Introduction: Sourdough Bread

About: I'm Barb, one of two sisters who live in two different states, cook in two different kitchens, and each raise our own families. In a larger sense, though, we Share a Kitchen. We're bound together by our love …

The. Best. Sourdough Bread. Ever. (or The Key to the Bread Universe)

The first time I ever had this great bread was in my sister-in-law's kitchen. I thought I was eating some artisan bakery bread when she casually mentioned that she had made it herself. I've made a lot of bread over the years but I've NEVER made bread like what I was eating. The world of bread changed at that moment for me. Two years ago I wrote a lot about sourdough on my blog, My Sister's Kitchen. Since then, with a lot of practice almost daily, my recipe and technique has been perfected--at least for MY kitchen! (If you want to read more about my sourdough journey, please feel free to check out My Sister's Kitchen.)

I had resigned myself to simply buying good, crusty sourdough since I never even came close to replicating the famous San Francisco sourdough loaves I ate as a child. But no longer~! For over two years now my kitchen counter has been lined with many bowls of starter, batter, dough, etc. (Dr. Seuss aficionados should think, Bartholomew and the Ooblek.) My entire kitchen has been taken over by this wonderful project. So far, the results have been overwhelmingly excellent!

A very important detail to note is that this method makes extra large loaves that are approximately 4.5 pounds each. Each loaf costs only $0.68 to make. That is sixty-eight cents. I buy flour and yeast in bulk, so it's possible that if you buy your ingredients at a regular grocery store, your loaf might cost twice that....a whopping $1.36! As you'll see, that's for a loaf that's about 3 times the size of a loaf of grocery store bread.

(And don't be intimidated by all the steps. I've broken things down into as simple increments as possible because this is really EASY!)

In some ways, sourdough starter is the ultimate renewable resource because it's ALIVE! I was coaching a friend through her first bread-making experience and explaining how to care for her starter. She turned to me and said, "You're talking about this starter like it's a live creature!" And she's right. It IS a live critter. As long as I keep it comfortable and well-fed, it will go on growing, replicating, and replenishing itself.

The art of making sourdough bread is a delightful exercise in returning to the "olden days" of some of the original DIYers--the gold miners and the pioneers. Sourdough isn't a new, green technology; it's an old, even ancient, technology that has sustained people for milennia. Making our own sourdough returns us to an age of LESS technology and LESS speed. Don't forget: LESS money too!

Sourdough bread, made properly, ambles slowly in a world that frantically runs. It might even ask for a tall glass of sweet tea and a rocking chair on the porch.

Step 1: How in the World Does Sourdough Save Energy?

I'm glad you asked!

First of all, any time we prepare our own food instead of buying it at the supermarket, we're choosing a lower tech option.

*We start by saving the fuel cost of driving to the store to buy bread.

*We save the energy cost of the commercial manufacturing process of baking bread.

*We save the fuel costs of shipping commercial bread to stores.

*We know exactly what's IN our bread because we've made it by hand. There are no additives or funky unnatural ingredients.

*Every step of the breadmaking process is done by hand. We don't use mixers or blenders or any power-consuming appliances.

*We can even choose the option of baking our bread in the woodstove, on the charcoal grill, or over a campfire if we want to avoid using the oven.

*Both bread-making and the cultivation of sourdough starters have some great community implications. We're not in this alone. Just like the yeasts in the sourdough, we can permeate our communities with change.

*Best of all, anyone can make this bread. The average individual who is trying to live responsibly, minimize use of non-renewable resources, maximize use of renewable resources, and make small but significant changes can easily start making bread like this.

*Sourdough starter itself is a great example on a small scale of a renewable and renewing resource. The crock of starter sitting on the counter can remind you every day that small things make a difference.

So let's get started. This is much more of a method than a recipe. It's not difficult. The entire process takes several hours, but for most of that time, the starter does all the heavy lifting.

Step 2: Gather the Ingredients

Start by gathering all your ingredients. You'll need the following things:
1 c. sourdough starter*
6 c. bread flour**
3 c. water
2 t. salt
1/4 t. yeast

*information on sourdough starter is in the next step

** Bread flour works best, but all-purpose flour will also work out just fine. If you want a whole wheat loaf, you can substitute whole wheat flour in a roughly 1 to 1 proportion. I personally find that a loaf made of 100% whole wheat flour, especially flour I grind myself, a little too heavy for my family. Using 50% home-ground whole wheat flour produces a nice loaf. Some of the rise times might need to be adusted if your kitchen is cool.

Step 3: A Word About Sourdough Starter

If you don't have your own sourdough starter, there are a number of ways to get some.

You can find a friend who makes sourdough or keeps starter. If you start asking around, you might be surprised by how many people have sourdough starter sitting in the back of the fridge. You can buy a little kit of dry ingredients and mix up your own starter. Doing it this way will add some time because you'll need to let the starter get established before you use it.

Or, if you're feeling brave, you can try making your own starter from scratch. Here are two different methods that I've blogged about:

Here are two Instructables for making sourdough starter:

You can also buy sourdough starter from someplace like King Arthur Bread flour.

I've blogged about sourdough starters and suggest that you read a little bit about sourdough starters. The more you understand about sourdough starter, the easier it will be to use it. These posts should help you find your way around the sourdough neighborhood:

The Care and Feeding of Sourdough
What NOT to do with Sourdough

Step 4: Phase 1 - Mix Water and Starter

Start by pouring two cups of room temperature tap water (not warm) into a very large bowl. Scoop out 1 c. of sourdough starter and stir it in. The starter likes being stirred up and aerated, so stir or whisk it together vigorously.

Take a moment to replenish your starter right now. If you're making one batch of sourdough and using one cup of starter, replenish with 1/2 c. water and 1 c. flour. If you're making two batches at once (which is what I usually do) you'll replenish the starter with 1 c. water and 2 c. flour. The proportion of water to flour is usually 1 part water to 2 parts flour. If the starter gets too thick or too thin, you can adjust according.

Step 5: Add Yeast and Flour

Stir in 1/4 t. yeast and 3 c. bread flour. Mix until smooth.

It's been brought to my attention that I should not need any commercial yeast at all if I'm using yeast-rich sourdough starter. That's true for me in the summer when my kitchen is 85 degrees. In the winter, my ambient kitchen temperature often stays around 55 degrees and I use that 1/4 t. for a little boost. Using only 1/4 t. means that the yeast flavor doesn't dominate the sourdough flavor.

Step 6: Phase 2: Add More Water and the Salt

Stir in the 3rd cup of water. Add the salt and mix thoroughly. The salt will slow down the fermentation. This is a good thing. The longer the sourdough takes to rise, the more sour the bread will be. If you're not comfortable with this much salt, you can reduce the amount. It will affect the flavor though, so experiment a little.

Step 7: Add the Last of the Bread Flour

Stir in the remaining 3 c. bread flour. Stir until completely mixed. You do NOT need to knead this bread. The sourdough starter will actually do that for you. All those little yeasts get rowdy and over time inspire gluten fibers to form. This gives the bread its unique sourdough texture.

Step 8: Cover and Let the Sourdough Do Its Work

Cover the bowl of dough with a towel and set aside in a draft-free place. Don't be jiggling the dough while it's doing its thing. Leave it alone. And then leave it alone some more. The bread dough needs to just sit and do its thing for 12-15 hours. When it's done, the dough will be bubbly and BIGGER than it was at the start. If the bubbles start to pop, then it's gone too long. It doesn't hurt to peek at it from time to time.

Sometimes you can see a little bit of clear liquid accumulating around the edges of the dough. This is actually a by-product of the fermentation process of the sourdough yeasts. The old miners called that hooch!

Now, let me make some disclaimers. First, if your kitchen is particularly warm or this is the middle of the summer, you might need to shorten this first rise time. If you notice the bubbles popping, then the dough ready for the next step. You CAN slow things down by refrigerating the dough at any point.

Step 9: Turning the Dough Out

Now it's time for the step that we call "turning out the dough." Start by sprinkling some more flour across the top of the dough. Then plunge your hands into the flour bin and get thoroughly floured up. Start by sweeping your hand around and under the dough in the bowl. Go stick your hand in the flour bin again. Scoop the dough up and over. Get a little more flour on your hands. Scoop and roll the dough over. It shouldn't take too many scoops and sweeps before the dough starts feeling elastic and practically alive! Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface OR a large piece of plastic wrap that has been sprayed with nonstick spray.

Now comes the less-fun part: washing out the bowl. I use a plastic grocery club card to scrape all the bits of dough off the bowl. After washing and thoroughly rinsing the bowl, dry it completely.

Step 10: Getting the Dough Ready for the Second Rise

The dough is ready for its second rise. You have two options. You can either oil the inside of the bowl so that the dough will roll out easily when it's time to put it in the oven.

Or, if you're feeling slightly less virtuous and green, you can just put the dough on the plastic wrap into the bowl. The dough will come off the plastic wrap easily because you sprayed a nonstick spray on it, remember?

Step 11: Cover and Let the Dough REST Again

Yes, we're letting the dough rest. The sourdough still has not finished creating gluten fibers, so it needs a few more hours. Cover the bowl with a towel and set in a draft-free area. How long the dough rests will depend a lot on the room temperature. If your kitchen is fairly cool, you should let the dough rest another 4-5 hours. If your kitchen is warm, you'll want to keep an eye on things and consider baking the bread after only 2-3 hours.

Pay attention to the dough during this stage. The thing that you do NOT want is for the starter to consume all the available fuel (flour) in the dough. If that happens, the dough will collapse in on itself after rising. If you see signs of the dough starting to collapse--that means the bubbles are bursting and the center of the dough begins to sag a little--it's time to hustle that bread into the oven.

Step 12: Preheat the Pans

The type of pan you use is actually very important. The very best option is a heavy cast iron dutch oven with a cover. I also use a covered roasting pan made by Pampered Chef that I got from a thrift store for $7.

The key is the cover. You'll need a cover to create a miniature steam oven for the first 30 minutes of baking. I use pans that are 8 - 12 quarts in size. The pan should be at least 8 quarts in size. If you want to divide the bread into two smaller loaves because you only have smaller pans, everything stays the same in terms of baking time.

Another important feature to pay attention to is the sides. The sides of the pan need to be straight or tapering out. If the top of the pan is narrower than the widest part of the pan, don't use that that pan! You'll never get the loaf out.

Pyrex dishes work very well for this method of bread-making with one important caveat. If you set the heated pyrex on a surface with ANY moisture on it at all, the pyrex will explode, sending shards of glass everywhere. I blew up some of my best casserole dishes before I settled on my cast iron.

Turn your oven on to 450 degrees and stick the pan and cover in to preheat for 30 minutes.

Step 13: FINALLY Baking the Bread

Pull the pan out of the oven, being very careful not to burn yourself. Sprinkle corn grits or oatmeal on the bottom of the pan. This will keep the bread from sticking.

Gently roll the dough out of the bowl and into the pan. Pop the cover back on and put it in the oven. Bake at 450 degrees for 30 minutes.

Then remove the cover and bake for an additional 15 minutes. This will brown up the top of the bread.

After a total of 45 minutes, you'll carefully take the bread out of the oven and tip it out onto a cooling rack.

IF you can resist sneaking a slice right away, you're a far better individual than anyone who lives in MY house.

Step 14: Alternative Baking Option #1

The easiest way to bake this bread is in the oven of course, but there are two very workable alternatives that allow you go a little greener (although I'm a little leery of using the word "greener" in the same sentence as the words homemade bread.)

The first option can be done in the winter if you heat with a wood stove. In some parts of the country, heating with a wood stove is the most responsible way to heat a home. If that's you, consider using the heat in your woodstove to bake your bread.

You want to wait until the coals are very hot and the firebox of the woodstove is completely heated. Level the coals and set the cast iron Dutch oven in the coals. Place hot coals on top of the Dutch oven lid to provide heat from all sides.

The trickiest part of this option is that you'll need to figure out how long to bake it. You probably don't need to preheat the pan (that would just make this more complicated than it's worth.) Put the dough inside the pan and put the cover on. You will have to check the bread from time to time. Depending on how your woodstove is configured, you may want to leave the lid on the pan the entire time to avoid getting ash on the bread.

If your wood stove is VERY hot, it won't take a full 45 minutes. When you're checking your bread, use a quick-read thermometer (available for under $10 at a regular grocery store. You can sometimes even get a quick-read thermometer for $1 at the Dollar Store.) The bread will be done in the middle when the internal temperature is 185-190 degrees on the quick-read thermometer.

What you can't see about my Dutch oven in these pictures is that this pan has legs on the bottom. I maneuver around them when I bake in the oven, but when I bake in the woodstove or over coals those legs are extremely important. Although the pan nestles into the coals, the legs keep the pan from sitting heavily on the coals. This helps with temperature control.

This method of baking bread should really not be attempted by kids. The Dutch oven is heavy and maneuvering it in and out of the wood stove could be quite dangerous for a child. Even adults need to be very, very careful.

Step 15: Alternative Baking Method #2

During the summer, using the wood stove is not very convenient (unless you live in someplace that is pretty much frozen year round.)

A second alternative to using your oven is to bake the bread inside a kettle-style grill. Get plenty of coals red hot. Set the Dutch oven in on top of them. Arrange coals on the lid of the Dutch oven. Put the lid of the grill on.

If the wood stove is likely to bake hotter than a 450 degree oven, the grill is likely to bake slightly cooler than a 450 degree oven. So keep track of the internal temperature of your bread with a quick-read thermometer. There's a balance here though. The more often you take off the lid of the Dutch oven, the more heat it loses. So don't check every two minutes or the bread will NEVER get done.

When you bake the bread on the grill, you can easily take the lid off for the last 15 minutes or so of baking as long as you put the domed cover of the grill back ON.

You can also bake your bread over a campfire. It's a little harder to get the coals hot enough, but it can be done. If you're baking on a campfire, be sure to pile plenty of coals on top of the Dutch oven lid. Do NOT take the lid off for the last 10 to 15 minutes of baking. The bread won't brown up on the top with no heat source over it.

Step 16: My DREAM Method of Baking Sourdough

Someday, my dream is to have an outdoor bread oven to bake my sourdough. I have no photo of my own outdoor bread oven because I don't have one; it's still a dream. If I DID have one, it would look like this:

The best thing about having an outdoor bread oven would be that I could invite my neighbors to all come bake bread WITH me, turning bread into a community affair.

Step 17: The Final Step: Lots and Lots of Butter

Oops, did I just admit that?

The very best time to eat any bread is about 30 seconds after it comes out of the oven. The very best WAY to eat bread is with butter dripping off of it. Running over your fingers and down your arm. Dripping off your elbow.

Step 18: Actually, the REAL Final Step

Because this crusty sourdough bread is very, VERY inexpensive to make, it's also very easy to share liberally with friends and family. Remember, each loaf costs me roughly $0.68 to make. I probably give away four or five loaves (which weigh approximately 4.5 pounds each) of sourdough each week. I probably give away two baggies of starter each week.

Sourdough loaves are great for bartering too. I haven't met anyone who doesn't want a big loaf to take home.

Sourdough is definitely the gift that keeps on giving.

Happy Eating,

Barb Kelley
in My Sisters Kitchen
Tweeting as @Sisters_Kitchen