I always wanted to try sourdough bread...someday...but was put off by the all the complex instructions out there for getting started. This summer, I got lucky when a friend gifted me a starter from his own sourdough baking, with the instructions to follow the recipe for sourdough in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.
Bittman's recipe is a good place to start because it's almost like sourdough-lite. You still add commercial yeast to make sure the bread will rise, and the starter is really there just for flavor. The day before baking, I spoon out half the starter into a bowl to combine it with yeast, flour, water, salt and my own mix of whole grains to up the nutritional value. Since his recipe involves making dough the day before, it means I can take a no-knead approach and just do a quick knead until it forms a supple ball. After letting the dough sit overnight, I bake it sometime the next day.
using half the starter to bake a loaf
Each time I bake, I feed the starter by adding more flour and water. I then let it wait in the fridge for a week until I'm ready to bake again. Sometimes more than a week goes by, and the starter accumulates a grayish liquid on top - which is apparently alcohol called hooch that forms when the yeast runs out of sugar and starch to feed on. I pour off the hooch and scrape off the top grayish layer of starter to discard. Then I feed the starter and then wait another day or up to a week until I bake again.
feeding the starter with new flour and water
Sometimes my sourdough bread rises well, and sometimes it doesn't. I am not really sure why - I think it has to do with how the starter has been fared since the last time I fed it. It's also possible that the rye flour I like to include is suppressing yeast bacteria. There are all sorts of forums for diagnosing soudough issues that you can get lost in, but I choose to ignore them and stick with my same approach. I don't let perfection worry me too much, and just hope it turns out better next time. My friend said he's since moved on to a new method that doesn't use commercial yeast, which I'll have to try next...
Whole Grain Sourdough Bread
(adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything)
To make the starter:
At least two days ahead of baking, combine 1 1/2 cup flour, 1/8 tsp yeast and 1 cup warm water. Cover with a damp towel and leave out on your counter. Stir every 8 to 12 hours. Within 1-3 days, the starter should be bubbly and develop a sour smell. After that you can store it in the fridge until you're ready to bake.
To maintain the starter:
Each time you use half the starter for baking, feed it by adding 3/4 cup all purpose flour and 1/2 cup water. Whisk to combine. Cover with a damp cloth and leave out overnight. The next day, cover the container and store in the fridge for up to a week before baking and/or feeding again.
To make the dough:
1/2 of the starter
1/4 tsp yeast
1 1/2 - 2 cups of water
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup rye flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup oats
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1 tsp salt
The day before baking:
In a large bowl, stir the yeast and 1/2 cup warm water until the yeast is mostly dissolved in the water. Let it sit for about five minutes until you can smell the yeasty aroma that indicates the yeast is working. Dump the flour, grains and salt on top, along with 1/2 cup of water. Stir to combine and add more water as needed in 1/4 cup increments. With experience, you will learn the consistency you are looking for - wet and pliable but still able to knead and handle without it being too sticky. I knead right in the bowl, rather than on a cutting board to save on cleanup efforts, for about five minutes. I dust my hands and the dough with flour a few times during kneading as needed. Form the dough into a ball, place seam side down in the bowl, and cover the bowl with a damp towel. Let it rest overnight.
12-24 hours later:
Preheat the oven to 450 about 30 minutes prior to baking. Lightly grease a loaf pan. Gently press down the risen dough and shape into a loaf. Bake at 450 for 30 minutes and then turn down the heat to 350 and bake another 15-30 minutes, until loaf is golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
If you're not ready to try making sourdough yet
See here for my versatile adaptations of no-knead dough
and see here for my regular whole grain bread recipe