Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Beginner's Guide to Sourdough Bread

You know what the internet DOES NOT NEED? (omg, so many things) But specifically- the internet does not need the ramblings of a wanna-be-baker, teaching you everything they just learned about almost kind of successfully making something.


That's right. We're talking sourdough bread.
(If you're here for the recipe...keep scrolling. Or better yet- search Pinterest for someone who actually knows what they're doing. If you're here for the madcap antics...well then on with the show)

You may have seen on my stories, that I've taken up the world's most cliche quarantine hobby (aside from drinking and yelling at my kids...two pastimes that have also been on the uptick in Chez Bowden during this time): baking sourdough bread. Why bread? Well, because: carbs. Why sourdough? Because for a while there, yeast was about as scarce as toilet paper, sourdough relies on a starter instead. 

So on a whim a few weeks ago, I asked one of my very best friends (who just happens to be one of the very best bakers) if she would give me some of her starter. Oh....and also maybe teach me everything she knows about making bread. NBD. Well, she either loves me, or was getting stir crazy with Corona too, (it's both!) because she came over carrying a yogurt container full of stinky stuff (I mean...her prestigious, precious starter), yammering instructions I couldn't possibly absorb on the fly, and promising to follow up with video tutorials via Marco Polo. 

I was on my way! 

For the next couple of weeks, I embarked on my quarantine quest, trying loaf after loaf, and failing a different way each time. Sometimes I forgot to put in an ingredient (is salt crucial?) sometimes I lost track of time, always I mis-judged my flour and water ratios, and never did I make anything that really looked like what sourdough should look like. I do not blame my equipment (a nearly antique Kitchenaid mixer borrowed from a neighbor...followed by a new-to-me via FB marketplace Kitchenaid mixer once I got serious about this), nor do I blame my instructor (she patiently demonstrated every step, trouble-shooted a heap of troubles, and provided alternative uses for my failures: cheesy bread! pizza rolls!) For some reason, I just couldn't get it right. 

At this stage, Dustin had gotten the baking-bug too...but he apparently didn't quite have the knack for it either. We had fun working together, but try as we might...all of our efforts were: fine. All of our loaves looked semi-sort-of decent on the outside, and actually tasted good-ish, but inside the texture wasn't there (much too dense) and it was missing that delicious crusty outside. The kids were delightfully encouraging. They happily ate the cheesy bread (no real shock there. Most things are edible when covered in cheese). And even called our first real loaf "the best bread they've ever eaten!" We gave a few loaves to family and neighbors, and they were kind as well...acknowledging it might not quite count as sourdough...but it's better than NOT having bread!

My friend's technique/recipe was obviously working well for her...but I just didn't seem destined for success. I was a little stuck at this point, because I didn't want to abandon the dream but sifting through other options online was completely overwhelming. Early in my process I had stumbled upon an IG live by @davidavidavid and felt like it was the perfect example of why I had never bothered trying to make sourdough bread before. Everything was in grams, it required fancy equipment, the steps were numerous and time consuming... But for some reason after seeing it again a few weeks later, I just though "Maybe I can do this!" (apparently numerous failures actually gave more more confidence? Perhaps I just knew I didn't have anything to lose?) So I tried following his method.

It was a completely different technique, all done by hand vs. using a mixer. It required a few tools that I don't have (a pizza stone, a kitchen scale, a dutch oven) and some I honestly hadn't even heard of (batons?) but I figured I could just make a few substitutions, convert all the metric measurements and hope for the best. How bad could it be?

Well I think you know the answer to that:
It was my worst batch yet.

To be fair, the recipe made two loaves, and one was marginally better than this one. And as with my other attempts, it looked much worse than it tasted. After checking my measuring math (after baking two loaves is NOT the time to do that...but...) I realized I had used half the amount of flour., that would probably throw off the end result juuuuuust a bit. (I knew something was wrong mid-making, so I had added quite a bit flour, but I didn't realize I was that far off).

So despite all evidence to the contrary I was still feeling pretty encouraged that I might be able to make this work. I decided to give it another go (this time double/triple checking my measurement conversions as I went). And sweet & sour hallelujah I did it! 

 Just look at that big ball of perfection! 

I finally got the crusty outside I wanted, and the fluffy/chewy/air-pockety goodness I wanted on the inside. And it tasted gooooooooood. 

Like a proud mama, I took ten zillion pictures, internet-bragged, shared pieces with anyone who wandered by, and brazenly begged for compliments at every turn. No shame. I worked hard for this!

I wanted to make sure my win wasn't a fluke, so I tried it again, this time documenting my process as I went. (Following along with an IG live video + caption + comment was getting a little tricky, not to mention having to constantly do the math for the time and the measurements). I wanted to have something easy to refer to in the future, and I thought it might be helpful to have a beginner's guide for anyone who is scared off by the other versions they've seen. If I can do can do this (and the good news is I've gotten about 18 different versions of failure out of the way so you don't have to!) So without further is my very basic guide to making very basic (very delicious) sourdough bread:

"My recipe" more or less follows @davidavidavid's process, with a few adjustments and notes:
  • Starter: I absolutely know nothing about this, as I was given mine. I think you can buy them or grow them etc. etc. but getting it from a friend is my best advice. :)
  • Measurements: The original was all done by weight in grams, so I converted it to standard English volume measurements
  • Tools: I don't have batons- I used bowls instead. I don't have a dutch oven- I used an oven safe pot instead. I don't have a pizza stone or a silicon baking mat- I used a baking sheet and parchment paper instead.
  • Times: This is a two day process, with three long pauses built in (one at the beginning for the starter, one in the middle for the dough to rise, and one overnight to rise again). So one day is a little hands on, and then the next day is just baking. It will all vary based on what time you start, so I put things in terms of hours, with a suggested start time of 8AM for reference.
  • Baking Temperature: Original recipe instructs baking at 500 and 450 degrees, but my pot is only oven safe to 450, so I just baked at that temperature for the duration. Parchment paper is apparently only rated to 425 suppose I've been taking a risk there.
  • Egg wash: I added this step (it was part of my friend's process). It's not required, but I like how it adds a bit of color/shine to the finished loaf.
Day 1:
Hour 0: (8am)
Feed the starter. (Stir the starter if it has separated). Mix ½ cup warm water and ½ cup flour together and add to the starter. Let it sit at room temperature (covered is fine) for around 5 hours.

Starter, pre-stirring
Flour + water. Not sure if it's necessary to mix them together 
BEFORE putting them in the starter, but I

Starter, after sitting for 5ish hours

Hour 5: (1pm)
“Autolyse”: Mix 8 cups of flour and 3 ¼ cups water. Let sit together for 30 minutes
Flour and water. It's tempting to add more water. Don't.

Hour 5.5: (1:30pm)
Add ½ cup starter and 1 tablespoon salt. Mix together. Cover for 30 minutes (Cover with cling wrap or a damp cloth and let sit at room temperature). 
Flour and water mixture, with starter + salt added. 
I make a little concave area for the starter and salt to go in before mixing.

 All mixed up. Not pretty yet. That's ok.

Hour 6-7.5: (2pm, 2:30pm, 3pm, 3:30pm)
Begin stretch and fold. Pull the dough up from one side, stretch it out, pull it across the bowl, and pinch it back into itself. Quarter turn the bowl, and do it again, 4 times, one on each side. I like to scrape the sides after to keep the bowl clean. Do this once every half hour, 4 times, covering in between stretch and folds.

This would be better as a video...but here's more or less 
what it looks like after each fold/turn.

Hour 7.5: (3:30pm)
Cover for the bulk rise. Let it sit at room temperature for about 6 or 7 hours. (I've heard semi-warm and humid is best, so I actually set mine in the garage rather than the kitchen because our house was too cold/dry).

 This is what it looks like when it's done rising. Should be significantly 
bigger/springier/puffier than when you last touched it. 

Hour 14: (10pm)
Shape your loafs. Sprinkle your work surface with a little flour. Empty your bowl with a scraper but be delicate. You don’t want to deflate your dough. It’s going to be super wet and you’ll probably think it’s too wet to work with and you did something wrong. It’s not, and you didn’t. Resist the urge to just dump a ton of flour on it to make it easier to work with. Cut the dough in equal size halves. Separate them. Pull them delicately into rectangles. Pull from each side and pinch on the other to make a log, then I roll it on top of itself to create a ball. Push the outsides underneath to hide the seams. Cover and let it rest on the counter for 30 minutes.

 Again- hard to explain/picture, but this is what the dough looks like when 
you pull from each side and overlap it in the middle.


Hour 14.5: (10:30pm)
Repeat this last step, but instead of bench resting for 30 minutes, just let it sit for just a few seconds to hide the seam.
Flour two bowls and put dough in each. Cover (with plastic wrap) and let proof in the refrigerator overnight.
 Not a perfect ball. A smaller bowl would help it stay rounder.

Day 2: (Morning)
Remove the dough from the refrigerator, and check to make sure it has risen.

Dough after the overnight rise. 
You can see where I didn't do a great job tucking in my folds on the end.

Place a baking sheet and large pot (or dutch oven) in the oven and preheat to 450 degrees. When preheated, pull them out, remove the pot and add a piece of parchment paper (or something similar/safer) to the baking sheet. Turn your bowl over to place the dough on the baking sheet (reshape a little if necessary). Take a blade or sharp knife and give it a good semi-circular cut to allow for growth while baking. Brush with an egg wash (1 egg or egg white mixed with a little bit of water). Cover with the pot. Bake for 20 minutes. Then remove pot and bake again for an additional 10 minutes. Let rest for 30 minutes before cutting/eating.

 Pre-bake. Not the most perfect loaf shape...but it will work. 


 After 20 minutes, covered.
  After 10 more minutes, uncovered.

So there it is....a six week long gluten-y journey of tears and triumph, all culminating in the sweet taste of victory.
Have you ever tried baking your own bread? Was it fraught with as much heartbreak as my experience? Are you tempted to give it a(nother) try now?

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