Monday, July 19, 2010

Sourdough - The Lazy Person's Guide

OK. So you think that making sourdough bread has to be difficult? Or time consuming? Or require special skills?  Well, you're right! But it doesn't have to be. And this post is going to show you how to make a very decent loaf of sourdough bread while at the same time not dedicating your entire life to making a loaf of bread. There are ways, you know!

The traditional way to create sourdough is a two stage process: first make a starter, then add the starter to the rest of the dough ingredients. And we're still going to do that. The difference lies in the preparation of the starter. There are natural, wild yeast cells floating in the air. Truly dedicated 'sourdoughists' make their starter by mixing flour and water (nothing else) and then exposing the slurry to the air for sometimes days at a time. The result, if they are lucky, is a starter that if properly maintained, will produce truly spectacular sourdough bread. We can get around that by giving the starter a little boost by mixing a bare minimum of active dry yeast into the water/flour mixture. The result is not inferior to any sourdough made the other way, just much less intensive in the preparation. I am not alone, BTW, in looking for shortcuts, as it were, to make this wonderful bread. Peter  Reinhardt in his wonderful book The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread, deals extensively precisely with this topic. He demonstrates ways to make sourdough breads not only with the traditional starters, but also with the faster 'yeast-assisted' starters. In any event, if you want the sour flavor, you must let the dough ferment. So start the process today, but actually only bake the bread tomorrow. There are other books that deal with various kinds of artisan breads, like the very popular Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking. Notice that the way to get the '5 minutes a day' is by reducing the time required to make the starter. You really should try this bread, if for no other reason, than to prove to yourself that you can. It requires some patience and caring for details. The results are well worth it.

Here's What You'll Need:
for the starter
1 cup flour (bread flour recommended)
1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 cup room temperature water

and for the dough:
2 2/3 cups (380g) flour
2 tsp active dry yeast
the starter
1/2 cup room temperature water
2 tsp. salt
flour for decoration

Here's What You'll Need to Do:
1. The night before you intend to bake the bread, mix the starter ingredients in a large bowl for 2-3 minutes until you have a smooth slurry. Cover it with plastic wrap, and let it stand overnight (at least 6 hours) at room temperature.

2. The next day, mix the flour with the yeast in a large bowl, with a mixer, then add the starter mixture. Mix at low speed for a few minutes. Finally add the salt. Gradually add the water until a dough is formed and continue to mix for a total of about 10 minutes.
3. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat then cover and let it rise until doubled in volume, about 2 hours. Let the dough be your guide. In other words, if you see it has doubled in less than 2 hours then  go on to the next step. It might also take longer. All of this depends on how well developed the starter was overnight, something you don't have complete control over. So let your eyes determine when the dough is ready.
4. Punch down the dough, them form into a ball shape and place on a baking sheet with parchment paper. (Alternatively, you could place the dough in a cloth-lined basket. Just make sure the cloth is well-floured or the dough will stick to it.Let the dough rise again until doubled in volume.
5. Preheat the oven to 450 F (220 C).
6. If you 'proofed' the dough in a basket, gently turn it over onto the baking sheet with the parchment paper. In any event, once the dough is on the baking sheet, sprinkle a little flour over the top, then using a sharp knife, make two or three slashes in the dough about 1/4 inch (3 mm) deep. This helps the gas escape during baking and prevent s the bread from splitting when the gas escapes. It, of course, makes the bread look great.
7. Place a small pan of boiling water on the bottom of the oven for the first 10 minutes of baking. Then remove the pan and continue baking for another 30 minutes, or until the bread is a deep brown.The bread should also feel 'light'. (This is because the gas and the water have left and 'lightened' the bread).

1. You could make the same bread using whole wheat flour. Just substitute 1/3 of the regular flour for the same amount of whole wheat in the starter. In the dough ingredients substitute 1 cup of whole wheat for 1 cup regular flour.

2. This bread can also be made using cheese. Towards the end of the kneading, add about 1/2 cup grated cheese (the sharper the better - cheddar, kaskkeval, romano, jack). You won't regret it.

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