The no-carb, gluten-free team shall never recruit me. I love me some bread. But I’ve done my research and know the grains available in your average supermarket are a mutated-mutilated distant relative of those our grandparents consumed as children. You can get involved in a rigorous soaking regimen; been there, done that, not too hard, fairly delicious. But according to every paleo resource on the interwebs, the best (and tastiest) way to render conventional flour into digestible form is via sourdough.
In order to have sourdough bread, of course, one requires sourdough starter. In theory, this is an easy, fun, countertop science experiment. For me, it worked fine in Boston, but alas, my first two Santa Rosa tries turned into a funky witches brew. After a year of intending to do so, I finally purchased starter. (I chose this one.) almost immediately, I saw the creamy concoction I craved happily bubble into being before my eyes.
There are all sorts of conventions about feeding starters, discarding quantities, etc., but here’s what I do: I try to use it at least once a week. Seriously, that’s it. Mostly I keep up with it just by making another loaf of bread when ours runs out, but there are lots of options… Biscuits, crackers, pancakes, pizza dough, bagels, even cookies! Then I feed equal parts water and flour to replace what I’ve used, stir it in, and that’s that. The rest of the week it sits in our fridge like long-forgotten leftovers to frighten guests.
I started with a basic recipe and began tweaking. First, I swapped out the sugar — kind of a no-brainer since honey, agave, and maple syrup are all healthier, more natural sweeteners than the granulated kind… Honey is my favorite, but a no-go till Platypup turns one due to the small risk of botulism. Then I adjusted the amount of liquid sugar down and added some herbs (dried thyme the first time, fresh fennel the next two times). You can play around with toppers (egg wash, shredded cheese, or honey on top before baking, or butter after taking it out).
I recently learned a folding technique for getting a taller loaf, which I’ve included here, and I also lengthened the rise times; you’ll end up with a flatter, sweeter bread if you don’t give the yeast plenty of time to feast. What used to bug me about sourdough in my former life, before motherhood, is now a plus: there is a lot of waiting between steps! I used to want to do all the work in one go; now I’m glad it doesn’t have to be done all at once.
The last two times I’ve made it the texture has been amazing. It holds together for sandwiches and when you press it with your finger it bounces back instead of squishing or crumbling. The crust is pleasantly chewy rather than hard, with just a bit of crunch to the top. In short, after years of baking decently well, it is the first time I’ve made unequivocally real bread!
Elizabeth’s First Real Bread
1 c. sourdough starter
1 & 1/2 c. warm water
1 & 1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 c. honey, agave, or maple syrup
1/2 c. olive oil
Handful of herbs
6 c. flour (approx.)
Mix all ingredients together, adding flour gradually until texture seems right. Knead or have your mixer do it for you — this bread is a little too much for my mixer so I usually knead a portion while the mixer tackles the rest and swap out from time to time.
Cover and let rise at room temperature 12-24 hours until doubled in size. In my kitchen in northern California in the spring, this means about 18-20 hrs. Don’t skimp on this step.
Punch down, knead again if you want, and shape into a round or oval loaf. (You can also divide into two smaller loaves if your family is less glutinous about fresh bread than mine and you are concerned about it going stale.)
Let rise about 30 min, then flip over carefully (they make a cool tool for this step, but I don’t have one). Fold into thirds left to right, then front to back, pressing gently to seal the final seam. (My final seam opened up a bit this time and I baked it anyway. It was still great.) Let rise again with the seam on top, until doubled in size from original ball. Yesterday this took about four hours.
[I use a silpat on a baking sheet. I highly recommend a silpat! If you aren't using one, though, insert a step about greasing or cornmealing the pan.]
Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Make your slashes in the top (seam up) with your sharpest knife — I usually do three parallel slashes. If you are going to brush the top with an egg wash, sprinkle cheese, or drizzle honey, now’s the time.
Bake about 1 hr 10 min for one big loaf or about 45 min for two smaller loaves. I hear bread is supposed to sound hollow when you knock on the bottom if it’s done, but all I get when I try that is some singed knuckles and an indistinct sort of thumping sound so I’ve stopped trying.
When you decide it’s done, take it out and resist the urge to eat immediately — the texture is better if you let it cool!
Here’s our latest loaf:
Pretty gorgeous, huh?