I've been wanting to tell you about my Sourdough Bread Adventure for a couple weeks, but life is busy and I haven't had a chance to work on my sourdough much, let alone perfect any recipes or type them up. Since I made my sourdough starter a few weeks ago, I've baked bread four times. That's a start, right? All the loaves have had different characteristics and they have all been pleasing in their own way.
First, the Starter
I've been reading about sourdough starter for, well, years. I've read various blogs and websites and one of my current favorite cookbooks, DIY Delicious by Vanessa Barrington, has a nice chapter on sourdough bread making. Most recently I turned to the blog of the good bakers at King Arthur Flour. They've got to know their stuff, right? Plus, I appreciate that in a blogosphere saturated with both stylized food photography and photography so horrible that the bloggers should be ashamed to post it, King Arthur Flour's blog is full of utilitarian, well-lit, genuinely useful photos. Did I count right? Sixteen photos of a sourdough starter at various stages in this post alone?
I made my sourdough starter using just flour and water, four ounces of each at room temperature. I mixed them up in a 1 quart plastic yogurt container, covered it with a cloth napkin and let it sit outside in the shade for a couple days, bringing it in at night. Within three days it was bubbly and had a pleasant alcoholic smell. Its difficult to describe, but it's the kind of smell that fills your nostrils and begs you to bake... or relax and have a glass of wine. Hence, I found myself baking four different breads in the span of a couple weeks.
Second, the Breads
My First Attempt: Good flavor, but a little flat
I started with a recipe from King Arthur Flour for Extra Tangy Sourdough Bread. It wasn't the "Extra Tangy" that drew me in; I've never been a fan of sour sourdough breads. It was the fact that the recipe did not call for additional yeast, which I am almost completely out of, which is what finally motivated me to make a sourdough starter after a couple years of reading about it.
I made the recipe just as written, except that I did not add "sour salt" (citric acid), which I really should have on hand for cheese making, but... And that my rise times were a little longer than the recipe suggests, simply so that I could fit the rising and baking into my schedule. I fed my starter Friday evening, mixed the dough some time on Saturday, shaped the loaves Sunday morning and baked them after church.
My first batch (2 loaves) turned out flatter than the loaf pictured on their website. It was delicious bread, with a pleasing, but not overwhelming, sour taste. We liked it a lot, but we agreed that my next batch needed to be more than two inches high in order to be a suitable shape for sandwiches.
My Second Attempt: A stronger sour flavor, a moist interior, a chewy crust
So I used the same recipe again, just starter, flour, water, sugar and salt, but this time instead of dividing the dough into two loaves and baking on a sheet, I preheated my dutch oven in the oven, and when it was time to bake, I 'carefully' transferred the whole ball of dough, which took it's second rise on a piece of parchment, into the dutch oven. I baked it with the lid on for 25 minutes, then I took the lid off and baked it another 15 minutes. The sides of the dutch oven kept the bread a reasonable size for sandwiches and having the whole thing enclosed resulted in a really chewy, crisp crust. The interior of the bread was moist, almost as if it could have baked another five minutes or so. (Some kind of kitchen thermometer would be handy, wouldn't it?) Again we liked it. I sliced it and froze it, and we're still using it for garlic toast and that type of thing.
My Third Attempt: Something with the texture of a Classic Sandwich Loaf
Next I wanted to try a different recipe, maybe something less chewy, more tender. Jason brought me The Ballymaloe Bread Book by Tim Allen, when he returned from his recent trip to Ireland. There's an excellent recipe for a thin, almost cracker-like pizza dough in that book. I think I've made the recipe (which makes 8 rounds of dough) three times since Jason gave me the book a month and a half ago. Yes, we like it that much! So I naturally turned to the sourdough chapter in that book next. I made the White Sourdough Bread. (I'll post the recipe soon, but I want to make it a couple more times first,so that I'llhave more to say about it.) Like the pizza recipe that we've enjoyed so much, it contains a few tablespoons of butter, which yields a more tender crumb than my previous two virtually fat-free loaves. This bread is the closest I've come to a classic white sandwich bread. It's tender, soft enough that it doesn't clog the works when you try to swallow bites of a sandwich, but strong enough to hold up against the filling in a sandwich. This is probably our favorite of the sourdough breads.
My Fourth Attempt: Sourdough meets whole grain
I wanted to make a loaf with some whole grain goodness. I'm one of those moms who sneaks whole grains into most of my baking, much to the chagrin of my husband, so it seemed out of character to be baking with so much all-purpose flour in the last few loaves. Luckily, Tim has a recipe for Brown Bread just opposite his perfect recipe for White Sourdough Bread. This one lacks butter and olive oil. It's just starter, a mixture of white flour and whole wheat flour, a little sugar and salt. The recipe refers to the flours as "strong white flour" and "strong brown flour." I assume the American equivalents might be bread flour and whole wheat flour, or maybe a high-gluten whole wheat flour, but I used all purpose flour and a mix I ground myself: about 4 parts Massa Organics wheat berries with two parts millet and 1/4 part flax seed. This bread is baked in two loaf pans, making it the perfect size and shape for toast. I like the flavor of whole grains and I like the virtuous feeling of serving them to my children, so we went through these loaves quickly. They are a little too dense for sandwiches though; it is more of a toasting bread.
Next time I bake whole grain bread, I'd like to use Tim's recipe for White Sourdough--the tender one with the butter--and just substitute in some whole wheat flour and some high-gluten flour for part of the "strong white flour." Don't worry though, Jason, the dough for my next batch of the White Sourdough Bread is already rising on the counter, so the freezer will be stocked with both "your" bread and "mine" soon.