It took a day and a half before any ‘bubbles’ formed, and when they did they were so small they didn’t even break the surface.
When it came to making a sourdough starter, all I heard was how difficult it would be. How nuanced the technique was, and how you need to know what to look for and how to correct it if something’s wrong. While that’s true to a certain extent, with a bit of research and some helpful resources I was able to get one going without too much fuss. My conditions were often not ideal (it got too cool at night, I was in the process of moving from one place to another and often took it with me in my hot car, and because of the double locations it was getting tap water from two places (while I should’ve, probably, been using bottled spring water)) – still, none of these things seemed to matter too greatly.
I can attribute this to the wonderful, knowledgeable, Mike Avery – his site, SourdoughHome.com, explains the ins and outs of what a starter is, how and why it works, and what methods to use. There’s even contact information, and Avery encourages you to email if you have any questions or are running into problems.
I never emailed him, though there were a few points where I thought I might. I wish I had more step-by-step photos of my starter starting, but as it is I only remembered to take a few.
Here’s the link to the very detailed instructions I followed: http://www.sourdoughhome.com/startermyway.html
I used stone-ground whole wheat flour and regular tap water, and when I first mixed it up it seemed very, very thick.
More like a dough than a starter at this point.
The first ‘bubbles’ peeking through.
It had begun to smell, though, so I took this as a good sign and went on to feed it. After that first feeding I fed it about every twelve hours, in the AM and PM, discarding half (by weight) and measuring my flour and water by weight. It continued to rise some, fall some, and bubble some, but it seemed a little lazy and the smell had lessened. I wondered if it was dying, or if it was just a little too cold to move quickly. It was doing things, though, and it was extremely sticky and glutinous:
It was so sticky it was hard to get off the spoon!
And gas bubbles were much more noticeable inside of the starter, when stirred with a spoon, than they were on top or through the sides of the container.
This is after stirring with the water of one feeding, before adding the flour.
After maybe 4 days of feeding, I switched to all-purpose flour, feeling that, if the starter was dying it was already too late, and if it wasn’t than I might as well move ahead and see if it would hold up. I still had hope, because there was some rise and fall (although not double) and though the smell was mild, a small taste revealed that it was, indeed, sour.
As soon as I switched flours, I began to see more bubbles, and it was clear that it was at least doubling in size between feedings.
I presume this is because the all-purpose is less heavy and dense than the whole wheat, giving less resistance to the gas bubbles inside. This gave me hope, and for another few days I fed the starter (and at one point, instead of discarding half, I started a second starter). I kept them going up until the eighth day, when I decided to attempt my first loaf.
Now, recipes for sourdough bread were just as confusing as the many recipes for starters. One of the biggest issues was the fact that most of the recipes came with their own sourdough starter methods, which were then measured differently, or they would call for additional leavening, etc.
Since I’ve been reading CookWise, I flipped to Corriher’s section on sourdough and found (after her method for starting a starter) a simple and detailed recipe.
2 cups starter (at one feeding I did not discard half of my starter, doubling its size – this was almost two cups, the remainder of which I took from the second starter. If your recipe calls for more starter than you have, just double the feeding and don’t discard until you have enough)
1 teaspoon barley malt syrup (this is liquid barley malt, it’s thick and dark like molasses and can be found at many health-food stores and online)
1/4 cup crushed ice
2 cups, plus one 1 cup, bread flour (3 cups total)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 TBSP oil
Coarse ground cornmeal, as needed
Some of the things I’ve learned from reading the book that this recipe uses are that, A. Barley malt helps convert flour to food for yeast, B. The minerals in sea salt will help with gluten development, and C. Gluten proteins absorb more water and make better gluten when cold, hence the crushed ice.
(The book also goes into detail about how adding semolina or dried bean flours to crusty French breads helps with flavor, nutrition, and yeast growth, how adding certain amounts of various spices can either help or hinder yeast in a recipe, and how the addition of a little vitamin C to a dough will work with the oxidizers added to most flours to help improve gluten development – truly insightful information!)
Back to the bread.
To a stand mixer with a dough hook (or in a large bowl with a wooden spoon, or a food processor), add the starter, barley malt syrup, ice, and first two cups of bread flour. Beat on low speed for 1 minute, then add the salt. (Though it isn’t mentioned in CookWise, I’ve read from several other sources that salt will slow yeast development, and giving the yeast a chance to interact with the flour before adding the salt will give it a better a rise – I don’t know how true that is, but I waited the extra minute before adding it non-the-less).
Slowly add the last cup of flour as needed (I only needed about 1/4-1/2 cup, and because I had a small handful of whole-wheat flour leftover from starting my starter I threw that in). Knead on low-medium speed for 5 minutes (or by hand for at least 10), until the dough is very elastic. The dough should be firm, so add a little flour if you need to.
Rub some oil between your hands, and with a gentle cupping and tucking motion shape the dough into a smooth tight ball. Rounding the dough like this is an important step I wasn’t aware even existed until recently. In gluten development, what’s happening is protein strands are aligning and stretching all in the same direction – rounding the dough helps to align the gluten and hold in the gas. Cover the rounded dough with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes – letting the dough rest here gives the glutens a chance to relax, and makes shaping it easier.
Shaping the dough led to yet another useful tip – while most of the time I would pull and tuck the dough under itself, creating a very tight surface, this would deflate some of the gasses already inside the dough. CookWise offers an alternative technique, in which you hold the dough in your left hand, held at an angle, slide your right hand counter-clockwise along the side of the ball, creating a very light kneading. The ball will rotate some in your left hand, and you can repeat this kneading all the way around. Then, very gently, pull the top taut by tucking the sides under. This very gentle way of shaping helps keep in any rise the dough has already achieved. Pinch the bottom to seal.
Sprinkle a baking sheet with a thorough layer of cornmeal and place the loaf on it. Dust the loaf lightly with about a TBSP of bread flour and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until doubled, about 3-4 hours.
This was yet another step that astonished me – while I’ve heard so many recipes boast their many long rests and rises, and promote the importance of things like sitting in the fridge overnight for optimal flavor and fermentation, this recipe was very quick in comparison. This made me a little suspicious, but in a section devoted to sourdough starters Corriher notes that some starters are not strong enough for a second rise without another feeding. Knowing that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I went ahead and followed her suggested times.
At about three and a half hours in, the dough looked to be about doubled, so I pre-heated my oven to 475f. Here’s where my recipe differed from hers – she calls for the use of a baking stone, which I don’t have, and although she offers alternatives to this (such as cold-oven starts) I was intent on using my still shiny-new Dutch oven (Bessy). So I heated the oven with the Bessy inside until it was fully up to temperature. This is where I realized the difficulties of my predicament – I had to slide the loaf into the bottom of my Dutch oven without dropping, plopping, or flopping it in and losing all its rise. Fortunately, I was quick to a solution.
First, I got the loaf ready by slashing the top with a very, very sharp knife (to help make room for gas expansion and rising, steam escaping, and to look fantastic – please be sure to use an extra-sharp blade, even a razor blade, to do the slicing, otherwise you can end up deflating much of the rise you’ve worked for). Then I sprinkled a handful of cornmeal into the bottom of the Dutch oven, to be sure my loaf wouldn’t stick. Last, I transferred the loaf onto a large sheet of parchment paper, which I used to lower/slide the dough into the bottom of the Dutch oven in one smooth motion. Viola!
I closed the lid quickly, and closed the oven door, turning the heat down to 450f. If I were using a stone or a cast-iron skillet or some other open method, I would have placed a tray with water on the lower rack to steam the loaf. In the Dutch oven with the lid on, though, it steamed itself for the first half hour of baking. After that half hour, I took the lid off and baked for another 10-15 minutes to get a good crust.
When the loaf looked good and crusty I carefully removed the Dutch oven, and slid the bread out (with the help of a spatula) onto a cutting board to cool.
While the bread cooled, the crust made a crinkly cracking sound. I’ve heard of this happening, and bakers refer to it as the loaf ‘singing’, but I’ve never understood why until now – because it’s like music to the ears! I bounced up and down with excitement as I waited until it was ready to cut.
After about forty five minutes of cooling, I was able to slice into the bread.
Oooh, it was still warm inside, but the crust just crackled beautifully beneath my blade. It had a soft interior, and not many holes – probably due, in part, to the short rise time. This is by no means a downfall. The loaf felt amazing, looked amazing, and with one bite I was so pleased with myself I had to do a little dance of joy.
With a tingle of well-anticipated excitement, I spread on some fresh, local, home-made jam. This is what I’d been waiting for…
… and it was every bit as good as I had imagined! The sourdough was the perfect medium for the jam, complimenting but not distracting from it. The crust had just the right amount of crunch and chew to it, while the middle was tender and smooth. Everything I could’ve hoped for from my first attempt!
Somehow I managed to share this bread not only with The Boyfriend, but also with The Dad and Mom, who both gave such rave reviews it was almost frightening – had I really made such a good loaf of bread that my parents would lose some of their beans over it? Wow. Sometimes I impress myself.
Now that my starter is strong and active, I’m keeping it in the fridge. As time goes on, it should only get better, resulting in bigger more flavorful loaves. Now, if only the weather would cool down so I could bake one!