The Basics of Sourdough
words and images by Trista Beachy
Before we dive in: I want to give special credit to Alice Overholt who taught me how to make sourdough bread & who also gave me the recipe mentioned in this article. Alice runs a bakery out of her home called The Toasted Loaf where she makes all things sourdough, & sometimes even using a stone oven! I was very privileged & am forever grateful to her for spending time teaching me the beautiful art of sourdough bread making.
I have a passion for food. More specifically, I have a passion for food that is prepared and consumed the way our ancestors prepared & consumed it. Don't get me wrong, I love a good all-American meal of burgers & fries, but there's something that gets my blood pumping when I read about and taste food that my ancestors may have prepared and eaten, whether that be sauerkraut, kombucha, cheese, raw milk or butter, carefully prepared (or not!) meats, or soaked grains.
It fascinates me because they knew about their food and how it should be properly prepared to get the most nutrients out of it. I believe it is something that has been lost between generations, and I only hope that I can spark a fire to bring it back. Most recently I have been tasting, experimenting, researching, and learning about sourdough.
One of the first things that I have learned about sourdough is that it is best toasted with a thick layer of grass-fed butter and drizzled with local honey, and that sourdough is an ancient art. Just as my ancestors discovered, it is an art that is able to be learned and with time can eventually become an art. That alone makes the whole process so much more meaningful. My experience with sourdough has only just begun. I am by no means an expert, but I'm pleasured to be able to share with you the basics of what I have learned.
What is sourdough?
Sourdough is a fermented bread made from yeast and bacteria that naturally occurs in flour. There are three basic ingredients in a sourdough recipe: flour, water (you also need a sourdough starter, which is essentially flour and water) and salt. The sourdough starter (also known as leaven) is the naturally occurring yeast and lactobacilli (good bacteria) that helps the dough to rise for baking. The bacteria that is in sourdough bread is the same bacteria that gives yogurt and sour cream their tart taste, which can also be found in the sourdough.
So, what's the point in eating sourdough bread and all this natural bacteria and yeast? To put it simply, it's a fermented food. The phytates have been broken down and the glucose has been consumed during the fermentation process to make it easier for our bodies to digest and absorb the nutrients, especially when compared to “regular” breads made with commercial yeast.
Your next question is probably “So why should I make it when I can buy sourdough bread at the store?” Not all sourdough bread is the same. Breads that have the sourdough label at the grocery store are most likely not real sourdough made from a starter. Check your labels and you're likely to find a whole list of ingredients that are mainly chemicals. Now note, you may be able to find authentic sourdough at an artisan bakery. Just ask to make sure!
There are also different types of starters. From a wet 100% (or higher) hydration starter, like mine, to as low as 50% hydration starter which would be kept in a ball of dough on the counter. Then there's also different baking methods such as a 4-12 hour fermentation time to a 24-36 hour ferment. Other methods are cold ferments, quick ferments (which usually require other leavening agents besides starter). Sourdough also include various flavors like whole wheat flour, rye or ancient kamut flour. Sourdough bread can be so versatile. You just need to learn how to treat and care for it.
It all begins with your starter. You can make your own starter if you don't have one already, but for the sake of simplicity and despair, I recommend getting a start from a friend or online. A great website to purchase starters and a valuable resource for everything sourdough is www.culturesforhealth.com. After you get your hands your starter, here are some tips for keeping it happy & healthy.
Use a kitchen scale that measures in grams for more accurate and consistent results. Use this for measuring whenever possible.
Store your starter in a large container (I prefer using a glass flip-top jar). As you feed your starter and as it becomes active it will begin to grow and may overflow in a small container. It is useful to have a transparent container so you can keep an eye on the starter and watch it double with each feeding.
Keep your starter in an area that is at a consistently warm temperature of 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid drafts and frequent temperature changes.
If you can, try to use organic flour and filtered water. Chemicals like chlorine will kill the good bacteria in your culture. The less chemicals, the better for the health of your starter.
If you're using your starter frequently, make sure to feed your starter twice a day (ask whoever you got your starter from for directions on how much to feed your starter). Make sure you stir your starter very well to oxygenate it. You will most likely end up with excess starter, otherwise known as “discard starter”.
I hate to throw mine away because all the live & active cultures aren't doing me any good in the trash. So I like to use it up in recipes. I have scoured the internet (read, Pinterest) for ways I can use up my extra starter. Our favorites have been cinnamon rolls and pancakes. I don't feel as guilty indulging in these treats because of the sourdough in them. I'm still making my gut happy while making my taste buds happy at the same time. Plus, it's all calorie free, right?
If you want to take a break from sourdough, simply feed your starter and place in the refrigerator. The cool temperatures will slow down the fermentation process of the starter. Continue to feed every two to three weeks until you want to use it again. Before using it again, remove your starter from the refrigerator a day or two before hand. Feed it at least three times to let it “wake up” and become active again. Use it as you normally would.
Tips for getting the best rise out of & baking a sourdough loaf
First things first. You need patience! The process takes time. It will take time to get used to it and achieve the results you want. In preparing for the photographing part for this article I made a total of 3 loaves, 2 of which flopped. Delicious as all get out, but I didn't get the rise and results I wanted. Enjoy the process!
Make sure your starter is fed, doubled, and bubbly before you use it to make bread. Typically, at the least, three hours after a feeding a starter should be ready. Because sourdough is all based on fermentation, it is very possible that a loaf will turn out differently from time to time. The whole process relies on its surroundings, for example, the weather, the bacteria in the air, etc. A good way to know if your starter is ready to use is by doing the “float test”. Simply drop a few dollops of starter in a small bowl of warm water. If the starter floats, its ready. If not, let it continue to work for a couple more hours in a warm area.
The longer you let the dough proof, or rise, the stronger the flavor. There are many recipes that call for a shorter rise time (under 8 hours), but a general rule of thumb for a great rise and a great crumb is 8-12 hours. But, like I mentioned before, get to know your starter, experiment, find a method or recipe that works for you. The process works differently for different people.
If you're new to the sourdough making adventure, begin with a basic recipe & go from there. Don't be afraid to explore new techniques, as long as you're used to the process. If the first loaves don't turn out like you dreamed, don't throw out the bread (it's most likely still delicious!), and don't give up. It takes practice. All the patience, persistence and care you've put into it will pay off. Much love and enjoy!
Country White Sourdough
400 grams warm water
120 grams starter that has been fed & is doubled & bubbly
420 grams white flour
60 wheat flour
45 grams rye flour
11 grams salt
Mix starter & water together. Add floors. Mix (best to do by hand) & let set for 30 minutes. Dough should be sticky. Add salt & mix well by massaging with fingers. Fold four times. Take top part of dough & fold down to the bottom; right side to left side, bottoms to top, & right to left & then fold any corners (every 20 minutes. There are great tutorials on YouTube to show you how to fold). Let rest another 20-40 minutes until ready to shape.
[This makes 1 big loaf. If you double this recipe, you can make 3 loaves out of it. Especially if you bake in bread pans.]
Place in bowl on top of a dish towel dusted with cornmeal to prevent towel from sticking to the bottom of the loaf. Cover & let rise for 2-3 hours after shaping (there are also other great tutorials on YouTube to show you how to shape sourdough).
Start preheating oven & dutch oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit 45 minutes before baking.
Sprinkle cornmeal on bottom of loaf & dutch oven. Place loaf into dutch oven & slash the top with a sharp blade. Cover with lid & turn oven down to 450. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove lid & bake for an additional 10-12 minutes to darken crust if desired.
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