No rise blues: An ode to sourdough bakers

Many bakers send me private photos of their loaves attached with rude, judge-y remarks. 

“Pancakes.” 

“F$%#-ing catastrophe.”

“Dismal deflation.”

“Friggin’ flat tire.” 

These are just a few of the adjectives frustrated bakers announce when a loaf doesn’t bounce up to the height they had seen in their dreams or worse still, Instagram.   

I try to console with “That happens to me all the time…” but that never really helps soften a defeated sourdough baker’s fall from grace. 

Let’s face it. Not everyone has the patience or stamina for sourdough baking, especially if you have done some or all of the following:

  1. Mixed the levain late one night.
  2. Spent the following day sloshing together a long list of ingredients in a bowl, each scoop of flour, splash of water and sprinkle of salt meticulously measured by the gram or ounce.
  3. Tugged and stretched and folded every 30 minutes for an entire afternoon or morning before shaping an unbelievably sticky blob into a boule or baton.
  4. Transferred your shaped loaves into a flour-lined banneton (upside-down, no less) searched for a shower cap or plastic wrap amid a drawer packed tornado-style with measuring cups, spoons and bench scrapers, your fingers sticky with a floury adhesive plastered on everything you touched including the handle of the fridge where the loaves will retire — yet rise —  overnight until early the next morning, grumpy and tired, you remove said sourdough loaves ever so gingerly, turn their upside-down forms upright on a parchment paper-covered sheet, score each with a sharp razor blade tremulously pinched between bent, arthritic fingers, don elbow-high, warrior-thick oven mitts, reach into a 500 F degree oven without pulling another muscle, place a hot Lodge combo cooker on the range top, remove its cover,  slide a scored loaf into it, replace the lid, emit a bovine-like moan while lifting the five-ton, molten hot-lidded combo cooker, bend back down again into the hellish heat to settle one pan and remove the next until both loaves are now blessedly in their baking place, covered until the timer dings in 20 minutes to uncover what could be the most blissful or depressing sight you’ve seen in the past 48 hours of your baking life. 

Who cares if you’ve created a splattered 2-inch pool of dough, and not the eight-inch-high bursting boule of your dreams? 

You do, if you have read this far.  Several decades of baking have taught me several lessons or simple rules. 

Rule one for success. To be a sourdough baker you must be obsessed if not on the verge of masochistic.     

Rule two. When the lid comes off and the dough has spread like a pool of blood, tell your ego to shut-up and wonder why. (If George hadn’t been curious, he wouldn’t have lived through all those books).  Was my starter fresh, strong and resilient enough?  Did I shape the boule to have sufficient tension? Am I scoring art or slashing their hearts? Is my flour organic, local and freshly milled? Am I using chlorinated water or sweet spring H2O?

Rule three. Know your dough like the back of your hand, the nose on your face, your third eye, whatever.  When you fail, try the very same bread recipe again, yes, again, without complaining or holding your breath. Just observe.  Do that three-day process all over again making it a meditation on sticky versus wet, pliable versus loose. Wonder how far you can gently stretch the dough without tearing. Do you want to maintain those bubbles or press them out? What is the ambient temperature of your kitchen? Have you tried putting a thermometer in your flour, dough or water? 

Last rule: Post every winner on Instagram and quietly embrace your losers. Listen to your palate because sourdough ugly ducklings offer up rich, artisanal flavours you’ll never taste in store-bought.

Apple Pecan Sourdough

Makes 2 loaves

This bread is adapted from Sarah Owen’s brilliant Butternut Squash and Cherry Bread found in Sourdough. Freshly ground flour ramps up the taste factor 100 per cent. 

Stiff levain

30 g 100% hydration starter

60 g  water

85 g  organic, unbleached hard white bread flour

Final dough

175 g stiff levain

250 g thick, preferably homemade apple sauce

355 g water

45 g honey

525 g organic, unbleached hard white bread flour

140 g whole spelt flour

30 g whole rye flour

14 g sea salt (Guérande, a gray, coarse salt from Brittany is my favourite for bread)  

1 cup toasted pecan pieces

Make the levain in a medium bowl, mix with your hand and knead into a small ball. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to ferment at room temperature for 8 to 10 hours or when it is tightly domed. (You can refrigerate after 7 hrs and keep there for up to 6 hrs if your schedule requires).

In a large bin or bowl, combine stiff levain, apple sauce, water and honey. Using your hand, break up and squeeze the levain until it breaks down into a bubbly, cloudy mix.  Add flour, spelt and flour, mixing with your hands,  a Danish dough whisk or large spoon. Cover and leave to autolyze for about 20 minutes. Sprinkle over with salt and mix it into the dough, squeezing and grabbing the dough, with a moist hand until a dough forms with no dry flour bits. Cover and bulk ferment for 2 hours, turning and folding every 30-40 minutes.  Fold in toasted pecans and continue to ferment another 1-2 hours, or until the dough is puffy and almost doubled in size, knowing that hot summer temperatures raise dough faster. 

Sprinkle brown rice flour inside lined bowls or bannetons to prevent sticking. On a lightly floured surface, halve the dough into two pieces, shape and place seam-side up, covering with shower caps or closed plastic bags. Refrigerate 8-12 hours. 

Preheat two Lodge combo cooker pans in the bottom rack of a 500 F oven. Depending on your oven this will take 30-60 min.

Remove raised loaves from the refrigerator, uncover and place a piece of parchment paper and small cutting board over each one. Flip each one over to release the dough and score. Wearing heavy duty oven gloves, remove one heated combo cooker. Remove the cover. Slide the scored loaf into the shallow bottom pan, replace cover and return to the oven. Repeat. Reduce the oven to 450 F and set timer for 20 minutes.  Carefully remove covers and leave to bake another 15-25 min, until loaves are golden brown. Cool on baking rack for an hour before serving.  

Tip

Making your own applesauce is easy to do. Core and quarter 4 large organic apples, place in a medium saucepan, add 1/2 cup water, cover and heat on medium.  Cook, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes or until the apples are soft enough to mash into a puree. 

Tip

Toasting nuts and seeds brings out rich flavour but it’s easy to burn them, instead. Try toasting in a dry frying pan over medium-high heat, stirring and watching until golden brown. It helps to have raw ones nearby to compare colouring. If smoke appears, take off heat immediately.

 

 

sourdough crackers

Sourdough Crackers

A great place to begin sourdough baking is with crackers or lavash. Every baker who keeps a starter alive has discard. Most of us hate to waste. Instead of tossing your discard away, simply add oil, salt and enough flour to create a soft dough. Most sourdough bread bakers obsess over getting a good rise, but you want crackers to be flat and these will be! Besides, SD discard makes these flatbreads much more flavourful.

Basic Dough

3.5 oz/100 g 100% hydration sourdough discard (SD) 

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 tsp salt

2-4 heaping Tbsp flour

Dough add-ins

1/4 cup Blue Cheese or goat cheese, crumbled

2 Tbsp Sun-dried tomatoes

1/4 cup toasted walnuts, pecans, sunflowers or sesame  seeds

1 Tbsp toasted cumin, coriander, ajwain, fennel or nigella

Chili flakes

Dried rosemary, thyme, sage or oregano

Roasted or finely chopped garlic

Top-ons

Flaky Vancouver Island or Maldon salt

Chili flakes

Once you have fed your starter, get ready to work with the discard or simply cover and leave in the fridge (up to 24 hrs) until you are ready to create cracker dough. Add olive oil, salt and two tablespoons of flour to the discard. Mix.  Add more flour, little by little, until a dough forms and you can knead it in the bowl a few times. 

Add-ins are all optional.  Any add-in ingredients high in moisture, such as soft cheese or roasted garlic may require that more than 4 tablespoons of flour are added to make a dough. 

Flour types will also affect dough formation. In general, cracker dough can take more processed white flour than it can whole or sifted grains, like rye, buckwheat, wheat, barley, cornmeal and spelt.  The more you experiment with different flours and add-ins, the more you will learn about your dough and what you like in a cracker. 

I like to add flaky salt and chill flakes as top-ons (even though the dough may contain both) for instant cracker-bite-appeal. 

Rolling out cracker dough is easy.  Lay out a piece of parchment paper on your counter and dust it and rolling pin with flour.  Roll dough out as thinly as possible. Sprinkle over with top-ons if desired. Prick with a  fork to create a regular pattern. 

Bake on a baking sheet at 325 F for 15-30 minutes.  A very thin cracker will cook faster than a thick one. 

Your cracker is ready to take out of the oven when it is browning around the edges. Remove parchment and using oven gloves, pick it up and see if it bends and is pliable in the middle of a cracker sheet.   If so, it needs more oven time. Sometimes I turn off the oven and leave the cracker sheet inside for an hour or so to really dry out. It’s a good sign if your sheet of dough has cracked in a few places and that may get you thinking about this product’s name.

Finally, how do you cut your crackers? I go with a rustic approach, breaking the baked cracker sheet or lavash into shards, serving in a tall glass. But you may want to use a pizza or ravioli cutter to cut the dough into triangles, rectangles or squares before baking. Ensure even baking by cutting all the shapes into similar shapes. Individually cut crackers will bake in 15-20 minutes.

 

Sourdough Blackberry Lemon Muffins

I have a bit of a reputation. Some people call me a seed stealer.  I prefer the term  “forager”.

It all began in my tender years of five or six when I trailed alongside my Mom and brother walking along Muskoka roads lined with raspberry bushes. We held cardboard pint boxes in our little hands and were encouraged to pluck the red, ripe ones that slipped off the white core easily. There were thorns to avoid and lots of scratches to our bare legs and arms. The sun was beating down and sweat covered our brows. But boy oh boy, did those berries taste sweet. I ate nine out of every ten berries I picked, filling my box at a snail’s pace, but without a care. This was a hunt and I was hooked.  

My mom had to tear me away from the berry thicket and throw all my berry stained clothes into the wash. We never picked enough for the pies or jams we talked and dreamed of. In fact, my berries barely covered the bottom of my box but were  just enough for tomorrow’s breakfast bowl of Rice Krispies and cream. 

Decades later, I found myself walking down a road in Grass Valley, California with my sister-in-law, Nora until I stopped dead in my tracks. I was receiving heavy signals from my personal berry radar.  

“Are those blackberries?!” 

Nora couldn’t feign an ounce of interest. It was devilishly hot in the dry August sun and she was parched, needing a cool glass of water back home– which was not in the direction I was pointing. 

“You can’t do that!” she screamed as I hopped down into the ditch, climbing towards a flimsy fence separating me from my bounty.  It was easy to climb under and I did, rewarded by a thick cluster of fat, juicy berries.

“Stop Mado, it’s private property,” she yelled as I dove into her neighbour’s field. I pulled my black shirt out like a hamper and dropped the berries in by the handful. They were three times the size of an Ontario blackberry and as sweet as can be. The proliferation stunned me.  I’d never seen so many ripe, blackberries in my fruit-loving life.  

To keep the family peace, I crawled back under the fence obeying my sister-in-law’s admonishments while offering her a handful of the stolen goods. 

“Huh, what are these?” She held one berry in her fingers, brought it before her nose, inhaled,    opened her mouth, popped the berry in and started to moan, loudly. 

I’d found an accomplice. 

The following day we returned to the field armed with empty yogurt containers, filling two each in no time. That evening we dined on my first and most memorable pie. Pure blackberry pie.  I’d never made pie pastry before and somehow fashioned a semblance  with flour and shortening found in the back corners of her cupboards. I filled it with our black bounty, fresh from the pick but already leaking juice, crushing the bottom berries with its weight.  

I had set the oven at 425 F and in 10 minutes it had not only preheated but was rumbling like a coal fire.  I opened the oven door and felt a blast of heat so outrageously hot, I trembled in fear, offering my sweet berry pie to this monster. I waited five minutes and wisely turned off the oven, realizing the oven thermometer was broken, fearing my pie would explode in a ball of lava if I didn’t stop the oven’s frenzy. 

Remarkably, those free California blackberries and a broken oven thermometer was all I needed to make the most flaky, golden, berry-filled perfect pie of my life. Many have followed but none, thankfully,  with as much drama. 

I’m still a forager and a seed stealer dividing my time between downtown Toronto and rural BC. I am apt to walk down Logan Ave with a small set of scissors and surreptitiously snip off some morning glory seeds I have been watching dry throughout the fall.  Recently I filled my pockets with sweet pea pods at a Duncan community garden, knowing the owner would consider me a seed-saver, not a thief.  I expect the folks in the cars lined up at our Starbucks drive-through think the same when they see me roll down my window and pull a handful of brown and dry Cosmos flowers into the car as I wait for my latte order. 

It’s all Ling’s fault.  She asked me what those purple and white Cosmos flowers were growing in Riverdale gardens in the 1990s.  I didn’t know their name, then.  I asked her why she cared and she slipped a hand into her jeans’ pocket and revealed a mess of crumbled brown seed heads. Next, she scribbled “Purple Flowers” in Chinese on a piece of paper, put the seed heads in the middle and folded an instant, origami paper envelope. 

“I brought seeds from Shanghai,” she said proudly. I knew then that any refugee fleeing their homeland who cares enough to pack seeds for the escape was exactly the kind of garden guru I wanted to learn from.  Ling taught me not only seed saving, but how to root cuttings and separate clusters of African violets. 

So are we thieves or stewards of the earth?  I like to think the latter.

That’s why I came up with this muffin recipe.  It combines the best of The BC Forageables – blackberries —  and uses up sourdough that is normally discarded. A double save!  

Sourdough Blackberry Lemon Muffins

 

1 1/4 cup            all purpose, organic

½ cup                            whole spelt

1 tsp                    baking powder

1 tsp                    baking soda

1 tsp                    salt

 

 

1 stick                           unsalted butter, room temp

2/3 cup               refined sugar

2                          eggs

Zest                     of one lemon

100 gm/3.5 oz              sourdough discard

 

2 cups                           frozen blackberries

3/4 cup                sour cream/yogurt

 

 

 

Preheat oven to  400F. 

 

In a medium bowl combine or sift all purpose, spelt, baking powder, baking soda and  salt. 

 

In a mixer, cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in eggs, one at a time. Combine lemon zest and gently fold in sourdough discard.

 

In medium bowl, toss frozen berries with 1 tbsp of flour mixture

 

Fold in half of the flour mixture and half of sour cream, then repeat.  Gently add blackberries in flour. 

 

Divide mixture using an ice cream scoop or 1/4 cup dry measure into 12 muffin cups.  

 

Bake 20-25 min or until golden and  tester comes out clean.

Experiments in Einkorn

When the curious around me ask, “What have you been baking these days?” and I reply “Einkorn” I might as well kill that conversation. Enunciating these two simple consonants, Ein then Korn, is an instant entrée to “Huh?” and glazed-over eyes.

Perhaps the most ancient among ancient grains, Einkorn is grown here in BC and is in desperate need of a makeover. Few seem to know how tasty it is.  Or the delight a baker such as me has when poking my schnoz into a freshly milled bag and inhaling the sweet wonder that is Einkorn.

I bought my first bag from Flourist.com who shipped my flour over the Georgia Strait from their Vancouver bakery and mill. I liked buying an organic, traceable grain that is freshly milled right before packaging. I also liked seeing a line drawing of all their producers, including Einkorn grower Lorne Muller of Swan River Valley, Manitoba.

When I read the flowery descriptor under the 2 kg bag of Einkorn priced at $24.95 (compared to $15.95 for whole spelt) I was not a believer.  It said, “This flour showcases the taste of ancient Einkorn wheat, with a flavour that shines in everything from pastry crust to sourdough bread”

Them’s fighting words, I thought. How could this unknown, nobody grain be so tasty in so many baking applications?

It was time to test.

 

 

First, I made pancakes, sourdough einkorn pancakes with frozen wild blackberries. They were good but, in my mind, just ol’ pancakes.

 

Second try was stupendous: Einkorn Banana Bread. I found a recipe posted at The Perfect Loaf under “my top three leftover sourdough recipes”.

Like pancakes, I’ve made banana bread a million times but never has it domed so high (and not fallen) with a porous, sourdough bread texture. img_4124.jpg Einkorn offered up a nutty, sweetness. This quick bread was addictive and thanks to einkorn, high in protein, fibre and eye-healthy carotenoids and lutein.

My next try, 50% Einkorn sourdough levain (recipe below) was fated for success the moment I watched the dough twirl around my KitchenAid dough hook in a remarkable creamy softness, as if whipping cream.  Yet, this was a whole grain.

Things got einkorn crazy when my friend Wilma and I scarfed down several helpings each of my next test: Pear Tarte Tatin.  This gluttony, after a particularly filling sushi-making party, had never been witnessed before by her partner or mine.

All we girls could say is “The einkorn made me do it.”

It may not have hurt that the pears were so sexy and that this tart oozed with butter and sugar, yet never have I received such personal affirmation for a whole grain dessert.

If Einkorn could dance on the tongue for dessert, could it go solo soaked and sprouted in a jar? I measured out one quarter cup of BC-grown kernels purchased at Cowichan Bay’s True Grain bakery. After a 12 hr soak, the kernels had plumped up. Some had split. After another 24 hours, little white tails emerged on most of the kernels.  I topped that evening’s salad with a couple of spoonful’s adding a sweet, crunchy nuttiness to simple microgreens and grape tomatoes.

The finale of my Einkorn tests hit a crescendo with risotto. My top recipe taster and ardent Arborio rice fan was aghast at the suggestion.  But when faced with my creation at the dining table, he quickly returned to the pot for seconds.

I would never have tried this had I not tasted and devoured friend Randy’s superb farro risotto.  If Randy could do it, so could I, especially knowing that farro is Italian for spelt and einkorn’s Italian appellation is piccolo farro or little spelt.

Listening to my inner Marcella Hazan, I went to the stove, pulled out a medium saucepan and heated up some olive oil and a knob of butter. I tossed in sliced leeks, diced cremini mushrooms and fresh rosemary stirring and sautéing until the  juices emerged. In went a cup of einkorn kernels, which I sautéed for 2-3 minutes getting the pan adequately dry and toasty before adding sliced, reconstituted porcini mushrooms and a big splash (3/4 cup) white wine that filled the kitchen with an intoxicating aroma. Over the course of 30 minutes, I slowly added mushroom stock by the half-cup-full stirring and cooking the kernels in their uncovered pot until they were soft, tender and truly nutty.

True confessions: Einkorn kernels will not melt into the same creamy luxuriousness that an Arborio or Navarro rice can but Parmigiana Reggiano is always at the rescue.  Freshly ground black pepper is another must.

Experimenting the gamut of Einkorn, from sweet confections to healthy raw sprouts made me a believer. It turns out Flourist wasn’t being flowery in that description at all.  This grain can do it all.IMG_4144

50 Per Cent Einkorn Levain

This dough is very extensible and stretched a yard when I scraped it from the mixing bowl to a plastic bin. I got the same results during stretch and folds. It baked up high, with a dark mahogany crust with traces of raisin and cinnamon in the air.

Levain:

1.8 oz            liquid starter

5.2 oz            Spring water

8 oz               Unbleached, organic white hard/bread flour

In a medium bowl, dissolve starter in water with a fork. Add bread flour and knead into a ball.  Cover with plastic wrap.  Let stand at room temperature for 12-16 hours.

Final dough:

Levain (minus 1.5 oz)

1lb .6oz         Spring water

2tbsp             honey

1lb                 Whole Einkorn

8 oz               Unbleached, organic white hard/bread flour

Dissolve levain in spring water in stand mixer bowl. Add honey, Einkorn and bread flour. Use the paddle attachment at low speed, mixing until a shaggy mass. Cover and autolyse (let stand) for 20 min.

.6 oz                     sea salt

Sprinkle dough over with sea salt, using dough hook, mix at low for 3 min.  The dough will separate from the sides of the bowl and create a firm ball.

Transfer to a large oiled bowl or covered plastic bin.

Bulk fermentation: 1 hr. 40 min  (Stretch and fold once, after 50 min)

Shape two loaves and place in bannetons dusted with rice flour.  Cover each with a large plastic bag and refrigerate immediately, 12-16hrs

Preheat dutch ovens at 500F for at least 30 min, bake 20 min covered, reduce to 460F and bake 20 min uncovered. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Sourdough baking with Sarah Owens

It’s because of cookbook author Sarah Owens that this baker has started to travel with her dough. I put it in a big plastic tub in the trunk of my car or strap it into my bike carrier, ready to drive off to meetings or Pilates classes with living, bubbling yeast. I pack water and a cloth so I can stretch and fold the dough with wet hands every half hour and clean up my doughy fingertips afterwards.

IMG_6038
Pulling beet levain dough in the car during a tennis game

My life goes on and so does the ferment. It’s got to! Sarah’s technique requires half a day of fermentation.

If you think that’s crazy, you’re unlikely to want to bake from SOURDOUGH: Recipes for rustic fermented breads, sweets, savories, and more.

But then again, you’d never have the pleasure of taking the lid off a Lodgepan combo cooker in a 500F oven and seeing cheddar cheese ooze out of a hot, chili-spiked bread. Your palate would never notice the delightful zing and bite of both fresh and candied ginger folded into a sweet, buttery cake or enjoy the crunch of poppy seeds in a turmeric-tinged artisanal levain loaded with leeks.

Turmeric scallion leek levain
Seeded Turmeric and Leek Levain

This cookbook has opened a new world of baking for me. Never before had I used sourdough starter to make anything other than bread, but now I’ve tried it in cakes, cookies, popovers, even crackers. The wild yeast adds a depth of flavour to these baked goods and a bubbly crumb. (Besides, I refresh my sourdough starter weekly, if not every few days, and I’d much rather add it to an innovative recipe than throw it away.)

Sourdough bakers believe that good bread needs a very slow rise.  Often, that’s a three-day process that requires more waiting than action. Sarah’s bread recipes are no-knead and include a range of flours, from buckwheat to kamut to emmer.

Beet Bread (found on my copy’s stained page 55) asks you to plunge into a slurry of roasted beet puree, levain and three different flours and “mix with your hands until completely hydrated and no lumps remain.” IMG_6053

I was game. My fingers emerged a bright, gooey pink and my banneton might be stained for life but every cakey, sweet bite of this levain was worth it.  Think velvet cake without the sugar.

IMG_6059Sarah really understands flavours and how to pair them.  A former rose horticulturist with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, this woman knows and loves blossoms, buds, roots, seeds and fruits. She bakes like a true artist and luckily for us, she’s written down all of her highly novel, well-tested creations. Who would have thought to make popovers with spring chives and dandelions? Or pair cocoa-spiced pork with rhubarb in a pot pie?

Admittedly, I have had a little trouble with a couple of her recipes. Brooklyn Sourdough is minimalist in terms of ingredients but calls for a five to six minute “slap and fold” method that I was unable to master.  My boule-shaped loaves looked like pancakes when I pulled them out of the oven. Ditto for the Friendship Loaf.

IMG_6074
Honeyed Spelt and Oat Levain

But neither of these disappointments will stop me from raving about the feathery-light, wide open crumb of Honeyed Spelt and Oat Levain.  Or from trying more of Sarah’s out-there ideas.

Sourdough was her first cookbook yet it won la crème de la crème of cookbook awards in 2016: the James Beard. No wonder she has 26,000 people following her on Instagram.

Last Christmas, my son gave me Sarah’s second cookbook Toast and Jam: Modern recipes for rustic baked goods and sweet and savoury spreads. This beauty of a book contains as equally a novel approach to preserves, as it does to sourdough baking.  I’ve got a sumac tree outside my window that I’ve been eying for her jelly recipe not to mention some gnarly organic carrots from my garden, bound to dazzle in her Spiced Carrot Levain.

If it weren’t for this cookbook author’s mighty contribution to baking, neither me nor my dough would be travelling together in such a delicious way.

IMG_1006

Time to get started. Sourdough!

I get asked about sourdough starters a lot and am happy to give some of my starter away to any aspiring baker. Often these people look really anxious when they take their baby starter away from my kitchen. They know this is a big step in their Bread Life and for many, a challenging one.

Not everyone is as obsessed with sourdough bread as I am. But I’m always willing to share my passion and grow more sourdough bakers.   IMG_4946

Last week it was my friend Alana from Food Bloggers Canada.  She asked for a starter recipe in a simple text and had no idea I would send back a two-page email.  But she’s going to give it a go and I hope you, dear reader, might try making your own starter, from ground zero, following these instructions.

Why have a starter? Well, without one you simply can’t make sourdough bread and  taste all of its deliciousness made with your own two hands. Like any living ingredient, if you starve or neglect it, it will die. It needs your nurturing to start your bread.

Why do you want to eat sourdough? Bread made slowly over the course of a few days has rich, layered flavours, tastes completely better than industrial, high-yeast, high-gluten bread and is often easier to digest.

If you follow my Instagram feed, you may want to bake sourdough because it’s such a looker  with its scored golden crust and large open crumb. But practice makes perfect.  I still get excited each and every time I open up my oven and see a well-risen loaf.  I still make mistakes, too. I love the mystery of bread-baking and its complexity. Good baked bread depends on many variables: timing, flour quality, temperature and the ripeness of your starter—to name a few.  The only way to get to know these principles is to dive in and flour up your hands.IMG_4302

Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes is my bible. Here’s his five-day “liquid levain culture” – bakers’ speak for sourdough starter.  I recommend that you go the extra mile and stretch this out to an eight-day process for best results.  Once you have this basic culture or starter, you can keep it alive for many years… but not decades!

When I attended the San Francisco Baking Institute in 2015, master baker Didier Rosada laughed in disdain when I bragged about the number of years I’d kept my starter alive.  After attending the course, I made a new starter to replace my teenaged one and did not regret the flavour-filled results.  Now, three years later, it is time for me to start afresh again.

Before you make your initial starter mix, consider what time works best to refresh (a.k.a. feed) both morning and night.  I like the 7pm/7am time frame.

Day One: Initial Mix

4.8 oz              organic whole rye flour

6 oz                 spring or distilled water

.2 oz                honey

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 24 hrs. (This will look stiff and hard with very tiny bubbles on the underside after the first 12 hrs.)

Day Two: Two Feedings

5.5 oz              Initial mix (use half of Day One and throw out the remainder)

1.2 oz              organic whole rye flour

1.2 oz              organic, unbleached hard white flour

3 oz                 90F spring or distilled water

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 12 hrs. Repeat (or refresh, in bakers’ speak)  in 12 hrs. Yes, you will have to throw out half of each mixture when you refresh. (After each feeding, you will watch it transform and grow, doubling, even tripling in size and smelling very sour.)

Day Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven : Two Feedings per day, every 12 hrs

5.5 oz              Initial mix (half of your last batch, throwing out the remainder)

2.4  oz              organic, unbleached hard white flour

3 oz                 spring or distilled water

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 12 hrs. Repeat (or refresh, in bakers’ speak)  in 12 hrs. This white starter will bubble up and grow faster every day and night and should be ready to bake with by Day Seven.

Okay, now you’ve got your starter, but how are you going to keep it alive?  You’ve got to feed it,   once a week. Here’s how:

3.5 oz initial mix/mature starter

3.5 oz organic, unbleached hard white flour

3.5 oz spring or distilled water

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 12 hrs. Refrigerate and refresh once a week.IMG_4753

How do serious bakers keep their sourdough starter alive?  They bake every day.  After they build a bread’s initial levain, they remove about an ounce and use that to start the next dough. All you need is an ounce or two to kick-start a bread! The most powerful, active and flavourful starters are those that are refreshed or used every day or two.

Before you get started, make sure you have a scale because serious bakers weigh all their ingredients. I like to use this Zyliss version found at Canadian Tire for $20 or less. You need a scale that can “tare”. That means you can put an empty bowl on the scale, reset to “O” (or tare) then weigh your rye flour, tare again to 0 then pour in and weigh the right amount of water. Tare away!

Local Sourdough

Whether you call it  Herd Rd Sourdough, Toronto Sourdough or Katmandu Sourdough,  its flavours and ingredients will entirely depend on where you bake it. (Adapted from page 153 of Bread: A baker’s book of technique and recipe)

Levain Build

4.8 oz              organic, unbleached, hard white flour

6 oz                 spring or distilled water

1.3 oz              ripe, mature starter (refreshed in the past 24 hrs)

Combine in a medium glass bowl 12-16 hrs before you make the final dough. Make sure the bowl is large enough for the levain to triple in size as it grows and bubbles up. Keep covered at room temperature. (I like to make this late at night, right before I fall asleep.)

Final Dough

1 lb 8 oz           organic, unbleached, hard white flour

3.2 oz              organic whole rye flour

14.8 oz            spring or distilled water

Levain Build (minus 1.3 ounce to be reserved in fridge for tomorrow or the next day’s bread)

Step one: Autolyse

Add all the final dough ingredients to the mixing bowl and mix on first speed until it forms a shaggy mass.  Cover with plastic and let stand 20-60 min.

Step two

Add .6 ounce/1 tbsp sea salt to the autolyzed dough and mix 1-2 minutes with a dough hook

Step three:  Bulk Fermentation at room temperatureIMG_3401

Transfer the dough to a large oiled bowl or oiled tub and cover for 1 hr 15 min

Stretch and fold the dough four times, lifting the dough to its longest extension, folding and pressing it back down,  repeat three times, turning the container by a quarter each time.

Cover and leave at room temp for 1 hr 15 min

Step four: Shape two loaves, place in well-floured bannetons and cover with shower caps.  Refrigerate 12-24 hrs. Gently flip each loaf on to a parchment paper-covered tray, score and slide into preheated  Lodge Combo Cooker pans or Dutch ovens.  Bake covered at 500 F for 20 min, carefully remove lids, reduce heat to 460 F and bake 20 minutes or until golden brown.

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