The smell of bread baking is legendary. Just the memory of it is an olfactory arrow straight to the heart—and then the stomach. Before there was such a thing as a bread aisle, bread was baked at home. As with laundry and ironing, our great-grandmas used to devote a whole day every week to bread baking. Not just white bread but all kinds: whole wheat, potato, pumpernickel, soda, whatever was at hand. And this was bread that had heft and character and integrity, none of this limp cardboard-tasting stuff that tears when you try to spread butter on it. Plus crust! Dense, yeasty crust, crust you could really sink your teeth into.
To produce even one such loaf involves making the starter by mixing yeast with other ingredients and letting it rise, adding flour to make the dough, letting it rise again, then punching it down, pulling, pushing, slamming, spanking, patting it and repeat. It’s meditative and laborious, both. And it all starts with this magical rising agent, yeast.
Of all the forms of leavened bread, sourdough is the oldest and most original of them all. Before that, there was flatbread, thin and heavy—a mixture of water and some sort of flour, essentially. Sourdough can be traced back to the early 1500s B.C. Egyptians. Probably the first sourdough loaf came about inadvertently, when someone mixed a batch of flatbread dough and left it out in the sun, where the natural sugars in the flour’s starch attracted wild yeast in the air. In the U.S., before the onset of commercial yeast, settlers traveling west by wagon train had to bring along their own starters to make bread along the way, sometimes even sleeping with it when the air got too cold at night. Sourdough bread was famously popularized in the California Gold Rush days by miners, who mixed their own “mother dough” and baked with it in their camps. Sourdough culture produces a lot of lactic and acetic acids, which is what gives the bread its rich complexity of flavor and that famous sour tang. By trial, error and constant readjustment, sourdough bakers develop their own favorite balance and version; as long as this starter culture is fed equal amounts of flour and water regularly, it will remain active.
Sourdough’s starter culture is the big key. And there’s certainly no shame in using commercial yeast for yours. But where’s the adventure in that? True, as cookbook authors Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins admit in The New Basics, if you follow their recipe which relies on the “very lengthy process” of using wild yeast spores in the air to form the starter and raise the dough, you’re risking the possibility of failure. But, they go on, interacting with wild yeast spores “can be a very rewarding experience.” And those inside your house are really relatively benign. They grow on the surfaces of such common foods as vegetables, grains and fruits. If you like, you can literally just use water and flour; eventually, unless it dies or molds and you have to start over, this mixture will begin to bubble.
There are many more recipe suggestions for making sourdough mother culture. I had success with the New Basics one (below). It only took two days. In fact, I was thrilled when it actually started bubbling into this foamy, viscous, creamy sponge. (I made this! It’s alive!) Just be careful not to shock it with excessive warmth, remember to keep feeding it and, once you’ve got one going, store it in a stone crock, plastic or glass container—never metal. Who knows, you may create a mother dough as important as the one originally conceived by San Francisco’s famous Boudin Bakery, heroically saved by Louise Boudin during the Great Earthquake of 1906!
¾ cup skim milk
¼ cup low-fat buttermilk
¾ unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon sugar
- Make the starter: Stir all of the ingredients together in a nonreactive bowl. Cover the bowl with a double thickness of cheesecloth and tie a string or stretch a large rubber band around the rim to secure it. If the weather is warm, place the bowl in a sunny window; otherwise put it in a warm place.
- Let the mixture stand until it is bubbling, 2 to 3 days. You should have about 1 cup.
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup warm water
½ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons yellow cornmeal
Divide the starter in half. One half will be used for the bread. The other half will be replenished and saved for future baking.
- Scrape half the starter into a large bowl. Stir in 2 cups of the all-purpose flour and the warm water. Let the dough stand, loosely covered, until doubled in bulk, 4 to 6 hours.
- Stir in the salt. Slowly work in the remaining 2 cups of flour, ½ cup at a time. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, 10 minutes.Lightly oil a large bowl and turn the dough to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl loosely and let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, up to 12 hours.
- Punch the dough down, knead it once or twice and shape it into three loaves about 16 inches long. Butter a baking sheet and sprinkle it with cornmeal. Arrange the loaves on the cornmeal.
- Loosely cover the loaves and let them rise until doubled in bulk, about 4 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
10. Using a razor blade or a sharp knife, slash the tops of the loaves crosswise in several places. Open the oven door and quickly spray the interior with a water mister. Place the bread in the oven and bake for 9 minutes, spraying the oven every 3 minutes. Then continue baking until the loaves are golden and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, another 11 to 13 minutes.
Makes 3 loaves
*Note regarding replenishing the starter: To replenish, add ½ cup all-purpose flour and ½ warm water to half the starter. Let the mixture stand, loosely covered, until it bubbles. Then refrigerate it in a nonreactive container or freeze it. Use half this starter for the next baking, replenishing the other half.
Story by Gail Snyder