[I posted this as a Facebook note on March 13, 2010. I’ve been making sourdough bread for over a year now! I’m so grateful to all the people who wrote about sourdough in books and on the internet. I did a lot of reading before launching this experiment.  Especially because I had a time or two I tried making starter that didn’t turn out so well… :)

I thought this might be interesting to those of you who are considering making sourdough. Despite what I said about my first try not working, making sourdough bread, and making your own starter is not nearly as difficult or mysterious as some people make it sound. Anyone can do it. After all, sourdough was the way ALL bread was leavened before the late 1800s. Commercial yeast didn’t exist before then!]


Saturday, March 13th, 2010

The experiment has begun.

My starter was made with one cup whole wheat flour (freshly ground), and one cup of purified water. I let it sit for three or four days without doing anything to it. It was very light and fluffy, with air bubbles in it, and didn’t have mold or other colors in it (except a very little bit of grey, like I’ve seen on some regular yeast sponges I’ve made before. (A sponge is a watery dough, usually made as the first step of some breads. It is allowed to rise, developing more flavor, and then more flour and other ingredients are added to make the final dough.)

Then, I donated half of it to the compost pile, and added another cup of flour and water to the mix. Left it for another couple days without stirring or doing anything to it.

Took a half-cup of the starter and mixed it with about two cups of flour, and about two cups of water. I’m letting it sit overnight, and then will add 1 teaspoon of soda, 1/2 cup oil, 2 teaspoons of salt and enough flour to make a kneadable but sticky dough (around five cups). I’ll form it into loaves, and let it rise until almost doubled (the recipe says around 2 hours). Then I’ll bake it for 20 minutes at 425 F, and an addition hour or so at 375 F.

We’ll see how this turns out. The sourdough starter smelled pretty strong when I checked it after the first stage, but not so much after the second stage. Probably because I didn’t let it sit so long the second time. I was almost afraid to try to make a loaf with it at first, because it smelled so strong, but I think it will be okay. It seems like it will leaven the bread fine; the only thing I don’t know is how it will taste.

I’ll keep any interested persons updated as I have time. =)

~Brittany

The starter (second stage) after I mixed it.
The sponge, ready to sit out overnight.

The last two times I tried to make sourdough bread, I tried to make the starter in the heat of summer, which I think was a bad idea. I think the bad beasties took over and spoiled the starter before the wild yeasties had time to get in the mix. =) This batch of starter, while it still smells a little strong, and sour/lightly fermented—smells much, much better than those other experiments.

 

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

So my sourdough got off to a good start, and I was about to go to bed and wake up to make it into a loaf, and…my phone rang. I was off to deliver a baby; more exciting than bread-making. ;)

By the time I got back home, and got back to my sourdough, it was too far gone to make bread. (At least I have cups and cups of starter now, though! ;)

So I’m trying again. And this time, the starter smells even better. Personally, I think it smells like sweet apple juice. But my family doesn’t agree that it smells quite that good. :) Okay, maybe slightly fermented apple juice…

I poured the light brown liquid off the top before taking a cup of the starter to mix with the other ingredients to make a sponge. That liquid is supposed to be a layer of grain alcohol. I tried to burn it to see if it really was alcohol, because I’m just curious that way, but it didn’t work. I did NOT taste it—I’m not that brave. :) Supposedly the miners in the Yukon would drink it though… :/

Anyway, I have even higher hopes that this time will produce good—or at the least eatable bread. :)

Here is my nice-smelling starter before mixing it. Can you see the layer of liquid on the top?
A top-view of said starter.
The sponge, all ready to rise. :)
Sunday, March 21st, 2010
I’m getting really excited—I’m almost at the final product. I hope it tastes good when it’s finished. 

By the way, I forgot to give credit to my source for this recipe, and general sourdough-making principles: The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery
http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Country-Living-Carla-Emery/dp/1570615535/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269203598&sr=8-1

The sponge, after rising overnight. It doubled, and then fell. It smells like, well, yeast dough. Actually, I was surprised how normal it smelled.
The sponge and the left-over starter (all bubbly).
The dough (I added salt, soda, oil and flour to the sponge) ready to rise for a couple hours. Notice, the dough is still quite soft—almost wet, but not quite. The idea is to make a dough that is stiff enough to support its own weight when it rises, but soft enough to rise easily. It will be sticky, so I recommend adding the oil at the very end to help you shape them without getting dough stuck to your hands. Also, don’t knead it too much—that will work out the air bubbles provided by the soda. Just knead enough to make the dough fairly smooth.
Sunday, March 21st, 2010
Yes, my friends, the experiment ended well. My family enjoyed one and a half loaves of the bread for dinner (we had sandwiches). The recipe said this bread was best used as an appetizer unless you like heavy bread (I suppose we do). I would definitely make this bread again. I’m planning to start a sponge for another batch in a couple days. If you try making sourdough, I would recommend that you try it when the weather is cooler (unless you keep your house very cool, or you keep it cool some other way). I think that is the main reason I had better success this time. I had always tried to make a starter in the summer, and our kitchen doesn’t stay particularly cool. 

When I first got the bread out of the oven after ~20 minutes on 425, and an additional hour at 375, I was disappointed because it was so hard and quite dark on the outside—I thought I had overcooked it. But it was perfect. Don’t expect the crust to be soft; it’s crunchy, but the inside is plenty moist. I let it cool almost completely with a towel over it so it would retain more of the moisture as it cooled, and then sliced it thinly (because it is more dense than usual whole wheat bread).

I was so excited to taste the first bite of the bread and realize that it tasted good! I’m planning to make another batch with half whole wheat flour/rye flour. There is a whole wheat/sourdough rye that Whole Foods carries that is so yummy, but rather pricey. If I can make this taste like that (and I think I can), I will be totally satisfied with my sourdough experiences. =)

Disclamer: Just so you know, I tend to be very tolerant of recipes that take a long time, but only require short amounts of my attention at a time. This is one of these recipes. It’s not something you can decide to make on the spur of the moment for dinner, but because my family loves to have bread anytime, I can just make it whenever I am in the mood to bake, and it always gets used. It takes a couple of days or so to make the starter, and then, once you have the starter, it takes overnight for the sponge to sit, and then at least five hours the next day for mixing the final dough, letting it rise, baking it, and letting it cool. So allow yourself plenty of time.

Thanks for watching… :)

The finished bread!
And yes, if you want some of my starter—which is still alive and well!—and you live close enough to me to facilitate that, I’m happy to share it with you, my friends!
My current sourdough recipe looks a little different than that first one…
My current sourdough recipe
1 cup active starter
4 cups cool water
8-9 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 T salt
2 T oil (olive or coconut) 

Combine starter with water, salt, and add flour a little at a time, mixing until well combined. Don’t use all the flour if you don’t need too; it’s better if the dough is soft, and just barely sticky.

Knead for a few minutes (it says 12-15 minutes, but I never knead it that long!), until the dough is smooth, and springy.

Using the oil, lightly coat the ball of dough, and put it in a bowl, and cover with a lid or plastic wrap.

Let it rise for about 2 hours or so, in 74-80 degree temperature until doubled (or at least risen a third higher) in bulk.

Next, gently take the dough, and without pressing out all the air bubbles, form it into two loaves, and put in well-oiled bread pans, or make free-form loaves on a baking sheet. {Sometimes I skip the first rising, and just let it rise once for a longer period of time—around 4 hours. It is fluffier with two risings, but sometimes having bread ready a few hours earlier is more important.}

Allow to rise for about 45 minutes to an hour until doubled.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400. Bake for 30-40 minutes (or up to an hour) until golden brown/well browned, and hollow when thumped on the bottom.

Allow to cool for 20 minutes before serving. Enjoy! :)

The nice thing about sourdough bread is that it will keep better than modern quick-rising yeast breads. It also is much healthier for you because the natural yeasts and bacterias predigest the grain somewhat, making it easier for your body to get the nutrients from it.

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In the past year, I’ve delved into the joys of from-scratch sourdough baking. The idea that you could take simply water and freshly-ground wheat, and capture your own natural yeast culture at once intrigued and challenged me. I’ve always had an interest in learning the “wisdom of the past”, how to make things, and do things in a simple, low-tech way (although I definitely enjoy technology too!).

My first attempts at capturing wild yeast ended, sadly, in journeys to the compost pile with my jars of experiments. “Are you sure that’s what it is supposed to be like?” she asked, with a worried look on her face, as she eyed and carefully smelled my starter-gone-bad.

“Maybe not,” I said, “I don’t think it’s supposed to smell good—it’s sourdough, after all.”

“But I don’t think it should smell that…awful.”

Mom was right, and for awhile I gave up actually trying, and set myself to doing more research (in library books, and on the internet). Several sources said to start with a little commercial yeast to jump-start the process, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted this to be genuine sourdough, or I would just stick with regular yeast bread. Other people suggested using a little pineapple juice to increase the acidity of the mixture so it would (hopefully) not mold or spoil before the yeasty beasties were well-established. In the Encyclopedia of Country Living (on of my favorite books!), I found someone suggesting that starting a new starter in the summer could be problematic in the South—she kept getting wild molds in hers! When the next winter arrived, I decided to give a from-scratch starter one last try before buying (or begging) one from someone who had been more successful than myself.

After the first few days, it didn’t smell so good, but neither did it smell as terrible as my previous attempts. I continued feeding and caring for it, and after a week-and-a-half, or so, it consistently bubbled and doubled when I “fed” it flour, and it smelled like slightly fermented apple juice (to me). I was thrilled! Mom thought it smelled like beer—which was not surprising, since yeast creates alcohol as it consumes the sugars in the grain.

The first loafs weren’t very light and fluffy, but they tasted like a favorite European sourdough bread we bought a couple times at Whole Foods. Victory at last! As my starter aged, and I continued to feed and use it, it became more efficient as raising bread, and more mellow in flavor and smell. (I think it smells rather good, but no one in my family seems to agree! They don’t mind the bread that results from it, though.)

Now I have the joy of sharing my starter with friends, and helping them achieve their own yummy and healthy sourdough bread. :)

Sourdough can be used much like commercial yeast (with minor adjustments of time, of course) for all kinds of breads. Stay tuned for specific recipes and tutorials.

 

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