A Sourdough Story

A bread lover attempts becoming a bread maker.

This post comes from our blog intern, Emily!

I like to think that I’m a decent cook — I cook nearly every night of the week, and it comes naturally. Thanks to my mother, who is an excellent cook in her own right and raised me on home-cooked meals, I  inherited a few of her skills and curiosity. If a proper recipe isn’t handy, more often than not, we both opt to throw a bunch of other shit in that we’re pretty sure will enhance the dish. Most of the time it works in our favor. Cooking is therapy for the two of us and I’ve grown up believing food is love.

Baking on the other hand… I hate it. I don’t understand it. I get frustrated, and have a harder time succeeding. The limitations, the exact measurements and specific times… the process seems too rigid.

I bake three to four times a year, if that? The occasional pumpkin pie with store-bought crust and cookies… that’s about my level of expertise. I’ve never made bread before but, after developing an obsession with sourdough, my curiosity turned to bread making. I decided it would be dandy — yes, go ahead and make one of the trickiest breads out there. I heard that it is different than most breads, but I didn’t expect it to be too challenging. That is, until the research began…

I love sourdough. I order it every time it’s an option. I love its unique flavor and the tanginess that endows every bite. Bread that lends itself to a crusty exterior and a soft interior. But what I really love about sourdough is the delicious mix of harmonious microbes, aka lactobacillus. Lactobacillus is one of my best friends and should be one of yours, too. It’s bacteria! Good bacteria. I get so excited about this stuff. Definitely give it a good Google if you don’t know much about it.

Sourdough differs in important ways. It has a relatively low glycemic index, meaning it won’t create a blood sugar spike like many breads. If you have a hard time digesting gluten, sourdough might be a better option for you. It’s easier on the stomach and a little more nourishing than other breads.

I’ve been talking about making my own sourdough for a few months, and now I’ve finally committed, consuming me for 1 1/2 weeks. Sourdough was about the only thing on my mind. But I stuck with it!

Fast forward: it didn’t turn out perfectly. I am not the expert baker I hoped to become overnight. But I learned A LOT, had some fun and made a loaf of bread!

To make sourdough, you must begin with a “starter”. This process requires a little planning and can take anywhere from 3 to 8 days. The starter is the production of wild yeast, and it’s what gives sourdough bread its sour taste. It’s a very simple process, mixing 3/4 cup and 2 tbsp all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup of filtered water together. Add the same amount of flour and water every day and let it ferment until it gives off a sour aroma and begins to bubble. I covered my starter with a loose lid and kept it in the oven (making sure the oven was never on). The warmer the environment, the faster the starter will grow. My apartment was on the cold side, so it took me 5 days to grow mine the starter how I wanted.

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After 5 days, here’s what my starter looked like. It smelled sour, and there were several bubbles! I was on track. Everything felt like a guessing game to me, though. When I was researching and planning my process, it felt complicated and overwhelming. Intimidated as ever, I decided I must simply let go and know that everything would be ok if it didn’t turn out.

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Alright, it’s bread making day. My starter is alive and well.

In a large bowl, I mixed 3 cups of unbleached all purpose flour, 1 1/4 cups filtered water, 3/4 cup  sourdough starter, 1 1/2 tsp salt, and 1 tbsp honey.

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Once mixed, the dough sat for around 15 minutes. Then came time to fold the dough, which activates the gluten and helps your dough to become…dough. I let it rise for 3 hours. But here’s where something went wrong. It didn’t rise. At all. I was nervous.

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I continued folding it and then let it sit for another two hours to rise. At this point I was crossing my fingers, hoping that it would magically double in size. But it didn’t.

It smelled great, felt great, and looked great otherwise. I decided to go with it and shaped the dough as best I could, though it would slowly spread out and lose its form. Hmmmm… Ignoring this unfortunate event I set a cast-iron skillet in the oven and preheated it to 450F for 40 minutes. After 40 minutes I placed my dough and parchment paper in the pan and baked it for an hour. The recipe I was following said 30 minutes, but at 30 minutes it hadn’t changed color. It was not coming out of that oven until nice and brown.

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So, after an hour or so I achieved the color I wanted and pulled it out. Let it rest for 20 minutes and surrendered. I was finally going to taste this bread.

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Verdict: it wasn’t bad! Actually, it was pretty good. It tasted like bread, it had a subtle sour flavor and the crust was yummy. BUT, it was very dense. Like a bagel dense. It certainly didn’t have the texture of most breads.

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I still have a healthy starter and will be giving it another try. Next time, I want to make it with spelt flour. Any help is much appreciated. I wonder why it didn’t rise — perhaps it has something to do with my water temperature being too cold? Any ideas? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Comments

  1. Great effort Emily, starter looks great. keep trying. If you do not have a instant read thermoter, buy one.
    Water temp should be 105-110 degrees. Also you only folded, it may have needed kneading for 5-7 minutes before letting it rise.
    Keep trying and you will get it sorted out.

  2. Ahhh! So good! I’ve learned with my very recent sourdough adventures that whole wheat flour has more of a wild yeast content than the all purpose flours… Also, juniper berries have a yeast that lives on them that has been used to start very nice sourdoughs, though I haven’t tried that method yet.
    Good luck! Sourdough is so good and probiotic! If bread doesn’t work out, try sourdough pancakes (OMG so easy and sooo impressive).

  3. I loooove sourdough! I just finished watching the new Netflix docu-series called Cooked. They talk about this whole process so it’s funny how you just shared this! If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage every food lover to and it will encourage you to try again!

  4. Humidity might be a factor too! It can play with the rise in some weird ways. Foggy/hurricane days are always when I want to bake, but it makes it much harder to gauge how my bread’s doing… the perils of living by the sea. I have a cookbook of old (like, this book was republished in the 70s and made of recipes from the 10s-40s!) recipes from my region and that’s really helped gauge how my environment might affect times and temperature.

    Or, this is a good go-to for those foggy weekends – I’ve modified it to work as a sourdough before: http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/11376-no-knead-bread?_r=0

  5. This is how I learned to bake sourdough bread: Mix the ingredients so that they become mixed, then let the mix sit and rest for 30-60 minutes. Then knead the dough for 15 minutes. Place the dough in a bowl and place the bowl in a plastic box and put it in your fridge for at least 12 hours. Take it out, fold it over a few times and then back again in the fridge for another 4 (minimum) hours. Out again, fold and shape into a breadloaf – let it sit in room temperature for 2 hours. Then bake it. You cannot rush sourdough bread, it needs ALOT of time to rise and develop properly. I start my bread in the evening and normally bake it the evening after.

  6. Hi I’ve been making sourdough for a few months now and i heard from a friend who’s husband is a baker that raisins have a natural yeast content growing on them that can aid in making the starter bubble more and the bread less dense,. this method works really well for me!! if I add about 7 raisins for every one cup of water and cover the starter with cheese cloth or breathable thin cotton for about 3-4 days, good luck!!!

  7. Once you fold the dough my mother covers it with a clean cloth and puts it somewhere warm. The dough needs warmth in order for it to rise. Much like the “starter”. Maybe put it in the oven next time? Without the heat of course.

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