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How to Bake Homemade Sourdough Bread

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I love to get my hands in the dough.

By Lisa Brunette

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.

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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.

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One of my successfully reactivated cultures, this one made from wheat flour.

Or even this.

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It's a thing of beauty, ain't it?

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.
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Fresh starters going into the warm oven for the culture proof.
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Here's the bubbly result.
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Four cultures, under a nightlight...
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...And now tented.

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.

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After the dough proof.
  • 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.

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Image courtesy How Fast Time Flies store on Etsy.
  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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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A finished loaf of sourdough wheat bread (I forgot to slash it, though).
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Another one of my finished loaves. You can see I slashed too deeply on the left-most cut. Next time...
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Another batch of two loaves. The one on the left is just about perfect!

 

Note: This post contains Etsy affiliate links. If you purchase using the links, Cat in the Flock might earn a commission.

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Why You Should Bake with 'Wild Caught' Sourdough

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The results of a baking spree this spring: whole-wheat sourdough bread and pizza, both made with "wild-caught" yeast.

By Lisa Brunette

After a much longer hiatus than I anticipated, I'm finally back to follow up on my last post on how to create a sourdough starter. This time, I want to argue for why you should bake with homemade sourdough cultures.

First, though, let me be honest: Baking your own sourdough bread takes time, effort, and patience. This is no convenience food, nor should it be. So why bother to go to the trouble? For me, the reason is simple: homemade sourdough is the only bread I can eat without triggering both immediate mast cell reactions and long-term mast cell complications. That's a powerful motivator. But I'm not the only one who's ever struggled with bread - we seem to be in the throes of a cultural backlash against it, judging by the enduring popularity of "gluten-free" alternatives. After a lifetime of trial and error on this issue, I'm going to say that it's not actually the wheat that's the problem; it's all the bad things we add to the wheat.

Think about this: "gluten" allergies are a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon. For ten thousand years, and maybe longer, human beings have eaten wheat gluten, largely without incident, until now. Yes, there have likely always been people with legitimate celiac disease, like my uncle, who can't even eat store-bought, already-shredded cheese because a common ingredient used to keep the shreds from clumping together is some kind of flour or other wheat-gluten product. But this pervasive conviction that so many of us are "gluten intolerant"? It's pretty new and seems to have coincided with the rise of genetically modified foods, mechanized farming dependent on chemical fertilizer, pesticide use for insect and weed control, and the increased introduction of stabilizers, fillers, additives, and preservatives into our food, or even, increasingly, taking the place of our food. 

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A sourdough starter just beginning to bubble. This is how bread was made for most of human history.

One of the best articles written on this subject is Michael Specter's The New Yorker piece from 2014, "Against the Grain." Well-researched, long-form journalism can change your thinking, if not your life, and this one had that effect on me. A few stats from the piece:

  • About 1% of the population suffers from bonafide celiac disease (an extreme intolerance to wheat that can be reliably diagnosed by testing for a marker), and the other 99% "rarely gave gluten much thought" until the 2010s, when gluten intolerance really became a thing.
  • No other food source provides as much nourishment as wheat, and it also provides a full 20% of global calories. 
  • Gluten-free is a big business. Since The New Yorker stats are now a bit dated, here's one from this year: The gluten-free market was estimated at $22 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $36 billion by 2026, according to Global Newswire.

According to Specter, there are two things going on with wheat that warrant investigation: 1) the incidence of diagnosed, verified celiac disease has quadrupled in the past sixty years, and 2) about 20 million people (and probably more now) do not have celiac disease but associate gluten with their health issues. Scientists do not know why celiac has increased. Nor can they explain the gluten-intolerance phenomenon.

So Specter consulted the research on gluten, and here's what he found: Studies did not conclusively show gluten to be the true trigger of symptoms. Instead, the evidence pointed to a group of foods called FODMAPs as the only real culprit in case studies. In the past seven years, more people attempting to chase down the source of their digestive issues have since shifted over to low-FODMAP diets, but such diets are harder to observe than the gluten-free, and far less popular (or trendy).

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A couple of beautifully active cultures.

So why do people think they feel better because they've adopt a gluten-free diet? Specter offers one possibility:

Cutting back on foods that contain gluten often helps people reduce their consumption of refined carbohydrates, bread, beer, and other highly caloric foods. When followed carefully, those restrictions help people lose weight, particularly if they substitute foods like quinoa and lentils for the starches they had been eating. 

But those who see results from a gluten-free diet are the few who've managed not to succumb to the temptations of today's gluten-free packaged food offerings. Specter makes an excellent point about such grocery-store staples: They ain't health food. I noticed years ago by reading labels that gluten-free food often contains more sugar and fat than their wheat-filled counterparts. A celiac disease specialist interviewed in the piece says, "Often, gluten-free versions of traditional wheat-based foods are actually junk food."

Side note: It's the same with vegetarianism and veganism. People often perceive themselves to feel better after going that route, likely due to some health benefits gained from an improved diet overall. But the pitfall is that a lot of meatless products - especially meat "replacements" - are laden with unhealthy components, or outright stuffed with additives and fillers. And don't get me started on vegetarians who basically load up on cheese and other dairy products to fill the void left when they take out meat, a trap I once fell into myself.

So gluten-free diets are neither scientifically proven to work, nor from a nutritional standpoint are they a good solution. But still: Celiac has increased fourfold, and people report experiencing symptoms associated with wheat products. For Specter, this meant taking a look at how exactly wheat and the products made with it have changed in modern times. He contrasts the traditional way of making bread to today's largely artificial method. For tens of thousands of years, bakers used only water, flour, and the fermentation process to create a sourdough culture, and to that, they added more flour and water, a little salt and kneading, and after baking, they had their precious loaf. Today, the standard is much less, shall we say, organic:

In place of hydration, fermentation, and kneading, manufacturers save time by relying on artificial additives and huge industrial mixers to ram together the essential proteins that form gluten.

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Fostering wild yeast cultures can be a highly satisfying activity.

One of the components frequently added to wheat products is vital wheat gluten. Most commercial bread available in grocery stores today - and yes, that includes your favorite ridiculously overpriced brand of organic, whole-grain, non-GMO whatever loaf, has had loads of vital wheat gluten added to it. Described by one blogger as "your normal wheat flour... on steroids," it's basically wheat with everything else removed, or only the gluten. Specter rightly questions whether the gluten-intolerance problem stems from all this extra gluten we're ingesting, the effects of which have never been properly studied.

But I want to stay with that mention of artificial additives and huge industrial mixers to expand the problem beyond just vital wheat gluten. 

As I mentioned in my post on how to create a sourdough culture, my go-to resource is Ed and Jean Wood's Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook. In the introduction, the Woods hit on the crux of the problem with today's bread:

Within just the last hundred years, there have been monumental changes to what we call bread, and these changes are mostly for the worse. Not only do huge baking machines now dominate the production of bread, the baking industry adds a plethora of chemicals to flour and dough to change their physical characteristics and improve their 'machinability.' These include surface-active agents (surfactants) to help doughs go through machinery without sticking or tearing, other chemicals to soften the final bread texture or strengthen the dough by modifying the gluten, and a host of emulsifiers just to improve the mixing characteristics or increase shelf life. All of these additives have one thing in common: no, or very limited, nutritional value. At least one of them, potassium bromate, has been banned worldwide as a potential carcinogen.

In centralized industrial bakeries, large baking conglomerates produce packaged breads and refrigerated or frozen dough for distribution to retail stores and local bakeries. The distribution of industrial bread doughs means that even if a bread is baked fresh at a local bakery, it often still contains all the additives and chemicals included by the wholesale producers to grease its progress through the massive machinery - and none of the beneficial microflora that make bread taste like bread. And this is not only an American story: the deterioration of bread quality is a worldwide phenomenon, occurring in the European heartlands of great bread.

So you might ask yourself: Are you really "allergic to" or "intolerant of" wheat, or is your body trying to tell you something about all the things in your bread besides wheat? As someone who's gone gluten-free a few times in my life, I can tell you, it's probably not the answer, at least not long-term. 

Of course, if you don't want to eat wheat, don't eat wheat. If you feel better without it, by all means, avoid it. I just think you need to take a good, hard look at what you're really eating, with our without wheat in your diet, how it makes you feel, and why. And if you miss bread and want to find a way to bring it back into your life in a much more positive, nourishing way, then I say go out and capture yourself some wild yeast. Bread's not called the staff of life for nothing, you know.

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Now's the Perfect Time to Start That Sourdough

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By Lisa Brunette

A sourdough starter is a thing of beauty and seeming magic. All it takes is a bowl of water and flour, and you can 'catch' wild yeast from the atmosphere, claiming it as your own to use in everything from a simple loaf of bread to pancakes and pizza dough. 

If you've never done this before and are relying on commercial yeast packets for your baking projects, you don't know what you're missing. I highly encourage you to give wild sourdough a try. Not only is the flavor and texture far superior, but it's a lot healthier for you, too. As someone who suffers from Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, I can tell you that wild sourdough is pretty much the only bread I can eat without triggering symptoms. Since I love bread, creating my own sourdough has been more than worth the effort to bring bread back into my life. As it turns out, the process is also thoroughly satisfying.

Spring is a great time to start sourdough because the yeast thrives in the mildly warm temperature range of 65 to 85°F (18-29°C). Any colder, and it can be tough to capture that yeast; any hotter, and the flour/water mixture can quickly become acidic. I captured my culture last spring - over a week in late May to early June during relatively mild weather for my region at that time of year. I've nurtured it over the course of the past 12 months, baking with it, letting it go dormant, and then reactivating it to bake again for what I like to call MY YEAR IN SOURDOUGH. Now I can confidently report back to you on what works and what doesn't. This is a four-part series starting with... what else? The start.

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It's something of a miracle that you can stick a flour/water mixture outside and voilá! You've got yourself a sourdough starter. Of course, it's not quite that easy. There's a fair amount of babying, coaxing, feeding, waiting, babying, coaxing, feeding, and waiting some more until the magic happens. 

What didn't work for me? YouTube videos. Unfortunately, in this case, the algorithm's highest-ranking videos all tell you to do things in kind of silly ways, using methods that at best fail to rely on the collective historic wisdom of true sourdough artisans and at worst just don't work at all.

What brought success in spades? Following (and modifying) the advice laid out in Ed and Jean Wood's excellent book, Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook. We inherited this book from Anthony's mother, A. Grace, when she passed in 2011, and it's just a pity I hadn't cracked it open sooner. We don't get anything in exchange for this endorsement, but here's the book if you want to check it out, with a link to where you can buy it used without involving the almighty 'Zon in the purchase.

ClassicSourdoughs

One of the best things about Classic Sourdoughs is that it doesn't present a one-size-fits-all approach but rather educates you on the nature of sourdough so you can adjust and adapt to your own environment. And that's crucial.

I live in a Midwestern river town, and even by late May, our air gets steamy, the humidity index high. But luckily, the temperature stayed under 85°F for that week or so that I successfully captured a sourdough culture. If you're in a more northern area, you might need to create a proofing box, which you can do with a standard Styrofoam cooler and socket light. This is outlined in Classic Sourdoughs, but I have not done it myself.

Another option is to capture the culture in the candle warmth of a (solar) Sun Oven set up inside, which is on my list to try as soon as we can. Cat in the Flock might receive a commission if you purchase a Sun Oven through this link, at no extra cost to you. Sun Oven is doing important work to promote solar energy and bring sun ovens to villages that dearly need them.

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But if you've got a lovely springtime range of 65-85°F (18-29°C), you should have no problem starting your culture. I strongly recommend doing this outside, as indoor air can be drier, less biodiverse, and laden with household contaminants, especially if you don't have the windows open. We tend to wait until the last minute to turn on the A/C, so our windows were open last year in late May, but I started the culture outside anyway. 

STEP 1

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (280 g) of flour
  • 1 1/2 cups (380 ml) warm water
  • A glass bowl
  • Cheesecloth or another type of screen to cover the bowl
  • Something to use to secure the screen over the bowl

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 once you get to the dough stage, 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.

Vigorously stir the flour and water together, introducing enough air into the mix. A sourdough starter consists of both bacteria and yeast, and they need air to thrive. Don't freak out that I said "bacteria." Some bacteria is good for you, and in this case, it's what gives the sourdough its flavor. The yeast provides texture.

STEP 2

You shouldn't cover the bowl with a lid or plastic or anything else that will prevent the organisms from finding your flour and water. If you're worried about insects getting into it, cover with cheesecloth or another fine-mesh screen. I used a splatter shield held down with a rock to keep both insects and critters out. Now, you wait...

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STEP 3

Give the mixture a good stirring at least twice every 24 hours. During this time I checked it occasionally, eyeing its consistency and sniffing to make sure the odor was right. If the odor heads south, that means it's been taken over by undesirable organisms, and in that case, you'll need to start over. This happened to me once; actually, what happened was I had a great start pretty much right away but didn't understand that's what I had and left it out too long, at which point it went bad.

The mixture should begin to bubble a bit after 2-3 days. At this point, add 1 cup (140 g) of flour and enough water to maintain consistency. I had to repeat these "feedings" a few times before I got a fully active culture on my second round. Let this take the time it takes, even if you go beyond the four or five days recommended in Classic Sourdoughs. As long as the culture's trending toward activity and doesn't look or smell bad, you're on the right track. A fully active culture will look spectacular and alive. To some this means "bubbly," but to others it means "foamy." Here's an example.

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You might experiment with different locations, too. While the photos above show my culture mix sitting on top of a garden table, because it wasn't protected from rain in that location, I eventually moved it to under our back porch, in the walk-down stairway to our basement, where it seemed to thrive, out of both rain and sun.

Once you've got a nice, active culture, you can bake with it immediately, but definitely reserve some of the original for future baking. You can also store it in the fridge to use later. I recommend labeling it as sourdough starter and including the date. This is now your start, your buddy, your friend; it will stick with you through life if you keep feeding it. The Woods recommend doing this every couple of months even if you're not baking, and I concur. I had two starts, one of which I baked with every two months. It's still my winner. The other one went four months' dormant in the fridge, and I opened it this spring to find it had gone bad: black fuzz and a terrible smell. I had to pitch it.

But the good one! Oh, the things I've baked... I'll tell you all about it in a future post.

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'The Most Food for the Time and Space' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

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Claire Schosser, in her one-acre suburban homestead.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: You mention a few times on your blog that May is your month of heaviest gardening activity, and in your recent email to me, you said you aren't really gardening much right now. I just spent the past two weekends putting in early-season peas and lettuce, along with arugula, chervil, and nasturtiums. Is your emphasis on May just a reflection of the types of crops you like to grow? I noticed dent corn is high on your list. Do you grow peas and other early-season crops at all? 

CS: Its partly a reflection of the crops that Mike and I like to eat and partly a reflection of the crops that yield the most food for the time and space that they require. Take peas, for instance. Both Mike and I like them, so I have grown them in the past. But for the amount of space that they need, even a good crop doesnt produce much food. Id rather spend the time and space on crops that yield a lot of food in late spring and early summer, for instance bok choy and cabbage. Even lettuce yields more food than peas do.

Its also due to the microclimate at my place being several degrees cooler than at your place. Ive lost enough seedlings to late freezes in April that I now avoid planting anything except potatoes before the middle of April, when the freeze risk lessens. 

Orchard
Claire and Mike's one-acre plot includes productive fruit and nut trees, in addition to the active annual fruit and vegetable garden.

 I grow dent corn because it provides a lot of calories compared to the vegetables, it grows well here, I have enough space to grow it and save seeds, and its the easiest grain to work with at the homestead level. By February or March, almost all the fresh food from the previous season is gone, but we still have dent corn available to make corn mush or cornbread if something like a natural disaster or pandemic were to make other sources of food scarce or expensive.

I harvest a few early perennial edibles starting in mid to late March: Profusion’ sorrel, a rocambole garlic that the previous owners left for us, garlic chives, mint leaves, and some wild plants like dandelion greens and violet flowers that grow in various parts of the yard. The strawberry harvest occurs in May; last year I harvested nearly 40 pounds of them from a single 100 square foot bed! Otherwise, my harvest season doesnt take off until June. But once it gets going it doesnt end until November or December.

Strawberry Patch
Claire's big, productive strawberry patch.
Strawberry Flowers
Strawberry flowers.

LB: Oh, good... I'm starting some sorrel this year and am glad to hear it can work in this area. I can definitely see what you mean about peas. For me they are a cheaper way to get a DAO facilitator into my diet, necessary to combat a condition I have called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. The two food sources for DAO are pea shoots and beef kidney. Since I don't like the taste of kidney, I have to resort to (pricey) kidney pills. Pea shoots are a great substitute. By the way, don't you love our native violets? It amazes me that people treat them as weeds, pulling them out to make room for more grass. Besides their edibility, they are a host plant for fritillary butterflies. I also use the leaves in a tea with rose petals to combat heart palpitations. You're killing me with the strawberry story, though. Anthony can't eat them due to the oxalates (kidney stones), and they are unfortunately a Mast Cell trigger for me.

Question for you: What is the last thing you harvest in December? And could you briefly describe your food storage system?

CS: The last things I harvest are leeks, carrots, sorrel, and members of the cabbage family. Although I think it best to harvest the turnip, beet, and radish roots earlier, before temperatures drop below about 20°F, the varieties of kale and arugula that I grow will live through temperatures approaching 10°F. They and the sorrel are the last leaves that I harvest in December. I harvest leeks and carrots before the soil freezes, not because it would kill them, but because I can’t dig them out of frozen soil. 

If your seed-grown sorrel doesn’t produce much before it flowers and goes to seed – mine didn’t – I recommend ‘Profusion’ sorrel. It doesn’t go to seed so it grows new leaves for months!

Profusion Sorrel
'Profusion' sorrel.

I’m not fond of canning during summer’s heat, and Mike hasn’t shown an inclination to do it, so we focus on storing crops we can freeze; store whole in the basement, a makeshift cold cellar, or in the living room with us; or process by fermentation or making into wine. We only have one refrigerator and it’s rather small, so we don’t store many garden crops in it, only apples that we don’t turn into wine.

Cold Cellar
Entrance to the cold cellar.
Cold Cellar Interior
Inside the cold cellar, empty now at the start of the new season.

LB: We met via a mutual interest in the writings of John Michael Greer. Have you read Green Wizardry, and has it been an influence for you? How else has Greer's writings inspired you?

Yes, Ive read Green Wizardry, and I call myself a green wizard. Mike and I had already done some of the things that Greer writes about as part of our voluntary simplicity practice, and we are adding others as time goes on. We practice a Retrofit lifestyle, with a little Down Home Funk mixed in (who else do you know who has at least 25 slide rules – Ive lost count – sharing the house with them?). 

Before I read Greers first blog, The Archdruid Report, the only thing I knew about Druids was the Druid character class in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Fast forward four years after I began reading his blog, and I had joined the Ancient Order of Druids in America, the Druid order for which he was the Grand Archdruid from 2003 through 2015. Fast forward another eight years to now, and I am the Archdruid of Water for the same order. I owe Greer a major debt of gratitude for his work to revive the Order, which has become my spiritual home, as well as for his work on green wizardry and related subjects.

LB: What does it mean to be an Archdruid of Water? Can you explain what this spiritual practice is all about? And how does it dovetail with being a 'green wizard'?

CS: The Druidry that members of AODA and other Druids groups practice is a form of nature spirituality. The only thing that holds for all of us in AODA is that we all have a sense that nature is sacred in some way: that nature itself has a spiritual significance and has spiritual lessons to teach us. AODA is non-dogmatic; its members hold a wide array of beliefs, so we focus on practice.

The four Archdruids of AODA function as the board of directors of AODA. More importantly, because we are a teaching Order, the Archdruids establish, maintain, and as needed revise our educational curriculum, which is designed so that each member can make each of AODA’s seven core practices and values a part of their everyday life.

One of our seven core practices and values is nature reciprocation. Nature reciprocation means living in balance and harmony with nature. To do this we incorporate lifestyle changes that reduce our negative impact on the Earth and her cycles, and we also learn how to work with the Earth to increase her richness. This is a perfect fit with green wizard practices, which seek to do the same things.

Barn Shed
Barn shed and bamboo poles, grown onsite.

LB: Living Low in the Lou is definitely the writing of someone with a deeply scientific bent. What's your background? How has science and the scientific method shaped your gardening, as well as other aspects of your carefully chosen lifestyle?

CS: Ive been interested in nature and science from as far back as I remember. In my late teens and twenties, I focused my college and graduate studies on chemistry, which drilled the scientific method into me and showed me how to use it to solve problems.

In my blog I describe the scientific method as a conversation between me and the garden. Each year, based on the results I obtained from previous years and my research on how to become a better gardener, I form questions (hypotheses) for the garden to answer. With the questions in mind, I decide what I can do to help the garden answer those questions (experiments). As I observe the plants in the garden and measure the weight of each days harvest, the garden is answering my questions and teaching me how to garden. 

In the same way, when Mike and I were learning how to live more simply by using the nine-step YMOYL program, every month we had a conversation with our categorized income and expenses about whether they were fulfilling and in line with our values. Based on the answers, we made changes in what we spent our money and time on. Then we asked the questions again the following month and made more changes. Like the garden example, its a process of asking questions and determining what action to take depending on the answers. The process taught us how to live in a way that allows us to pursue our interests and express our values. 

Mint
Claire grows 'mojito' mint for the both culinary and medicinal use.

LB: That's fantastic; I love it. Can you give some examples of expenses you realized were in conflict with your values? And others that were in harmony?

CS: Payments for utilities were among those that conflicted with our values. Noticing this resulted in our beginning to change the way we live to use less electricity, natural gas, and water. 

We also realized that the mortgage payment conflicted with our desire to retire early. In 1996 we paid the remainder of our mortgage debt. Since then we’ve lived debt-free.

I enjoy spending money on books and on plants and seeds. Mike finds fulfillment in spending money on musical instruments and on his motorcycle. Both of us enjoy contributing to organizations whose work we value.

LB: Claire, thanks so much for taking the time for our wonderful conversation. It's been a real privilege and pleasure!

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Part 1: A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity'

Part 2: Suburban Homesteading


Suburban Homesteading - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire in Garden
Claire Schosser in her garden.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: It seems most people who elect to reduce their energy consumption and practice homesteading do so in rural settings, going entirely or at least partially off-grid. You live not far from the city limits of St. Louis, which isn't exactly a small town. Why forge this path in such a suburban setting? 

CS: Mikes a city boy. Hes lived within 10 miles of where he was born his entire life, and he cant imagine living anywhere else. When I married him, I accepted that. It wasnt difficult because I had lived most of my life in cities of around 100,000 people before I came to the St. Louis area. 

Living in an urban or suburban area has a lot of advantages. Its easier and cheaper to hook into existing infrastructure than to live partially or totally off-grid, and urban areas provide other material and human services that rural areas do not as well as more people to be friends with. We can walk to some places and bicycle to others a little farther away as well as use the public transportation system. Because of this we have only one car for both of us – and we can walk to our mechanics shop when it needs service. We have an acre lot with good soil and a small older house which we bought for a very cheap price, so property taxes and insurance are lower than most people have to pay. I have plenty of space for gardens and have enjoyed watching more animals moving through and living on the property as the gardens develop. While I miss seeing the stars and being in or near a less disturbed ecosystem, and I dont like city noise and pollution, where we live offers us most of what we want at a price we can afford.

Greenhouse
Claire and Mike enclosed their front porch in glass, turning it into a greenhouse. A rain barrel catches runoff from the roof to the right.

LB: That explanation makes a lot of sense to me. One of my frustrations with permaculture - and I know you have your own as well - is that it seems to primarily be practiced by people with the means to purchase numerous acres of rural land in a climate conducive to food foresting and employ heavy equipment to reshape the land for a particular kind of off-grid homesteading. Well, most of us can't do that. Most of us have to (or need to) live in or near cities, and indeed, your model is a better fit for what's in the realm of possibility for the majority of people today. I understand that you and Mike are certainly on-grid, if you will, but that you practice some resource efficiencies that would seem extreme by most suburban standards. Can you give some examples in terms of your home heating, cooling, water, and other utilities?

CS: I’m happy to do that. 

For home heating, after experimenting with various combinations of thermostat settings and extra layers of clothes, we’ve settled on keeping the thermostat set to 64°F during the day when we are at home and 50°F while we are sleeping. This is a little higher than we’ve kept it in the past, but I tend to feeling cold, so at 64°F I wear four or five layers unless I’m engaged in grinding grain, the most strenuous thing I do indoors. 

Many buildings aren’t properly sealed against air leaks, so residents feel a constant cold draft that they compensate for by raising the thermostat. Back in 2005 we had a contractor check for and seal the air leaks throughout our house and then blow insulation into the uninsulated walls and extra insulation into the attic (walls weren’t insulated in 1928 when this house was built). Result: there is almost no detectable cold air draft, so that 64°F feels warmer than it otherwise would, and the furnace runs less to keep the space at the same temperature. As a side benefit, with the house tightly sealed and the walls insulated, it became much quieter inside. Since the furnace uses natural gas to heat the air and a fan to blow it through the ducts and vents, setting the thermostat low reduces both electricity and natural gas use.

Greenhouse 2
Citrus, such as this kumquat, overwinters in the greenhouse. The greenhouse also helps keep their house warm in winter since it's attached to the front of the home.

For cooling in summer, we spend as much time outside as possible, so we are acclimated to prevailing temperatures. With an acre property that I actively garden this is easy to accomplish! Five years ago we added on a large back porch that faces north, so it is a shady and breezy location that we spend most of our waking hours on from mid-April into late October. We also keep our windows open and augment the breeze with fans to push cool morning air through the house. When it becomes warm enough, we sleep with fans blowing air from the open windows on us. In this way we avoid running the AC until highs reach the mid-90s, with lows in the mid-70s. When we do run the AC, we close all the windows and set the thermostat to 80, sometimes as high as 82. The same air sealing that prevents cold drafts in winter prevents hot, humid drafts in summer; combined with the insulation, the AC does less work, and we still feel comfortable. When the weather cools enough to drop nighttime lows back into the low 70s, we turn off the AC and open the windows again. Adding up all the days that we run the AC in a typical summer amounts to two to four weeks.

By using the furnace and AC less and by having them properly maintained, we prolong their lives. We replaced the 1970s furnace and AC when we bought the house in 2002; we’re still using the same furnace and AC to this day. Even though more efficient models now exist, it is not cost or energy effective to replace them as long as the current units can be maintained and repaired as needed.

Greenhouse 3
A view from the home's front door stoop, looking out through the greenhouse to the acre beyond.

Our water heater uses natural gas. By saving on the need for hot water through using as little as necessary for proper cleaning of dishes, clothes, and our bodies and by setting the thermostat to 125°F, we keep the use of natural gas for this purpose low. 

We follow the same theme to save on electricity: First we use less of it by, for instance, only turning on lights when we really need a light. Since we don’t have a TV, that also reduces electricity usage (today’s huge TVs are electricity hogs!). We chose to replace the 1960s-era refrigerator and clothes washer when we moved in because of their age and the much greater efficiency of their 2002 replacements. We’re still using that same fridge though we had to replace the washer after it broke beyond repair. We did not replace the electric stove because the 2002 models were no more efficient than the stove in the house. Each time we need to replace a light bulb, we replace it with an LED bulb and then we don’t use it any more than we used to.

Greenhouse 4
Seedlings awaiting transplanting.

To reduce water use, I don’t water any area that gets mowed. We capture some rain that would otherwise run off the house and garden shed roofs in rain barrels and use that water for watering container plants, newly planted shrubs and trees, and the vegetable garden for as long as we have it. The water in the barrels isn’t enough to keep the vegetable garden going during a drought; then I will water it with municipal water to maintain the plants and get some yield. As for the perennials, if they can’t make it without supplemental watering, I replace them with other plants that have demonstrated their ability to thrive without being watered. 

LB: I've been very intrigued by the gardening chronicles on your blog, which stretch back to 2012. In particular, as someone who's dabbled a bit in permaculture, I find your reports on how to grow food crops fascinating. At one point, you mention that annual vegetables need to grow in disturbed (at least surface-tilled) soil, and that these plants evolved as basically early succession plants. That means that trying to grow them in polyculture "guilds" might not produce the best results. Can you talk about your own evolution as a gardener in this regard? 

Food Garden
The food garden.

CS: When we moved to this house in 2002, I wanted to grow an edible forest garden by permaculture techniques, so after a year of observations I developed a permaculture plan for the property. Permaculture practitioners like to use perennial vegetables because most forest plants in our climate are perennials and because perennials live for several to many years, reducing soil erosion from annual tillage. Asparagus is one of the few perennial vegetables in our climate, so I started growing asparagus … an entire 100 square foot bed of it. Only after the bed came into full production did I discover that Mike doesnt like asparagus, and that I didnt want to eat that much asparagus myself. Not to mention it was only available for a month or so. Neither of us likes rhubarb, the other common perennial vegetable. So I shifted to growing the vegetables that we like in the sunny conditions that they prefer. 

Most of the common vegetable plants are annuals or biennials. To understand why this matters to gardeners, consider what happens to a forest after a forest fire occurs or the forest is bulldozed to the ground. Now the soil is mostly bare and the sun beats down on it, drying it out. Natures first-aid kit for bare soil includes annual and biennial plants that grow rapidly from seeds already existing in the soil. As the plants grow they re-establish the water and mineral cycles that gradually heal the soil. By winter the annual plants go to seed and die; the biennial plants go dormant, then grow and go to seed the following season along with other annual plants.

As the soil becomes healthier, slower-growing perennial plants also begin to appear. Over the next several years, decomposing plants mulch the soil and shade it. As the mulch layer develops, the annual and biennial seeds are buried in it and find it difficult to germinate. Gradually the balance shifts to perennial plants, including shrubs and trees as the years go by. 

Perennial Leeks
Perennial leeks after overwintering in Claire's garden.

Permaculture was developed in the subtropical climate of Australia, where a wider variety of perennial vegetable crops can be planted in guilds according to their needs and habits. Annual and biennial vegetable plants, however, are not just more ecologically suited to bare soil; they have been bred and grown in weeded gardens and fields for hundreds or thousands of years. Providing them with the conditions to which they are adapted makes ecological and garden sense, and its easier on the gardener as well. 

LB: That makes a lot of sense to me, and I don't mind telling you that binge-reading your entire blog last year really helped me put some of my permaculture leanings into perspective. Last year we hardly disturbed the soil at all, and we could have had better results. This year we've already surface-tilled the pea, lettuce, and cabbage/chamomile beds and deeply tilled the beet and carrot beds. (We have a lot of clay that needs aerating, for sure, unlike your loess.) We're also now growing mostly in rows, for the ease of maintenance and harvest; whereas, last year it was a lot of permaculture keyholes and circles. That said, for something like arugula, permaculture can be helpful; I mulched the plants in place after a spring harvest, covered them with a tarp for a couple of weeks in summer, and then in fall, I pulled back the dying plants, which enabled it to reseed for another harvest, with minimal work on my part and no extra expense.

A few followup questions: Have you tried horseradish (a perennial vegetable)? I realize it's a condiment, so not a huge source of calories, but it's a great medicinal, and I can't believe how much better it tastes fresh. I'm also wondering if you've employed some permaculture touches in your orchards, such as growing alliums and herbaceous plants, or including native nitrogen-fixing perennials such as Amorpha fruticosa. And do you grow any medicinal herbs? I know you make elderberry wine... By the way, we have a huge asparagus bed, but luckily, we both love asparagus! And I'm fostering rhubarb; hoping to harvest this year.

Witch Hazel
Native witch hazel growing in Mike and Claire's garden.

CS: The previous owners left us some horseradish plants. For the first few years we lived here I dug roots in spring and fall and Mike ground them into their condiment form. I moved some plants to the garden and they did well there, proceeding to move outward the same way mint plants do but being harder to control because of their deep roots. Frankly, as much as we like horseradish, we don’t like it that much. I’ll let the farmers in the American Bottom, who grow something like half the horseradish consumed in the US (a fun fact we learned at the annual Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, IL!) grow it for us.

I included a nurse Amorpha fruticosa with most of the fruit and nut trees I planted. As the trees have matured, and especially in the backyard forest as the canopy has closed over, the A. fruticosa shrubs are dying, an example of the succession process I discussed above. I grow some plants like purple coneflower, yarrow, goldenrod, and elderberry for their traditional medicinal uses and for other benefits, for instance their value to pollinators, their beauty, and in the case of elderberry, for the delicious wine Mike makes from the berries.

Comfrey
Comfrey in bloom.

I’ve tried some other plants that permaculture practitioners suggest for fruit and nut tree guilds, like comfrey, walking onions, perennial leeks, wild ginger, and sorrel. Except for the wild ginger they haven’t prospered in the semi-shade of the trees. That may be because the loess soil I garden on is so well drained that it becomes too dry under trees for the plants’ liking. Sorrel and the alliums have performed much better in the full sun of the vegetable garden, where they get some water during dry spells. The comfrey has walked out over the years to sunnier areas near the edge of the trees’ canopies. What does do well under the trees are violets, ground ivy, and wintercreeper. People diss wintercreeper (euonymous) for its expansiveness, but I have too much of it to control except when it starts growing up a tree or into one of the garden areas that I actively manage. The violets provide some nibbles, they and the ground ivy support pollinators, and the wintercreeper mulches the ground, so I have a working guild under the trees, even though the plants aren’t the classic ones in the permaculture books.

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Part 1: A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity'

Part 3: The Most Food for the Time and Space