This has been the year for bread in our house. I haven’t purchased bread since last September. Early on I set out to master sourdough, as I’d had a failed attempt at it earlier. Working with sourdough is a bit more challenging than yeast bread…at least it has been for me. Sourdough’s rising agent is not yeast, but a starter or sponge. I had always thought that making a starter and keeping it going would be a difficult and laborious project. I am delighted to report…I was wrong on both counts. Once a starter is…well, started, it is actually pretty hard to kill it.
Basically, starter is a blob of flour and water that is continually putting off gas. It’s this gas and bubbles that forces the bread to rise. Getting a starter…started, is quite simple. Just take a cup of all purpose flour and add a cup of lukewarm water, stir, and set out on a counter. Don’t cover up your concoction as it needs air. Each day feed your starter with another 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water, if your bowl becomes too full, scoop out a cup and throw it away. If, after 3 or 4 days you still don’t see any bubbles forming you can boost your starter with a small amount of yeast. After it’s established you won’t need to do anything but occasionally feed it.
Once the starter is going, store it in the fridge. It needs to have some air circulation…it’s alive and needs to breathe. I keep mine in a Rubbermaid
container and have cut a few slices in the lid. Once a week I take it out and add some flour and water. If I plan on baking with it I’ll take it out the evening before and feed it 1 cup of flour and water, then feed it another cup of each first thing in the morning. This gives me plenty of starter to work with.
I had to play with the recipe I found online a bit as sometimes the dough wouldn’t rise sufficiently, or once it started baking it flattened out.
I found I could fix that by doing two things. First I substituted Gluten Flour for some of the flour I used. Gluten is the protein that is found in flour. For bread baking a high gluten content allows the bread to retain it’s form better. When you knead the dough you are ‘developing’ the gluten. Bread flour is flour that is high in gluten. (Pastry or Cake flour is low in gluten, which makes cookies and cakes more tender.) Well, our local Winco sells Gluten flour in it’s bulk bins, so instead of purchasing seperate flours, I add 1 tablespoon per cup of gluten flour to my all purpose flour which gives me…bread flour. (I’m thinking of doing a post on flours soon, because I’ve been accumulating a lot of info.)
Anyway, adding extra gluten really helped out my sourdough bread. The other thing I found was that it was painfully slow to rise. I’ve pretty much cured this issue by setting my oven on warm for two to three minutes…then shutting it off and letting the dough rise in the oven covered with a dish towel. It’s very important to shut the oven off. If you leave it on the dough will sort of start to bake, form a hard crust on the top that will make it impossible for the dough to rise…and yes, I’m speaking from personal experience.
The other thing you need to be sure you do is cover the dough with some sort of oil. I put some olive oil in the bottom of the bowl I’ll be letting the dough rise in and then roll the dough around until it is covered. Generally I do this to some degree with any bread, but with sourdough it’s critical. The bread takes a bit of time to rise, and you don’t want the top layer to dry out and form a crust and prevent the dough from being able to rise. After the first rise and when the dough has been shaped the olive oil doesn’t work as well, so I spray the formed loaf with Pam.
Lastly, this will be a fairly stiff dough. I give it at least 5 minutes of kneading by hand. I don’t use a bread machine, but I do use the kneading attachment on my Kitchenaide. After it has kneaded it together well…then I start my 5 minutes of hand kneading. I prefer doing this last kneading by hand so I can feel the dough. The different breads I routinely make all have a different ‘feel’…French Bread is a fairly soft dough, while bagel dough is stiffer. It’s just easier for me to get the flour amounts right if I can feel it. Depending on the weather and a variety of other factors you may adjust the amounts of flour…but realize that you will be working in enough flour for the dough to be pretty firm. If you’ve never baked bread before, be prepared to go through the process a few times to get it right. You’ll get a feel for it as you go along.
Here is the basic recipe, it’s really quite simple, despite all of the instructions.
2 cups of starter…it’s messy to measure, err on the side of adding a little too much.
4 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 Tablespoons of Olive Oil
3 cups of flour…included in this would be about 4 tablespoons of Gluten flour, then the rest all purpose. I would master this before you try it with whole wheat flour. If you want to use whole wheat flour start by just substituting a half a cup of it. The heaviness will make it harder for the bread to rise.
Mix all of your increadients together…knead.
Place in a bowl, coat with oil, put in a warm place (not so warm it starts to bake, during the summer I set it outside.) to rise until almost double, takes a least an hour.
Punch down the dough you can either shape into a round loaf, or roll it out into a rectangle..and roll it up, tucking the ends under to make a loaf. (Don’t bake this in a loaf pan, just put the shaped loaf on a greased cookie sheet.) Make a few cuts in the dough to allow explansion. Spray with Pam.
Let rise again, until double.
Turn the oven to 350 and put the loaf in for 30-35 minutes. Do not preheat the oven, put the bread in when you turn it on. It’s done when it has turned a nice golden brown and when you tap the bottom it sounds hollow. Let it cool on a rack.
On a side note about flour…I’ve been using this flour that I purchased in bulk at Costco. It ends up costing less than any of the other sources I’ve found, and it is made from whole grains. Although it is a white, unbleached, all purpose flour…it includes the whole wheat grain and the addition of some other grains. So you get some of the health benefits of a multigrain flour, but it is still smooth enough to use for all your baking. At Costco it comes in two 10lb bags, wrapped together. When buying flours, especially whole grain flours, in bulk be sure to store them in a sealed containter, Tupperware or something similar, to keep out bugs and rodents. Nothing worse than saving money by buying in bulk and then not storing it correctly and having it go to waste.