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Sourdough Bread: My other current culinary obsession

April 7, 2011

After graduating from college I taught English in the Czech Republic for two years.  That was quite a while ago now, but ever since those years in Prague, I’ve been on the hunt for something akin to the chleb I loved so very much there.  Dark, dense, chewy sourdough rye that was killer toasted and slathered with butter and honey.  I finally decided I should set out to learn to make it myself, or at least as close of an approximation as I could manage.

That’s what led me to start cultivating a sourdough starter about a year ago.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I fumbled my way through a cheater’s approach to starting a starter (using a very tiny bit of conventional yeast to get things going) , and by some miracle, I managed to keep my starter alive for a good six months–though it was a proper Jabba the Hut, filling a gallon-sized container and taking up a hefty share of fridge space.  Then I discovered Susan at Wild Yeast and gradually got my starter on track.   Now I have a pint-sized mason jar full of hungry little yeasties living on my kitchen counter, thriving on two meals a day.  And my loaves are a million times better–more loft, more sour, more satisfaction.  This is an adaptation of Susan’s Norwich More-Sourdough, and also my first submission to YeastSpotting.  I call it Sour-er-dough Bread.

As for the chleb.  I’ve had some success over the last few months.  I will let you know when I get as close as possible to what is becoming an unreachable pinnacle of bread perfection in my imagination and memory.  For now, here’s Sour-er-dough, a bread with a strong tang, a pronounced crust and a chewy crumb.

The recipe (an adaptation on Wild Yeast’s Norwich More-Sourdough, which is an adaptation of Jeffrey Hamelman’s Vermont Sourdough with Increased Wholegrain, from Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes).  I make all of my bread by hand (oh for the day we can purchase a Kitchen Aide!), so my technique reflects this fact (i.e. I start with the maximum amount of water and hold back flour, working it in gradually as I knead to ensure proper gluten development and hydration).

480 grams 100% hydration sourdough starter

560 grams water

180 grams semolina flour

225 grams whole wheat flour

440 grams flour

23 grams salt

1. Mix the starter and water in a large bowl.  Add the flour gradually (reserve a few handfuls for later) and mix (with a wooden spoon or the like) until you are tempted to turn it out to knead by hand.

2. Let the dough rest–autolyse–for 30 minutes, covered.  (I use a large plastic shopping bag to cover my dough).

3.  Add the salt and knead it in, dusting the dough and your hands with the remaining flour as necessary to keep from sticking.

4. Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until you have a medium level of gluten development.

5. Put the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl or container.  Cover and let rise (ferment)–I put my bowl in my large, plastic shopping bag–at room temperature for 2 1/2 hours, with a fold half way through.  (to fold: instead of punching the dough down, pick it up and stretch it some, fold it in thirds, then repeat this going the opposite direction).

6. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into three pieces.  Preshape each piece into balls and let rest (covered) for about 20 minutes.

7. Shape each ball into a batard (oblong) or boule (round) and place, seam side up, on a floured tea towel (pull a little bit of towel up between each loaf) spread on a baking sheet.  Cover and let ferment 1 hour 45 minutes at room temperature.  Put the whole package (loaves on towel on baking sheet in plastic bag) in the fridge overnight to ferment.  (Or, let ferment for 2 1/2 hours to start with and bake right away).

8. Preheat oven with baking stone to 475F.

9. Remove loaves from fridge and transfer, seam side down, to a piece of parchment paper dusted with flour that will fit your stone (I had to bake my loaves in shifts–I left the third in the fridge while the first two baked).  Spray with water.  Let the loaves rest about 5 minutes.  Then score them as you like and spray again.

10. Prepare a steam tray–a baking sheet with 2-3 cups of water in it.  When the oven and baking stone are ready, remove the stone and put the steam tray in, on a rack below your bread rack (I bake my bread on the second-from-the-bottom level, with the steam tray on the bottom level).  Slide your parchment-with-loaves onto the hot stone and return to the oven.  Turn the heat down to 450F.  Bake for about 10 minutes with steam, then remove the steam tray and continue baking for 10 minutes more.  Then remove the parchment and rotate the loaves and bake for 10 minutes more.  The crust should be dark golden brown (and blistery if you retarded the dough in the fridge overnight), and the loaf should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

11.  Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack.  Mmm, mmm, eat some soon, but not for at least 30 minutes.  Things are still happening in there.  Don’t disturb the process.  But when you do slice in,  spread a healthy amount of butter on that crusty, coveted end piece and enjoy.  I love this bread in the morning as toast with butter and orange marmalade.  And a large mug of milk-and-honeyed black tea.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2011 7:13 am

    Your bread looks incredibly delicious! I wish I could smell it baking. At the beginning of your post, I felt inspired to make my own bread but, as I read the process, I feel a bit overwhelmed. Maybe someday…
    Natalie’s calling. Love you and your bread! xoxo

    • April 8, 2011 8:16 am

      Thanks, Bethers! I know that overwhelmed feeling–but it is one of those processes that, once learned and understood a bit, is actually quite intuitive. But homemade bread of any kind–sourdough or otherwise (let’s count cinnamon rolls here :0)–is always a fabulous thing! I envy your cake making! Love to you, too– -S

  2. May 19, 2011 12:23 am

    Wow, mouth-watering photos! I love homemade bread. My favorite to make (easy!) is focaccia. (Ha! Firefox’s spellchecker didn’t recognize that word and wanted to suggest flaccid. Not!)

    • May 21, 2011 11:56 am

      Funny! Definitely NOT flaccid, at least not on purpose! Thanks for having a look, Rosie. Happy baking!

      -Sarah

  3. December 20, 2011 12:30 pm

    Hi Sarah, I mentioned it once briefly at Grandview, but some time soon I’d love to pick you brain again about your souer-er dough, flours etc. I’d also love to pinch a little of your amazing starter if you have some and you can bear to spare it. I’nm hoping to get back into bread making this winter. Hope your Christ-mass time with your family is special. Sharolyn

    • December 20, 2011 6:45 pm

      Thanks for finding my blog, Sharolyn! I will happily share some starter with you in the new year–always plenty to spare! Likewise, I hope your Christmas is a joyous one. Happy baking–Sarah

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