Now that I've explained how to start your own sourdough culture, capturing wild yeast from the air, and argued for why this method of bread making is the best for your health and wellbeing, I'll show you how to make a basic sourdough loaf.
During my month-and-a-half hiatus from this blog, I was worried that I'd lost that lovely spring window when the temperatures are just right for activating (or reactivating) sourdough cultures. The temps here in the Midwest shot up to the 100s last week. But today it's a cool 73°F, and if our Seattle readers weren't under a once-in-a-lifetime heat wave, they'd just now be hitting perfect culture weather here at the end of "Juneuary." Since we also have readers all over the world, I'm sure a good number of you out there are experiencing optimum sourdough culture weather, or else you can create the conditions for it in your home kitchens. I'll also show you some techniques for creating these ideal conditions below.
A classic loaf of sourdough bread begins with a culture. If you don't already have a culture, please see my post on how to create one. If you have a fresh, fully active culture, skip step 1 below and go directly to step 2. If your culture has gone dormant in the fridge, begin with step 1.
Also, it's a good idea to schedule out the steps below to flow over the next few days so that you're giving yourself the right times of day for the kneading and baking. If you don't, you could end up like I did, being forced to stay up until midnight to bake bread because I'd timed it all wrong. Not that fresh-baked bread in the wee hours isn't a wonderful thing, hey, baker's hours and all, but I find it's much more relaxing if I've got it timed more reasonably. For those of us with full-time jobs, baking bread is the perfect 3-day weekend activity.
Step 1: Reactivate Your Culture
Unless you bake every week, your refrigerated culture has likely gone dormant, and dormancy also means it's turned a bit acidic. It will look something like this.
See how the liquid has sort of separated from the culture matter? You'll need to warm, feed, and remix the culture to get it active enough to use for bread making.
I use Weck jars for my cultures (pictured above), and they work incredibly well because of the rubber gasket and metal clamp seals. If you don't have any Weck jars, let me draw your attention to where you can order them via this Etsy shop, Wild Roots Vintage. But any jar with a good seal will do.
- While mixing the culture vigorously, add warm water to fill the jar.
- Reserve a little more than a cup in the jar, and use the rest in something else (another starter, perhaps, or pancakes).
- Now add 2/3 cup (90 g) unbleached, all-purpose flour to the jar culture and enough water to thicken it to resemble pancake batter (hmm... kind of a pancake theme here). Now the jar's about half full, and I'm not just saying that because I'm an optimist.
- Next, proof the culture at 70-75°F (21-24°C) for 2-4 hours. Cover it with a towel to keep pets and insects out. The amount of time depends on how dormant your culture was. Give it additional feedings if it doesn't respond within 2 hours. It should foam and bubble and smell delightfully sour in that unmistakeable sourdough way. Don't be afraid to peek at it, sniff it; get up-close-and-personal with your culture.
- It's ready when it increases in volume by about 2 inches. I mark the level around the jar with a rubber band when I first feed it to measure how much it bubbles up. If it's not foamy after 4 hours, feed it again, adding 2/3 cup of flour and enough water to maintain that pancake batter consistency.
A note about flour: I've used both unbleached all-purpose white flour and whole wheat flour, as well as a mix of both. You might have to add more water for whole wheat, something you can sense if the dough is too hard and thick instead of a nice doughy mound you can easily knead. In all cases, I prefer organic, non-GMO if I can get it.
If you successfully reactivated it, your culture should look like this.
Or even this.
Step 2: Proof the Culture
OK, so you're not quite to the point where you can bake bread yet. But yay, you! The culture's active and ready for the first step in bread making, which is the culture proof. I left this step out in one of my bread-making forays, and that was how I came to understand what Paul Hollywood is talking about on The Great British Baking Show when he tells contestants their bread is "underproofed." So don't skip this step!
- Cut the culture in half again, putting the other half in another jar (why not use it for your second loaf of bread, or pizza dough?).
- Add that 2/3 c (90 g) of flour again, with enough water for the pancake batter consistency.
Now you're going to proof again, this time for a total of 8-12 hours. Yeah, that's why you have to step this out in advance. For optimum results, I follow the recommendation in Ed and Jean Wood's Classic Sourdoughs, which is to proof at 65-70°F (18-21°C) for the first 2-3 hours and then at 80-85°F (26-29°C) for the final 6-10 hours. HOWEVER, this is not rocket science; getting the precise temperature can be a challenge, so don't stress about it. Here's what I do, and it works well:
- Proof at room temperature for the first 2-3 hours. This usually gives you that 65-70°F (18-21°C) in winter (maybe you turn the heat down or up, depending; I usually have to turn it up), but I've done it when it's slightly warmer in springtime, and it's fine. If you have the A/C on, you might adjust to fit, but again, I wouldn't worry if it's 5-10 degrees warmer (F). Conversely, if your room temperature happens to be 80-85°F (26-29°C), then take the culture into a cool basement or other cooler space for its first round of proofing.
For the 80-85°F (26-29°C), the Woods recommend a Styrofoam proofing box with a light bulb apparatus, but like I said in my post on making a sourdough starter, if you're not handy with electrical rigs, this might be a bit outside your area. Judging by what happens on The Great British Baking Show, European kitchens are equipped with a wonderful device called a "proofing drawer," but I've never seen one in the States, which is too bad. Instead, I handle this in two different manners, whether it's winter or spring.
- In winter, I turn my oven on at its lowest setting, let it warm up, turn it off, and proof in there. The oven retains heat for a good while, staying in the right range so that you only have to repeat this process every 2-3 hours. Hat-tip to my mother for this method.
- In spring, I create a little warming tent by draping a towel over a Himalayan salt lamp nightlight, like this.
I would not recommend using a regular nightlight, with an exposed bulb, as they can get really hot! My nightlight doesn't get that hot, and the salt lamp portion is very thick. Tented, it's just warm enough to create the perfect proofing environment... and maybe there's something to the fact that these salt lamps are supposed to be therapeutic? In fact, I came up with this idea this spring, and who knows? It might work in the winter, too. But please be careful and use your best judgment. Bread's amazing, but it's not worth burning the house down.
I've never needed as long as 12 hours for the culture proof. It usually looks great within 6-8, but your conditions might need the full 12.
Step 3: Proof the Dough
Now you have a culture you can use in any recipe calling for one. Here's how to make a basic sourdough loaf.
- Pour 1 c (240 ml) of culture into a large mixing bowl.
- Mix in 1 tsp salt and 1 c (240 ml) water.
- Add 3 1/2 c (490 g) of flour, 1 c at a time, mixing until it's too stiff to work this way.
- Turn it out onto a floured board.
- Knead in the rest of the flour until the dough is satiny and smooth.
A note on kneading: This is the really fun part. I like to work up a rhythm with my kneading, like this.
- If things aren't coming together right, you can try adding more flour or water to get that smooth dough consistency.
- Once it's satiny, place the dough back in the bowl and cover. I use a glass Pyrex bowl with a plastic lid for this; you will want to secure the top with plastic wrap if you don't have a lid.
- Proof the dough overnight (8-12 hours) at room temperature (70°F or 21°C). Note my house is never this cold unless it's that temperature outside; I've proofed it at 75-80°F, no problem.
The dough should double in size; that's how you know it's done.
- Rest the dough for 30 minutes. If it flattens down, you can knead in more flour.
- Now you can shape the dough. Flatten it a bit, lift a portion from the edge, and pull it into the middle of the loaf, forming an imperfect ball. Then shape it into any form you like.
Step 4: Proof the Loaf
You can bake your loaf in a bread loaf pan or on a baking sheet or ceramic stone. I find the stone is far and away the best, for both bread and pizza. Here's a vintage Pampered Chef baking stone for sale on Etsy, if you're so inclined.
- If you're using a baking stone, it will need to be preheated before you bake with it, so just place the loaf on some other surface (such as a baking sheet) for the loaf proof. Cover with a kitchen towel, or upturned bowl, and proof for 2-4 hours until it has doubled in bulk.
Step 5: Bake!
Now for the best part, right? There is nothing better than the smell of sourdough bread baking in your oven.
- First, slash the surface of the bread dough with a razor blade. This allows expanding gases to escape. Slashing is kind of an art; let's just say I'm still working on this one.
You have two options for baking:
- If you're using a loaf pan or baking sheet, put the bread in the oven while it's still cool, and then set the temperature for 375°F (190°C) and bake for 70 minutes.
- For the stone, heat the oven to 450°F (230°C), allow the stone to pre-heat in the oven, and then carefully transfer the loaf to the preheated stone. Bake for 40 minutes at 450°F (230°C).
Let the loaf cool on a rack when it's done, and then ENJOY.
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