I did not need another hobby. But it happened. Despite my initial resistance to even trying to make sourdough bread, I fell for it. I suppose most people do. It all began with my friend Chris Hayes’s enthusiasm for the craft and, of course, with Alfred: the sourdough culture that he –and subsequently I – inherited to make this magnificent bread.
When Chris and his wife Andrea came over for dinner a few months ago, he mentioned having recently gotten into making sourdough bread. He’d been reading about it – even watched Michael Pollan’s Netflix Documentary Series Cooked (made in four parts, episode 3 focuses on bread making). He spoke at length about the process and challenges of making sourdough.
It sounded exhausting. But he had my attention.
Chris had been working on a video project with Melissa, who invited him and Andrea to her house for dinner. At the party, Chris mentioned having just made bread using the New York Times’ no-knead recipe. To Chris’s surprise, Melissa’s husband, Andrew Janjigian, is a sourdough connoisseur and, incidentally, an associate editor for Cooks Illustrated (whose recipe I share below). By the end of the party, Chris scored a cup of Andrew’s sourdough culture, which was named Alfred.
About a week after our dinner, Chris called me.
“Are you home?” he asked. “I’ve got Alfred in the car for you.”
He came in with two plastic containers, one had Alfred, the other a mix of whole wheat and white flours (the feed) to last me a few days. I begrudgingly wrote down the feeding instructions, and Chris left saying that he’d email me the recipe for the bread.
Yeast is present everywhere – in the air, the ground, and in store-bought flour. In fact, by definition, you can only make sourdough with a natural starter culture, not with any kind of commercial yeast. Strictly speaking, sourdough is made with flour and water only.
If you want to go in hook, line, and sinker, you can establish your own culture (instructions in the recipe below). Or, you can contact me for some of my Alfred.
The slow fermentation process required by natural yeast results in the dough’s sour flavor. It also results in other equally wonderful qualities, like the crispy crust, the airy crumb, the delicious taste…and it keeps fresh longer.
So when Chris emailed me the recipe and I saw how much work was involved, I told myself this: I will try it once, and if it works, tastes good, and is fun to make, I’ll keep going.
And here we are…
You can take to the interwebs and learn a ton about sourdough. You can find workshops, experienced bakers, and read books about it.
Or you can practice.
It takes perseverance to get this right. I haven’t quite gotten there myself yet (see pictures below). I’ve experimented with different mixes of flours, such as rye and whole wheat, cooking and rising times, and so on. I need to keep trying.
In the end, making sourdough has been fun and somewhat addictive. As Chris says, the no-knead recipe was like a gateway drug.
I wrote this post to carry on the sourdough gospel of Andrew, Chris, and the many others like them out there. Give it a try; Alfred is waiting for you.
The first photo in this post shows Chris’s bread. The others are mine.
SOURDOUGH BREAD (Recipe from Cooks Illustrated)
This recipe requires the use of a healthy sourdough culture, one that doubles in size 8 to 12 hours after refreshing at room temperature. We prefer King Arthur all-purpose flour; if unavailable, substitute bread flour. For best results, weigh your ingredients. When making the dough, be sure to save the leftover starter for future use. If you have a banetton or lined proofing basket use that rather than the towel-lined colander in step 4. Do not wait until the oven has preheated to start your timer or the bread will burn.
- 1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
- ½ cup (4 ounces) water, room temperature
- ½ cup (4 ounces) sourdough culture (see section below end of recipe)
- 3/4 cup (4 1/8 ounces) whole wheat flour
- 2 1/3 cups (11 2/3 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 ¼ cups (10 ounces) water, room temperature
- 1 ¾ teaspoons salt
- For the Starter: Place flour, water, and culture in medium bowl and stir with wooden spoon until cohesive dough forms and no dry flour remains. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 5 hours, then refrigerate for 16 to 24 hours. (Alternatively, starter may be left at room temperature and used within 8 to 12 hours of mixing.)
- For the Dough: Sift whole-wheat flour through fine-mesh strainer into large bowl; discard bran remaining in strainer. Add all-purpose flour and whisk to combine. Measure out 1 cup (8 ounces) starter place in medium bowl. (Remaining starter can be saved to create another culture or discarded.) Use remaining starter to start a new batch.) Whisk water into starter until homogeneous slurry forms. Stir slurry into flour with wooden spoon until cohesive dough forms and no dry flour remains. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for 20 minutes. Sprinkle salt over dough and knead by hand in bowl until incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Holding edge of dough with your fingertips, fold dough over itself by gently lifting and folding edge of dough toward center. Turn bowl 45 degrees; fold again. Turn bowl and fold dough 6 more times (total of 8 folds). Cover with plastic and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat folding and rising every 30 minutes, 3 more times. After fourth set of folds, transfer dough to lightly floured counter.
- Gently press dough into 8-inch disk, then fold edges toward middle to form round. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, line colander with large linen or cotton tea towel, and dust liberally with flour. Repeat pressing and folding of dough to form round, then place dough seam-side down on counter and form into tight round. (To round, set piece of dough on unfloured work surface. Loosely cup hands around dough and, without applying pressure to dough, move hands in small circular motions. Tackiness of dough against work surface and circular motion should work dough into smooth, even ball, but if dough sticks to hands, lightly dust fingers with flour.)
- Place dough seam side up on floured towel and loosely fold edges of towel over dough to enclose. Place colander in large plastic bag and tie or fold under to fully enclose. Transfer to refrigerator for at least 12 hours and up to 16 hours.
- Remove colander from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature until dough is nearly doubled in size and does not readily spring back when poked with finger, about 2 hours.
- Adjust oven rack to middle position. Lay 18 by 12-inch sheet of parchment paper on counter and spray with vegetable oil spray. Remove colander from plastic bag, unfold edges of towel, and dust top of loaf with flour. Lay parchment sprayed-side down over loaf, then invert colander onto counter. Remove colander and towel. Holding razor blade or sharp knife at 30-degree angle to loaf, make series of four 4-inch long, 1/2-inch deep slashes to form square around perimeter of loaf, about 2 inches in from edge of loaf. Pick up dough by lifting parchment overhang and lower into heavy-bottomed Dutch oven (let any excess parchment hang over pot edge). Cover pot and place in oven. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Bake bread for 30 minutes.
- Remove lid and continue to bake until loaf is deep brown and registers 210 degrees, 20 to 30 minutes longer. Carefully remove bread from pot; transfer to wire rack and let cool completely, at least 2 hours.
During the refreshing steps its okay to miss a daily “feeding,” but don’t go for more than 48 hours. For the best results use organic flour and bottled/filtered water for the starter. For best results, weigh your ingredients. Placing the culture in a glass bowl will allow for easier observation of activity beneath the surface.
- 1 pound whole-wheat flour
- 1 pound all-purpose flour
- Filtered water, cool room temperature, preferably bottled or filtered
- Establish Culture: Combine whole-wheat flour and all-purpose flour in large container. Using wooden spoon, mix 1 cup (5 ounces) flour mixture and 2/3 cup (5 1/3 ounces) water in glass bowl until no dry flour remains (remaining flour mixture will be used to refresh starter). Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature until bubbly and fragrant, 48 to 72 hours.
- Feed Culture: Once culture is established, feed it by stirring ½ cup (2 ½ ounces) flour mixture, 1/4 cup (2 ounces) water, and 1/4 cup (2 ounces) culture together in clean glass bowl with wooden spoon until no dry flour remains (discard remaining culture). Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
- Refresh Culture: Refresh culture (step 2) every 24 hours until culture is pleasantly aromatic and rises and falls within an 8 to 12 hour period after being feed, about 10 to 14 days. At this point the culture is ready to bake with (or move to storage – see below).
- Culture Storage: Before moving culture to storage perform another refresh with ½ cup (2 ½ ounces) all-purpose flour, ¼ cup (2 ounces) water, and ¼ cup (2 ounces) of culture and let stand at room temperature for 5 hours. Transfer to clean container that can be loosely covered (plastic container or mason jar, with its lid inverted) and refrigerate.
- Culture Maintenance: Once a week remove culture from refrigerator and refresh with ½ cup (2 ½ ounces) all-purpose flour, ¼ cup (2 ounces) water, and ¼ cup (2 ounces) of culture and let stand at room temperature for 5 hours before returning to the refrigerator.