and off for many years for the ultimate recipe for sourdough bread. I've found a lot of really good bread recipes that combine sourdough with commercial yeast, and while they had a nice tang to them, they did not elicit the wondrous complexity that bread raised only with sourdough can and should produce. I tried all kinds of recipes (just sourdough, flour, and water; the addition of various sugars; the use of herbs and spices) and all kinds of methods (with and without a baking stone; with and without steam in the oven; using special French bread pans or a Dutch oven). Alas, after all these variations I had not yet found the right recipe.
By now, the astute reader will have guessed what I am about to say. My quest is over! I have indeed found the ultimate recipe for sourdough bread. The secret? It's not so much the ingredients or the method. It's about time! I've seen recipes for breads that take anywhere from six to twenty hours, but for me, that really isn't enough time. The best sourdough bread I've ever made is the result of a thirty-hour process. Obviously, there's not thirty hours of work involved, but more like thirty minutes of real work and twenty-nine and a half hours of waiting. But the results are defintely worth the wait.
Now, I am not opposed by any means to electric mixers. I just don't care to use one myself. Not for bread anyway. I like to knead the dough with my own two hands. So when I talk about kneading in the recipe below, realize I am talking about working the dough with my hands. Feel free to get out your dough hook if you must. It's your loss.
I have always made my sourdough bread with white flour, but whole wheat flour should work, and one of these days I'm going to try it with rye flour, which sounds like a very good idea. I'd love to hear from anyone who has had success with other kinds of flour mixed with their sourdough.
There are a number of ways to work with sourdough starter. Some people mix the whole starter with flour and water the night before they use it and then set some of that aside. I do it like my grandmother taught me. I keep my starter at about three cups worth, give or take. I take out what I need, and then add back about the same amount of flour and water mixed together, stirring the whole mixture as little as possible. I try to let that sit for about 24 hours between uses so the sourdough can infiltrate the entire mixture, so that the old can fully blend with the new.
In a large glass bowl, mix together the water, starter, sugar, and four cups of the flour. The dough should be slightly sticky. Knead this for ten minutes, until the flour is completely mixed in and the dough has an even consistency throughout. Form the dough into a ball and set it in the bowl. Take one tablespoon of the oil, and brush it on the dough, lightly coating the outside. Cover the top of the bowl with a towel, and let the dough sit at room temperature. Let it stay there and work for 24 hours. Be patient, and let the dough at least double in size.
For this part, you may not need the full two cups of flour remaining. The dough should no longer be sticky to the touch, but it doesn't need to feel tough either. Start with maybe one cup of flour and go from there. If after adding two cups the dough still feels sticky, add more flour one-half cup at a time. At this point it's nice to have a kitchen helper to pour in the flour, since there's a good chance your hands will be covered with bread dough.
At this point the dough has been rising for 24 hours. It should be about double the size it was, and maybe a little more depending on how active your starter is, the weather, your elevation, and maybe the phase of the moon.
Mix together one cup of the remaining flour and the salt. Slowly knead this into your ball of dough, making sure the flour gets distributed evenly throughout the dough. Knead it just enough to give the dough a consistent texture.
Take a baking sheet and sprinkle some cornmeal on it. Split the dough into two equal pieces. Shape each piece into an oblong loaf and place the loaves on the baking sheet. Brush on the rest of the olive oil, making sure the loaves are fully coated. Sprinkle some more cornmeal on top and rub it in just a bit. Cover the loaves with a towel, and let them sit at room temperature for another five or six hours.
I like to put my baking stone in the oven for this bread, but my bread has come out fine without the stone. If you have a stone, I'd suggest you use it. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Leave the loaves on the baking sheet and put them in the oven for 45 minutes. The crust should be a medium brown color. Take them out, and let them rest for about five minutes.
Slice and serve immediately. The slices can be eaten plain, but I love butter on mine. Good quality olive oil, or homemade jam or preserves are also wonderful. The bread will keep for a few days and is great for toast, sandwiches, or with cheese and wine. If it does begin to get crusty after a few days, use it for french toast or bread pudding.