In the last few days I’ve learned that there seem to be as many different techniques and ingredient lists for making sourdough bread from a starter as there are bakers. Everyone has their own way of feeding the starter to get the yeast at their most voracious, their own slightly differing proportions of flour, water, starter and salt, a favorite blend of flours, and a variety of ways to proof, knead and bake the dough.
After scouring the Internet and a few cookbooks, finding one agreed upon approach seemed futile. Instead, I went with an amalgam of the recipes aimed to produce the most basic loaf. I felt a bit of trepidation, since it’s long been my impression that baking falls in the realm of exact science more than intuition – at least until one has much more experience than I do. Luckily, baking bread, even more than making cookies, is a pretty forgiving enterprise.
The Week Before
I fed my now bubbly and spongy baby starter once a day until the day before I was going to mix the dough, at which point I fed it twice – once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. Each time, I discarded roughly half (40 grams) and added about 40 grams each of flour and water. The day before I added roughly 75 grams each of flour and water for both feedings to make sure the yeast were feeling extra chompy. I got this method from the Splendid Table.
The (Originally Intended) Day Of
On the morning of the day I planned to bake, I decided to follow Michael Ruhlman’s suggested ratio of 1 part starter, 1 part water, and 1 part flour and 1% salt by weight. For me, this meant roughly:
- 200 g starter
- 200 g water
- 400 g bread flour
- 2 teaspoons salt (I used a large grain salt because it was all I had available, next time I would use a smaller grain)
And then I kneaded… and kneaded… and kneaded. I don’t have a stand mixer, alas, and probably wouldn’t be able to devote the counter space to it even if I could bring myself to buy one. So I settled in and got into a meditative rhythm of punching, folding, and squeezing the dough until first it stopped clinging to my fingers, then gradually lost its tacky texture, and finally started to feel smooth between my hands. It really was a pleasurable way to let my mind float around in oblivion for about 20 minutes while my hands worked themselves into an easy pattern.
Most of the recipes and articles I read talk about creating a “windowpane” of the dough – getting to the point where you can pinch off a bit and stretch it between your fingers. If it stretches into a translucent sheet without tearing, the glutens have been worked enough. I’m not quite sure if I made it to the perfect pane, but I did a few tests to get to this point and figured it was close enough.
I shaped my now supple dough into a ball, put it in a bowl covered with a tea cloth to perform the first rise, and went back to bed. When we finally woke up, it was just starting to snow. Large, lovely flakes drifting lazily past the window. We decided to go for a walk on the High Line – so I determined to wander off my original timeline and let the bread ferment for a whole day in the refrigerator instead. Michael Ruhlman noted that this was perfectly acceptable, so I decided not to stress out too much about not sticking to my original timeline of having a fresh loaf by mid-morning.
The (Actual) Day Of
The next day, I pulled the dough from its chilly sleep. It had risen quite a bit, although it was difficult to tell if it had doubled in size since it had also relaxed to fill the bowl horizontally. There was a dry crust on top of the dough – next time I might try covering with a damp cloth to try and avoid this. I punch my bread-to-be down, folding it over itself a few times from different angles, and then rolled the dough on the counter (with the side that I had last folded in facing down) between two cupped hands to form a ball with a smooth surface.
This went into a bowl lined with a tea cloth which had been dusted with flour for a 2 hour rise (to warm it and to let it rise a bit in volume). For the last hour, I preheated my oven to 500 F, and about half an hour before I was going to start I put my enameled, cast iron Dutch oven (empty) in to heat up as well.
When the oven was cantankerously hot (my Dutch oven seemed to be crackling a bit in protest, which frightened me – I won’t lie), I took the Dutch oven out, opened the lid and dusted in a bit of flour and then upended my ball of dough into the center (so the round side that had been at the bottom of the bowl was now on top). I then took a sharp paring knife and slashed decisively through the skin in a cross shape before replacing the lid and putting the Dutch oven back in the oven, reducing the temperature to 450 F.
The loaf I made was rather small, so I baked for 20 minutes (some recipes call for up to 30 or 40 minutes), removed the lid, and baked for another 15 minutes to brown the crust. The first step of baking in a lidded casserole is meant to mimic the conditions of a professional oven which would create steam during the first stage of bread baking, which apparently is what makes for a gorgeously crackling crust.
Well, it worked! Look at this loaf. I have to say, I’m quite proud of it.
We listened to this little boule crackle and pop for about an hour, until it had cooled almost to room temperature, before slicing and sampling. The crust was lovely but the flavor was not as developed as I had hoped. I think part of this might be from my young (only a week old) starter, and for my next go-round I’m going to also experiment with a different blend of flours – perhaps some rye. But, never mind all that. I made bread from scratch with nothing more than flour, water, salt and time! Not only that, but making bread seems like a pursuit that is pretty forgiving, with flexibility for time, temperature and oven conditions as long as you follow a few simple steps. I already can’t wait to try out the next loaf.