Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Eat Alberta 2012: Sourdough 101

This was another HUGE Eat Alberta win for me.

I have been making bread at home for a few years now but have never managed to be entirely consistent in this front. A few loaves and doughs became second nature, including the extra large batch of dough that we would make and portion into balls for pizza or bread. They would live happily in our freezer, until being thawed overnight and baked the next day. Still... I wanted more in my carb-filled world.

Sourdough was one bread that I always wanted to make but was never able to. I tried to make my own sourdough starter by following the directions in Peter Reinhardt's book, Artisan Breads Every Day, but somehow couldn't get it quite right. (If you care to give it a try, the NY Times printed it here. There are also companies that sell sourdough starters, such as Sourdoughs International.) I thought about trying to make a starter again, until I registered for the Sourdough 101 class at Eat Alberta this year.

Time for some real learning...

Owen from Prairie Mill Bread Company (whom you may remember from that great Breaducation night last year) was our intrepid leader and this is what he taught us...

First, he introduced us to Julie. Julie is Owen's starter. You might laugh at the fact that the starter has been named but, understand this, a starter is just like your pet. You feed and water your starter (with flour and water). You exercise it (by making bread with it). Julie has been eating, drinking, and living for fifteen years! If that isn't worthy of a name, I don't know what is! You wouldn't think twice of naming your pet, would you? Well, then give that starter a name too!

The running joke was that the sourdough was solid beer and the beer was liquid sourdough. Really, the starter is a wonderful environment where the natural wild yeast has woken up and activated. These cultures grow and feed and become the leavening base to your sourdough dough. Forget that jar or little packet of dried yeast... this wild culture will take your bread to an entirely new and tasty level.

1 cup sourdough starter
4 cups flour
2 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
+ as many fistfuls of flour as is required to get your dough to its ideal consistency
Note: You do need a French oven for the baking.

First, test your starter. You can drop a spoonful into a bowl of water. If the starter floats, then it is ready to rise!

In a large bowl, combine one cup of starter, four cups of flour, two cups of water, and one tablespoon of salt. Using one hand, start to mix these four ingredients until they start to come together into a very sticky doughy mess. Using your clean hand, grab fistfuls of flour and add to your dough until the dough becomes a bit more tacky than sticky. You can dump the dough out onto a floured work surface and begin to knead.

This is an incredibly forgiving dough. I have added about three fistfuls of flour and left a very tacky dough to rise. I have also added closer to five or six fistfuls of flour, yielding a tacky but stiffer dough. This is where the experimentation can become great fun and you can tailor your loaf to your particular tastes and preferences.

On the more humid days, I seem to need that extra fistful of flour. On the drier days, I don't. Basically, I look for a soft and malleable dough that sticks to itself and not my hands.

Once I am satisfied with my loaf, I put a bit of olive oil in a clean bowl. I put the dough in the bowl and swirl it in the oil to coat, then I flip it over to coat the bottom. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

Now, again in my experimenting, I have done a cold rise overnight in the fridge, taking the dough out of the fridge about an hour or two before I plan to bake, so it can warm and rise again after it is shaped into a loaf. I have also done a six hour warm rise by covering the bowl with plastic wrap and setting it on top of the stove. 

After shaping it into a loaf, I also leave it to rise for about 30 minutes before baking (covered with a tea towel).

Heat your oven to the highest and hottest temperature that it is able to reach. Put the French oven, with its lid on, into the warming oven. Don't wait until the oven is at temperature before putting the French oven into it. You want the French oven to be piping hot as well. My oven reaches 550 F, so that is the temperature that I go with. Score the top of your sourdough with a sharp knife.

Once the oven is at temperature, take the French oven out and remove the lid. Drop your loaf into the oven (careful not to touch it and burn yourself!). Replace the lid and place the French oven into your oven.

Bake for 20 minutes. After your 20 minute timer has beeped, remove the lid and reduce the oven temperature to ~400 F. Bake for another 40 minutes.

This was my first loaf and a bit darker than I would prefer.
This was baked at 450 F for the forty minutes. I prefer 400 F.

Remove your gloriously golden and brown loaf from the oven and place on a rack to cool.

After my first basic loaf, I couldn't resist experimenting...
- One of our favourites so far has been a rosemary and orange sourdough, which was made by adding the zest from one orange and about two tablespoons of chopped fresh rosemary.

- We have also made a lemon cornmeal sourdough by adding the zest from one lemon and 1/4 cup of cornmeal. Next time, I think I'll add some fresh thyme.

- My most recent loaf was a browny sourdough that started with 2 1/4 cups white flour, 1 cup spelt flour, 1/4 cup freshly ground golden flax seed, 1/2 cup wheat germ, and two tablespoons honey. I ended up turning the temperature down to 375 F for the final 40 minutes as the loaf was browning well and I didn't want to overcook or burn the crust.

I am always thinking and dreaming up my next sourdough flavour combinations. It's so fun and, with each attempt, I get a better sense of the dough itself. Having to bake bread weekly in order to keep Sally kickin' is a great challenge... and only helps me to further that bread making goal too!

This is my starter... Sally. 

She stays alive because I use her on a weekly basis. I portion out the cupful that I need for the loaf, then feed the starter that remains. I fill the jar to about two-thirds full with luke warm water, then I mix in spoonful by spoonful of flour until the starter is thick and goopy. Highly technical. Then she is covered with a piece of paper towel (not the proper lid and sealed completely), secured by the canning jar ring, and returned to the fridge for her next escapade. 

You can refrigerate your starter or leave it in the cupboard. I opt for a bit of column A and a bit of column B by storing her in the refrigerator, then taking her out and putting her in the cupboard on the day that I plan to mix the loaf. The warmer room temperature will yield a more sour and fermented starter as compared to the cooler, interrupted fermentation in the fridge. Up to you. 

1 thought(s):

A Canadian Foodie said...

INCREDIBLE, Christine! Is a French Oven a Dutch oven? So interesting. I have never baked bread that long - EVER - and the French would celebrate the colour of your loaf. Their loaves are always very dark. This looks SO yummy. You are way ahead of me in the sourdough bread making area. I hope I get to take his course one day!

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