Zen and the Art of Sourdough: A guide to the basics

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It smells sweet and creamy, leaving just a touch of sourness on the back of your tongue.

It looks delicate, like a down pillow waiting for your head to fall.

According to your hands, it feels warm and strong–powerful. According to you, it feels feels like reward and elation.

These are just a few of the sensations I’ve felt since beginning my sourdough journey. It’s one of those activities I’ve always wanted to try, but never seemed to have the time to start.

It all began with Bubbles, my sourdough starter. A starter is a culture of bacteria and yeast that ultimately gives life to bread. Yes, you could purchase active dry yeast from the supermarket, but that gives you just one breed of yeast with one flavor profile and set of behaviors. The beauty of sourdough is its variety–the colonies present in each starter differ based on the air, the flour, and even the baker’s microbiome. This diversity results in flavors and smells unique to each one. Learning this was enough to pique my interest–how would sourdough taste, if it lived with me?

So I adopted Bubbles from a local bakery. This move began a lasting symbiotic relationship: I feed Bubbles daily, he/she/it feeds my belly and my being.

Adopting a starter unlocks a new realm of cooking and baking. Part of it must be removed after every feeding, and you can use that portion to bake nearly anything–crackers, pizza dough, even sourdough banana bread to name a few. It challenges you to create daily. And, when you’ve made too much for yourself, these treats can be used to express love to others.

The process of using starter to bake bread requires care and commitment. When you are finally successful, you can taste triumph in every warm luscious bite.

Sourdough breeds love, joy, and fulfillment–along with the bacteria and yeast. It is meditation, therapy, and artistry all kneaded and rolled into one.

I encourage you to join me and begin your own sourdough-ing expedition. I’ve outlined some tips and tricks below to get you started.

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SOURCES

Much of what I have learned about the science of sourdough comes from the Gastropod “Secrets of Sourdough” podcast. It is just under an hour and teaches you the most fascinating science and history behind the bread.

My recipes are adapted from the blog The Perfect Loaf. Maurizio has beautifully engineered the perfect sourdough recipes–he is, in fact, a former engineer. Don’t be terrified by all the equations he uses (I ignore them, actually).

By the way: there are about as many different sourdough methods as there are bakers. You will find what works best for you.

THE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY TOOLS

A true sourdough artisan has an arsenal of tools. In reality, here’s what I use as a beginner:

Scale–do not skimp. It is worth its weight in gold (bad pun).
Mason jars–for storing your starter
Bannetons or boules–baskets for your bread while it rises
Large mixing bowls–for mixing and bulk fermentation
Razor blade–for scoring the bread before baking. No; knives do not work (I’ve tried with abysmal results).
Covered roasting pans or a cast iron dutch oven–for baking the bread. Make sure it can withstand up to 500 degrees F.
Oven mits that can also withstand 500 degrees F
Oven thermometer–to ensure the oven makes it to 500 degrees F

STARTER

Grab leftover starter from a friend, or build your own. I acquired mine from a local bakery, and they were happy to share!

I use a relatively simple method for feeding my dough:

20-30g starter
100g water
100g flour–The flour can be any combo of bread flour, whole wheat, or rye that you like. Every combo produces a different result. I use a 50/50 mix of bread and whole wheat flours.

Mix them all together and place in a covered jar. Store somewhere around room temperature. I feed my starter about once every 24 hours, ensuring I feed Bubbles before he/she/it starts to look deflated.

What about the rest of the starter? Since you only use about 20-30g of starter for the feeding, that leaves behind about 200g. Use this to bake a variety of sourdough products! My favorites are sourdough crackersย ย and banana bread. I have my own version of these recipes and they will have their own posts soon enough.

If you go away or aren’t baking much, you can store your starter in the fridge. I have left mine for up to a week. Just give it a fresh feeding before refrigeration. To revive your sleeping starter, pull it out to warm up for an hour and then feed as directed. Feed it at least twice before making bread to ensure fiery fermentation.

BAKING BREAD

This is the recipe you are looking for.ย I don’t worry too much about ambient/dough temperature, but it becomes more important as you refine your skills. I just keep the ingredients lukewarm/room temp. Otherwise, all the steps are extremely important. The autolyse, the multiple stretch-and-folds, the overnight fermentation–they all contribute to a robust loaf. Don’t worry about leaving extra time between steps, but certainly don’t short-change them.

Baking bread takes about a day and the next morning. I try to plan for a day I know I will be in and out of the house, like a chore day. I’ve even done it on a Sunday, then woken up before work on a Monday to bake. There’s no feeling quite like eating a fresh-baked breakfast.

My information is brief and these steps are written simply. I encourage you to extend your research to learn even more about the world of sourdough. If you have any other questions, I am here to help and love to teach the word of Dough.

 

 

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