A couple of months ago, a friend gave me an heirloom sourdough starter. I was petrified. I was absolutely SURE that I would kill it stone dead in the first 24 hours and Sandor Katz himself would materialized to banish me from fermented foods forever (as if a man with his gut flora could ever be so cruel!). I was really precious about feeding the starter exactly twelve hours apart and exactly 115 grams each of water and flour and may have woken up in a semi-panic one night that the temperature in the house was too cool.
As it turns out, I could have relaxed a lot. Sourdough, like nearly every other fermented food out there, is remarkably simple to deal with. It’s delicious, and when made with some local wheat, it’s filling and full of fiber and vitamins. This is how I sometimes justify eating half a loaf with nothing but some butter and radishes for dinner. (More on that later.)
If you do not presently have a sourdough starter at home, my best recommendation is to ask a friend for some. If you are the crunchiest person in your friend group, you can also order some online from Cultures for Health. Or leave a comment below and I’ll be sure to get some to you at a future market day. I literally have it coming out of my ears!
While this is not intended to be a primer on how to care for a sourdough starter (there are much better resources online than what I have in my brain), I will tell you this: how I treat my sourdough is I feed it twice, twelve hours apart, the day before I want to start making bread. To do this, I stir 115 g. each (which is roughly half a cup of flour and a third of a cup of water) into the sourdough starter. Then you cover it loosely (cheese cloth and a rubber band is good for this) and let it bubble. Twelve hours after the second fermentation, you’re ready to make your dough. Take out what you need to make your batch of dough and either seal and refrigerate the remaining starter (up to a week), or continue to feed the starter every twelve hours.
But here’s the thing: if you forget to feed your sourdough, or it looks too thin, or you leave it in the fridge too long, odds are, it’s fixable. For thin starter, add more flour. If you forgot to feed it, well, feed it now. If you left in in the fridge too long, keep it out and feed it a few times to be sure it’s nice and healthy before storing it again. Sourdough is wonderfully forgiving.
Now here’s the other thing: I won’t deceive you–making sourdough bread takes time. However, the resting periods are convenient enough that you can allow the dough to ferment overnight or while you are at work, which is handy, and particularly for those who culture and ferment food on a regular basis, it is not at all an intimidating process. When you’re already in the rhythm of adding milk to kefir grains each morning, or making some kraut on the weekend, feeding the starter or whipping up a batch of dough and waiting for a few rises feels like par for your slow living course. Plus the flavor and nutritional pay off of making bread without the use of commercial yeast is totally worth it, cross my heart.
Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
recipe adapted from here
After this period of fermentation, add the salt and one cup of flour. Knead, adding more flour as needed until the dough is no longer sticky. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover, allowing it to rise for another hour or two. The dough will be ready when you make an impression in the dough with one finger and the dough does not fill back in.
Divide the dough in half and knead on a lightly floured surface until each piece of dough is smooth and elastic. Shape each ball of dough into rounds and allow to rise for another hour.
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 450 degrees–I let my oven preheat for at least an hour to make sure that it’s really ready to go. I bake my bread in dutch ovens, but you can also use a ceramic or cast iron pot with a lid, or a pizza stone on the middle rack of your oven with another pan below it, suitable for holding a few cups of water. Both of these methods ensure that the bread forms that wonderful crust. Make sure that your cooking pots or your pizza stone and pan are already in the oven when you begin preheating.
When the bread has risen, using a sharp knife, slash an X in the top of each. If you are using a dutch oven: working quickly, deposit your bread into the screaming hot pot and cover with the lid. Bake for thirty minutes, and then remove the lid and cook for another 10-15, to allow the crust to color. If you are using a pizza stone: transfer the loaves to the stone, and then immediately pour two cups of water into the pan below your stone. Bake for 40-45 minutes.
Bread with Radishes, Butter and Salt
One of my favorite ways to eat fresh sourdough couldn’t be simpler: slather a piece of bread with a bit of unsalted butter, top with a few slices of radishes and a sprinkling of flaky sea salt. In France this snack is typically made with baguette, which is also delicious, but sourdough is a perfect vessel for the creamy butter and spicy radishes.