Sourdough: How to Raise it, Feed it, and Bake it - Part I

A lot of people have been asking me about bread lately, so I thought I might take the time and space to share my basic sourdough instructions. Of course, I could never begin a blog post about bread baking without giving a shout out to my main bread man, Drew Levitt, who’s been impressing me with his skills since 2009, and whose bread-baking prowess will forever be the ideal against which I measure mine.

I started out baking simple yeast loaves probably in mid-2010, buying the cubes of fresh, store-bought yeast that here in Germany are ordinarily reserved for making Hefekuchen, those ubiquitous rectangular shaped tarts that feature a simple crust baked with sliced fruit on top, and are still one of the better ways to take care of your peach, plum, or apricot harvest. I was curious about sourdough, but after trying once and failing to capture those bacteria that would lead to a successful starter, I decided to stick with the Hefe until I had a bonafide expert (or his book) on my hands. That book came at our wedding last year, when Drew bought us Tartine Bread, which henceforth has been the only book I’ve found I needed to guide me through my bread baking adventure (although I hear there’s another one in the mail from him).

What follows is a sort of annotated and condensed version of that book’s basic recipe, which I have adapted to my home baking methods and my general schedule. I will add my comments, criticisms, and also my favorite variations on this recipe. But before I start, please be aware that, in order to make a perfect loaf of sourdough bread—crunchy and dark brown on the outside, chewy and moist on the inside with just the right ratio of density to holey-ness (the so-called crumb), there is one ingredient you will need to have on hand. It is not what you would expect; it is neither flour, water, nor the wild sourdough yeast itself, but rather this:

This sturdy black cast iron pot may be expensive (in fact, unless you get one of the better brands, which can run you 100 Euro or so, it probably won’t work that well for bread baking), but please believe me when I assure you it’s the only pot you’ll ever need. Aside from baking your bread in this pot, you can also boil pasta, make soups, slow cook meats, roast chickens, and make that perfect Christmas goose. I have done all of them with this pot, and indeed hardly look at the others in my kitchen cabinet. So deep is my love for this pot, I would be willing to give all the others away because I know I’ll still be fine with just this one.

There is one word to describe the reason why the cast-iron pot or “Dutch oven” is such a quintessential tool for bread baking: steam. Most bread baking books or recipes will come with a caveat, letting you know that real bread in real bakeries is made with professional ovens, and since you don’t have one in your own home, you probably won’t be able to recreate the conditions needed to make that perfectly crusty loaf. The reason is steam. Home ovens are designed to release steam rather than trapping it, so that’s why you use the cast-iron pot to make, effectively, an “oven within an oven.” By sticking your pot in the oven when you’re preheating it, you’ll create a super-hot (use oven mitts!) super-steamy, super-cozy environment for your bread (you’ll know just how steamy when you first take off the lid of the empty pot and are hit with such a cloud of it you can barely see for a moment). Because the steam is trapped within your “inner oven” it will give the bread just the right dosage it needs to rise, cook on the inside, and harden on the outside.

Lots of bakers who don’t have this pot manage to recreate the same atmosphere using some combination of a baking stone, a pan of hot water, and terracotta tiles, but this is without a doubt the easiest path to the perfect loaf every single time. I’ve had varying degrees of success with my loaves, but that has always been based on the activity of the sourdough starter, the temperature during the day, and the time I left the dough to proof and ripen, but it has never been the fault of the cast-iron pot. The cast-iron pot always delivers.

Making a Sourdough Starter

Starting a starter can seem quite intimidating, and it’s hard to look past all the instructions on measuring temperature and weighing flour to realize that your starter will probably turn out all right no matter what. One thing to consider is the temperature in your kitchen. Since you cook there, it will probably be warmer than other rooms of your house, and that’s a good thing. If it is a bit warmer than room temperature, even better, but it shouldn’t be too cold (I never start a new starter in winter, for example).

When starting a starter, find a container that you think you can live without for a while, as this will be your starter’s home. Ideally, it should have a top that can be opened slightly, without being open all the time, all the way. A Tupperware container with a slide or snap opening is perfect for this. Fill it a little ways with lukewarm water, and add a handful of flour or two. Then mix it with your hands, until you have a thick batter that looks like something you might use to make pancakes. I know mixing batter with your hands is not the daintiest of experiences, but it is crucial that this mixture is exposed to as many bacteria as possible; a lot of it is in the air, but a lot of it is also on your hands. Cover it with a lid or a dishcloth and let it sit for at least 2 days.

Feeding a Sourdough Starter

After 2 days, check to see if bubbles have formed in the mixture. If not, set it back to stew for another day or so. If so, you can begin to feed it. Feeding is the process by which you give the wild yeast bacteria more flour and water to eat, and should be done every day, or in some cases even twice a day. Like a new baby, your sourdough starter needs constant maintenance and should not be put in the fridge.

Now, a lot of books and recipes will throw certain ratios, weights, and temperatures at you, claiming that you need this much flour to this much water, and that the water needs to be this warm. Well, you don’t and it doesn’t. Simply pour out about a third of the starter, pour the equivalent of about a handful of flour in, and add in enough slightly warm water that you again achieve the consistency of pancake batter. If your starter is active enough, you should see lots of little bubbles forming on its surface immediately as the bacteria happily munch away on their new snack and start to emit the gasses that will eventually allow your bread to rise.

Smells, Secretions, and other Icky Stuff

Occasionally, when you go to feed your starter, you may see a syrupy, slightly brown layer that has collected on top. This is actually an alcoholic by-product, which your sourdough starter will start to secrete when the bacteria have used up all the new flour you mixed in last time. If you start to see this, or if your starter smells like alcohol or even (gasp!) nail-polish remover (this happened to me once), it is a sign that you need to feed it more often. Increase your feedings to morning and evening and you should get it back to fighting shape in no time at all.

Don’t be alarmed if the sourdough starts to smell pretty darn pungent—so pungent, in fact, that your husband or boyfriend or roommate starts to complain. Remind them if they keep that up, they’ll be sorry because they won’t be getting any of your bread. Also, don’t worry if this particularly strong and fruity or cheesy smell begins to attract a whole lot of bugs. That can happen in summer, so just make sure that you only keep your container open for a short time (to allow the bacteria maximum access to air when they are feeding), or simply place a clothe over the opening. I’m currently using one of those paper umbrellas that go into tropical drinks to shield the opening of my starter container from fruit flies, and it really works!

Any other general gunkiness, crustiness, or stinkiness can usually be disposed of in a matter of days and with several feedings. Once you have started a starter, there is very little reason to give up on it. Even if you cannot feed it because you’re going on vacation, it can survive several weeks in the fridge, at which point you simply take it out again and wake it up with a nice breakfast.

If you’ve made it this far and your starter seems stable and happy in its home, you are ready to move to the next and most exciting step: baking bread.

Part II