We are sour lovers – sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha and sourdough bread. It’s not just that they are great for our bodies, providing us with billions of good bacteria and yeasts, but this sort of food is tasty too. Sourdough bread, in particular, is something special. We have friends begging us to bring them a loaf every time we visit and getting up early on a Saturday morning to bake fills my heart and stomach with so much love. The process of kneading, the aromas during baking and the wonder of eating something that rose thanks to invisible organisms in our environment never fails to satisfy me. Bread is the staple of life but these days bread is dead. Sourdough is alive and better for you!
A few times a week we knead out a loaf, deciding what combination of seeds and nuts we’ll include this time. It brings us so much joy.
Sourdough bread is unique because it does not require any store-bought yeast, as do other rising breads. Sourdough bread features a symbiotic yeast and bacteria culture that arises naturally from microorganisms present in flour. A starter culture can be added, especially if you wish to produce a specific flavour, such as that associated with the Candida milleri yeast and the Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis bacteria of San Francisco bread, but it is not necessary. All you need to begin making sourdough bread is flour and water. The simplicity of it all excites me.
The type of flour that you choose is important. Not only will it affect the flavour of the sourdough bread, but it will also make a difference in the ease of growing and maintaining a culture. Organic flours have more natural microorganisms, and wholemeal bran flour has the most. In some cultures, bakers add unwashed organic grapes to the mixture to provide additional natural yeast. Adding a bit of diastatic malt or a starter culture can help push things along, but purists frown upon the use of a starter culture over developing sourdough naturally.
To make the sourdough starter… In a jar mix 1 cup flour, 1 cup water and some kefir, yoghurt, buttermilk or whey (we use our milk kefir) to give it a boost of life. Cover with a towel or open weave cloth. Leave the jar in a warm environment, about 21 to 27° Celsius. Temperatures exceeding 38° Celsius will kill the culture. The next step in making your sourdough bread starter is to “feed” it once a day until it is bubbly throughout and has a pleasant, yeasty, beer-like smell. To feed your starter, throw half away and add another half cup of flour blended with a half cup water and stir. It should be ready in a few days (3-5), but culture growing times vary widely. When the starter looks healthy, put it in the fridge with a lid on. There should be a little breathing room, so if you are using a jar with a screw-on lid, poke a hole in the top.
At this point, continue feeding the culture once a week. As it ages, you may not need to feed it as often. Once again, the bubbliness, scent, and consistency of the mixture are indications of how well it is doing. You can stir your culture as often as you like. A dark brown, alcoholic liquid known as hooch may begin to accumulate on the top of your sourdough bread starter. Do not drink it, but either pour it off or stir it in according to your preference and the moistness of the mixture.
Making your bread… When you are ready to make sourdough bread, prepare a sponge well in advance by pouring your entire starter into a bowl and mixing in a cup each of flour and warm water. Wash the jar out well, as you will use it to store any leftover sponge to become your new starter. The sponge will take a few hours to become frothy throughout and sour-smelling, at which point it is ready to bake with.
There are many sourdough bread recipes available in cookbooks and on the internet, and you can experiment using your dough in any bread recipes you find. For a simple loaf of bread, add four teaspoons sugar and two teaspoons salt to two cups of the sponge, retaining the rest of the sponge in the fridge for future baking. You can also add a tablespoon or two of olive oil or softened butter, if you wish. Knead in flour, half a cup at a time, until you have a bread dough of a good consistency; you will use approximately three cups of flour, but use your judgment. It is recommended you knead the bread for around 20 minutes to activate the gluten. This is a critical step – to determine if the gluten is adequately developed, perform the “window pane test.” Take a piece of dough and stretch it between your fingers. If the gluten is well developed, the dough should stretch thin, so you can see light through it, without the dough breaking. If it breaks before it can be stretched thin, keep kneading.
Next, allow the dough to rise until it has doubled in size. This should take at least an hour. Different sourdough cultures perform differently. When the dough is ready, punch it down, knead it a bit more, and make a loaf on a baking sheet covered with cornmeal or grease to prevent the bread from sticking. You can slit the top of the loaf, if you like, then cover it with a paper towel and allow it to rise in a warm environment until it has once again doubled in size.
Finally, bake your sourdough bread for 30 to 45 minutes in a 177° Celsius oven, not preheated. Bake until the crust is brown (add a pan of boiling water in the oven to create steam and help it brown) and the loaf makes a hollow sound when struck with a wooden spoon. Let it cool for an hour on a rack or towel before eating. A well maintained culture can serve you for years and years. Finally, click this link for some tips for working with traditional sourdough culture and this link for troubleshooting.
Enjoy your homemade sourdough bread!