Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Rcakewalk Guide To "Easy" Bread.

One of the things I like best about reading food blogs is reading the comments. Unlike cookbooks, the author of an online recipe is often graced with comments from readers who not only try the recipe, but include the nuances they add or subtract that make the recipe their own. I actually read through comments regularly, if not posting comments regularly myself. (I sometimes feel redundant in telling a person that a.) their photo(s) is(are) awesome b.) the recipe looks sound and delicious and that I have added it to my never-ending list of things to make or c.) I've attempted to be humorous, my sentence ending with an exclamation point. All three of which are wholeheartedly genuine by the way...)

I have learned a lot about bread from comments, and they reinforce that cooking and baking are living processes, not static and unchanging. They remind me constantly that people are unique, thought processes are different, and there is never just one way to look at something.

I've had to take some time to think before writing about my process for making "beautiful bread". I feel in no way qualified as a baker or as a baking authority, other than that I've baked a LOT and have learned something with virtually every loaf I've shoveled to and from my oven. Baking bread, specifically sourdough bread, is never a static process. Small environmental changes alter fermenting times, little changes in moisture, everything seems to make a huge difference as bread meets heat in the oven. It's a living process that takes patience, tenacity and curiosity to do well. I'll start at the beginning, and clue you in on what works for me at this time in my bread-baking life. As much as I feel I have learned, I still feel as if I have volumes to know.

This is my baby:

I feel like a proud parent to have grown a sourdough starter from scratch. It took a couple of weeks, and when I think back, I was completely uncertain about it the whole time. (I can't help but draw on the similarities I felt of becoming a new parent of a human being.) Before growing a starter, I had never baked a single loaf of sourdough bread- and now that's pretty much the only bread I bake. Starter never fails to amaze me. Feeding on so little, it thrives and really is a living thing - bubbling proof that life, no matter how small, is really precious.

If you are interested in making sourdough bread, but uninterested in growing a starter completely from scratch, there are many sources for purchasing a starter culture. Two of my favorite sellers are King Arthur Flour and Cultures for Health. King Arthur offers a fresh starter, which means you can start feeding your starter the day you get it and be off and running in a day or two with a bread culture that is American since the 1700's. Cultures for Health offers many different varieties of dried sourdough from different locations throughout the world. It will take a bit of time to rehydrate the culture and establish a feeding regimen before beginning to bake.

If you are interested in starting a culture from scratch here are a few favorite links:
One of my biggest mistakes is that I thought I could make bread straight away after making a culture. It actually took me more than a month of steady feedings to get my culture strong enough to raise bread dough. Now that my starter is mature and fed regularly, I can have bread in just under 24 hours. It may seem like work, but really it's not. I like to think of my starter as a draft horse (I like to think of a draft horse as a giant cat): just a little bit of care, and it works hard for you while you are off doing something else.

Feeding a Starter

From what I have read in numerous sources (and now it's firmly cataloged in my mental warehouse, so no specific siting here...) you can approach feeding starter one of two ways. If you are a frequent baker, you can keep it out at room temp and feed it one to three times a day. If you are an infrequent baker, you can feed it once every two or three weeks (or sometimes longer) and store it in the fridge. I haven't yet stored my starter in the fridge, and since I do bake a lot, I do just fine keeping it in a glass quart-sized bowl on my counter. Cold storage is said to make a starter taste more "sour"; breads that have a proofing under refrigeration are said to have a more pronounced tang as well. I have noticed this with doughs that I have refrigerated prior to baking.

I feed my starter every morning around breakfast time, which not only is a good time for me to remember, but also is optimum for when I usually mix up bread. Starter is most active 4-6 hours after feeding, so if I feed at breakfast and mix up dough after lunch ,I can have new bread by the noon the next day (usually). Now, if I was feeding my starter more often, I think it may be a bit more active and work a bit faster - but for now I enjoy waiting on it.

I feed my starter equal portions by weight of plain all-purpose white flour and water. I am a geek, and I do weigh my starter's breakfast. Plenty of people do not have a scale, and do just fine eyeballing it. When a starter is equal parts water and flour by weight, it is considered 100% hydration starter, and it's about the consistency of pancake batter. Many sources will tell you never to touch the starter with metal utensils, but I have always used a stainless steel spoon to stir it up, and I have never contaminated it. (I wouldn't use copper or any other base metals, however.)

Technically, I should feed my starter half of it's weight. For example, if I start the morning with 200 g. of starter, I should be feeding it 50 g. each flour and water. I don't do this. (However, I may soon start being a bit more official to see if I have better activity.) I usually feed either 50 g. each or 100 g. each flour and water depending on the volume of the starter in my bowl. Since my starter is well-established, it seems to be active and bubbly on this schedule - and if I ever feel it is a bit sluggish, I slip it some rye flour since that contains a bit more naturally occurring wild yeast. I have also been known to feed it a little before bedtime if I want it to become more active. I always think of Nancy Silverton saying that humans could survive on 1 meal a day, but it's not advisable - neither is it advisable to feed a starter less than three times a day. But since I am not running a production bakery over here, despite what you have heard or may suspect, I have been having good luck so far.

If I was being official and dumping off all but 100 or 200 g. of starter every morning, I would have more starter to play around with, or wash down the drain. This elimination seems wasteful, but really, it's like any living thing... the body absorbs what it can use and discards the rest. And, luckily for experimental kitchen types like myself, discarded starter can be turned into wonderfully delicious things. I haven't actually ditched any starter in quite a while that hasn't been turned into something else - another reason I'm happy with my current feeding regimen.

Other than bread I've made English muffins, chocolate cakes, pretzels, pizza doughs/flatbreads, muffins, banana bread, pancakes, waffles, and probably a few other things I'm forgetting. All of the above I believe are healthier than their non-cultured counterparts, and even if they aren't, they are tastier to be sure. I've re-vamped the "Recipes" tab at the top of the page to include all the sourdough recipes I've posted about in one place. I'm sure that this will be a growing category.

If you are looking to experiment with using sourdough in a baked good recipe, a good proportion to remember is 1 cup of sourdough starter equals 1/4 c. flour and 1/2 c. liquid in the recipe. The cakes I've substituted in this way were amazingly moist, and in the case of chocolate cake, cleverly disguised.

Finally, The Bread Method

I have tried kneading sourdough bread by hand, and by machine. I have tried "folding" the dough at several points during it's first fermentation time to incorporate air. I have added commercial yeast along with starter in bread. Pretty much any source I've looked at, I've tried a little tweak here or there to see what would happen. I'm not sure I've had any bread that was downright inedible - sure some were more of a duty to eat, and some graciously became nothing more than breadcrumbs to make into something else, but by in large, sourdough bread baking is a frugal endeavor garnering little waste.

Since I do bake by weight, I've tried a number of recipes posted by weights, and I have never had as good luck as when I use the Lahey Bread Method. His proportion of 300 g. liquid to 400 g. flour seems to be perfect for what I consider to be the best bread I can produce. Since I bake it in a cast-iron pot, I don't have to fiddle with contraptions to get steam into my non-professional Hotpoint oven. Cast-iron is a marvel, and it produces bread with a crisp crust and perfect custardy interior. I may be limited to size and shape (round, or slightly oblong), but to me it's worth it. I purchased a Lodge 5 quart Dutch oven when I started making Lahey breads, and I'm so glad I did. It's a reasonable price, and I only use it for bread.

Lahey's method calls for a mere 1/4 t. of yeast, for which I substitute 50 g. (about 1/4 c.) sourdough starter. If I make a bread using 100% white bread flour, it rises the best and fastest, but I've also had good luck using part high-protein wheat flour (also called white wheat, or hard winter wheat), and even using up leftover cooked oatmeal or other breakfast porridges. Lahey's method is also considered no-knead, but I knead it in the bowl for several minutes until it's slightly sticky and well formed into a ball. I think it helps that I always use the same earthenware bowl, since I can judge it's rising progress at a quick glance.

I always use metric weights, and approximated the conventional measures below using Convert Me. I use that site frequently for conversions.

Rcakewalk "Easy" Sourdough Bread (via Jim Lahey and Breadtopia)
  • 50 g. sourdough starter (about 1/4 c.)
  • 250 g. room temperature water (filtered or spring - about 1 c.)
  • 400 g. flour (all bread flour or part whole wheat (high-protein preferably) - about 4 c.)
  • 1 1/4 t. salt
Measure starter and water in a large-ish glass or pottery mixing bowl. Mix well. (I use a dough whisk since I like the feel of it, but a wooden spoon works fine.)

Add flour and salt and mix with dough whisk or spoon until it it combined and too hard to move around. Then, with one hand (keep one hand free to "pet the dog or answer the telephone" as Silverton says, or in my case take pictures...), knead the dough into a cohesive ball. I lazily knead this way for 3-4 minutes.

Cover the bowl with a lid (I use a large lid from my stock pot) or plate, and set in a warmish room-temperature place to rise. The dough should more than double in size, and it usually takes about 18 hours or longer. It will take longer in cooler weather.

Find a lint-free kitchen towel (linen or cotton are best, and it's better if you never need to wash it since it will become seasoned as you use it repeatedly), and rub ample amounts of flour into it so that the sticky dough will not stick when you try to remove it. You can put the shaped loaf of bread right onto the cloth, carefully fold the edges around it and let it rise, or you can find a colander or brotform (something that lets the air circulate a little, and is roundish to keep the loaf from spreading out). I put the floured towel into a brotform, and sprinkle a little wheat bran and/or oat bran as additional insurance against sticking.

To form the loaf, first dust a work surface lightly with flour. Using a dough scraper or spatula, scrape all of the risen dough in one mass out of the bowl. Quickly and assuredly, fold each of four imaginary sides of the dough into the center, forming a rough ball shape. Place the formed loaf into the floured towel, seam side down. When you go to bake it, the seam side will face upward, causing natural and rustic breaks in the bread - I think it eliminates the need for slashing which is difficult when you are dropping a mass of dough into a super hot pot. Let the dough rise for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours depending on the room temperature. When the bread appears risen and you can poke a finger into the bread (gently) and the indent remains rather than coming back quickly, you are ready to bake it.

Towards the end of the 2nd rise, place a cast iron pot with it's lid on into a cold, empty oven on a rack placed at the lower middle position. Preheat the oven to 475. I like to let the oven heat for at least 30-40 minutes to be sure that it is consistently hot.

When ready to bake, carefully unwrap the risen dough. Carefully roll it over, using the towel to help you, to make sure it isn't sticking. Then return it to it's original position in the towel. Take the super hot pot out of the oven, take off the lid, and carefully flip the bread into the pot. Try not to be nervous that you'll burn yourself. You probably won't, and being nervous makes it harder to not drop the dough from a half-foot above the pot to safeguard against said burns.

(For what it's worth, since January of this year, I've burned myself 3 times, and all were related to using my oven inappropriately as a dehydrator and not blazing hot cast iron. I have never burnt myself on a bread pot - though now I probably will since I'm bragging...)

Put the lid on the pot, and return it to the oven. Set the timer for 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, take off the lid. Let the bread bake for another 10-15 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden brown. When the bread is done, take the pot out of the oven and remove the bread from the pot to a cooling rack and then wait patiently until it is fully cool before you slice it - usually at least 2 hours.

Storing Your Delicious Labors

When first I thought about baking breads that required my love and attention, I thought about Jeffrey Steingarten. I admire him for his amazing mastery of the English language, and for his explorative spirit that I feel I share to some extent. When I read his book The Man Who Ate Everything, he described his pursuits in the perfection of homemade sourdough. He also detailed how he stored bread, cut side down, open to the air. I remember catching an interview on Food Network once where (due to the wonders of DVR) I rewound over and over examining his kitchen. He had a half dozen loaves of different breads in there - all stored on end, open to the elements. I daydreamed about why in the world this man had all these different breads standing at attention - I was even more curious about where he gets his appetite.

Of course, I tried this right away when I had proper bread that I wouldn't dream of sliding into a plastic bag. I asked my friend E's French, bread-loving husband (who grew up on a dairy farm in rural France) about it. He said that they left bread out to the air or stored in cotton bags, and it just got harder as the week progressed, but they ate it that way. I tried it. It got hard. Really hard. I wanted badly to be European, but it just didn't work for me. What did work is storing my bread cut side down the day it is made, and then before bedtime, I tuck it underneath some glass.

I like to store my bread on a wooden (bamboo) cutting board, covered by a cloche of some sort. If I don't have a cake going, I use my cake dome, but if that's in use, I just use an overturned glass bowl. If I'm being honest, I only eat my bread non-toasted the day it is made. The texture is so perfect, I usually plan a meal around a few slices of cheese and a hunk of newly baked bliss. But as the days wear on, the texture (and flavor) change, and I just prefer it a bit on the toasty side. As of this writing, I have yet to have a loaf of sourdough go moldy, even after a week under the dome. Sourdough culture is an amazing preservative, and I suspect it also preserves me.

When I want a loaf of bread to turn out no matter what, this is the method I use. When I just have to satisfy myself, I certainly play around with ratios and methods, constantly trying to figure out how to make beautiful breads that could maybe be in shapes other than round. I love to knead by hand, and so far, have a problem with getting too much flour into loaves that are hand kneaded. There are so many sites that I love to check for bread, and lately, Wild Yeast tops the list. Every time I go over there, I learn so much and find tons of great recipes. Through the Yeastspotting weekly round-up, you can check in with bakers from all over. As I was writing this, I also found that GNOWFGLINS was releasing a comprehensive sourdough ebook! I have not purchased it yet, but I'm sure that it is filled with valuable information, and many great recipes. They also include information on gluten-free sourdough starters, of which I know nothing about.

It seems there are always a few topics I wish I knew more about - the Costanza Civil War Buff Syndrome as I like to call it. I wish I knew about wine, about chocolate, about cheese and about coffee and tea. I still feel like I wish I knew about bread, and that is the one area that I know the most about. It's a facet of my baking life that continues to grow with each loaf of bread made. I contemplate finding some courses I can take where I can learn hands-on and more in depth what is happening with wild yeasts as they mingle to form breads. I hope I can find something in my area that won't require me to keep baker's hours since I do have a family to attend to...

I wish I could remember where it was I read about a person who toured some bakeries in Europe, and specifically the Wonderbread factory in the US. In the European country, the man showing him around gently scooped up a loaf of just baked bread to illustrate a point, then returned it carefully to it's spot. At the Wonderbread factory, the man took the loaf of bread, illustrated his point, and tossed the whole thing into the trash. I actually think about that a lot. Bread is never something I take lightly, and that's probably why I absorb as much information about it's cultivation as I can. What a miracle that something so nourishing can be made with so little, and it is something that everyone should demand a better standard for.

Good bread, beautiful bread, easy bread can be attained at home for anyone curious enough. It's really a lifestyle choice, to choose to share your life with a culture. When well taken care of, it returns the favor, and feeds you well. It's a life that suits me well right now. I have no idea what the future will bring, and if my days will become more harried, but I hope they never become too harried to bake bread.


  1. Ah! Living the cultured life. It's truly a choice -- but totally a good one. I'm always so happy to follow along with your bread experiments. Not only do I learn something every time, but it's awesome to know someone who geeks out over stuff like this as much as I do!

  2. I feed my starter before I bake (sometimes when I bake) and skip days with no problem. You get into a groove over time just like with any other pet. I'll be interested to hear how the whey version goes.


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